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Albertine to See the Police Surgeon.

The Fallen Women: Were Victorian Prostitutes Really Fallen?


The Victorian era is notoriously known as an era of female repression: sex, drugs and rock and roll—or rather, their Victorian counterparts—were believed to be highly taboo topics of conversation, and entirely unheard of in female spheres. However, in truth, the Victorian era was the age of sexual ingenuity and an increased level of sexual freedom.

In reality, sexual license grew between the 1840s and 1860s as a way for women to become socially and economically independent. Pleasure gardens and brothels were relatively common as prostitution was a very strong way to make money when a woman was husbandless or even widowed. More interestingly, some husbands allowed their wives to take a "side job" as a prostitute to supplement the family income. Until the 1870s, it was "normal" for Victorian families to be very large—children were a sign of a strong marriage and served as an increased work force for the families. But many children also meant there were many mouths to feed. If the woman of the family worked as a prostitute, there likely would have been a very substantial increase in the family's income.

Herbert F. Tucker: A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture.

Herbert F. Tucker: A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture. (Public Domain)

Now one might wonder why women would choose—or be allowed—to become prostitutes for work, rather than serving in the numerous industrial jobs that opened up to women following the Industrial Revolution. Women in these industry roles worked 14 hour days, and were given a steady income. However, not only did serving as a prostitute make these women more money, but it was also in many ways safer, as factories were often mangling grounds due to insufficient safety guidelines in these early days. Furthermore, the Contagious Diseases Act (1864) further attempted to protect both men and women by examining women every year to ensure they were "clean" and free from STDS. It was discovered during these tests that the female prostitutes were more often cleaner than the women who worked for 14 hours a day.

(Note: Josephine Butler introduced the anti-contagious movement in the 19th century, but it was to ensure men were also tested for STDS. Butler's intention was to remind society that men could be carriers just as women could, and it was not only women who could pass these diseases to others. The act was not to stop these medical exams completely.)

Josephine Butler in 1851.

Josephine Butler in 1851. (Public Domain)

While prostitution was public knowledge and sexuality was more widely expressed than recent scholars have believed, there are documents from the Victorian period which dictate the negative views that likely influenced previous research. For example, masturbation was considered a mental disorder in the Victorian era, possibly even caused by STDs. As there was no "proper" sexual education in this time, excessive sexual dalliances were likely discouraged for fear of gaining these "mental disorders". Of course, most Victorians were not going around trying to find sexual partners; still a Christian world, many believed in abstinence before marriage. But those who did not adhere to this religious stipulation were considered at risk for mental diseases. Particularly, Victorian prostitutes.

In the case of the male gender, men were warned that too much sex would "enfeeble" them. Contrary to modern sexist conceptions, sleeping around in the 19th century was believed to emasculate as well as cause psychological issues, such as—simply put—"insanity". It was also not uncommon for doctors to perform "penile cauterization" in an attempt to prevent mental issues from arising. For women, a similar procedure was practiced called a "clitorodectomy".

Most of the recent scholarship that discusses Victorian chastity revolves primarily around women. Female sexuality is a far more interesting topic as the historically more oppressed gender. It has even been believed that women disliked sexual experiences, and only engaged in the activities for the purpose of procreation. There is truthfully no evidence to this fact to fully support this, and thus it is likely that females both enjoyed sex and were sexually active in the Victorian period.

The Haymarket as the place for London prostitution

The Haymarket as the place for London prostitution. (Public Domain)

This conversation undoubtedly leads to the primary discussion of sex in the Victorian period: prostitution. It is very common—somewhat overly common—for modern books and television shows to reveal the "underbelly" of Victorian society, which most often leads to depictions of prostitution. Usually, this reveals dirty, grimy women—some even quite old—slugging through the streets showing off far too much skin. This was actually not the case for the typical Victorian prostitute. It was highly regular for clean, proper and rich women to be mistaken on the streets for a prostitute as prostitutes did not make themselves overly distinctive. From afar, one could likely not tell the difference between a working prostitute and an upper or middle-class woman.

Illustration of Victorian prostitutes.

Illustration of Victorian prostitutes. (Public Domain)

It is thought that the reason for the "myths", for lack of a better term, of the "fallen Victorian women" stemmed from the fact that Victorian England was "a patriarchal culture which prizes eternal self-vigilance as the key to manliness, moral worth and material success' then projected its sexual anxieties on to its subordinate'" (i.e., women and children; lower classes). In truth, these female prostitutes were in many ways a "transitional" occupation for women—common, legal and far more tolerated than modern media would leave the public to believe. Due to the rise of scientific innovation, men and women of the Victorian period believe that sexuality was a fact of human life, and thus expressed themselves as such both physically and in conversations.

Top Image: Albertine to See the Police Surgeon. Source: A.Davey / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Riley Winters


Foucault, Michel. 1998. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1. trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin.

Bell, Megara. 1999. "The Fallen Woman in Fiction and Legislation". Boston: University of Massachusetts.

Foucault, Michel. 1998. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1. trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin.

Marsh, Jan. "Sex & Sexuality in the 19th Century." Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed September 25, 2016.

McHugh, Paul. 1980. Prostitution and Victorian Social Reform. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Walkowitz, Judith. 1980. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



I think you are confused about what is meant by 'repressed'. It does not mean that women (and men) were neither interested in nor not having sex. No one has made that argument.The point of this article is that they indeed were doing those things, and probably more often than we thought. Humans in the Victorian era, as humans in every era, were and are inherently sexual. This is a biological reality, and no one is disputing this. What changes over time is not this biological fact, but the ways in which our societies create meaning around sex and sexuality. For example, in the Victorian era, while sex absolutely happening, masturbation was socially unacceptable and thus seen as a mental disease and female sexuality in particular was seen as dangerous - hence the trope of the 'fallen woman'. However, as this article points out - female sexuality was probably expressed more commonly than we, in the modern era, have been lead to believe about the Victorians. Despite this, 'repression' was indeed very real. Women (and men to a lesser extent) were socially punished for expressing sexuality. This punishment was probably mostly in the form of being shunned by family, friends and community, and probably varied in degree of severity depending on the social status of whoever was involved. In my understanding, society would freak out a lot more over the 'honor' of elite and wealthy women as opposed to those in lower social classes. That's probably why, as this article points out, prostitution was actually pretty common among them. This doesn't really have anything to do with 'leftism', it's just history and shifting interpretations of the historical evidence we have.

The whole notion that prior ages were repressed, is just more evidence of nonsense leftism that has infected this country, and the west, for the past 100 years. Leftism IS Idiocracy.

Like most leftist nonsense, a simple common sense observation can prove them wrong - Specifically the fact that population has continually grown. Massively since the beginning of the Industrial Age. This obviously means people been fuckin'. Just like they always have. And if you've ever indulged in the act, you know that once instinct takes over, you are a little more feral(if you are doing it right), than you normally are. This is ancient instinctual behavior. Nothin' new. They had the same hormones and drives as we do. Actually, our population is decreasing. Maybe we are the repressed?

Some statistics would be helpful. Assuming they exist. With our without error bars.

The concept of fallen women is so foreign to us in this day and age, that it's difficult for us to even understand what was meant by it. A divorced woman was also referred to as a "fallen woman," regardless of what her sex life might be or not be. It really meant being marginalized within the community. What was considered propriety and stability for a woman (as well as for men) was a strict code of conduct. Deviating from it, or even seeming to deviate from it, had enormous repercussions.

Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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