By the middle of the eighteenth century the spread of male sexual freedom was thus accompanied by mounting concern over its consequences. To most observers neither the resurrection of old-fashioned discipline nor the abolition of all sexual constraints seemed feasible. How, then, should male lust be channelled so as to minimize its dangers to women? This was the final major theme underlying the obsession with seduction.
The most obvious way out was to accept prostitution. As we saw in Chapter 2, it increasingly came to be taken for granted that it was desirable to set aside a class of inferior women in order to protect respectable females from danger. In consequence the theory and practice of tolerating prostitution was to become ever more central to the sexual economy of the English-speaking world from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards. By the later nineteenth century, governmental regulation of prostitutes had been enacted across the British Empire, and in many other western societies. The scale of commercial sex also expanded greatly, in line with the growth of cities, the industrial economy, the armed services, global commerce, transport, and the development of overseas colonies. Only at the end of the twentieth century was its importance to the sexual economy to diminish, following the spread of mass contraception and sexual freedom for women.
Prostitution was, though, never a universally accepted solution. Its many critics (whether Christian, liberal, radical, or feminist) were troubled by its institutionalization of male promiscuity, and by the presumption that harlots were expendable, lesser human beings. It also sat uneasily with the belief that prostitutes were themselves the victims of seduction, social ostracism, and economic hardship. In this view, far from preventing the corruption of innocent women, prostitution was actually based on it. As we shall see in the next chapter, such attitudes were to have a deep impact on eighteenth-, nineteenth-,
and twentieth-century philanthropy, social policy, feminism, and politics.
The alternative approach was to regulate male licence in new ways. From the later seventeenth century, as the jurisdiction of the church courts declined, a variety of new (or newly extended) legal procedures evolved to prosecute adulterers and fornicators. In contrast to traditional discipline, which had always in practice penalized women more than men, these actions were all predicated on the idea that women were the victims of male predation. Their essential concern was not so much to punish immorality for its own sake as to protect women, shore up the institution of marriage, and uphold the sexual property rights of fathers and husbands. A man who seduced a woman but then abandoned her could be sued for breach of promise; or, by her parent, for damages. The same patriarchal presumptions underlay the action for ‘criminal conversation’, whereby a husband sued his wife’s lover, and obtained monetary compensation for their adultery.1
Yet all these were private, civil procedures. Their only remedy was money, and the aggrieved party had to go to the trouble of suing, at considerable cost, risk, and inconvenience. Few victims could afford this. In consequence, many later eighteenth – and early nineteenth – century commentators agitated for a general law against seduction. This was a crime with far worse social effects than most capital offences, noted William Paley: it was scandalous that ‘the law has provided no punishment for this offence beyond a pecuniary satisfaction to the injured family’. It was absurd, another writer pointed out in 1780, that it had become less punishable for a man ‘to seduce, defile, and abandon to prostitution and ruin, a thousand women, married or unmarried, than to steal, kill, or even maliciously to maim or wound, an ox or a sheep’.2
Many of the period’s leading lawyers and legislators agreed with them. That all seducers of married women ought to suffer fine or imprisonment was a recurrent theme in the debates surrounding the adultery and divorce bills of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and in the 1770s both Jeremy Bentham and Lord Mansfield, the lord chief justice, drafted laws against the seduction of unmarried women. This was also one of the foundations of Patrick Colquhoun’s popular blueprint for wholesale social and legal reform, which decried the subversive modern ‘distinction. . . between public and private crimes’ – seducers should face hard labour, imprisonment, or transportation for life.3
More common still was the concern that those who corrupted innocent virgins should be required to take care of them. ‘When a man seduces a woman,’ wrote Mary Wollstonecraft, he ‘should be legally obliged to maintain the woman and her children’. Best of all, for society and for the individuals, would be if all seducers were simply made to marry their victims. This was a very old idea. It had been the Old Testament sanction (Deuteronomy 22), and many early Protestants had supported its reintroduction. Its principles appealed equally to many eighteenth-century sensibilities. ‘Whenever a virgin is seduced of her virtue by a single man,’ argued a popular author in 1753, ‘it must, it ought, to be presumed, that he prevailed upon her through the promise of marriage; and therefore he should be compell’d to fulfil his contract.’4 In countless cases this was already privately achieved, through familial and social pressure. There were also obvious public precedents, for until the reform of the Poor Law in 1834 overseers of the poor often forced the parents of illegitimate children to marry. In consequence it was not hard to contemplate extending the practice to all seduced women. This was Henry Fielding’s solution when faced, as a magistrate, with a young unmarried couple taken in bed together: ‘after a reprimand from the Justice, and some threats, the lad declared he was willing to make her all the reparation in his power, and to marry her immediately’, and so they were. (A few years earlier Fielding had himself done the right thing and married his kitchen maid, Mary Daniel, after she fell pregnant by him.)f Even in cases of forcible rape, asserted Colquhoun, as long as the woman agreed, ‘it would be well for society, if the same rule extended’. In nineteenth – and early twentieth-century North America exactly these principles came to be enshrined in law. In most states, seduction became a crime, but marriage was the desired outcome – both for the courts and, evidently, for most of the women who appealed to them.5
But what if the seducer was already married? Should the same principle apply? Bigamy had been a capital offence since 1603, yet in the eighteenth century this became a widely debated question. Many serious observers were keenly interested in polygamy as a remedy for seduction. If everyone agreed that marriage was best for women, children, and society, yet it was unreasonable to confine men to a single partner, then was this not the obvious solution? In the absence of divorce, might polygamy provide a sensible way of balancing male rapacity and sexual responsibility, indeed of bolstering marriage itself?