The emergence of sexual philanthropies helped establish a new model for the treatment of all kinds of criminals and social misfits. Until the 1770s, most convicts were sentenced to a few weeks of hard labour, bound over, transported, or hanged. Imprisonment as such was not widely used. But the later eighteenth century saw a great movement for prison reform, which culminated in the establishment of the first modern penitentiaries. Several of its proponents had strong links to sexual charities: the word ‘penitentiary’ itself was most immediately adopted from such institutions. Though Magdalen hospitals were vol­untary asylums, their regime and buildings nonetheless influenced the new attitude to imprisonment. Their inmates were housed in purpose-built architecture that was meant to facilitate their round- the-clock monitoring. They were segregated into different classes. They were kept under constant observation, prescribed a daily rou­tine, and obliged to work and pray. Through incarceration for lengthy periods, followed by supervised release, they were to be disciplined, reformed, and made useful to society. Exactly these principles were to inspire the foundation of modern prisons, reformatories for youths, and systems of parole.1

The philanthropic approach also came to dominate attitudes towards fallen women. Prostitutes continued to be policed, punished, and disdained as depraved criminals. Nevertheless, even their harsh­est critics now tended to accept that the root causes of sexual trade lay in social and economic circumstances, rather than personal char­acter. For their part, feminists saw prostitution as emblematic of all the deeper injustices of a male-dominated society. ‘Asylums and Magdalens are not the proper remedies for these abuses,’ wrote Mary Wollstonecraft. ‘It is justice, not charity that is wanting in the world!’2 Meanwhile, though, they too championed the plight of prostitutes. In consequence, the attraction of ‘rescuing’ and reforming fallen women continued to grow.

Amongst those who privately practised or advocated it before 1800 were James Boswell, Samuel Richardson, Samuel Johnson, Jeremy Bentham, Robert Holloway, John Wesley, Dorothy Ripley, and several other leading Methodists and missionaries. One reason it attracted increasing evangelical attention was that the parallels between black and white slavery were obvious. One did not have to look abroad for examples of repulsive human trade, remarked a late-Georgian advo­cate of rescue work. ‘What are the sorrows of the enslaved negro from which the outcast prostitute of London is exempted? A seducer or ravisher has torn them both, for ever, from the abodes of their youth. . . violent brutality assails their persons. . . and tramples them to a level with the meanest of brute creation. Is the bosom of the unhappy girl less tender than that of the swarthy savage?’ The ‘slavery and misery’ of prostitutes, observed another critic, was ‘worse, much worse, than that of the African in the West Indies’.3

In the nineteenth century prostitution came to be commonly referred to as the ‘Great Social Evil’, or as ‘white slavery’, and the res­cue of fallen women became a craze to which some of the most prominent figures in public life devoted extraordinary energies. Amongst campaigners for women’s rights the oppression of prosti­tutes and the need to reach out to them personally became a particular article of faith. Missionary groups like the Salvation Army also made it a cornerstone of their work. The ideal was equally common­place amongst mainstream Anglican clergymen, writers, artists, social reformers, politicians, and innumerable private citizens. By 1837, one charity alone, the Religious Tract Society, had issued over 500 million pamphlets aimed at the redemption of fallen women. At the height of his fame, Charles Dickens threw himself into the foundation and administration of a refuge for penitents, with the financial backing of the millionairess Angela Burdett-Coutts. His fellow-novelist George Gissing tried (and failed) to redeem a young prostitute by marrying her himself. William Gladstone called the issue ‘the chief burden of my soul’, and for decades, even whilst Prime Minister, roamed the streets at night attempting to save prostitutes. Mrs Gladstone invited penitents to tea at 10 Downing Street. By 1928, in Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant satirical novel, Decline and Fall, white slavery and the furore surrounding it had become an easily recognizable symbol for the uni­versal, hopeless corruption of the modern world.4

The movement for the sexual redemption of women therefore con­tinued to grow in significance well beyond 1800. Many other Lock hospitals, preventative asylums, and penitential houses were soon founded at home and abroad. As early as 1816, there existed at least a dozen refuges for fallen women across Britain, as well as several in Ireland, India, and the United States. The real explosion came in the hundred years that followed. In i860 a new periodical, the Magdalen’s Friend, estimated that there were about two dozen ‘homes’ in London alone, and another forty around the country. By 1917, there were more than 400 across the English-speaking world. Alongside them there grew up a network of hundreds of voluntary associations and asylums dedicated to the sexual purity and salvation of working-class women. The saving of single mothers, observes one historian of the phenomenon, became nothing less than ‘a national pursuit’. The res­cue work pioneered by the Magdalen and the Lambeth Asylum thus grew into one of the most enduring obsessions of the Victorian and early twentieth-century middle classes, on both sides of the Atlantic.5

By the early twentieth century the scope of sexual rescue campaigns had extended worldwide. International white slavery became a major concern of governments and of the League of Nations. Even today such work continues. The notion that most prostitution is ultimately involuntary has become a commonplace of modern western thought, as well as the basis for legislation and social policy. The focus of Brit­ish and American rescue groups is now often on the trafficking for sexual purposes of women in third-world countries: yet even in such cases many of their essential principles recall those first articulated in mid eighteenth-century England.

The emergence of organized philanthropy thus had a profound impact on later attitudes to sexuality. In recent years its practical effects have often come to be criticized as misguided and repressive. In Ireland, where Magdalen asylums persisted until the 1990s, the routine, long-term incarceration and economic exploitation of prosti­tutes and unmarried mothers is now generally regarded to have been a shameful, misogynist phenomenon.6 The practice of sexual philan­thropy certainly imposed particular ideas about class, gender, and sexual discipline upon its recipients. These days, we also tend to pre­sume that institutionalization is not good for people, or conducive to their moral elevation. Yet we still take for granted the basic principles of sexual charity. That social and economic circumstances can leave women at risk of sexual exploitation; that in such conditions their own free will and moral consciousness are compromised; and that external intervention is justified to save them from degradation – these convictions continue to underpin legislation, public opinion, and action by governments, charities, and individuals across the globe. This is another central legacy of the first sexual revolution.