In a 1995 article for ‘In These Times’, David Futrelle made the extraordinary claim that Victorian feminists used ‘coercive strategies to control the sexual behaviour of young girls’.
What on Earth could he have meant by such a statement?
His article consists of a review of a book that explores the infamously hypocritical sexuality of the Victorians – ‘When Passion Reigned‘. Much of the article is given over to discussion of the Social Purity Movements of the era – the forerunners of feminism – led in particular by Josephine Butler and her ‘Butlerite’ followers. The main goals of the Victorian Purity Movements were to criminalize prostitution and raise the age of consent from 12 to 16, which they succeeded in doing so in 1885 (in a bill which also criminalized homosexuality in the UK).
Once their goals had been achieved, mainly through the generation of tabloid hysteria over ‘child sex slavery’, Josephine Butler and her followers formed the National Vigilance Association. Mobs of feminists would break into brothels and ‘rescue’ the young girls and adult women found working within them – whether or not the girls wanted to be rescued, which in nearly every instance, they didn’t. In one famous case, a brothel was raided by the feminists and 400 young girls found to be working there. Each of them was offered work and accomodation – only 6 of the 400 accepted, the rest steadfastly insisting that they were working in the brothel of their own free will.
Before Futrelle’s statement regarding ‘co-ercive strategies’, he refers to such a case in which a girl is ‘rescued’ but ‘obstinately reiterated her wish to live the life she’d chosen “of my own free will”‘.
He then notes that even Josephine Butler made a famous speech attacking such raids, warning feminists to ‘Beware the Purity Societies’, who mistakenly believed that you could ‘oblige humans to be moral by force’.
It is at this point that Futrelle makes his controversial quote :
But even the Butlerites couldn’t always heed their own advice, at times falling back on coercive strategies to control the sexual behaviour of young girls
So what could David Futrelle have intended his liberal sex positive readers to understand by his statement? As mentioned above, with regards to the ‘sexual behaviour of young girls’, the Butlerites are famous only for raising the age of consent to 16 with the aim of ending child prostitution (and then raiding brothels and rescuing young girls found to be working there).
According to the Wikipedia entry on Josephine Butler :
In 1885 she was drawn into another related campaign led by the campaigning editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, William Thomas Stead. He had published a series of articles entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon exposing the extent of child prostitution in London. As a result of this campaign, the age of consent in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was raised from 13 to 16 that same year.