The Wolfenden Report: Committee frank but clueless

“In my realms,” Queen Victoria is reputed to have said, “there are no such women.” If the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee become law, that happy state may be restored: not the one in which no prostitutes exist, but the realm wherein old ladies may assume that the unseen is the unreal.

The main findings of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution are by now too well known to need recounting. Briefly, they urge easier laws on homosexuality and harder ones on prostitution—that is, on street soliciting, the only offence with which prostitutes may be charged. There is no gesture towards ending or reducing prostitution; the Committee’s aim is simply to brush the dirt under the carpet—to remove what the Manchester Guardian called “the scandalous spectacle now commonly presented by some streets in London and other big cities.”

There can hardly be much objection to that, as far as it goes. The parade of streetwalkers is a sordid sight. How far does it go, however? Is anyone really going to feel better or more satisfied through knowing that they are on the ’phone and not the kerb, or because the invitation to five minutes of commercial, loveless love, is made indoors instead of in doorways?

That is not to imply that the Wolfenden Committee has been hypocritical. On the contrary it has done the only thing possible for it and, incidentally, accepted what some reformers will not see: that, in a social framework such as ours, prostitution cannot be done away with. “The law by itself cannot do so,” says the Report. The alternative, therefore, was to regulate the prostitutes and try at least to see that their activities were addressed to whom they might concern.

Why cannot prostitution be stopped? The Report speaks of a need first for education and a changed moral sense among the community. The fact is, however, that there is almost nobody who would not like to see prostitution disappear and is not aware of the squalidness of everything and everybody connected with it; no words, for example, convey deeper contempt than “ponce” and “pimp.” Moreover, it is overlooked that the toleration of prostitution owes a good deal to moralists who have condoned it as a kind of safety-valve for the family institution. Lecky, in his History of European Morals, wrote:—

“That unhappy being whose very name is a shame to speak, who is scorned and insulted as the vilest of her sex, and doomed for the most part to disease and abject wretchedness and an early death . . . is ultimately the most efficient guardian of virtue. But for her the unchallenged purity of countless happy homes would be polluted . . . On that degraded and ignoble form are concentrated the passions that might have filled the world with shame.”

To look for the causes of prostitution via such questions as: “Why do women take to it?” is fatuous. The Wolfenden Report does state categorically, however, that “economic factors” enter into it scarcely at all nowadays. In a limited sense of “economic,” meaning that girls do not now go on the streets as the alternative to destitution, this can be taken as true. Beyond that, it means very little. Many prostitutes, like the one who spoke on television, do it just for money—not out of distress, but because they want the things money buys. And this is no perversity, but our society’s commonest ideal. Sir Miles Thomas said vehemently in a television programme a little time ago that anyone who did things for any other reason was insane (did he tell that to his workers, one wonders; or to Sir John Wolfenden?)

The real causes of prostitution are the economic and social conditions in which it lives and flourishes. It is, in fact, a product of the monogamous marriage system within the framework of buying-and-selling societies; its proverbial oldness is simply the long history of those societies. The ancient civilizations, which were highly commercial ones and had strong marriage traditions involving usually the subjugation of women, all had a great deal of prostitution. The Middle Ages had it, though the extent is uncertain. The earlier, pre-industrial Revolution stages of capitalism had more than ever of it, just as they had more than ever of begging, squalor and crime. And almost any of Queen Victoria’s subjects could have put her right: Lecky, or Charles Mayhew, or W. T. Stead who, to show what was going on, bought a girl of thirteen from her parents for £5—the understanding being that she was to enter a brothel.

Because prostitution has gone on so long, many people think it must be human nature. Well, it may become an enforced need, but it certainly isn’t human nature to buy and sell that. In the primitive places and communities where you would expect human nature to be rampant, prostitution is unknown (at any rate until the traders and colonists arrive). Indeed, sex is a matter in which human nature needs only half a chance to assert itself in good and satisfying relationships between men and women, and one of the terrible things about capitalism is the number of people to whom even that half-chance is denied.

Of course, prostitution can be abolished. Do away with property-based, sale-and-profit society, and you do away also with the ubiquitous trading, bargaining and hawking which condition or take the place of all human relationships. Set down a no-property, common-ownership basis, and social relationships then express only human beings’ needs—of which prostitution is not one. The Wolfenden Committee confesses impotence: reformers have foiled with this as they foil with almost everything. Attitudes-to prostitution have varied from ferocity to sentimentality, and today’s “social problem” approach, but prostitution remains. You cannot, after all, remove the ugly rash without cleansing the patient’s system.

The Committee’s other concern, homosexuality, has had the lion’s share of the press and broadcast discussion. In spite of all the arguing, the proposal that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults should cease to be a crime is not new or sensational. Edward Carpenter was stating their case, with the support of medical experts, over forty years ago; so was J. A. Symonds. Various bodies for penal and moral reform (including the Catholic and Anglican Churches) have supported the proposal. Indeed, if it becomes law it will simply bring English law into line with that of France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Holland and Belgium.

The real, age-old taboo on homosexuality is rooted in its antithesis to the family institution. Thus, it was punishable by death in the Old Testament tribes, because it threatened the birth-rate; thus though the Catholic Church wants it removed from the list of crimes, it remains “the sin crying to heaven for vengeance ” in the Catholic Catechism. Its exact appraisal by society at large has always been related to the state of the family; here and there in history—in Greece, in Rome, in the Persia of the Arabian Nights—the circumstances have allowed toleration and even some degree of approval. Possibly the outcry against Oscar Wilde derived a good deal from the fact that most people, in the days of the platoon-sized family, were only too well bound to normal sexuality.

There is no reason for not being gratified that a small group of people may be released from the fear of vindictive legal penalties on their behaviour; equally, no reason for passing over the fact that another group now stands faced with harsher penalties. What remains, after three years’ investigation and deliberation by the Wolfenden Committee, is that the Sunday papers will not be deprived of anything in material for their perennial Exposures of Vice. Perhaps it is unfair to mention only the Sunday papers, however: in his boyhood this writer heard preachers chill their audiences by speaking of the dens of vice that existed “ in this very town; here, around us . . .” Not for some years did be realize—and his curiosity abate that the working-class district in which he lived, in the days of mass unemployment, would not have kept a single prostitute for a single week.

Such problems as these are inseparable from the civilization in which we live. The prostitute and her customer, the homosexual with his secret, the ponce, the blackmailer, and the pervert are not outside but part of that civilization. With them stand the class division, the moral values, the family structure, the education, the “living standards,” the entire social fabric which we know. Take a look, gentle reader, and ask: Is it worth it?


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