Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Fraxi’s contrast is a little unfair, however, for he has chosen to represent the eighteenth century by one or two outstanding books. Seventeenth, and eighteenth-century pornography sometimes sank pretty low. Beverland’s “De Stolatae Virginitatis jure lucubratio academica” with its fetishisms, and the various flagellatory works of the eighteenth century are sufficiently unpleasant; the “Satyra Sotadica de Arcanis amoris et veneris” is reputedly even worse. The fact is, the institution of a system of censorship while it fails to eliminate pornography, effectively eliminates the serious literary work which attempts to approach sexual subjects realistically.

Meanwhile, there was always a supply of legalized pornography in the law courts. In the early nineteenth century in order to obtain a separation it was first necessary to prove that “criminal conversation” had taken place between one’s wife and another man. These “crim. con. ” cases were a steady source of prurient details, and the salaciousness of some of the judges who supervised them was notorious.(13)

Victorian insistence upon the appearance of respectability without the reality has gained England a name for hypocrisy. In no field was this more marked than that of prostitution. It has been said that Victorian morality was based upon a vast system of prostitution: it has been noted that the Victorians were careful to create a supply of prostitutes by making it impossible for those who once had erred ever to recover their respectability. Lecky, indeed, in a much criticized passage, repeated Augustine’s argument that, unless there were prostitution, the sanctity of the family could not be maintained. Better to have prostitutes than unfaithful wives and peccant daughters. And it is a significant fact that, throughout the period which we are now considering, procuring was not an indictable offence. The prostitute, the wretched victim of the system, could be punished, but not the procurer, the pander or the pimp. As late as 1881, after investigations had exposed the scale on which girls were enticed for prostitution (more than forty years before, a similar report had been ignored completely), a Criminal Law Amendment Bill was drafted to make the trade illegal: but each time it was presented in the Commons it was blocked or talked out. The running of brothels was big business.

Reform came in 1885, but only when a journalist, W. T. Stead, in order to demonstrate the scandalousness of the situation, bought a thirteen year-old girl for £10, kept her in a brothel and conveyed her out of London, afterwards describing his deed in a series of sensational articles. He was prosecuted and imprisoned for this “offence” by a literal-minded police and magistracy, but the resulting scandal caused the long-blocked bill to be rushed through in five days.(131)