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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deserted when in trouble is fortunate indeed if she finds in those around her a ready willingness to help
her back to a life of chastity, a task of no small difficulty in her already half-desperate state.
The economic effects of seduction and desertion are powerful accessories to prostitution, since
they frequently lead, especially in domestic service, to loss of employment without the reference which
would help to re-employment in another situation. A hungry, friendless girl is ripe for temptation
and persecution from unscrupulous persons; her resistance may be worn down by repeated attacks,
and she is quickly driven into still lower depths of degradation.
All the factors in seduction and desertion are enormously emphasised when seduction results in
a child. The emotional shock is intensified, the economic burden is doubled, and unscrupulous persons
have a more helpless victim to persecute. The unmarried mother with her child is the most pitiable
figure in the modern social system. It is worthy of note here though that a woman is not often driven
to prostitution for the sake of keeping her child. It is said that such a woman will more often submit
to almost any service, however burdensome, which will enable her to keep her child, even if it is placed out
with a foster mother. But if the child dies, or is entirely taken away from her and placed where she
may never see it again, she is much more likely in the end to take to prostitution. All the experience
of rescue workers goes to prove this statement.
(8) Compulsion and exploitation.—Prostitution is stated by some persons to be largely in the
hands of middlemen, merchants, dealers, petty traffickers, and independent women who work on their
own account. Some of these act as advisers, attendants, instructors, protectors, or intermediaries,
Some employ force, fraud, and any possible means of obtaining influence over their victims in order to
procure girls and women. Hence the aims of those who seek to settle the problem of prostitution by
means of the Criminal Law. It is difficult to state in definite terms the extent to which these various
agencies are responsible for the production of prostitution. The evidence is very conflicting, but the
balance of opinion seems to favour the view that their combined influences do not account for the
production of more than a small percentage of the total number of prostitutes.
(9) Feeble-mindedness.—During recent years a great deal of attention has been devoted to the
part played by mental deficiency in the making of prostitutes. The report of the Royal Commission
on the Feeble Minded added greatly to our knowledge. There are two types of feeble-minded girls
concerned with this aspect of the problem. Those whose sexual inclinations are abnormally strong or
whose power of self-control over natural impulses is abnormally weak (see report by Dr. James Kerr
to the Education Committee—London County Council, 1908). There are also those who have no
active impulse to seek out men, but will yield to anyone who approaches them. It is stated that there
are three important factors that drive the feeble-minded into prostitution by excluding them from
other occupations:—
(а) They often lose their character at an early age.
(b) They easily get and keep light, unskilled and irresponsible work at very low wages,
but do not pass to any higher or more responsible work with correspondingly higher wages.
Therefore they become discontented with their monotonous work just at the period of life
when their sexual impulses are at their strongest, and flee from the tedium of monotonous
employment to the excitement of a new life with the easy gain in money which offers itself.
(c) Even in those cases where such girls are placed in responsible situations with good
environment, and do their work satisfactorily, it is said they have a curious distaste for
remaining long in one situation, with the result that they wander from place to place until,
ultimately, their records become known to employers, who will not engage them, and they
turn to prostitution.
Their mental deficiency also soon makes them unsuccessful prostitutes. Their lack of inhibitory
powers leads rapidly to alcoholism; it is said that 50 per cent. to 60 per cent. of the inmates
of inebriate homes are feeble-minded, and that the vast majority of them have been prostitutes.
It is to be hoped that in the course of time women of this type who are prostitutes will be swept
from the streets by means of the Mental Deficiency Act, 1913. (See Appendix F.)
(10) The economic question.—It has frequently been said that prostitution is not an economic
question. There are others who hold that this view is entirely erroneous. There is a mass of evidence
to show that unemployment, low wages, and bad occupational conditions are definitely associated
with prostitution.
In the case of unemployment, it has been shown that, in what are known as the seasonal trades,
these are many workers who take to the streets to tide over the slack times. Examples of such trades are
millinery, dressmaking, tailoring, mannequins and the lower ranks of the theatrical and music hall
profession. In all these trades, good clothes and a smart appearance are necessary for the effective
seeking of a new engagement.
Low wages, not necessarily so low as to preclude the provision of food and clothing and shelter,
but insufficient to allow of any form of enjoyment without curtailing the necessaries of life have certainly
been shown to be a factor tending in the direction of prostitution. Wages on a subsistence level give
very little protection to certain temperaments from the temptation to buy with the proceeds of prostitution
the pleasures so much sought after.
Occupational conditions form an important influence in leading women into prostitution. This
is particularly the case where girls are liable to suffer when dependent upon the pleasure of a person
of the opposite sex for the opportunity to gain a livelihood, or again, to obtain promotion in their work
to positions with higher remuneration. These factors have been frequently shown to be an influence
in the cases of shop girls, factory girls, theatrical and music hall artistes.
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