“The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”: the Victorians & child sex trafficking

As the Guardian reports on Barnardo’s plea for action against organized child sex abuse  and a Member of the UK Parliament hints that victims may have brought abuse upon themselves, I was reminded of the case of W. T. Stead, a crusading journalist of the nineteenth century.

Stead, along with activists like Josephine Butler, was part of a movement campaigning for the raising of the age of consent for girls. In 1875 they succeeded in having it raised to 13, but their attempts to further increase the age to 15 were stifled by the reluctance of Parliament. (I wonder why.)

Stead was notorious for the sensationalist qualities of his journalism and he has been criticized for his methods. In 1885, with a general election coming up and the possible derailment of yet another attempt to raise the age of consent, Stead, along with Butler and the Salvation Army, set up a “committee of inquiry” into what we would now call child sex trafficking. Mrs. Butler and her son, posing as a procuress and a pimp, managed to buy children from brothels in London. Stead then set up a stunt in which he “bought” a 13-year old girl for £5 from her alcoholic mother. The idea was to demonstrate that young girls were being bought and sold, many to end up in brothels in continental Europe. This, we must remind ourselves, is the Victorian era, in which people supposedly covered up the legs of pianos for decency’s sake.

On Saturday, July 4, 1885, Stead published his story in the Pall Mall Gazette. It was written in a lurid style as The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. Newspaper vendors refused to sell the journal and the Salvation Army had to take over its distribution. Public reaction to the article resulted in the amendment to the law being passed by Parliament and the age of consent for girls was raised to 15.

But for Stead personally, the stunt backfired badly. He was prosecuted for buying the girl and sentenced to three months in prison.

Interestingly, from the 1880s to the present day, discussion of this case has not usually been about the fate of the girls involved (which is largely ignored or dismissed) but there has been a debate about Stead’s controversial tactics and style as a journalist – most of it very critical of him. It was, according to Roland Pearsall in The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality (1969), “the death knell of responsible journalism.”

The Guardian article tells us that the present Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, has said that in 2011 children as young as 10 are still being trafficked around the UK for sexual exploitation. The article also reports that Barnardo’s have dealt with 417 children who have been exploited in this way. Once more, our law makers drag their feet or in some cases blame the victims. As the Chief Executive of Barnardo’s says: “Those 417 children can’t wait, their lives are being trashed while we are devising an action plan.”

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