- Knowledge of Evil: Child Prostitution and Child Sexual Abuse in Twentieth Century England
In 1932, the British socialist-feminist Dora Russell remarked: “children, like women and the proletariat, are an oppressed class”.1 Sadly, not much has changed in the last seventy years. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are [End Page 1082] faced with the awful spectacle of a global trade in child pornography and child sex, the persistence of child poverty in both the developed and less developed worlds even as the globalized economy is borne to no small degree on the narrow shoulders of child workers, and the violent impressment of children into service as soldiers in armed conflicts.
David Barrett and Alyson Brown illuminate one corner of this dark canvas by looking at child prostitution in England between the 1880s and the 1980s. This is, as they state, the first book to tackle the subject of British child prostitution for the twentieth century. It builds on a body of work done in the history of childhood and child welfare by Harry Hendrick, as well as important research by Louise Jackson on nineteenth-century child prostitution and child sexual abuse. Child prostitution, which the authors see not as a “euphemism” for child sex abuse, but a “form” of it (p. 6), remained a consistent, if shadowy problem in British society from the 1880s on. It was most obvious to the public eye in the 1880s and the 1970s and 1980s, largely due to intense and often lurid media campaigns, but child prostitution did not disappear in the intervening period. Barrett and Brown use a wide range of primary sources, including archival records and contemporary newspapers, to historicize the problem. This is both a significant study in its own right and an encouragement for further research in this important field.
The twentieth century has been referred to as the “century of the child” because the concept and category of childhood was, over the last hundred years, “clarified and elucidated in law, the labour market, education, the medical arena and a wide range of other contexts” (p. 1). In Britain, this included laws to protect children from various forms of abuse, such as the 1908 Children’s Act and the 1933 Children and Young Person’s Act. It also involved the rise of activist organizations working with the state on behalf of children, like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Dr Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society and the Waifs and Strays Society. As the authors point out, the intervention of these voluntary organizations is one of the most important themes in the history of child prostitution. During much of the twentieth century, the protection of children through the law depended upon the efforts of groups like the NSPCC. The authors also trace the development and transformation of different discourses around prostitution, including, for example, the rise of psychological explanations in the 1930s and studies of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s. A predictable starting point for the study is the controversy generated by the W.T. Stead’s “Maiden Tribute” campaign, but the study ranges into less familiar territory, as well, such as the interwar period and the 1950s and 1960s. The authors show great assurance in their treatment of these periods, setting the problem of child prostitution in the context of changing social mores, economic and political environments, and state structures.
This is an important initiative. Barrett and Brown do much to excavate the discursive framework about questions of the family, prostitution, juvenile delinquency and sexuality that surrounds the specific problem of child prostitution. But much remains unclear. In particular, the study shows just how difficult it is to get at the central actors in this narrative. The voices of the children themselves are virtually absent from the record between the 1880s and the 1980s. This is not an unconscious oversight on the part of the authors. Rather it is a [End Page 1083] problem...