The extract is from ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ which was a series of shocking newspaper articles written by W. T.
Stead (1849-1912) and published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. The articles focused on child prostitution. They were written against the backdrop of a push by purity reformers like Josephine Butler (1828- 1906) , who was part of Stead’s Special and Secret Committee of Inquiry set up to investigate child prostitution, to change the age of consent to 16. Something Parliament was reluctant to do. A Criminal Law Amendment Bill to change the age of consent had been introduced in 1881, it was passed in the House of Lords.
But languished twice in the House of Commons. It was reintroduced for the third time in 1885 but it seemed likely to be set aside again. It was then Stead was approached by Benjamin Scott, an anti-vice campaigner, to investigate the issue of child prostitution and to try to raise popular support for the bill.
When analysing the extract is clear that Stead writing style is quite sensationalist and hyperbolic. According to Walkowitz ‘to construct his narrative, Stead drew on older cultural forms-particularly melodrama’. Melodrama was a popular literary and theatrical device used in the nineteenth and twentieth century’s. Melodramas were often sensational dramatic pieces that attempted to appeal to the audience’s emotions. Stead was a pioneer of new journalism which shocked readers through, gossip, sex and crime rather than just reporting facts, it paved the way for the modern tabloid. Stead combined melodrama and new journalism in order to create sensationalist emotional narratives full of scandal that shocked and horrified and yet also perversely entertained readers. In Stead’s writings, it is possible for facts to become lost due to the heavy dramatization of reality. Stead’s writing style is also vulnerable to exaggeration, as a result, it may not always give a clear nor accurate depiction of events.
This does not necessarily devalue the extracts usefulness as a primary source but may mean further research has to done to validate the claims Stead makes. For example, it is possible that Stead has misrepresented or exaggerated how common child prostitutes they were as in 1849 -1856 female patients under sixteen at the London Lock Hospital only made up 6.5 percent of the total proportion of inmates and this declined to 2.3 percent between 1857 and 1856. Analysis of the extract suggests that through his use of elements derived from gothic literature and Greek myth Stead was attempting to inform his reader about the perceived child prostitution crisis whilst also providing a shocking story that entertained them. He compares males who solicited sex to the Minotaur a creature half man half beast. The Minotaur was the product of unnatural female lust and represents a bestial nature within humans. Due to what the Minotaur signifies it is important to reflect on the Stead comparison of men who solicit sex to the Minotaur as it can provide commentary on the way sexuality for both males and females was viewed.
Traditionally, there was a double standard surrounding sexuality for males and females. The double standard can be seen in the implementation of the Contagious Diseases Acts of in 1864 their aim was to deal with rife venereal disease in the armed forces through the forced medical examination of prostitutes in garrison towns. Male patrons were not subjected to the same degrading treatment. Stead actively supported the repeal of the acts. He was also associated with the social purity movement which advocated an end to double standards and chastity for both non-married men and women. By depicting the male patrons as a Minotaur, Stead seems to be not only criticising them but simultaneously attacking Victorian double standards.
Through comparisons to the Minotaur Stead seems to be implying that their actions were almost bestial. This idea concurs with the social purity movement’s view that civilisation meant men should be able to control their animalistic urges. The social purity’s ideas about male sexuality went against the common view in society. Male’s sexual urges were generally accepted with people like Dr William Acton arguing sexuality was a natural urge that was essential to express in order to maintain a healthy mind and body.
There was an assumption amongst some in Victorian society that women had no sexual feelings but only desired marriage in order to become a mother and wife. Dr Acton even suggested that there were ‘many females who never feel any sexual excitement’. Stead may challenge sections of the Victorian double standards but he appears to accept and perpetuate Victorian ideas that prostitutes will inevitability die young from either shame, poverty, or disease calming in the extract that they ‘will perish, some of them in horrible torture’.Through melodrama and new journalism Stead created a monster that roamed the streets of London and preyed on the most vulnerable in society the innocent daughter. By using the techniques shown in the extract Stead created a moral panic that horrified the public into supporting the bill.
The extract is more descriptive than factual leaving it vulnerable to exaggerations. It is questionable whether the articles would have had the same effect if Stead wrote in a more factual manner. His use of melodrama and new journalism does potentially mean liberties were taken when recounting his experience .But, this does not detract from the extract’s value as a primary source as it gives us a first-hand look into Victorian child prostitution and provides an insight on issues surrounding gender and sexuality and reactions to these issues.