Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I recently read "Prostitution in London" and here is what I thought:

Image from John Thomas' The Crawlers series

In Bracebridge Hemyng’s account of prostitution in London, we find a thorough albeit emotionally lacking insight into the motivation, mindset and outcome of the oldest profession in the world. At the time of Hemyng’s analysis, it was estimated that over 80,000 prostitutes working in the metropolis. Very early in the reading he makes his personal opinion, which is stated as fact, known by saying, “Literally every woman who yields to her passion and loses her virtue is a prostitute, but many draw a distinction between those who live by promiscuous intercourse, and those who confine themselves to one man.” Although the law does not care to persecute women who are living with a man out of wedlock, Hemyng makes a direct correlation between living unmarried with a lover and prostitution. Thus, the misogynistic barrage upon the female in his text begins.

Although misogyny was generally part and parcel to being a Victorian male, Hemyng’s commentary gives us a particularly scathing peek into the chauvinist mind. In his attempt to disclose and unveil the inner workings of those living such a “debauched” life, he tells the reader, “The harlot’s progress is short and rapid, and that there is no possible advance, moral or physical; and that once abandoned she must always be profligate.” Hemyng presents his thoughts in a manner that frames his work around the desire for improvement of the social and economic issues engendered to such a profession, yet simultaneously damns all those affiliated with it forever. In Hemyng’s mind there is no hope of redemption or elevation from such a life once it has commenced and these women, with their initial purity gone, are marred eternally. Even in Hemyng’s attempt to present an unbiased and official account, his vocabulary gives his prejudice away. He uses words like “vagrant amours,” he calls the women “harlots” and “low and cheap.” Hemyng tells the women he has no religious agenda and is merely curious then flays them with his moralistic commentary.

He does occasionally feign sympathy; usually while pouring alcohol into a glass to facilitate a more candid interview with a woman who is clearly pained by the deeply personal subject matter being discussed. This trite tenderness enables the women to open up to him, only to have her life’s history exploited and rebuked in his actual retelling of her tale. Hemyng does admit to women being “broken” and “conquered” by those seeking to forcibly place them into prostitution but there is no further admittance outside of acknowledging that their situation is unfortunate. Hemyng offers no empathy or understanding of their current situation, frequently bringing up the women’s addictions and reliance on alcohol. Alcohol is used to invariably numb the ache of their lives, emotional as well as physical. The degradation to which these women must submit themselves to on a sometimes hourly basis would put the need for alcohol into perspective for anyone remotely perceptive, but miraculously for Hemyng, who is seemingly void of true understand for the women he stalks down, he remains unaffected.

Hemyng’s voyeuristic text not only solidifies the male driven opinion of these “lost” women while salaciously glorifying the perverse appeal of their vocation but in what could have been an important social commentary on the vast need for improvement in London’s working class society, we see a disgusting ledger of abuses against women that not only vilify the victims but proliferate the problem.

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