Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Christian Sanitation

A review of Vice and Vigilance: Purity Movements in Britain since 1700 by Edward J. Bristow (Gill and Macmillan, 1978)

Although anti-vice crusading is by no means endemic to Britain, the social purity movements have certainly flourished in this country as in no other, no doubt aided by its long tradition of voluntary organizations. The Societies for the Reformation of Manners spread through London and the provinces in the 1690s, and though they were more or less defunct by the 1730s,k the gap has been constantly refilled by such groups as the Society for the Suppression of Vice, the National Vigilance Association, the National Council of Public Morals, the Pure Literature Society, and numerous other moral sanitation efforts up through Mary Whitehouse's National Viewers' and Listeners' Association.

the meddling prudes are almost exclusively Christian, predominantly evangelical: federated non-conformists, revivalists and fundamentalists, with the occasional Anglican or Jew on the executive to add greater political influence to their demands. The interesting thing about the Christian bias behind such movements is its largely negative stance and lack of compassion. The many groups concerned with prostitutes, for example, claimed to be founding "rescue missions" but in fact they were merely repressing and punishing bad women they didn't much care for. Behind their stated claim of making the world a more decent place in which to live, was an obsessive emphasis upon gaining converts for the spiritual world.

The people with whom these Christians intefered were almost exclusively the poor working classes. The peculiar form of philanthropy calling itself humanitarianism was aimed at banning working-class amusements such as the music halls and dirty postcards and bawdy ballads, and, in sum, to reduce the free and easy sexuality of the new urban population, to make it disciplined and respectable lest revolution be fomented in its ranks.

The interest of these puritans was obsessively focused upon the sexuality of the young. Partly this was morbid (more than one purity campaigner abused the girls he "rescued" from brothels); partly it reflected an inability to comprehend the fact of adolescent sexuality (the mania against masturbation crippled many a young life); and partly it was a fear of rebellious youth in changing family patterns (control an adolescent's sexuality and you control the adolescent).

Nor can we fail to notice that most of the purity campaigners were feminists. Ladies undertook this Victorian vocation in substantial numbers, partly from sympathy with their victimized sisters, partly from an impulse to associate vicariously with sin, partly from a kind of Christian masochism. Their rabidly heterosexist assumption that sexual intercourse, which they called "the racial instinct", was strictly ordained "for the wholesome perpetuation of the human family", has been whitewashed by modern feminists.

What is not clear from Bristow's study is the degree to which these movements succeeded in reaching their goals. Each league was beset with financial and organization difficulties and they failed as often as their "fallen women", and have steadily declined since 1914. Yet this decline is not necessarily irreversible (for example, we might feel there was a resurgence during the AIDS years), and we are stilled ruled by their legacies: the legal concepts of obscene and blasphemous libel, the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1989, the British Board of Film Censors, and a host of voluntary censorship organizations. British law is steadily cobbled together, and the statute books continue to be riddled with the relics of outdated prudence. Unlike Bristol, I would tend to conclude that the success of these Methodist inquisitors was considerable.

Despite the commission of half a dozen factual errors regarding homosexual clubs in the early eighteenth century (molly were not "brothels" in any simple sense; Thomas Newton the hustler did not lodge at Mother Clap's; it is not absolutely certain that Mother Clap died after being removed from the pillory; etc.), the book seems to be a good survey in a not-unpleasant journalistic style. It is, however, a "popular" work containing no fresh original research, nor even a strikingly new reappraisal. It does tell us, however, as much as most of us would care to know about the subject.

Rictor Norton

(This review was originally published in Gay News many years ago. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

Return to Reviews and Critiques
Return to Gay History and Literature