Victorian London - Crime - Prostitution - prostitution as 'transitory state'

    How then is the disparition of this class of women to be accounted for, as they are neither stricken down in the practice of harlotry, nor by their own hands, nor by intemperance and venereal disease, nor would seem to perish of supervening evils in any notable proportion? Do they fall by the wayside, as some assume, like leaves of autumn, unnoticed and unnumbered, to be heaped up and to rot? Do unknown graves conceal, not keeping green the lost one's memory, and the obscure fallible records of the pauper burials at last confound all clue and chance of tracing her? Is she filtered again into the world through a reformatory? or does she crawl from the sight of men and the haunts of her fellows to some old homely spot in time to linger and to die?
   
I have every reason to believe, that by far the larger number of women who have resorted to prostitution for a livelihood, return sooner or later to a more or less regular course of life. Before coming to this conclusion I have consulted many likely to be acquainted with their habits, and have founded my belief upon the following data. Whatever be the cause of a female becoming a prostitute, one thing is certain - before she has carried on the trade four years, she has fully comprehended her situation, its horrors and its difficulties, and is prepared to escape, should opportunity present itself. The constant humiliation of all, even of those in the greatest affluence, and the frequent pressure of want attendant on the vocation of the absolute street-walker, clouding the gaiety of the kept woman, and driving the wedge of bitter reflection into the intervals of the wildest harlot's frenzy, are the agencies which clear the ranks of all but veterans who seem to thrive in proportion to their age.
   
Incumbrances rarely attend the prostitute who flies from the horrors of her position. We must recollect that she has a healthy frame, an excellent constitution, and is in the vigour of life. During her career, she has obtained a knowledge of the world most probably above the situation she was born in. Her return to the hearth of her fancy is for obvious reasons a very rare occurrence. Is it surprising, then, that she should look to the chance of amalgamating with society at large, and make a dash at respectability by a marriage? Thus, to a most surprising, and year by year increasing extent, the better inclined class of prostitutes become the wedded wives of men in every grade of society, from the peerage to the stable, and as they are frequently barren, or have but a few children, there is reason to believe they often live in ease unknown to many women who have never strayed, and on whose unvitiated organization matrimony has entailed the burden of families.
   
Others who, as often happens, have been enabled to lay by variable sums of money, work their own reclamation as established milliners, small shop-keepers, and lodging-house keepers, in which capacities they often find kind assistance from ci-devant male acquaintances, who are only too glad to second their endeavours. Others, again, devote their energies and their savings to preying in their turn, as keepers or attachées of brothels and other disorderly establishments, upon the class of male and female victims they themselves have emerged from.
   
The most prudish will doubtless agree with me, that an important fraction of ex-prostitutes may be accounted for in the last of these categories. Such, indeed - as reformatories of the kind hitherto opened have been notoriously restricted in their operation - has been the customary theoretical disposition of all, or almost all, who were supposed not to die in the ranks or of supervening illnesses. On reflection, too, the reader may, perhaps, acquiesce in some occasional re-entrances into society through the portals of labour. Emigration also, under its present easy conditions, may be admitted to be an outlet to a certain extent.
   
When, however, I suggest an enormous and continual action of wedlock upon prostitution, I am quite prepared for the smile of incredulity and the frown of censure from many whose notions of caste, propriety, and so forth, preclude their entertaining for a moment a proposition which would to them appear fraught with scandal, and because scandalous, preposterous. But let me tell the sceptic that this is a matter which, though heretofore it has attracted the attention of a few, will hereafter speak to society as with the voice of a trumpet ...   The ball is rolling, the Rubicon has been crossed by many who have not been drowned in the attempt, nor found a state of things on the other side more distasteful than compulsory celibacy; and I apprehend that if some of our social marriage enactments are not repealed by acclamation or tacitly, I shall live to see a very large increase in concubinage and the marriages of prostitutes.
   
There are thousands of fathers, and what is worse, mothers of families, in every rank and occupation of life, who have done much evil, I fear, by the attempt to set up the worship of society in association with that of Mammon. Wholesale dealers in so-called respectability, but screwing out scanty halfpenny-worths of brotherly love, they have passed a marriage code in the joint names of these false divinities, which renders day by day more difficult the union of youth and love unsanctified by money and position. As this goes on, we see more and more of our maidens pining on the stem of single blessedness, more and more of our young men resigning themselves first, for a time, to miscellaneous fornication, then to systematic concubinage, and, of course for all this, none the richer or more eligible in the eyes of society, at last to a mésalliance.
   
I need not enlarge upon the social offence of one who thus practically lessens the number of prostitutes. All reflective men must appreciate in common the sad distress and shame which may accrue to his family, the depravity of his taste, who could consider it a triumph to bear off a battered prize from other competitors, and his insanity, who should dream of avoiding detection, or indulge the hope that, after detection, his false step could be forgotten or forgiven by the world. All can compassionate the temporary weakness of a mind which could esteem the permanent possession of a tainted woman worth the sacrifice of home and social ties. All are at liberty to predict his future sadness, if not misery; though we are apt to err in supposing that the woman purchased at this sacrifice has no affection to return to him, no gratitude, no feeling, no good taste. And, I confess, I have occasionally joined the very worldly and immoral cry against the folly of a man who contrives to make an indissoluble bond of a silken thread which he might have rent at his own will and pleasure - who pays so dearly for the ownership of that which, by a little management, he might have occupied from year to year at will, for next to nothing. These are all everyday platitudes, and unfortunately in such common request that men may gather them at the street corners.
   
.... There are persons who deem the Haymarket and the Argyll Rooms - because, I presume, being adjacent to the Opera House, these places come betwixt the wind and their fine susceptibilities - at once the Alpha and the Omega of prostitution, and would exterminate the vice and its practitioners at one fell swoop, by a bonfire, in the Regent Circus. These will clamour, that the evil is over-magnified when each harlot is called a harlot, because this enlargement of the field of operations puts an end to all nonsensical proposals of highhanded suppression. I use none but their own weapons, when I marshal in the ranks of prostitution each woman who, in a pure society, would properly be so construed. But the accumulation to be dealt with thus becomes so frightful, that all who can read and think will agree with me, that management and regulation of the greatest social evil' by the baton or the pillory, grateful though it might be to Exeter Hall, would be neither effective nor perhaps politic.
   
The hand of an Englishman should be as withered before it advocated the forcible suppression of this vice, as must be the foolish brain that could plot it. Virtue and vice, as we all know, are no subjects for enactment. To protest against the latter's concentration is as futile and absurd as to argue against the herding of nobles or parvenus, tradesmen or manufacturers, criminals or paupers. Secrecy would be more fraught than publicity with danger to individuals and the public; diffusion would be lunacy on grounds both of morals and policy. The existing regulations are adequate for public protection and order, which are all the judicious can at present hope for; anything further in that direction we are certainly not prepared for. The Home Secretary who should attempt anything like coercion would soon have his hands full indeed. We are already policÚs [organized] enough - we are already on the verge of excess. .
   
I repeat that prostitution is a transitory state, through which an untold number of British women are ever on their passage. Until preventive measures.., shall have been considerately adopted - and thereafter, too, if needful, for I am no nostrum-monger - it is the duty, and it should be the business of us all, in the interest of the commonwealth, to see these women through that state, so as to save harmless as much as may be of the bodies and souls of them. And the commonwealth's interest in it is this - that there is never a one among all of these whose partners in vice may not sometime become the husbands of other women, and fathers of English children; never a one of them but may herself, when the shadow is past, become the wife of an Englishman and the mother of his offspring; that multitudes are mothers before they become prostitutes, and other multitudes become mothers during their evil career. If the race of the people is of no concern to the State, then has the State no interest in arresting its vitiation. But if this concern and this interest be admitted, then arises the necessity for depriving prostitution not only of its moral, but of its physical venom also....

William Acton, Prostitution, considered in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects 2nd edition 1870