Perpetrators, Prostitution, and Popular Culture

December 2, 2015

Written by guest blogger, Jessica Steinberg.

My interest in crime and prostitution in eighteenth-century London began in my dissertation work in which I examine the violence perpetrated against prostitutes and the violence committed by prostitutes. “She was ‘a comon night walker abusing him & being of ill behavior’: Violence and Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century London” was published in the Fall 2015 issue of the CJH/ACH.

One of the reasons I was interested in examining how violence perpetrated against prostitutes and the violence committed by prostitutes was portrayed, was to find out more about how prostitutes were viewed in the eighteenth-century. Today, most historians argue that by the end of the eighteenth-century prostitutes were viewed as victims of sinister characters. But, in a lot of the popular culture I was reading — newspapers, magazine, moralistic stories — prostitutes were presented as vicious villains and members of the criminal underground. Only rarely were they considered sympathetic in these forums.

How do we explain these contrasting images of the prostitute? Was she seen as a criminal or a victim? Violent assault seemed like the perfect way to examine whether prostitutes were sometimes portrayed as victims and other times as criminals.

I assumed that when female prostitutes were the victims of murder or assault they would be portrayed as pitiful women who were in need of assistance, and that when prostitutes committed crimes, they would be depicted as pugnacious delinquents. My findings were surprising. Stories of prostitutes as the victims of crime were rare. But when a prostitute was either the victim or the perpetrator of a violent crime, they were portrayed as being at fault.

This led me to wonder why historians generally insist that female prostitutes were regarded as pitiable by the end of the eighteenth century. It also made me wonder more about the perceived criminality of certain groups of people — especially those already associated with disorder — and interpersonal violence more generally.

The perceived links between prostitution and crime helps us gain deeper insights into the social order, gender, and crime in the late-Stuart and Hanoverian period in England.

Jessica Steinberg’s article, She was “a comon night walker abusing him & being of ill behaviour”: Violence and Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century London appears in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadienne d’histoire. Read it today by clicking here:

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