• Justine McLellan

Harriet Hicks, the "Registered Prostitute"

Updated: Feb 26, 2019

This painting by Toulouse-Lautrec depicts the compulsory gynaecological check-ups imposed on sex workers in the 19th century.

The 1860s were a high point for prostitutes who acted as independent operators in England. The sex industry was largely self regulating; prostitutes worked in pairs for protection, turned away girls whom they considered to be too young for the trade, and lived together in residences that were indistinguishable from other lodging houses. They banded together as “outcasts,” dressing better than their working-class peers, and, just like Renaissance Venice, Ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, enjoyed more freedom than civilian women. Furthermore, their work hours were shorter, and they were less constrained by the demands of husbands or children as well as social sexual expectations such as fidelity, virginity, and sexual modesty. In a society where status was determined by material possessions, women who sold sex had more disposable income than the average worker, and were therefore able to pay for the accoutrements that would afford them “some respect.” Prostitutes were an important part of the local economy supporting landladies, dressmakers, etc.

The majority of sex workers in Victorian England were “Dollymops,” or amateur prostitutes who performed sex work as an occasional supplemental income in order to make ends meet. Poverty and a desire for financial independence were important factors in choosing to work as prostitutes; women in vulnerable economic and social positions frequently found prostitution to be a temporary solution to their immediate problems. The majority of prostitutes were orphans, or had families that could not afford to support them; they were in their late teens or early twenties, having lost their virginity at sixteen to a man of their same social class. A woman’s entry into the sex industry was often circumstantial, and reflected seasonal changes in the urban job market. Many listed their previous occupation as “maid.”

For Victorian moralists, prostitutes represented the “Great Social Evil.” Early social scientists studied and pontificated about the problem; socialists blamed the monied classes for corrupting and abandoning “their” women, while evangelicals blamed the smutty influence of socialism, and the allure of dance halls for leading naive girls astray.

Additionally, many doctors believed at the time that only women had the ability to “generate contagion.” In the minds of these medical professionals, men were entirely innocent in regards to the spread of venereal diseases, while women who “plied a trade” bore the brunt of responsibility in regard to the propagation of Gonorrhoea or Syphillis.

In 1863, concerned by the spread of venereal diseases among sailors and soldiers, the British parliament passed the first in a series of laws that came to be known as the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Since bureaucrats of the bourgeois and the medical establishment believed that prostitutes were the conduit of infection to respectable society, the CD Acts were intended to protect working men, soldiers and sailors near ports and army bases from catching sexually transmitted infections, then known as venereal disease.

Before the Contagious Diseases Acts, local police only intervened with sex workers when the latter were drunken or disorderly. No serious efforts were made to repress the trade; rather, law enforcement had a working relationship with prostitutes, who assisted them with inquiries about wanted men, and smuggled goods.

After the CD Acts were passed, the police forced women whom they suspected of “indecent behavior” to register as prostitutes, which then trapped them for life in a registry. When a police officer stopped a woman under the suspicion that she was a prostitute, she was expected to voluntarily comply to an internal exam. If she refused, she was brought to court, where she had to prove her virtue following Victorian standards.

The CD Acts aimed to isolate, segregate, and control prostitutes through a variety of means. Law enforcement officers made it a point to visit “registered prostitutes” regularly, informing their neighbors of her “vices.” This made it difficult for prostitutes to leave sex work and enter into a new profession, as they were constantly outed by police officers. Furthermore, many men who had female partners on the registry left them because of the continuous harassment and humiliation, which forced the women back into brothels or on the street.

Registered prostitutes were also subject to fort-nightly examinations by a doctor. The exams themselves were violent, performed by contemptuous medical professionals who “tested” them for syphilis or gonorrhea. If the prostitute was said to have the disease (by doctors who had no idea what caused disease, aside from “sin.”), she risked being sent to a lock hospital for up to a year where she would be “treated” with nearly fatal doses of mercury. The living conditions in lock hospitals were harsh; patients were prohibited from writing or receiving letters, and hospital staff frequently cut off women’s hair as punishment for perceived impertinent behavior.

Out of a sense of loyalty to their “fallen” sisters, as well as a certain hostility toward male power and influence, middle-class feminists Elizabeth Wolstenholme and Josephine Butler founded the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts.

They informed poor women of their rights, provided them legal counsel, and urged sex workers and civilian women to resist the CD Acts. For the LNA:

as far as women are concerned, [the CDA] removes every guarantee of personal security which the law has established and held sacred, and put their reputation, their freedom, and their persons absolutely in the power of the police.” They also argued that “it is unjust to punish the sex who are the victims of a vice, and leave unpunished the sex who are the main cause, both of the vice and its dreaded consequences; and we consider that liability to arrest, forced medical treatment, and (where this is resisted) imprisonment with hard labor, to which these acts subject women, are the punishment of the most degrading kind.

Harriet Hicks is a woman who lived through the repercussions of the CD Acts. She was once previously married to a man who didn’t support her. After leaving him, like many other women in her situation, worked as a prostitute for a short period of time. Hicks then moved in with Ebenezer Simmons, a butcher. Early in their relationship, Hicks had been placed on a registry in a neighboring town and held in a lock hospital for three months. Simmons did not take her imprisonment well, and drank excessively.

After her release, the couple moved to a single furnished room in Plymouth, but an inspector visited their home and demanded that Hicks come with him because he had “reports” that she was “diseased.” Simmons protested saying that she was not, and had no reason to be because he brought her his wages every week.

Hicks was taken to court, where Simmons testified that he was disease free. He acknowledged that Hicks had been a prostitute before she lived with him, and declared his trust in her, and that she dutifully cooked his meals every day and was home every night. The defense counsel tried to rest the case here, having shown reasonable proof of Hicks character and that she was free from disease, but the judge wanted to see evidence that would justify her detention.

When asked if she was still a prostitute, Hicks responded: “No, only to one man.” The magistrate intervened and explained, “You mean that you are not a prostitute other than living with one man without marriage,” to which she answered meekly: “Yes, that’s what I mean.”

Mr. Moore, the resident medical officer, was asked about the disease Hicks was said to have. He explained that she had a vaginal ulcer that was not “truly syphilitic,” that it might not give syphilis, but it might produce gonorrhoea or a like sore. He was asked by the judge to clarify his final decision of venereal disease. He answered, “All genital disease, in man or woman, arises from excessive or impure sexual intercourse.”

The judge: How did this sore arise, do you think?

Moore: I believe it arose from excessive sexual intercourse.

The judge: But persons might be faithful to each other, and yet have excessive sexual intercourse, might such a sore arise from it?

Moore: It might; but I should not think it probable.

In the end, it was not Moore’s poor understanding of venereal diseases that led to Hicks being discharged, but Ebenezer’s willingness to publicly acknowledge her previous history, as well as her status as a kept woman. Her legal victory outraged local CD Acts officials who reacted by appointing more “supportive” magistrates to handle the CD cases. The Hicks case also inspired a wave of resistance among prostitutes who quickly overwhelmed the court with their cases. All the women acknowledged during their trial that they had formerly been prostitutes, but were now living with one man or otherwise wanted to quit prostitution. They explained that their goal of leaving prostitution behind, however, was being prevented by police who were hunting them and exposing them to their neighbors, as well as informing their new employers and threatening their families and lovers.

The CD Acts were repealed in 1883, but were replaced by new social and political conditions that remained highly restrictive for women and sex work. Increasingly obsessed with social purity, militant moralism condemned all women who “strayed,” and successfully ostracized prostitutes.

Finally, the Industrial Schools Act in 1880 enabled police to remove children from “brothels” and place them in industrial schools. This act was used to blackmail families and prevent them from “harboring” prostitutes. It calcified the divide between prostitutes and their community, and, by the early 1900s, prostitutes were increasingly forced to rely on pimps for protection and emotional security.


Judith R. Walkowitz's "Prostitution and Victorian Society, Women, Class and the State"

Maggie McNeil's Guest "Columnist: John Seattle"

Charlotte Alter's "Inside the National Push to Arrest Men who Buy Sex"

Olga Khazan's "How Syphilis Came Roaring Back:

The 18th-century ailment was on the brink of elimination before budget cuts helped resurrect it."

Associated Press "Unused condoms no longer evidence of prostitution in NYC"

©2019 by Kaytlin Bailey and Justine McLellan.