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  • Print publication year: 1988
  • Online publication date: July 2010

Prostitution and Reform in Eighteenth-Century England


Prostitution was widespread in eighteenth-century England. Generally speaking, however, it was accepted as a fact of life, as something to be tolerated and accepted rather than abolished. Instead of seeing the prostitute as a sinner, as had the religiously oriented writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, eighteenth-century reformers regarded her more as a victim. Undoubtedly, this grew out of the mounting concern to reduce unnecessary pain and suffering in the eighteenth century. It resulted also from lessening concern over the virulent epidemic of syphilis that had hit Europe in the sixteenth century. Though venereal disease remained widespread, it was probably less virulent, and the fears aroused by the realization of the dangers both of venereal infection to unborn children and infants and of the third stage of syphilis did not occur until the later nineteenth century.

Sex was also beginning to be studied, although not quite as dispassionately as were other subjects. The eighteenth century saw the beginnings of the pathological model of sexuality: Samuel Tissot equated all nonreproductive sexuality with illness. Prostitution, however, was not included in this discussion, and most of the concern expressed over prostitution by the writers in the last half of the eighteenth century was economically based. The eighteenth-century reformer saw the prostitute as a victim of her economic situation; at the same time reformers recognized that prostitution for many was an economic necessity.

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'Tis Nature's Fault
  • Online ISBN: 9780511629488
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