John Stuart Mill on Prostitution: Radical Sentiments, Liberal Proscriptions

Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Issue 8(2), 2012

16 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2013

See all articles by Clare McGlynn

Clare McGlynn

Durham Law School, Durham University

Date Written: 2012


When we think of the great nineteenth century debates on the regulation of prostitution, the name of John Stuart Mill does not immediately spring to mind. In studies of both nineteenth century prostitution, and of Mill’s writing, there is scant reference to his thinking on this subject. In terms of feminist scholarship, this is understandable; such work frequently focuses on the often marginalized role of women activists in legal reform and on revealing the untold stories of women’s lives as prostitutes. But in the context of the vast corpus of Mill scholarship, this lack of attention to his views on prostitution is at first surprising. Indeed, despite the avowed renaissance in Mill scholarship over the past few decades, there are only two substantive analyses of Mill’s opinions on prostitution. Jeremy Waldron’s essay, although providing insightful analysis, only considers Mill on prostitution as a means of further explication of his other philosophical works, rather than as an analysis of prostitution regulation per se. Similarly, while Jim Jose and Kcasey-Renea McLoughlin rightly challenge Waldron’s analysis by re-asserting the importance of Mill’s feminism, their specific focus is not prostitution and related debates over its regulation.

This confirms Maria Morales’ argument that “systematic philosophical reflection of Mill’s significant body of work on matters concerning women’s social condition has come relatively slowly and continues to suffer from considerable gaps” (“Rational Freedom”). And so, perhaps, this lacuna should not come as such a surprise, despite the central role of both the phenomenon of prostitution and Mill himself in the emergence of feminist activism and ideas. In this article, I suggest that this failure to engage with Mill’s writings on prostitution impoverishes historical and philosophical analyses of Mill himself and his philosophy, and of our understanding more generally of prostitution regulation in the nineteenth century. Drawing on Mill’s evidence before a Royal Commission investigating the regulation of prostitution via the Contagious Diseases Acts, his opinions on prostitution expressed in On Liberty and his personal correspondence, I argue that an examination of Mill’s approach to prostitution regulation can enrich our understanding of Mill’s impact on nineteenth century debates over the role of the state and law, especially in matters of morality and sexual freedom. Further, my analysis adds weight to propositions that Mill was a more radical feminist than is often assumed. Indeed, I will suggest that a study of Mill’s approach to prostitution regulation shows that, at least in his sentiments, if not in his proscriptions for law reform, he was more closely aligned to what we would now term radical feminist thinking, than is often thought to be the case.

Keywords: John Stuart Mill, prostitution, feminism

Suggested Citation

McGlynn, Clare M. S., John Stuart Mill on Prostitution: Radical Sentiments, Liberal Proscriptions (2012). Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Issue 8(2), 2012, Available at SSRN:

Clare M. S. McGlynn (Contact Author)

Durham Law School, Durham University ( email )

Durham University
Palatine Centre
Durham, County Durham DH1 3LE
United Kingdom
0191 334 2800 (Phone)


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