Document 8: Flora Tristan, chapter on "Prostitutes," in Promenades in London (London: W. Jeffs, 1840), pp. 109-29, 132-33, 144-48. Reprinted in Doris Beik and Paul Harold Beik, eds. and trans., Flora Tristan, Utopian Feminist: Her Travel Diaries and Personal Crusade (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), pp. 67-73.

Flora Tristan

Source: Messieurs de Balzac, Roger de Beauvoir, and Raymond Brucker,
Les Belles Femmes de Paris et de la Province
(Paris, Au Bureau, 1839-40); Microfilm, History of Women, Reel 154, no. 980.

Introduction

        In her critique of British society as seen from her walks around London, self-made French journalist, Flora Tristan, wrote about the exploitation of prostitutes. Seeing prostitution as caused by inequalities of wealth and by women's dependency on men, she sympathized with prostitutes and called for the emancipation of women.

        I have never been able to look at a prostitute without being moved by a feeling of compassion for her place in our societies and without experiencing scorn and hatred for the rulers who, totally immune to shame, to respect for humanity, and to love for their equals, reduce God's creatures to the lowest degree of abjection!--to be valued below brute beasts!

       I understand the brigand who robs passersby on the highways and loses his head to the guillotine; I understand the soldier who continually stakes his life and receives in exchange only a sou a day; I understand the sailor exposed to the fury of the seas; all three find a somber, terrible poetry in their trades. But I cannot understand the prostitute, surrendering herself, destroying both her willpower and her feelings; delivering her body to brutality and suffering and her soul to scorn! The prostitute is an unfathomable mystery to me. I see prostitution as a frightful madness, or else it is so sublime that my human soul is unable to comprehend it. To brave death is nothing; but what a death faces a prostitute! She is betrothed to sorrow, committed to abjection!--Physical tortures incessantly repeated, moral death all the time, and scorn for herself!

        I repeat: there is something sublime in it, or else it is madness!

       Prostitution is the most hideous of the afflictions produced by the unequal division of the world's goods; this infamy blights the human race and testifies against the social order much more than crime; this revolting degradation is brought about by the disastrous effects of prejudices, poverty, and slavery. Yes, if chastity had not been imposed on the woman for the sake of virtue without the man's being subjected to the same thing, she would not be pushed from society for having yielded to the sentiments of her heart; and the girl seduced, deceived, and abandoned would not be driven to prostitution. Yes, if you allowed her to have the same education, the same occupations and professions as the man, she would not be assailed by poverty more often than he. Yes, if you did not expose her to all the misuses of force, through despotic paternal power and the indissolubility of marriage, she would never have to choose between oppression and infamy!

        Virtue or vice implies the liberty to be good or evil; but what morality can the woman have who is not her own master, who has nothing of her own, and who, all her life, has been trained to avoid the arbitrary by ruse and constraint by enticement? And when she is tortured by extreme poverty, when she sees the possession of all property appropriated by men, does not the art of pleasing, in which she has been raised, inevitably lead her into prostitution?

        Therefore let this monstrosity be attributed to our social state and let woman be absolved from it! As long as she is subject to the yoke of man or of prejudice, as long as she receives no professional education, as long as she is deprived of civil rights, there cannot exist a moral law for her! As long as she can obtain property only by the influence she has over men's passions, as long as she has no status and is deprived by her husband of the possessions she has gained through her work or been given by her father, as long as she can have property and liberty only by leading a single life, there can be no moral law for her! And it can be positively stated that until the emancipation of women has been achieved, prostitution will continue to increase.

       Wealth is more unequally distributed in England than anywhere else, and so inevitably there is more prostitution there. The right of making one's will is not restricted by English law, and the aristocratic prejudices that rule this nation, from the lord of the manor to the humble cottager, dictate the choice of a male heir in every family; therefore, girls have only small dowries unless they have no brothers.

        Still, there are only a few positions for women who have received some education; and besides, fanatical religious prejudices cause girls who have been seduced or deceived to be turned out of every establishment, often from even the parental roof; and the majority of the rich landowners, manufacturers, and factory managers make a sport of seducing them and deceiving them. Ah, those capitalists, those landowners whom the proletarians make so rich by exchanging fourteen hours of work for a morsel of bread--how little use they make of their fortunes to counterbalance the wrongs and disorders of all kinds that result from their accumulation of wealth! This wealth almost always breeds arrogance and supports excesses of intemperance and debauchery, with the result that the common people, already perverted by their frightful poverty, are additionally corrupted by the vices of the rich.

       Girls born in the poor class are pushed into prostitution by hunger. Women are excluded from work in the fields, and when they are not employed in factories, their only resource is domestic service or prostitution!

        Come, my sisters, let us walk at night as well as by day,
        At any time, at any price, one must make love,
        One must; here below, destiny has created us
        To preserve the household and virtuous women.
[A]

        Prostitutes are so numerous in London that at any hour one sees them everywhere; they swarm in all streets; but at certain times of day they move from the remote districts where most of them live to the streets where crowds are to be found and to the theaters and promenades. Rarely do they receive men in their homes; landlords nearly always oppose that, and besides, their lodgings are too meanly furnished. The girls take their "captures" to houses intended for their professions, houses that exist in every neighborhood without exception and are, according to Dr. Ryan's reports, as numerous as gin shops.[B]

        Accompanied by two friends armed with canes, I went as an observer between seven and eight o'clock in the evening to visit the new quarter next to Waterloo Bridge, an area crossed by the long, wide Waterloo Road. This quarter is almost entirely peopled by prostitutes and agents of prostitution. It would be impossible to go there alone in the evening without risking imminent danger. It was a warm summer evening. The girls were at the windows or were seated before their doorways, laughing and joking with their pimps. Half-dressed, several bare to the waist, they were shocking and disgusting, but the cynicism and crime on the faces of the pimps was frightening.

       In general the pimps were handsome men--young, tall, and strong; but their vulgar, gross manner reminded one of animals whose only instincts are their appetites.

        Several of them accosted us, asking if we wanted a room. As we responded negatively, one bolder than the others said menacingly, "Then why have you come to this quarter if you do not want a room to take your lady to!" I confess that I would not have wanted to find myself alone with this man.

        In that way we crossed all the streets adjacent to Waterloo Road and went to sit on the bridge to observe another spectacle. There we watched the girls of Waterloo Road district go by; in the evening between eight and nine o'clock, they go in bands into the West End of the city, where they practice their profession during the night and go home at eight or nine o'clock in the morning.

        The girls stroll through the streets where the crowds are, those that terminate at the Stock Exchange, at the times when people go there, and along the approaches to theaters and other public attractions. At the hour of the half-price they invade all the shows and take possession of the lounges, which they make their reception rooms. After the performance, the girls go to the "finishes." These are disgraceful cabarets or else vast, sumptuous taverns where one goes to finish out the night.

        The finishes . . . are as much a part of the English customs as are coffee houses to the Germans and elegant cafés to the French. In some, the attorney's clerk and the commission merchant drink ale, smoke bad tobacco, and get drunk with the filthily clad girls; in others, the fashionable drink punch or cognac, French or Rhine wine, sherry or port. They smoke excellent Havana cigars, laugh and joke with beautifully and richly dressed young ladies. But in all of these, the orgies are brutal and horrible!

        I was told, on the subject of the finishes, about scenes of debauchery that I refused to believe. This was my fourth time in London, and I had come with the intention of finding out about everything. So I decided to overcome my repugnance and go myself to one of these finishes, in order to judge how much confidence I could have in the various descriptions given to me. The same friends who had accompanied me to Waterloo Road again offered to serve as guides.

        It was a sight to see, one that makes the moral condition of England better understood than anything one might say. These splendid taverns have a very special character. It seems that their frequenters are dedicated to the night; they go to bed when the sun begins to light up the horizon, and they get up after it has gone down. On the outside these carefully shut-up palace-taverns (gin-palaces) betoken only sleep and silence; but the porter has hardly opened the little door where the initiates enter than one is dazzled by the lively, brilliant lights escaping from a thousand gas jets. On the second floor there is an immense salon divided into two parts lengthwise. In one part is a row of tables separated by wooden partitions, as in all the English restaurants. On two sides of the tables are sofa-benches. Opposite, on the other side of the room, is a stage where richly costumed prostitutes are on display. They provoke the men with glances and words. When someone responds to their advances, they take the gallant gentlemen to one of the tables, all of which are loaded with cold meats, ham, poultry, cakes, and every kind of wine and liqueur.

       The finishes are the temples that English materialism erects to its gods! The acolytes are richly dressed servants. The industrialist owners of the establishment humbly greet the male guests who come to exchange their gold for debauchery.

       Toward midnight the habitués begin to arrive. Several of these taverns are meeting places for high society where the elite of the aristocracy assembles. At first the young lords recline on the sofa-benches, smoking and joking with the girls, then after several drinks, the fumes of champagne and the alcohol of Madeira rise to their heads, and the illustrious scions of the English nobility, and Their Honors of the Parliament, take off their coats, unknot their ties, and remove their vests and suspenders. They set up their own boudoirs in a public cabaret. Why should they restrain themselves? Are they not paying very dearly for the right to display their scorn? And as for the one they incite--they make fun of her. The orgy is steadily rising to a crescendo; between four and five o'clock in the morning, it reaches its peak.

        Well, at that time one must have a certain amount of courage to stay there, a silent spectator of all that goes on!

       What a noble use of their immense fortunes these worthy English lords make! How fine and generous they are when they have lost their senses and offer fifty or a hundred guineas to a prostitute, if she is willing to lend herself to all of the obscenities to which drunkenness gives birth.

        There are all sorts of amusements in the finishes. One of the favorites is to make a girl dead drunk and then make her swallow some vinegar mixed with mustard and pepper; this drink almost always gives her horrible convulsions, and the jerkings and contortions of the unfortunate thing provoke laughter and infinitely amuse the honorable society. Another divertissement greatly appreciated in these fashionable assemblies is to throw glasses of anything at all on the girls who lie dead drunk on the floor. I have seen satin dresses that no longer had any color; they were a confusing mixture of stains; wine, brandy, beer, tea, coffee, cream, etc., made a thousand fantastic designs on them--a variegated testimony of the orgy; human beings cannot descend lower![C]

       The sight of this diabolical debauchery is revolting and frightening, and the bad air turns one's stomach; the odors of meat, drinks, tobacco smoke, and others worse yet--all these seize you by the throat, press on your temples and make you dizzy. It is horrible! But this is life, repeated every night, is the prostitutes' only hope of fortune, for they have no hold on a sober Englishman. The sober Englishman is so chaste as to be a prude.

       Ordinarily it is about seven or eight o'clock in the morning when one leaves the finish. The servants go to look for cabs. The men who are still on their feet look for their clothes, put them on, and go home; as for the others, the tavern waiters dress them as best they can, in the first clothes they find, take them to a cab and indicate to the driver the address of the package they give him. Very often the address of these individuals is unknown; then they are put in a room at the back of the house where they simply sleep on the straw. This room is called the drunkard's hole. They stay there until they have recovered enough to be able to say where they would like to be taken.

       It is unnecessary to say that the things consumed in these taverns are paid for at enormous prices; and the drunkards leave with their purses completely empty, happy if their siren's cupidity has spared them a watch, their eyeglasses with gold frames, or anything of value.

        The lives of prostitutes of all classes in this intemperate city are of short duration. Whether she wants to or not, the prostitute is obliged to partake of alcoholic drinks. What constitution could maintain this continual excess! So three or four years is the life period of half of the London prostitutes; there are some who hold out for seven or eight years, but that is the extreme limit that few reach and that only a few rare exceptions exceed. Many die of horrible diseases or of pneumonia in hospitals, and when they cannot be admitted they succumb to their diseases in wretched hovels, deprived of nourishment, medicine, care, everything.

        When a dog dies he is watched over by his master, whereas the prostitute ends on a street corner without anyone's throwing her a glance of pity!

       In London 80,000 to 100,000 girls, the flower of the population, live by prostitution. Every year, 15,000 or 20,000 of these unfortunates grow sickly and die a leper's death in total abandonment.[D] Every year an even greater number come to replace those whose frightful lives have ended.

        In order to explain such colossal prostitution, one must be aware of the immense increase in wealth in England in the last fifty years and remember that, in all nations and at all epochs, sensuality grows with wealth. The commercial incentive has become so powerful among Englishmen that it has upset all others. There is not one of them whose dominant thought is not to make money. Also, it is a necessity for the younger sons of the richest families to make a fortune; no one is satisfied with what he has.

       The love of money, implanted in young men's hearts at the most tender age, destroys family affections as well as any compassion for another's misfortunes. Love has no part in their lives; a young girl is seduced without love; people get married without love. The young man marries a dowry, forsakes his wife, and ends by dissipating his fortune in gambling houses, clubs, and "finishes" in the West End. How repulsive is that wholly materialistic life of appetites and self-interests! Has society ever been as hideous-- with money as the motive power and with only wine and prostitutes for pleasure?

        In London all classes are badly corrupted; in childhood, vice anticipates age; in old age it survives burned-out senses; and debauchery's maladies have penetrated all families. The pen refuses to describe the aberrations and depravity into which surfeited men let themselves be dragged, who have only sensations, whose souls are inert, whose hearts are corrupted, and whose minds are uncultivated. Faced with such depravity, Saint Paul would have cried: "A curse on fornicators!" And he would have fled from this island, shaking its dust from his feet.

       In London there is no commiseration for the victims of vice; the fate of the prostitute inspires no more pity than that of the Irishman, the Jew, the proletarian, or the beggar. The Romans were no more insensitive to the gladiators who perished in the arena. Men, when they are not drunk, kick the prostitutes; beat them even if they are afraid of the scandal resulting from a fight with pimps or the intervention of the police.[E] Virtuous women have harsh, bitter, cruel scorn for these unhappy ones; and the Anglican priest is not the comforter of the unfortunates as is the Catholic priest. The Anglican priest has no pity for the prostitute; he will give a pompous sermon from the pulpit on Jesus' charity and affection for Mary Magdalene the prostitute, but for the thousands of Mary Magdalene's who die each day in the horrors of poverty and abandonment, he has not a tear! What do these creatures matter to him? His duty is to deliver a talented sermon in the church on the appointed day and hour. That is all. In London the prostitute has nothing but the right to a hospital and then only when there is an unoccupied place.

Previous
Document
Document
List
Next
Document

A. Verse attributed to Lazare by Auguste Barbier. This and all subsequent annotations appear in Tristan's original "Prostitutes" as reprinted in Beik and Beik.
       Back to Text

B. Prostitution in London [with a comparative view of that of Paris and New York, by Michael Ryan; London, 1839].
       Back to Text

C. In this finish I saw four or five superb women; the most remarkable was an Irish girl of extraordinary beauty; although she was an habitué there, her entry into the room was a sensation and provoked a low murmur. My eyes filled with tears. What a beautiful creature! If she had been Queen of England, they would have come from all over the world to admire her!

        She came in at about two o'clock in the morning, dressed with an elegant simplicity that heightened the brilliance of her beauty. She wore a white satin dress, with half-length gloves leaving her pretty arms visible. Charming little pink slippers set off her darling feet, and a kind of diadem of pearls crowned her head. Three hours later this same woman lay on the ground dead drunk! Her dress was disgusting! Everyone threw glasses of wine, liqueurs, etc., on her beautiful shoulders and magnificent breast. The tavern waiters scorned her as if she were garbage. Oh, one must have witnessed such an unworthy degredation of a human being to believe it possible!
       Back to Text

D. The bill requiring deaths to be registered is very recent and the data for determining the exact figure for the deaths of prostitutes are still lacking.
       Back to Text

E. While I was in London, a city tradesman, ill with an infamous disease, believed he could attribute his illness to a prostitute whom he knew. He summoned her to a house of assignation. There he lifted her skirts above her head and tied them with a cord, enclosing the top of her body like a sack; then he whipped her with a switch and, when he tired of that, threw her in that condition into the street. That unhappy girl, deprived of air, was suffocating; she struggled, shouted, rolled in the mud. No one came to help her. In London, one never gets mixed up with what is happening in the street: "That's not my business," the Englishman says without stopping, and he is already steps away when these words float back to your ear. The unfortunate one lying on the pavement no longer moved. She was about to die when a policeman passed, approached her, and cut the cords binding her clothing. Her face was purple, she no longer breathed, she was suffocated. But she was taken to a hospital where prompt rescue methods saved her life.
       The author of this atrocity was called before a magistrate and given a fine of six shillings for indecent behavior on a public street.
        In a nation of such ridiculous prudery, one sees that it does not cost much to outrage the sense of decency of the public. And what is astonishing is that the migistrate saw in this incident only a breach of the peace to be punished. Yes, in this country of so-called liberty, the law is for the strong, and the weak cannot invoke its protection.
       Back to Text

| Documents Projects and Archives | Teacher's Corner | Scholar's Edition | Full-Text Sources | About Us | Contact Us |