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

View report page

London County Council 1920

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

This page requires JavaScript

The fact that domestic servants provide such a large proportion of known prostitutes is certainly
not due to low wages or unemployment. It is said by some experienced rescue workers to be due to
the kind of woman who becomes a domestic servant, and the conditions of domestic service. On further
and more detailed enquiry, it will probably be found that it is a comparatively rare event for intelligent,
well-educated domestic servants, living with families under reasonably good circumstances, to become
prostitutes, and that the truth is that in the vast majority of cases the domestic servant who becomes
a prostitute is feeble-minded, and for this reason also is occupied in service in poorer families, boarding
houses, hotels, restaurants, and other places where the risks of seduction, etc., already referred to, are
The two accompanying extracts dealing with the question of prostitution are of interest in this
Extracted from "Downward Paths."
"The enormous price that the nation as a whole pays for the presence of the prostitute class in
its midst is a factor which should not be lost sight of. The financial cost must run into millions, but
cannot be even approximately calculated when the number of women concerned and the fees they
receive are necessarily unknown. Further, there must be included the cost of maintenance of thousands
of women during frequent illness and premature decay, in rescue homes, workhouses, hospitals, asylums,
and prisons. The diversion of thousands of women from productive labour to destructive idleness is
an item of national waste which it has now become more imperative than ever to check.
"But an even greater price is represented by the spread of venereal disease, not only among
participants in the trade of prostitution, but to their innocent husbands, wives and children. Insanity,
deafness, blindness, sterility and various other innumerable evils affecting the physique of the nation
follow in its trail, and the foul stream falls on the just and the unjust alike.
"Equally widespread and deplorable is the moral damage caused by prostitution. The effect
on the woman is proverbial, and is reflected in the phrases popularly used to describe her condition,
but it is not so commonly recognised that her casual male associates may suffer profound moral and
intellectual damage from contamination. Much that is puzzling and distressing in the relations of the
sexes, both in family and in public life, might be traced to the emotional havoc wrought in young men
who have had their first and most vivid experience of sex in the sordid surroundings of commercial
"The cost being so incalculable and universally disastrous, it follows that for self-interested reasons
alone, civilisation must endeavour to reduce prostitution to the lowest limits consistent with the personal
liberty of responsible adults. It is commonly urged that the attempt is an impossible one, as reformers
are here up against 'the fundamental fact of human nature,' and the trade is as 'old as humanity
itself.' It is well to remind this school of critics that prostitution is not synonymous with immorality,
and the problem is not that of securing perfect continence (outside marriage) in both sexes. On religious
and ethical grounds some such ideal must form part of every campaign against prostitution, but the
goals are not identical. Prostitution is promiscuity for gain, and while recognising to the full the force
and power of the sex instincts on human conduct, it is yet possible to maintain that only in rare instances
does natural instinct acting alone lead a woman to adopt a life of promiscuity. Still more rarely does
it keep her in it, if she is given a reasonable chance to earn a decent living in any other way. Prostitutes
in the majority of cases come from regions where economic conditions cramp and deform human beings
to such a degree that we can only guess what stature ' nature ' intended them to attain."
Extracted from Flexner's ''Prostitution in Europe."
"The outcome of European experience.—If the preceding pages may be assumed to have exhibited
the present condition of prostitution in Europe, the reader need not be long detained for the purpose
of summarising the main inferences to be drawn from them. It must be clear that prostitution is far
more widespread than superficial appearances indicate; that its roots strike deep, socially and individually;
that police regulation has proved unnecessary, in so far as the keeping of order is concerned,
and positively harmful in its bearing on the problem of venereal disease. Further elaboration of these
points would involve needless iteration. But we may well ask whether European experience suggests
any broader reflections with which this study may appropriately be brought to a close.
"Whatever one may hold as to ultimate dealings with the subject, it is clear that prostitution is
at any rate a modifiable phenomenon. For example, no matter what conditions exist at this very
moment, they are capable of aggravation. If bawdells are established and allowed a free hand in
procuring inmates and business, if a community ceases to be concerned as to the condition of the streets,
as to the conduct of the liquor and amusement traffic, there is no doubt that under these circumstances
the number of prostitutes and the volume of business transacted by them would at once increase, and,
in consequence, also the amount of waste and disease traceable thereto.
"The converse of the proposition is equally true. If prostitution and its evils can by social arrangements
be increased, they can also by social arrangements be lessened. If unhampered exploitation and
prominence make matters worse, then interference with exploitation and prominence makes matters
better. I am not suggesting that such interference has unlimited possibilities. Making every allowance,
however, I believe that the student of prostitution in Europe is warranted in declaring that, with the
suppression of bawdells and the white slave traffic, and the maintenance of improved external order, a
substantial amount of good has been accomplished, even if new problems have simultaneously developed
in consequence of the growth of cities and the accumulation of wealth; further, it may safely be maintained
that these efforts have not yet reached their limit.