London's Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports 1848-1972

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London County Council 1920

Annual report of the Council, 1920. Vol. III. Public Health

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treatment and so little, comparatively speaking, to causation. It is not proposed to make any comprehensive
study of the social aspect of venereal disease in this report, but merely to refer to some of the
factors, as the time has certainly come when those authorities which have been charged with the duty
of providing for treatment should turn their attention also the study of certain conditions which continue
to keep venereal disease clinics supplied with patients.
Undeniably prostitution is the outstanding factor in the causation of venereal disease, and the
Great War must have drawn the attention of all thinking persons to its wide prevalence, as also to its
very serious effects in a hundred ways upon the health of our Navy, Army, and Air Forces, as well as
on the community generally. All who have any knowledge of the history of venereal diseases know
that the number of cases has always increased rapidly during and after a war, and this has been the
experience in London and in England generally during recent years, as it has been the experience of all
other countries involved in the recent war. Beyond question, increase of prostitution in one of its
many forms—professional, clandestine, etc.—has been the cause of this increase in venereal disease.
A study of the causation of prostitution may, therefore, be not unprofitable.
The causes of prostitution are multitudinous. In defining some of them, it is better to confine
ourselves to those in operation during what may be termed normal peace conditions, since the factors
dependent on the changed general mentality during the war are disappearing naturally. Amongst the
conditions leading to prostitution the following are notable and preventable.
(1) Bad housing.—The conditions of home environment during the early years of life are amongst
the most powerful of all those influences which press a girl or young woman towards a life of prostitution.
In this respect it is evil influences, rather than harshness, carelessness and neglect, which are to be
feared. By evil influences is meant intimate association with the sexual side of life and premature
sex experience of every kind, e.g., prostitute mothers, violation, and even incest.
These vices are to a great extent the products of environment and both bad housing and overcrowding
must be given a foremost place as factors in the prevalence of irregular sexual relationships.
The loss also of those amenities of the home which conduce to the preservation of a sense of modesty,
which results from overcrowding is undoubtedly a primary cause of subsequent prostitution. It should
be remembered in this connection that children who have been tampered with are often sources of
contamination to their playmates and spread the evil effects of criminal and indecent assault far beyond
themselves, even into decent and carefully guarded homes.
(2) Bad companions.—Prostitutes themselves, as a rule, commonly lead other girls into danger.
Not infrequently the choice of bad companions is simply the result of loneliness, particularly so in the
case of young shop girls and domestic servants from the country. If they have nowhere to go to in
particular on their day out, they take walks with any companion who shows a desire to be friendly and
sympathetic, in places where they are frequently accosted by men. It is also stated by those who have
studied this question that prostitutes are attracted by young and uncorrupted girls. Such a prostitute
may, of course, be merely a decoy, but more frequently she is attracted by the prospect of companionship
of young girls, who are not infrequently corrupted in turn by the friendship. Here again it should
be remarked that experience goes to show that the danger is greatest to quite young girls.
(3) Temperament.—Rescue workers frequently state that "the girls who come to us at the
present day are largely of an emotional temperament, and that they are often artistic, musical, goodnatured,
and very lovable." "The strong, hard-working woman who used to come to us is a thing
of the past," and has been "replaced by the better educated, but also weak-minded, pleasure-loving
girl, unable to battle with the difficulties of life." On the other hand, other workers of many years'
experience say that "the modern prostitute is more temperate, more cautious, more thrifty, and
less hysterical than the prostitute of thirty years ago,"
(4) Drink is generally thought by those of long experience in rescue work to play little part in
inducing the young to choose prostitution as a career, though it is used by those who desire to seduce
a girl to overcome her first resistance, and there can be no doubt that, in many cases, seduction is the
determining factor which leads to a life of prostitution.
(5) Homelessness is a material danger to many girls. They frequently find it difficult to obtain
suitable lodging, with the result that they drift into houses of an unsatisfactory character. Similarly,
a girl out of a situation and living away from home, may get among bad companions; she may share
a room with such a companion, not knowing she is a prostitute, and thereafter may follow in her footsteps.
It is also stated that sometimes a girl may have to go to a woman's common lodging-house,
where she may easily meet companions of an undesirable character, with disastrous results to herself.
The mental and emotional dangers of the homeless girl searching for another situation, astray and
bewildered in a large town, often with a rapidly emptying purse, should also be remembered, and it is
easy to understand how a girl in such a position may succumb to temptation.
(6) Unhappy homes are often stated to be another cause, especially where parents are too strict,
religiously or otherwise, or again where there is a step-parent; in either case the commission of a slight
fault and the fear of severe punishment may drive a girl from home. In cases of these kinds girls, having
run away from home, frequently become prostitutes.
(7) Seduction and desertion frequently operate as causes of prostitution. Their psychological
effect in this direction depends greatly on the attitude of family and neighbours. Where these hold
unchastity to be an unforgivable sin, the seduced and deserted girl may regard herself as almost a
prostitute already, and little more is needed to make her become one. Under the fear of local censure
she may cut adrift from her home and all those influences which are more necessary at such a time than
any other to help her to regain her self-respect. Once adrift, nothing short of a miracle can save her
under present-day conditions from adopting a life of prostitution. A girl who has been seduced and