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Knowledge of Evil: Child Prostitution and Child Sexual Abuse in Twentieth Century England.

Knowledge of Evil: Child Prostitution and Child Sexual Abuse in Twentieth Century England. By Alyson Brown and David Barrett (Cullompton, Devon and Portland, Oregon: Willan, 2002. x plus 212 pp. $45.00).

In 1932, the British socialist-feminist Dora Russell remarked: "children, like women and the proletariat, are an oppressed class". (1) Sadly, not much has changed in the last seventy years. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are faced with the awful spectacle of a global trade in child pornography and child sex, the persistence of child poverty in both the developed and less developed worlds even as the globalized economy is borne to no small degree on the narrow shoulders of child workers, and the violent impressment of children into service as soldiers in armed conflicts.

David Barrett and Alyson Brown illuminate one corner of this dark canvas by looking at child prostitution in England between the 1880s and the 1980s. This is, as they state, the first book to tackle the subject of British child prostitution for the twentieth century. It builds on a body of work done in the history of childhood and child welfare by Harry Hendrick, as well as important research by Louise Jackson on nineteenth-century child prostitution and child sexual abuse. Child prostitution, which the authors see not as a "euphemism" for child sex abuse, but a "form" of it (p. 6), remained a consistent, if shadowy problem in British society from the 1880s on. It was most obvious to the public eye in the 1880s and the 1970s and 1980s, largely due to intense and often lurid media campaigns, but child prostitution did not disappear in the intervening period. Barrett and Brown use a wide range of primary sources, including archival records and contemporary newspapers, to historicize the problem. This is both a significant study in its own right and an encouragement for further research in this important field.

The twentieth century has been referred to as the "century of the child" because the concept and category of childhood was, over the last hundred years, "clarified and elucidated in law, the labour market, education, the medical arena and a wide range of other contexts" (p. 1). In Britain, this included laws to protect children from various forms of abuse, such as the 1908 Children's Act and the 1933 Children and Young Person's Act. It also involved the rise of activist organizations working with the state on behalf of children, like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Dr Barnardo's, the Children's Society and the Waifs and Strays Society. As the authors point out, the intervention of these voluntary organizations is one of the most important themes in the history of child prostitution. During much of the twentieth century, the protection of children through the law depended upon the efforts of groups like the NSPCC. The authors also trace the development and transformation of different discourses around prostitution, including, for example, the rise of psychological explanations in the 1930s and studies of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s. A predictable starting point for the study is the controversy generated by the W.T. Stead's "Maiden Tribute" campaign, but the study ranges into less familiar territory, as well, such as the interwar period and the 1950s and 1960s. The authors show great assurance in their treatment of these periods, setting the problem of child prostitution in the context of changing social mores, economic and political environments, and state structures.

This is an important initiative. Barrett and Brown do much to excavate the discursive framework about questions of the family, prostitution, juvenile delinquency and sexuality that surrounds the specific problem of child prostitution. But much remains unclear. In particular, the study shows just how difficult it is to get at the central actors in this narrative. The voices of the children themselves are virtually absent from the record between the 1880s and the 1980s. This is not an unconscious oversight on the part of the authors. Rather it is a problem they readily acknowledge. When the records are available that afford access to the perspectives of the children involved in prostitution (for the most part from the 1970s and 1980s), Brown and Barrett treat that evidence with great sensitivity, respect and force. But it does illustrate a broad problem with the book. Where Jackson's Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England (2000) was able to construct detailed discussions of particular incidents from court records and reports and the sometimes fragmentary case files of organizations like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Children's Society or the Waifs and Strays, Barrett and Brown do not have the same material at hand. This is partly because of the seventy-five year rule governing criminal records and partly, one assumes, because of similar difficulties guiding access to other archival sources. Even when court records are available, children's testimony was often treated ambiguously or dismissed by the authorities, further silencing the victims. Falling back upon the prism of more general discussions on prostitution, juvenile delinquency, the family and sexuality tends to obscure the subject of the study, the child prostitute. At moments, for example, this is more a monograph about prostitution than it is about child prostitution.

In making such criticisms, I do not underestimate the obstacles facing scholars in this sphere of research. And of course the very difficulty of recovering the voices of the subject conveys an important point. The child prostitute resisted conceptualization because s/he brought up questions of child and adolescent sexuality, economic need and autonomy, and power relations within the family for which there were no acceptable discourses during much of the twentieth century. As the authors point out, for example, child prostitutes were tainted by the very "knowledge of evil" that victimized them. Even if they do not take up the bracing theoretical questions about the history of children posed by Carolyn Steedman in Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780-1930 (1995), the authors also reflect upon the very different kind of social history demanded by research on children: how, for example, do children exercise agency in an adult world? But despite these mitigating factors, there are decisions of organization and approach in the present work that do not serve its clarity. The authors might have gone some way to cutting through the dense jungle of competing and conflicting discourses circling around the question of child prostitution by highlighting more forcefully particular moments in its history. In 1925, a Departmental Committee on Sexual Offences Against Young Persons was established within the Home Office. The authors make some interesting points about this, but do not give it more than two pages. This might have been an opportunity to use such a Committee to focus the discussion on child prostitution between the wars more effectively and clearly.

These criticisms are ultimately outweighed by the importance of the project. Lifting the oppression of children spoken of by Russell seventy years ago depends upon lifting the veil on how they have been oppressed. Barrett and Brown have made a valuable contribution towards this end. One can only hope that other researchers will follow up their work with more detailed studies.


1. Dora Russell, In Defence of Children (London, 1932), p. 275.

Stephen Brooke

York University
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Brooke, Stephen
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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