Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

But Victorian motives for maintaining a system of prostitution went deeper than the desire to protect the family and the urge for monetary gain. The Victorians needed prostitutes as objects on to whom to Project all the negative part of their feelings for women. Prostitutes were to the Victorians what witches were to the medievals. It was for this reason that the Victorians allowed themselves to play so frequently with the fantasy of redeeming the prostitute, while actually making redemption as difficult as possible. The theme of the dying prostitute was particularly attractive, and was embodied in such works as “La Dame aux Camellias” and “Manon Lescaut“.

Ryan, writing a report for the Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1839, the peak of the period of suppression, states that he had an interview with the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, who, after enquiries from seventeen of his subordinates, stated officially that there were 7,000 prostitutes in London. Ryan, who makes it evident that he needs to feel that there are armies of prostitutes to be punished and redeemed, immediately abandons this well-authenticated figure for the obviously fantastic one of 80,000 and uses it throughout his report, which is a model of confusion, bogy-hunting and inaccuracy. (Mayhew counted 6,371 in 1837.)

The Commissioner added that there were 933 brothels and 848 houses of ill-fame. The population at that time was about two million. As the population rose, the number increased, and brothels catering to flagellation and other perversions became rather numerous. The interest in flagellation seems to have grown steadily during Victoria’s reign, if we may judge from the volume of pornography devoted to this subject, but without extensive research it is impossible to judge whether this corresponds to an increase in actual flagellation. In fact, it is difficult to evaluate the extent of violent and destructive urges in the period. Society gave numerous opportunities for sadistic behaviour, but not on the scale of thy Middle Ages. If it is true, for instance, that judges imposed savage penalties, it is also true that nearly two hundred crimes, which had formerly called for the death penalty, were removed from this category. And if it is true that a sadistic strain can be found in Dickens’ preoccupation with cruelty, it is equally true that it better to sublimate this interest by writing novels exposing cruelty and injustice than to practise cruelty and injustice oneself. Sadistic and masochistic urges were certainly preserved and occasionally they emerged in pathological forms, as in the case of Swinburne, and even Tennyson (who near the end of his life confessed to an interest in de Sade): but society was mobilizing defences and setting limits to the extent to which these urges could be indulged. Early in the century the movement for kindness to animals had developed. The cynic can point out that such a movement is only necessary when a considerable number of people are being unkind to animals; the psychologist can point out that frequently kindness to animals goes with unkindness to children, and that kindness to animals was sometimes a cheap way of soothing a conscience disturbed by its temptations to cruelty. Yet it is indisputably better to develop an ideal of kindness, and so to hamper cruelty even if this is not a radical solution. Perhaps it is also indicative of this trend that, for the first time, Jesus begins to be represented as a gentle figure. In Biblical story He is a rather violent and rough-spoken individual, though the roughness of his speech is disguised by the mellifluous King James translation. On the other hand, this change may express the ideal of submissive relationship between son and father.