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About prostitution

Last updated on 04.06.2020

Chapter 2 An Examination of the Macmillan Committee Discussion, 1928 Introduction The Macmillan Committee on Street Offences first commenced on 14 October 1927 in response to public pressure, coming from both liberal and conservative divisions, against an ambience of criticism of the police in England and Wales. The terms of reference were: to consider ‘offences against the criminal law in connection with prostitution and solicitation for immoral purposes in streets and public places and other offences against decency and good order’. The proposals argued that police powers should be reduced and that the gendering category of the ‘common prostitute’ should be removed from the wording of the legislation on street offences. In Scotland, it was claimed that the streets of Edinburgh in particular, were ‘very much freer of this kind of thing’ than in comparison to its English counterpart. However, the Home Office had rejected the ‘highly controversial’ Hugh Macmillan proposals as ‘impractical’, leading to no correction of law, nor did the report appear to have much impact upon policing practice during the 1930s and 1940s. Although it was difficult to obtain documents relating to the case, this chapter will analyse evidence submitted by Scottish police officers, women’s organisations and contemporary newspaper articles by the Scottish Press only, in order to portray how the prostitute in 1927 and 1928 was presented to the members of the committee. Existing secondary literature into the discussions of the Macmillan Committee and subsequent Report, such as that of Helen Self and Anne Logan, have concluded that the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, in rejecting the recommendations of the Street Offences Committee, lost a significant ‘liberalising opportunity’ for reform. Samantha Caslin states the Macmillan Committee’s attempts to distinguish between private morality and the law proved ‘problematic’ because it could not resolve the problem of defining the prostitute or the precise nature of her offence. Lesley Hall has suggested that the demoralisation of prostitutes in the Report is evidence there was a ‘flight back into the good safe old ways after the war’. Whilst Stefan Slater utilises Home Office files, Metropolitan Police Reports, committee minutes of the AMSH and a variety of biographical material to explore the various reasons for the failure of legislative change. While the majority of analysation has focused on the evidence of witnesses from London, the work of Louise Settle has been significant in recognising the importance of the Scottish contribution to the discussions of the Macmillan Committee. She documents the policing and treatment of prostitutes, identifying a ‘cautioning system’ distinct to Edinburgh and Glasgow which allowed police officers to decide which women would be ‘let away’, cautioned or arrested. While Settle has identified a clear distinction of prosecution between the ‘amateur’ prostitute and the ‘common’ prostitute, she does not acknowledge the attitudes towards the prostitute herself, beyond the Scottish police force. The Prostitute as ‘Persons with a Moral Twist’ In the questioning of Miss M. A. Snodgrass, a bailie of the city of Glasgow, it was argued that prostitution was often associated with ‘other forms of disorder’. In agreeance, Mr Hugh Macmillan proclaimed that the law should penalise prostitution in a way of which ‘men and woman can be thieves’, and therefore, could be identified as a distinct class of ‘persons with a moral twist’, who were defined by the motive of obtaining money to spend on ‘objects less worthy’. In an anonymous letter submitted to the Prison Commissioner for Scotland, ‘Crombie’, it was claimed ‘of course where there men getting home under the influence of drink, there were women gathered to induce them to part with that money they had; in many cases the women importuning took care that the man whom they caught had no connection with them… they robbed him’. Inevitably, the relation made between a prostitute and other criminal behaviour led to the conclusion that a new form of treatment may be used in order to save the woman characterised with questionable morals. In the nineteenth century, as Linda Mahood’s research on Glasgow Magdalene Institute has pointed out, hard work, religious instruction and education were intended to help reform women, according to middle-class notions of respectable feminine behaviour. However, as Chief-Constable of the city of Edinburgh, Mr Roderick Ross suggests ‘the present system of repeated fines or imprisonment rarely brought about any reform of the women’, a more welfare-oriented approach of a probation period became the principal method of reformation. One of the most important ways in which this penal-welfare motion was implemented in Scotland was through the probation service. In 1907, the Probation Offenders Act officially established probation as an alternative means of reconditioning people who had committed petty offences. Women ‘Whom are Greatly to be Pitied’ While the Chairman, Mr Hugh Macmillan referred to ‘women of the underworld’ as a ‘certain class of people who have chosen this course of life’, the majority of the committee members were sympathetic to the inescapable consequence of her ill-fated social and economic circumstances. In particular, Mr Roderick Ross, felt the term ‘common prostitute’ was ‘a harsh term to apply to young girls of sixteen or seventeen’, and preferred the words ‘habitually soliciting or importuning for prostitute’ as a much kinder designation. A further plea for equality of treatment was made by Mrs More Nesbit of Edinburgh, formerly a policewoman, when giving evidence on behalf of the Scottish Federation of Societies for Equal Citizenship before the Street Offences Committee in London. When a woman or girl was convicted of soliciting or importuning she said, ‘it prevented them from being able to reform except under most extraordinary circumstances’. As a form of reformation, female constables were used in this sphere of duty. In the case of young girls entering upon a career on the streets, a woman constable should show ‘considerable forbearance’ in dealing with these ‘unfortunate’ women, in which the committee suggests ‘many of whom are greatly to be pitied’. This demonstrates how a distinction of perception was made between the different women involved in prostitution as members of the committee are considerably more sympathetic towards the younger, less experienced women. It seems therefore, that the limited cases of teenage prostitution were more likely to be voluntary assisted than any other age group, as Louise Settle claims ‘women patrols were generally less concerned with hardened prostitutes’. The Prostitute as ‘an Understandable Outcome of Male Human Nature’ Prostitution was generally associated to ‘deviant’ female sexuality within the Scottish testimonies of male witnesses. Mr Roderick Ross states ‘I think that if our prostitutes were driven off the streets there would be a danger to respectable women’. In agreeance, member of the committee, Mr. H. W. Wilberforce stated the ejection of ‘common’ prostitute within law would ‘remove one of the main safeguards for the virtuous woman.’. However, the final edition of the Report of the Street Offences Committee provided recognition of the ‘double standard’ present in current legislation against prostitution. Strong objection was taken, particularly by female witnesses before the Committee, to the ‘branding’ of a woman as a common prostitute as well as ‘favouring the elimination of all specific reference to either the character or the sex of the offender’. Miss M. A. Snodgrass attempted to dispute society’s content with deviant forms of male sexual desire, and the belief that it was standard for men to use prostitutes as an acceptable outlet to fill this need. She demanded ‘that there should be an equal moral standard for men and women’. Although she did not elaborate on this statement, one assumes Miss Snodgrass was referring to the Burgh (Scotland) Police Act, 1892 as ‘it does not deal with a male offender, except as a person using indecent language calculated to cause a breach of peace, in which he is subject to smaller penalties than in the case of the common prostitute’. In Scotland the general law also required two credible witnesses to establish any fact of prostitution. In any situation, proof would normally be supplied by a ‘plain clothes’ police officer, as well as the individual who experienced solicitation or ‘annoyance’. However, due to the witness retaining the choice to corroborate, the Committee found that it was a ‘irrefutable fact’ that, persons accosted will not attend the Court and give evidence, ‘no doubt for the reason that they do not wish to be mixed up on such unpleasant cases’. As previously argued, the law acted as a further contending factor to the idea that the prostitute was a product of male sexual needs, as well as ‘assuming that man’s contribution to prostitution was not immoral’. Nevertheless, despite recommendations to amend laws to be directed against ‘every person’ soliciting a person from the opposite sex for immoral relations, when the Stipendiary Magistrate for Glasgow was asked ‘Do you think it is possible to get rid of prostitution in the streets’, Mr George Smith replied ‘I am afraid not’ due to his ‘experience of human nature’ and that ‘men are built that way’. Women of a Particular Appearance A major discussion within the Macmillan committee was the position of police officers in carrying the law into effect in solicitation cases. Habitually, women loitering or importuning men were given two cautions on the street before being taken to the police station. Despite the strict enforcement of this system, Mr Hugh Macmillan found that a great deal of evidence suggested ‘the police in Edinburgh were over-zealous’ in regards to these cases. This is reinforced in talks of evidence being ‘routine and stereotyped’ by police offices, as Mr Wilberforce agreed ‘all the common prostitutes became known to him though their appearance. The case of Jessie Brown in particular, who was arrested by plain clothes officers, as well as being tried and convicted on false pretences for soliciting men on the streets of Glasgow, was presented to the committee. Miss Brown obtained a medical certificate given by Dr. J. N. Stark, verifying she was clear of all sexual diseases in addition to the confirmation that she was in fact ‘virgo intacts’ by Dr. W. H. Peden, in order to prove her innocence to the court. The reality of her case portrays the much wider social continuation of the deep-rooted fear over the prostitutes’ role in spreading sexual diseases as observed in the First World War. Conclusion Within the Scottish evidence to the Macmillan Report a particular desire to reform legislation so that man and woman were equal in treatment can be detected. While male witnesses, in particular noted that the inequality of the sexes arose ‘out of the fact that there existed for women a profession that did not exist for men’, there was little backlash to supporting and caring for ‘young girls’ who found themselves in a situation that made prostitution the only viable option for money. The majority, if not all witnesses called for reformative and liberalising legislation in order to save the ‘newly fallen’ prostitute and further obtain equality of gender conviction, perception and treatment. However, this did not arise as the report was rejected by government officials in the creation of further laws.

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