Jesus Befriended Prostitutes. So This Victorian-Era Woman Did Too.
It was a strange sight. A well-dressed and respectable woman stood outside a brothel. She was beautiful, but her clothing marked her not as a prostitute but as the middle-class Victorian mother she was. She had recently confronted the Paris police over their abusive treatment of prostitutes under their legal control. The chief officer wasn’t convinced by her arguments but was charmed by the woman in front of him. This wasn’t surprising as all who met her felt her impact. She left with written permission to view the many government-controlled brothels.
So Josephine Butler stood, poised to enter the brothel, a place where no well-bred Victorian woman dared to go. With a glance toward her guide, she took the brave step forward. She would see padded rooms where prostitutes could be abused without the world hearing their screams. Her small form would pass rooms full of children used as prostitutes, and she would shudder to hear her guide proudly announce how wonderful it was that these children were under their care and off the streets. She wasn’t persuaded. She knew what she saw. “Hell hath opened her mouth,” she would write. “I stand in the near presence of the powers of evil. What I see and hear are the smoke of the pit.”
A well-educated and cultured woman with a husband and children, her decision to not only enter brothels but to advocate for prostitutes was shocking to society. She viewed her war as a “consecrated rebellion.”
Who was this woman, and how can we understand her courage?
A Faithful Home
Born in England in 1828, just in time for the Victorian era, Josephine Butler appalled the world by speaking about unspeakable topics. Victorians believed in separate spheres for men and women: Women were to care for the home and children, and men were for the public sphere. Yet she not only entered into public politics, but worse, she was speaking about uncomfortable realities such as prostitution, child prostitution, sex slavery, and more.
To grasp why, we need to understand her values. These principles led her to visit brothels and jails. They are the reason she would face down thugs, public ridicule, and slander—persevering even when dung and mud were thrown at her in the streets. Her strength, fearlessness, and morals came from a deep Christian faith.
Butler grew up in a comfortable and deeply religious family. Her father, John Grey, was a public advocate for the abolition of slavery, who “could not endure to see oppression or wrong of any kind inflicted on man, woman, or child.” Victorian fathers often felt it was their duty to keep their wives and daughters “innocent” of the evil of the world, but Grey treated his daughters as equals, speaking to them about the horrors of slavery.
Josephine married George Butler, a scholar and clergyman, who also treated her as an equal, fully supporting her campaigns. Her work forced her to speak against the mindset and actions common to men of her time. She would later say, “It seems strange that I should have been engaged in taking up the cudgel against men when my father, brothers, husband and sons have all been so good.” Perhaps it was her knowledge that men could treat women with respect that spurred her desire for change.
More importantly, Butler based her actions on Jesus himself. In his tender and respectful attitudes toward women, including prostitutes, she saw a different way to view womanhood and redemption. When confronting the idea that there were women “not worth saving,” she wrote that such an opinion was “heathenism,” and that “this judgment can only be seen in its true colours by setting it side by side with the example and character of Christ. … Were any beings in human shape not worth saving in his estimation?” She was able to stand firm against a roar of opposition because her actions were rooted deeply in her faith in Christ and the redemptive worth he offered every person.
Tempered by Suffering
However, knowledge came with a cost. Author Helen Mathers discusses the personal cost Butler suffered in her book, Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal. At the age of 17, she struggled almost frantically in trying to reconcile God’s goodness with the pain and suffering of the world. These were questions that she would slowly work through in the years to come.
Eventually, she felt those dark times were God preparing her for a work that brought her face-to-face with unimaginable suffering. Instead of viewing her love for the oppressed as opposed to God’s harsh will, she felt that her love was “as a drop of water to the ocean of His love.” She would write that “sorrow is with me still, the enduring companion of my life. ... But I have found the door of hope.”
As a young wife, her husband worked at Oxford. Here she became aware of how deeply the double standards for men and women were ingrained. A respected Oxford don seduced and impregnated a “very young girl.” Left destitute and in a desperate situation, the girl killed her newborn and was put in jail. Butler was enraged.
With insight far ahead of her time, she recognized that the don, an older man with power, connections, and authority, had taken advantage of the girl in every way. The girl’s crime was undeniable, but Butler understood that it was a crime of desperation. She was angered that the girl was punished while the man who created the situation retained public respect and faced no consequences. Once the girl had completed her jail time, the Butlers hired her as a servant, rescuing her from a dark future.
Josephine’s life might have continued with occasional, though significant acts of kindness, but the course of her life was changed when her daughter tragically died after falling off of a banister while playing with her brothers. Butler’s immense pain drove her to eventually “find some pain keener than my own—to meet with people more unhappy than myself. … My sole wish was to plunge into the heart of some human misery, and to say (as I now knew I could) to afflicted people, ‘I understand. I, too, have suffered.’”
This path quickly brought her to women considered scum and subhuman: prostitutes. She soon understood how painful their lives were and how desperate many were for help. She responded with compassion and treated them with respect. She invited many to live with her—a surprising venture for a woman with teenage sons. She began opening up small hospitals for prostitutes who were seriously ill, and homes to house them while they learned skills to use in a new career. Later she would help rescue women who were tricked into prostitution.
Advocate for ‘Miserable Creatures’
In entering their world, she was also forced to face laws that undermined the freedom and rights of women. Police, under the Contagious Diseases Acts (CD Acts), were rounding up prostitutes or suspected prostitutes and making them sign a register forever publicly linking them to that work. This made leaving prostitution almost impossible. Even worse, they were forced to endure regular painful internal examinations and treatments. Those found infected with a sexually transmitted disease were jailed until they were deemed cured.
The women shared horrific stories with Butler of brutal examinations that they felt were far more crushing than their sex work. Treatments were often excruciating and of uncertain value. Butler recognized that the CD Acts violated the constitution of England and treated women unequally, since men who used prostitutes would never be treated in the same way. Her long campaign to repeal the CD Acts began.
When Parliament argued to keep the CD Acts, it became clear how prostitutes were viewed by the majority of politicians. They wrote that prostitutes were “miserable creatures who were mere masses of rottenness and vehicles of disease.” Meanwhile, the men who used prostitutes were viewed as simply indulging a “natural impulse.”
Butler was convinced this double standard was evil and would later speak at universities, directly appealing to young men to consider a different course. She suggested that prostitutes were more virtuous than the men who used them because at least they weren’t leading a double life. She reminded them how Jesus had said that “publicans and harlots enter the kingdom of heaven before you,” and she pushed back on the idea that having sex with prostitutes wouldn’t hurt their future marriages.
As she talked to prostitutes and visited brothels, she uncovered even more heinous abuse. She was shocked at how young many prostitutes were and alarmed when she found out that some had been forced into prostitution. The age of consent at the time was 13, and there were no laws to protect young women from being lured away to other countries under false pretenses, only to find themselves enslaved in a brothel. She called it “white slavery” and started calling for political change.
Again, some politicians’ opinions reflected common views at the time. When arguing about raising the age of consent to 16, members of parliament (MPs) asked their fellow lawmakers to consider their past actions and the possible future actions of their sons before criminalizing having sex with young girls. Some “openly defended sexual access to working-class girls as a time honoured prerogative of gentlemen,” as historian Judith Walkowitz has written.
Butler boldly spoke against such attitudes, calling out conservative MPs to face their hypocrisy. She once pithily called upon MPs opposing change to each “contribute a daughter” if “prostitution was a necessity.” Her comment was met with “tremendous cheering” at the conference she was speaking at. It’s no wonder that she faced so much opposition. She was fearless in her criticism.
Relentless Voice of Change
Butler felt called by God to be a voice of change. She knew if Jesus was on her side that was all she needed. One of her famous sayings was “God and one woman make a majority.” She was a whirl of activity despite ongoing health issues. She would speak to crowds, meet with political leaders, church leaders, and society ladies. She helped found associations to repeal the CD Acts and would later help found an international association. She wrote pamphlets, using emotional appeals through retelling horrible stories of injustice or using cool logic to refute arguments against her. She would spend hours every day writing letters to friends and supporters, as well as those who still needed to be convinced of the worth of the cause.
As England spent years arguing over the CD Acts, Butler broadened her horizons. England was basing its decisions on other countries who were controlling prostitutes through government programs. To challenge England, she needed to better understand what was happening elsewhere. Here she would only find more suffering.
She would visit brothels where women and many young girls were kept locked up in dirty rooms, hardly ever seeing sunlight. In Geneva, she saw prostitutes who were not only living in an earthly hell but were told that they must not be of the elect and so were destined for an eternal hell. Butler saw young children in cages who would eventually be given to brothel owners to use. She was escorted through a brothel in Paris that housed an estimated 400 children between the ages of 5 and 11—an experience so traumatizing that she would write that she dared not recall the horrors she had glimpsed.
Despite the hardship of uncovering so much torment, Butler did obtain the salient information she needed. She was able to further fight the CD Acts in England, as well as spark international attention, by exposing the ineffectiveness of government programs in controlling sexually transmitted disease. She would point to the many abuses of women happening under the legal care of the state, how life expectancy for prostitutes was short, with children often living only two years once in a brothel. As she further honed her arguments, she was able to continue to gather support for repealing the CD Acts.
In the end, her influence was vast; the CD Acts were finally repealed, the age of consent was raised to 16, and laws were put into place to protect English girls from being kidnapped into prostitution. She was influential in advocating for women’s education and the right to the vote, and she confronted harmful social norms of her time. Her fingerprints are to be found all over the social change that happened during her lifetime.
It is not hard to see why Josephine Butler was called “the most distinguished Englishwoman of the nineteenth century.” Her work put into motion change that benefits us to this day. Sadly, Butler is largely forgotten today because, in the words of Elizabeth Longford, “she did not champion the right women.” The discomfort many of her contemporaries felt over her work to help prostitutes continues on in our history books. Butler accepted this fate because she never sought fame for herself.
Instead, the words of her friend James Stuart are true: “the world as a whole is better because she lived; and the seed that she has sown can never die.” That seed still needs to be nurtured as many of her descriptions of child and adult sex slavery could easily describe the realities of many trapped in prostitution today. While she accomplished much with her life, there is still work to be done, and a new generation of advocates are rising up to take up the cause. To them, I leave one of her favorite catch phrases, borrowed from the abolition movement: “I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. I am in earnest … and I will be heard.”
Kimi Harris writes at kimiharris.com and is the wife of worship leader and music teacher Joel Harris. They live in the beautiful Northwest with their three girls and a cat.