The Social Evil and Its Remedy

The Social Evil and Its Remedy

The Nation says that the solution to the problem of prostitution is regulation.


The Nation says that the solution to the problem of prostitution is regulation.

In response to a resolution offered in the Assembly, “that the Board of Metropolitan Health Commissioners and the Metropolitan Board of Police be requested to communicate to the House, at their earliest convenience, their opinion as to the necessity and probable result of legislation looking to the more thorough restriction of prostitution in the city of New York,” the Sanitary Committee, which is composed of three honest, able, and experienced physicians, have reported in favor of such legislation as is resorted to in the great cities of continental Europe, where they say it has been found necessary for the control of those by whom the evil is encouraged and sustained. The report is sensible and temperate. It deals in no extravagances, preaches no high moralities, leaves sentiment to those whose duty is to deepen and purify it, and very properly confines its attention to the measures by which society, acting through laws and public officials, may restrain the evil within certain well-defined limits, may keep it under police and medical inspection, and may diminish to some extent its disastrous effects on the health and, indirectly, on the order and peace of the community. The committee justly regard the evil as a fact, whose permanent removal or even essential reduction is not in question, the causes of which lie in voracious and permanent appetites which do not materially change in their character or their vehemence, and which will, under one form or another, have their way. It does not appear that the magnitude of the evil varies much in different years, though it certainly varies in different climates and in different communities. It would not be difficult, probably, to determine the conditions of its increase or decrease at any particular time or place. Its existence is at least as old as civilization, and, so far as we can see, will be as long-lived as civilization under its actual forms. It is to be reckoned among the fixed causes of mischief in society, and it is as such that it is to be dealt with.

All attempts at the sudden eradication of such an evil must, therefore, be fruitless. Its causes cannot be reached by any agencies at our command. Nothing less than the moral regeneration of individual men and women will go deep enough to touch its roots. And the moral regeneration of men and women is a thing to be prayed for, hoped for, labored for; but it is not a thing to be assumed or reckoned on for immediate effect. Ages hence, centuries on centuries hence, when knowledge, refinement, culture, religion shall have produced an amount of respect for personal character, for the laws of health and happiness, for the mutual rights and dignities of persons, for standards of purity undreamed of now, the roots of this hideous vice may die from lack of nourishment. At present little or nothing is doing to effect such a result.

The attempt to suppress the evil would be as fruitless as the efforts to extirpate it. Were all the officinas of lust closed to-morrow, the houses of assignation and prostitution, the dance-houses and concert-saloons, the “bar-houses” and “parlor-houses,” lust would still burn, the purveyors of lust would still find means for plying their infamous trade, still the victims of lust would die and spread pollution all around them. There is reason for thinking that, as things are, many of these resorts escape the vigilance of the police. Superintendent Kennedy gives the whole number of public prostitutes in New York as 2,574; the number of houses and saloons as 697. But another authority, more familiar it may be presumed with the facts, because concerned professionally with the interests of the traffic, gives the number of houses as 773, at the least. The number of inmates of “parlor houses” and “bar-houses” alone he estimates at 4,600; the “street-walkers” are set down at 6,000; and the total of criminal women at not less than 12,000. It is difficult to understand how such an immense discrepancy in statistics could exist between recognized authorities, and we are inclined to believe that the latter statement is perhaps exaggerated and the former incomplete. Still, making all possible allowance for exaggeration on the one side and for incompleteness on the other, we are constrained to think that the evil succeeds already in eluding to some extent the scrutiny of the police. The extent to which it might elude it, therefore, is quite incalculable. There is great reason for supposing that it would flourish in spite of the most strenuous efforts at suppression, retiring into deeper and deeper shadow as it was pursued, and becoming more virulent and deadly the more secret it became.

Seeing, then, that the evil can neither be eradicated nor suppressed, but one course remains to be pursued, and that is the course recommended by the Sanitary Committee, namely, to accept the mischief as a fact, to recognize its existence by the authorities, to place it under official inspection and regulation, with a view to the utmost possible diminution of its deadly effects. By this means some beneficial results may be attained. The physical disease engendered will be greatly reduced in amount and in violence. The class of bad women will comprise none but those who will consent to be registered as such; the pavement will be cleared of the “street-walkers;” the eyes of decent people will be spared the disgusting and demoralizing sight of depravity in its most degrading aspect, and we shall have the satisfaction of knowing that the sin, while covered up and driven to its haunts, is under such treatment as it is in a condition to receive at the hands of the ministers of the public order and the public health. We have not before us the data requisite to show the extent to which these desirable results have attended the experience of Continental cities, but they must ensue from the very nature of things, in some degree. Owners of houses would be more regardful of the character of their tenants, and would take more pains than they do to prevent their being sublet for infamous purposes. The police would be enabled to close many houses that are made the primary schools of vice, and in that way would have it in their power to stop some portion of the evil in its early stages. Registration would in some measure check resort to the houses on the part of those who might dread even the notion of publicity; and the kind of legitimacy that would be affixed to the vice might possibly, by making it less attractive to the imagination, make it less universal in practice. The objections to this method of dealing with the evil in question are, to our minds, rather specious than powerful. They seem to be based on the idea that an evil which legislation takes cognizance of is to that extent withdrawn from moral rebuke and protected from moral assault. To reason against such an impression as that would be idle, for there is no reason in it to combat. Society, through legislation, merely protects itself against a mischief, which is all it can do or has a right to do in its organized capacity; it does not pretend to assail a sin. That duty devolves on the sociologists, the moralists, the preachers, and other guardians of the public ethics; and it is a duty from which they are in no manner or degree absolved. On the contrary, they are enabled to fulfil it with a more encouraging hope of success, for they undertake it with a better knowledge of its proportions, a more complete acquaintance with its conditions, and with the intelligent co-operation of the ministers of justice. To acknowledge a vice is not to applaud it. To circumscribe a mischief is not to approve of it. To allow the practice of an abomination within certain fixed limits is not to sanction it. The allowance within the limits is a prohibition beyond them, and that prohibition fastens reproach on the evil that is so confined.

A more singular objection has been raised against the regulation of the social vice by law, on the ground that it interferes with the operation of those natural laws by which divine Providence inflicts punishment on physical and social transgression. God, it is said, has decreed terrible penalties for this peculiar iniquity; sickness and disease, rotting of the bones, prostration of the nervous system, imbecility of mind, idiocy, beastliness, the loss of reputation, domestic misery, social degradation, the ruin of all that makes manhood and womanhood, the degeneracy and decay of offspring, the transmission of the frightful curse of tainted blood to the third and fourth generation; by legalizing the vice, you make it safe to practise it; and by making it safe to practise it, you thwart the divine intention, elude the divine justice, and release mankind from that salutary terror and that saving doom which are the conditions of their progress towards virtue; it would be wiser to stand aside and let God’s vengeance have full play on the miserable offenders; instead of shielding them, we should thrust them out into the full tempest of wrath; instead of sending physicians to guard them from disease and to arrest the contagion they engender, we should pray that every horrible consequence of their sin might be tenfold more horrible than it is; we should rejoice in their destruction, and wish it could be so swift and sure that it would come upon them in a moment and smite them dead.

But, if the destruction is not so swift or horrible, if the consequences are not so instant and appalling, if the divine laws do not execute themselves by such summary vengeance, what then? Society must be protected against disease and disorder, and if “natural laws” will not protect it, it must protect itself by resorting to human laws. And the “natural laws” do not protect it. Long before government thought of restraining the social vice, long before legislation took cognizance of it, long before it occurred to anybody to have an oversight of it, or to inspect the traffic in it, these “natural laws” were in full force. They were enacted when the organization of man was built; they were published when that organization began to perform its functions; they were executed at the first time of its violation. Still, the crime we speak of had a beginning. Beauty was blighted, strength decayed, happiness ruined, life wasted, virtue spoiled; still the sin went on. Communities were menaced with devastation, still the iniquity prevailed. Human law did not prevent or anticipate natural law; it came after it; it stepped in because natural law was insufficient, and there was necessity for supplementing its force. The bare fact is that God does not visit the sin with swift and sudden vengeance. If he did, we might leave the matter to him. His mills grind slowly. The penalties he inflicts are indirect, far-off, uncertain; too subtle, often, to be felt by any but the finely organized and sensitive. They work underground or overhead; they leap intervals. The ignorant know nothing about them; the instructed hit on expedients for evading them; the reckless defy them. Terrible as they are, and sure as they are, ultimately, to fall, the consciences of passionate men are not touched by them. The terror of them is seen when we look back; but appetite looks forward.

To most men it is human law that makes divine law palpable; and reasonably enough, too, for man is a part of Providence; his action is a part of the action of Providence. The natural laws are not in full operation till man comes in with his intelligent determination and will, and applies such directing and restraining power as he possesses to the regulation of his private and social life. To strike the human element out of the elements that control human existence would make existence inhuman, and condemn men and women to the animal economies of the beasts. Legislation does what it can to interpret the natural laws, and government does what it can to execute them. We are very sure, for our part, that if men did not interfere to regulate vices like intemperance and licentiousness, other laws than those ordinarily called the “laws of God” would begin to play uncontrolled, and the communities of mankind would rapidly degenerate into bestiality. If we must let prostitution work out its own doom, we must let drunkenness do the same. We must not arrest, prosecute, or punish any offenders; we must give evil of every sort its full swing, in hope that having sufficient rope it will hang itself, as no doubt it will — but society will find its neck caught tight in the same noose. It may be that legislation should do no more than is necessary for the protection of the community from danger, but less than that we do not see how it can do. For the rest we must look to intelligence, affection, conscience, and all the other elements of moral power stimulated to their highest action. It may be very humiliating to reflect that at this epoch of the world a civilized and Christian people can do no more than legalize, inspect, and register a sin like this, throw a few disinfectants upon it and provide against its outrageousness; but to blink facts is no way to escape the humiliation; the only remedy for that is virtue. The awful consequences of this kind of sin have made it necessary to put it under the ban of law. That may not be much, but it is something. The time will yet come when we shall so revolt against it as to put it effectually under the ban of the moral judgment.

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