Teaching Module

Age of Consent Laws

"The Violation of Virgins" [Newspaper Article]


W.T. Stead, an English newspaper editor and advocate of social reform, was an early exponent of "new journalism" focused on the sensational. In the 1880s, he turned the London newspaper The Pall Mall Gazette into a precursor of the modern tabloid. The series of articles from which this excerpt, "The Violation of Virgins," is taken was his tour de force. It exposed in graphic detail the entrapment, abduction, and "sale" of young, poor girls to London brothels. Within days, the series was an international sensation and the question of "age of consent" began appearing on reform agendas throughout the Anglo-American world. Stead and several of his accomplices were later brought to trial for procuring a 13-year-old girl during the investigation to prove how easily it could be done, and he spent three months in prison for abduction. A key feature of this article is the association it established between the age of consent and prostitution.


Stead, W. T. "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon I: the Report of Our Secret Commission." The Pall Mall Gazette, July 6, 1885. Annotated by Stephen Robertson.

Primary Source Text

. . . It is, however, a fact that there is in full operation among us a system of which the violation of virgins is one of the ordinary incidents; that these virgins are mostly of tender age, being too young in fact to understand the nature of the crime of which they are the unwilling victims; that these outrages are constantly perpetrated with almost absolute impunity; and that the arrangements for procuring, certifying, violating, repairing, and disposing of these ruined victims of the lust of London are made with a simplicity and efficiency incredible to all who have not made actual demonstration of the facility with which the crime can be accomplished.

. . . Before beginning this inquiry I had a confidential interview with one of the most experienced officers who for many years was in a position to possess an intimate acquaintance with all phases of London crime. I asked him, "Is it or is it not a fact that, at this moment, if I were to go to the proper houses, well introduced, the keeper would, in return for money down, supply me in due time with a maid—a genuine article, I mean, not a mere prostitute tricked out as a virgin, but a girl who had never been seduced?" "Certainly," he replied without a moment's hesitation. . . ."Are these maids willing or unwilling parties to the transaction—that is, are they really maiden, not merely in being each a virgo intacta in the physical sense, but as being chaste girls who are not consenting parties to their seduction?" He looked surprised at my question, and then replied emphatically: "Of course they are rarely willing, and as a rule they do not know what they are coming for." "But," I said in amazement, "then do you mean to tell me that in very truth actual rapes, in the legal sense of the word, are constantly being perpetrated in London on unwilling virgins, purveyed and procured to rich men at so much a head by keepers of brothels?" "Certainly," said he, "there is not a doubt of it." "Why," I exclaimed, "the very thought is enough to raise hell.". . .

How to Cite This Source

Stephen Robertson, "Age of Consent Laws," in Children and Youth in History, Item #230, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/230 (accessed August 10, 2021).