Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 June 2011
Everything that happened in Plymouth and Southampton was reproduced at the national level with the same intensity and drama. Throughout the country, preventive approaches to moral reform rapidly superseded the more limited efforts to reform and rescue the experienced prostitute. The 1880s witnessed the proliferation of clubs and armies to train the young and innocent in sexual repression. As in the Three Towns, these voluntary and propagandist efforts were complemented by repressive public measures against unrespectable sexual activity. Compared to mid-Victorian moral-reform movements, this new social-purity crusade was more oriented to a male audience, more hostile to working-class culture, and readier to use the instruments of state to enforce a repressive sexual code.
Social purity especially focused on youthful sexuality as a dangerous form of sexual activity. The desire to protect the young, particularly young females, from sexual abuse was not new, nor did it fully eclipse public anxiety over “illicit” sexual activity between adults. But it is noteworthy that the cultural image of the female victim in the 1880s was several years younger than her popular stereotype in earlier decades.
W.T. Stead's exposé of child prostitution in London epitomized this new preoccupation with childhood sexuality. Appearing in the Paul Mall Gazette in the summer of 1885, “The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon” proved to be one of the most successful pieces of scandal journalism published in Britain during the nineteenth century.