Skip to main content

Some Social Causes of Prostitution (1914)

Some Social Causes of Prostitution

By Mrs. John M. ( Mary Wilcox) Glenn

Editior’s Note: In 1914, Mrs. John M. ( Mary Wilcox) Glenn gave a presentation entitled “Some Social Causes of Prostitution” at the Forty-first Annual Conference of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in Memphis, Tennessee.  Below are her concluding remarks from her presentation based on a series of illustrations/case records she drew from her experience with the Charity Organization Society of New York.

"The Case Against the Red Light"
“The Case Against the Red Light” (1920)
Photo: American Social Hygiene Association, New York City
VCU Libraries Gallery

“….If one review these disconnected stories, one sees how varied are the conditions which surrounded the individual lives. The inability of the family to protect its adventurous members, the readiness with which standards of conduct fall under the impress of impersonal contacts, the losing struggle of the home to safeguard its young in competition with the paltry offerings of the street, the meagreness of the education for home making, the difficulties of adjusting people of markedly different racial habits, the loss of traditional sanctions, ignorance of the laws of sex, faithlessness to marriage vows, demoralizing work conditions, poor pay, the home that is a sham, the home that is broken, the inability of the feeble-minded to protect themselves, the readiness with which in both city and open country stagnant centres of pauperism and crime are allowed to breed their kind-each of these can be seen to have had its part. It is as if one took a cross section of life and picked out in it the factors which are clearly marked as doomed to bring failure. If one were to stop with the mere acceptance of the fact of failure, the irony of the situation would appall.

“No need is more clearly brought out by these glimpses into ill directed lives than the need of steadying and enriching family life and of making the preparation for home building more thorough and more discriminating. This subject is very large, and it will find its consideration in another section, as does also the related topic of the neighborhood and its reaction on the youth it harbors.

“What May Be Done?

“Without intrenching on the ground of the appeal to be made for the “awakening of a new conscience”, nor on what may be said by other speakers in this section on the treatment or the prevention of prostitution, I may suggest three lines of action which may lessen one’s *sense of confusion growing out of this brief presentation of unrelated social and individual conditions leading to the prostituting of human beings. Because others will speak with authority of the larger social aspects of treatment and of prevention, I shall still hold to the line of individual approach.

“First, we can take an accurate census of the feeble-minded and estimate what will be the cost of their institutional care. We can prepare to meet the cost of building and maintaining suitable institutions for training and for custodial care. We can establish psychopathic clinics for the diagnosis and study of the mentally deficient, and we can conduct a tenacious campaign of education as to the need to withdraw feeble-minded men and women from free life in the community.

“Second, we can work patiently for a single standard of purity, recognizing that as “man is a social outcome rather than a social unit”, fundamental changes in points of view and in attitudes towards moral questions come but as the result of slow and baffling growth. It is, however, eminently practical to work for a single standard of purity, for when the ideal does become imbedded in our social consciousness and is, therefore, imaginatively gripped, it will become the ideal of the crowd.

“The fact that we need to bring home to ourselves individually is the fact of our common responsibility. It is not by hot-footed campaigns, by bursts of indignation, by ruthless pulling aside of veils of reticence, that we can make the conquering attack on the world old evil. Therefore, third, we can, temperately considering the intricate question, face squarely our own obligation to enlist for service in order to make a definite, even if it be an inconspicuous, contribution to the fight.

“The source of the strength to meet one’s obligation in this matter must, to my mind, be a spiritual source, and the real power to steady one’s threatened or one’s fallen fellows must lie in the preparedness to make the spiritual appeal. If one gather up these pitiable stories I have offered and seek to explain why any result were got in any instance in the effort to pull the individual from her “death in life”, one finds the explanation in the fact that sundered lives were brought into relation with the source of life, itself, through the mediation of some one person who had faith in the power of each human being to rise from a dead self into life. To those who served as mediators came a loss of cynicism in the face of genuine struggle against evil.

“In the slowly enlarging process of helping to lift the burden of the social evil one can trace this clear defining line–that there shall be an identifying of the interests of rescuer and rescued. For even if the subject has not been approached in this paper from the broader social point of view, the conclusion that one draws is that the community, itself, can not bear with safety and certainly should not bear with equanimity the demoralization of its common life that must result from the degradation of its weakest members. The stronger members of the community are entangled in the web that the weaker members weave. Loyalty to the community may be taken to imply a realization of responsibility which should carry forward the identification of the interests of one with another till it include the interests of the down most man and woman.”

Source: Official proceedings of the annual meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, held in Memphis, Tennessee, May 8-15, 1914 (pp. 234-236). To read the entire presentation visit:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Glenn, M.W. (1914, May). Some social causes of prostitution. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from


Resources related to this topic may be found in the Social Welfare History Image Portal.