William Thomas Stead and the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885

In 1885 the Pall Mall Gazette published a series of articles by editor William Thomas Stead exposing the widespread practice of child prostitution, which was particularly bad in London. Stead used new investigative journalism tactics, which included purchasing a thirteen-year-old girl from her parents for five pounds (which was around 500 pounds in 2012). Stead reported interviews with brothel-keepers, and described in detail how young girls would be manipulated, drugged, raped, and forced into prostitution. His in depth exposé showed how those involved in forced prostitution used drugs to lull unwilling girls into submission, used padded rooms to drown out their screams, and counted on neighbors not caring or not feeling concerned enough to intervene in their activity. Then, once a girl was "ruined," they used this as a way to force her to stay and work for them, because the girls would feel they could not return to their parents (if their parents had not been the ones to sell them to the brothel-owners in the first place). 

These articles caused a huge scandal and helped push the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 (or "An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes") through Parliament shortly after publication. The act raised the age of consent from 13 to 16, broadly expanded legal power over the forcing of young girls into prostitution, and re-criminalized homosexual acts.

The fervor over forced prostitution has a great deal of context in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The way Alec manipulates Tess into being with him has many similarities to the methods used to trap young girls into prostitution, particularly, that of rendering a girl "ruined" so that she has little choice but to stay under the influence of the person who ruined her. 

In addition, this act was the law under which Oscar Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labor.