William Acton wrote in Chapter VI ‘A Modern Harlot’s Progress’ in his book, Prostitution (1857), “And herein are contained three vulgar errors:
1. That once a harlot, always a harlot.
2. That there is no possible advance, moral or physical, in the condition of the actual prostitute.
3. That the harlot’s progress is short and rapid.” (Acton 52).
William describes the harlots of his time and the hasty growth of the woman populace that ended up becoming a prostitute. In these three observations he explains some very clear social errors about these women. First being that once a girl makes the steps of becoming a prostitute, there is nothing left for her to become but a prostitute. No going back or rising from this, lowest, social standing. Next, stating the actual woman herself, the act of prostitution in which she can never return will only worsen her physical condition over time. Also ‘no possible advance’ in the girls morals seems like a harsh comment, however during this period of time she is committing the one thing that is almost always looked upon as morally unjust. Once you sell your body for someone else’s pleasure it becomes hard to ‘advance’ ones morals, especially in the eyes of their society. Lastly Acton speaks of the actually progress of a prostitute, he describes it as short and rapid. This can be looked at a few different ways, but to me it seems as though the job of a harlot allows her gain a fast amount of money, however this progression won’t last long and her reputation as well as her entire life prior no longer exists.
I find it interesting that during the mid-nineteenth century there was a sudden explosion of interest in the areas around London and Whales concerning Prostitutes. The participants themselves came from all levels of the class structure, even though being seen around these women were means for nothing but scandal. The hierarchy of the male dominated society made it almost seem as though this idea of legal public prostitution was not only acceptable, but expected. But what of the Harlots themselves? Acton tends to paint these women in a bad light simply because of their job description; however there are also subtle instances when he portrays them as much more. We hear Acton chastising the first style of harlot, the old experienced woman, one who almost seemingly ‘enjoys’ her popularity and self-accomplished prosperity, “the loudest of the loud, in the utmost blaze of finery, looked on as ‘first-rate company’ by aspiring gents, surrounded by a knot of ‘gentlemen’ who applaud her rampant nonsense…Exigcant of respect beyond belief, but insufferably rude, she is proud and high-minded in talk one moment, but not ashamed to beg for a shilling the next” (Acton 55). This style of prostitute seems to be looked upon with the utmost disgust by Acton but there are those in which a sliver of guilt for reaches us threw his writing. These woman are the ones who were forced by some economic or social reason to turn to their last resort, “On the other hand, the sad career in prostitution of the softer-minded woman, in whatever rank she may be, will be marked and affected by that quality” (Acton 56). Further hopes for these girls who usually the younger of the group souly depend on the nights company, “If fortunate enough to have the acquaintance of some quiet men of means, she will not be puffed up with vain-gloriousness, but seeking comfort in obscurity, and clinging fast to what respect she may gain of others” (Acton 56).
William continues to write about the societal effects of this social class of harlots, even recording some of the sicknesses that start to spread throughout the cities. Through all of this ‘note-taking’ however we can get a clear depiction of the harlots of this time. The scandals that these women bring about vary from a joke amongst friends to noble blackmail. The position of the harlots are extremely curious considering the widely frowned upon activities which they preform, even though the demand of their beds never decreases. Society shuns them and fully believes that once a prostitute, one can’t become any lower and at the same time retires their possibilities of rising in the class system. Yet even with this in mind poor women becomes harlots because they know that the money will be there.