Prostitution in Victorian Society

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Victorian Britain was characterized by extremes. It was the period in which Britain rose to be world power, controlling the largest proportion of the known world since Roman times and being the fulcrum for the Industrial Revolution which would transform life for most people.


The streets of London immortalized by Dickens in their fascination and horror were in many ways embodied by the spectacle of prostitutes, many little more than children, plying their trade. Prostitution became a symbol of the worst excesses of Victorian Britain, and as such were a focus for attempts at change.
As with many social ills that attract a variety of attention, prostitution was viewed through a number of different lenses according to the interests of the viewer. By the beginning of the 1840's a number of different groups:- mainly religious groups, major news organizations and women's social groups - began to take notice of the problem of prostitution. One of the major reasons for this new attention, as William Acton noted in his landmark study, Prostitution (1870) was the sheer number of prostitutes now visible on metropolitan streets in general, and London streets in particular. Acton estimated that there were at least 40,000 prostitutes actively working in London alone. It had become impossible to simply ignore the activity as it was so prevalent. The very title of Acton's book shows the variety of different perspectives that were taken on the subject:
The basic foundation for the study was moralistic in nature, but as was often the case in Victorian thought, it needed at least a veneer of the rational, scientific thought that had come to such dominance during the Enlightenment and the Industrial R ...
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