PRIVATE VICES, PUBLIC BENEFITS
The gradual separation of personal morality and public affairs around the dawn of the eighteenth century also paved the way for a still more radical challenge. This was the idea that allowing sex outside marriage could actually benefit the public good. Some sexual licence was therefore to be tolerated, even encouraged.
This notion directly contradicted the orthodox Protestant view that tolerating prostitution would not curb licentiousness but inflame it. ‘If lust have the reins, and may range without control’, warned a preacher in 1704, ‘it will not be confined to the common cattle, but attempt the chastity of maids and matrons; and no virtue almost will be safe’. It was a great mistake, pointed out another author in 1699, to say ‘that to restrain lust in a natural way, will put men on using ways unnatural’, for sodomy was nowhere more ‘to be found in the world as in Italy, where there are eighty thousand whores in the pope’s books’.1
As these examples suggest, though, there appears to have been a revival of interest around 1700 in the idea of tolerating prostitution. Would it not be an improvement to set aside a place for all streetwalkers to congregate every evening, as they did in Amsterdam, enquired a correspondent of the Athenian Mercury in 1691? The editors responded that it was ‘a very unchristian maxim, to necessitate one evil, to avoid two’; but conceded that, religion aside, this was indeed ‘a pretty sort of policy, and many evils would be avoided by it’. The same presumption can be glimpsed in the diary of a Scots clergyman visiting London in 1689. It was ‘lest chaste women should be tempted’, he noted, that ‘the gay courtesans so frequent in the streets at twilight, are winked at’.1 Over the following decades, as punishment gradually fell out of favour, the idea slowly gained respectability.
By the middle of the eighteenth century it had become a commonplace even amongst clergymen and magistrates that prostitution was inevitable, perhaps even beneficial, and there was general familiarity with its classical, medieval, and continental precedents. Amongst the ancient Greeks and Jews, wrote John Potter, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, in a best-selling account, harlots, concubines, and public brothels were everywhere openly permitted. ‘The wisest of the heathen sages’ encouraged youths ‘to empty their lust upon those’ rather than attacking honest women: no one thought such sexual liberty ‘repugnant to good manners’.3 It was neither possible nor desirable, decided the justice of the peace Saunders Welch, ‘totally to suppress whoring’; prostitutes formed an essential ‘waste ground’, without which men might turn to sodomy. Many others concurred that without such an opportunity ‘to give vent to the calls of nature’, buggery, rape, and murder would inevitably ensue.4 The idea of actually licensing prostitutes was more contentious, but it, too, gradually gained credibility. To suppress the evil, concluded the influential magistrate and social reformer Patrick Colquhoun, was ‘as impossible as to resist the torrent of the tides’; better to institute ‘a prudent and discreet regulation’ of sexual trade, under police supervision.5 By the middle of the nineteenth century similar measures were widely advocated, and in the 1860s the Contagious Diseases Acts put into practice a system of governmental registration and control of prostitutes.
This trend was underpinned by several practical developments. One was a growing anxiety about the apparent spread of sodomy, fuelled by the discovery in early eighteenth-century London of an extensive male homosexual subculture, complete with special houses of assignation, transvestite assemblies, and casual sex in parks and public lavatories.6 Prostitution itself became an ever more visible and apparently intractable problem, as the capital and its night-life expanded throughout the century. Of crucial importance in its continuing rise was the massive growth of the British army and navy. The regular presence of soldiers and sailors in London and other port and garrison towns created a huge new market for casual sex, as well as mounting concern over venereal disease. Charles II had employed a standing army of perhaps 7,000 men, and a navy that, at its wartime peak, numbered up to 25,000. In the 1690s, however, the total figure for the armed forces swelled to over 115,000; by the time of the War of American Independence it had reached 190,000/ More generally, the notion that young men of all kinds needed sexual outlets to prevent them raping or leading astray innocent women, or resorting to unnatural practices, was part of a growing obsession over the prevalence of female seduction and mercenary marriage (as we shall examine in the next chapter).
The idea of tolerating prostitution was popularized especially by the writings of Bernard Mandeville and the controversy they caused. His treatise The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, first published in 1714, included a spirited defence of public prostitution, or the ‘necessity of sacrificing one part of womankind to preserve the other, and prevent a filthiness of a more heinous nature’. A decade later, when this passage suddenly attracted enormous attention, he fanned the debate by anonymously publishing a humorous elaboration of it, A Modest Defence of Publick Stews. Like his philosophy in general, these salvos were aimed directly at the societies for reformation of manners, whose methods (as we saw in the last chapter) had aroused such disquiet. ‘If courtesans and strumpets were to be prosecuted with as much rigour as some silly people would have it,’ asked the Fable, ‘what locks or bars would be sufficient to preserve the honour of our wives and daughters?’ Bawdy houses were as necessary as bog-houses; prostitutes were ‘already tainted, and not worth keeping’; allowing such women to be fully exploited ‘secures the safety of the rest’.8
The wit and fluency of Mandeville’s thought, its unblinking opposition to conventional morality, and its tremendously wide circulation, together ensured that his advocacy of prostitution became the starting point for all further eighteenth-century discussion of the topic. Already by 1760 there had been at least half a dozen editions of the Modest Defence, a dozen of The Fable itself, several partial plagiaries of the text, and countless works of criticism and commentary. So widely was his basic philosophy disseminated that it is hard to find an eighteenth – century intellectual who did not notice it. The popular impression of his sexual ideas is equally obvious from the ubiquity of casual references in satirical literature, tracts, sermons, speeches, and popular prints.9
Mandeville’s views owed a considerable debt to earlier thinkers, not least Pierre Bayle, whom he had probably met in his youth and whom he quoted extensively. His writing also echoed criticisms of moral policing that had long been current in facetious and popular literature. Though now pushed to its limits, his general point that virtue and morality were artificial constructions was, as we have seen, already a commonplace of radical theology and philosophy well before 1700. Indeed, if Mandeville’s ideas had been more original they probably would not have attained such immediate popularity. His contribution lay rather in the way in which he was able to take a handful of fairly unsophisticated and unrespectable notions and transform them into a forceful manifesto for sexual licence – by setting them out systematically, developing their intellectual implications, and integrating them into a much broader philosophical scheme. This was not merely a challenge to orthodox sexual morality, but to received thinking about the whole relationship between personal actions and public welfare. The conventional wisdom was all wrong, Mandeville proposed gleefully: paradoxical though it might seem, private vices could actually benefit the common good. By this he did not mean that all vice was beneficial, only that some actions conventionally thought evil were in fact beneficial to society. In economic affairs, for example:
the sensual courtier that sets no limits to his luxury; the fickle strumpet that invents new fashions every week. . . the profuse rake and lavish heir, that scatter about their money without wit or judgement. . . He that gives most trouble to thousands of his neighbours, and invents the most operose manufactures is, right or wrong, the greatest friend to the society.10
Just as in trade and industry, so in sexual affairs: asceticism, temperance and other conventional virtues were counterproductive. In fact, human beings were driven by selfish passions, and it was the proper management rather than the repression of these that produced the most socially desirable outcomes. At a stroke, he called into question most of the remaining justifications for sexual policing.
Not surprisingly, his assertion provoked great scandal and denunciation. It was a ridiculous illogicality, spluttered a bishop, contrary ‘to the experience of all ages and nations. . . [which] have flourished chiefly by religion and virtue, and have proportionably decayed, and finally have been sunk and ruined, by a general luxury and dissolution of manners’. Having searched through the ancient and medieval laws against vice of the Jews, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Lombards, and other major civilizations, the clergyman and moral reformer John Disney was equally certain that all received wisdom was against the ‘new maxim’. By the middle of the eighteenth century it had nonetheless become universally known. ‘Rake to rake’, chuckles Lovelace to Belford in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, was it not plain that the seduction of women was ‘a necessary evil’? His own actions were ‘entirely within my worthy friend Mandeville’s rule, that private vices are public benefits’. So notorious was the argument by the 1750s that the handbook of the Magdalen charity for penitent prostitutes felt the need to argue on its opening page for the contrary proposition, that private vices were public injuries.11
Such was the impact of this new way of thinking, therefore, that it helped permanently to shift the parameters of discussion. Even the last uncontested principle of sexual discipline, that public whoring was detrimental to the public good, was now called seriously into question, its advocates forced onto the defensive. Although the idea that social order and prosperity might depend on vice and unchastity was often rejected, it was also endlessly discussed. Over time, many of its tenets were assimilated and accepted into the mainstream. A typical example of their casual reiteration occurs in a 1747 obituary of Sir Thomas de Veil, the chief magistrate of Middlesex and a notorious womanizer. ‘Upon the whole,’ observed the Gentleman’s Magazine, after cataloguing his sexual abuses, ‘he seems to have been a remarkable instance of how far vices themselves may, with respect to the public, supply the want of private virtue’.12
Historians of economics have pointed out that Mandeville’s thoughts about the benefits of self-interest influenced those of later thinkers such as Adam Smith, and helped pave the way for new theories of social progress based on an ethos of consumption rather than of frugality and abstention. 1 3 Much the same is true of his moral views. By 1800, it had become common to argue that the proscription of all extra-marital sex created more problems than it solved. Some commentators decried as intrinsically perverse the idea that free men and women should be restricted in the ‘natural right to dispose of their own persons according to their own pleasure’. The evidence of earlier ages showed only too clearly, warned a lawyer in 1785, ‘what public mischief, what private conflict, what dark and atrocious crimes have proceeded from a mistaken notion of religion, inculcating a perpetual warfare with the dictates of nature’.14 And many more people now had come to believe that a loosening of sexual mores, far from heralding national ruin, was in fact an acceptable by-product of social and commercial progress. Similar ways of thinking about the morality of luxury and consumption had been gaining ground since the early seventeenth century. 1 5 Yet their application to sexual ethics was a novel development, which completely reversed traditional Protestant presumptions. Instead of taking for granted that punishing vice and increasing sexual discipline contributed to the stability of a society, it proposed the opposite.
The development of sexual freedom thus also benefited from the growing purchase of new economic philosophies, with their novel outlook on morality, continence, and prosperity. The extent to which attitudes were shifting by the later eighteenth century is captured perfectly by a conversation that William Wilberforce had in the summer of 1787 with his political adversary, the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam. ‘I agreed with him,’ reported Fitzwilliam, ‘that there was a great deal of debauchery, much looseness of behaviour, and very little religion.’ ‘But then I could not agree with him, that it ever would be otherwise, as long as there continued a great deal of activity, trade and riches: that the latter produced the former, and if he wished that the former should not exist, I advised him to apply the proper remedy by annihilating the latter.’ Even Wilberforce himself, the most zealous moral campaigner of his time, publicly conceded the point. It had to be confessed, he wrote in 1797, ‘that the commercial spirit, much as we are
indebted to it, is not naturally favourable to the maintenance of the religious principle in a vigorous and lively state’.16