For women, a narrative of sexual danger

December 14, 1992|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Contributing Writer

Recently, a student at a local college wrote to her school newspaper about an ad showing a "scantily dressed woman." This ad -- calling for the "sexiest female body" -- shouldn't be in any newspaper, she said, especially not in a college newspaper: It promoted mindless discrimination and violence against women.

In "City of Dreadful Delight," Johns Hopkins University professor Judith R. Walkowitz looks at the history of such discrimination and violence. She focuses on what she terms "narratives of sexual danger": the W. T. Stead 1885 expose of child prostitution, "The Maiden Tribute"; the sex discussion clubs that resulted from this expose; the reporting of the Ripper murders in 1888; and the reporting of the Yorkshire murders in the 1980s.

Dr. Walkowitz says that the press reported and, to an extent, fictionalized these narratives. The narratives, in turn, affected the language of politics, fiction and journalism.

The narratives, furthermore, were often contradictory. They condemned pornography while being pornographic. They portrayed men as insane monsters and as helpless boys at the mercy of a nagging woman. They portrayed women as helpless victims, yet suggested they bring sexual violence on themselves by the way they dress, act and speak.

Ultimately, the book raises several questions: What effect does a scantily clad woman have on other people -- men, in particular? Does suggestive language promote violence toward women? What does language like this say about the culture? How will it be affected by that culture? How has the culture of Victorian London affected contemporary culture?

Dr. Walkowitz has written a well-researched, thoroughly documented and difficult book, with 67 pages of notes and a bibliography of 23 pages. The book's points are valid, its questions worth considering. Yet the academic language will limit the audience. Dr. Walkowitz has important stories to tell, and sometimes her telling is powerful. But often the power is lost in ponderous prose.

The most interesting and most readable part of the book is the Ripper story. From Aug. 31 to Nov. 9, 1888, five prostitutes were brutally murdered. No one caught Jack the Ripper. No one knew "him." Even today we do not know whether there was one Ripper or many. We do not know whether the Ripper was male or female -- some evidence suggests that the Ripper could have been a midwife.

Yet we see the Ripper as a type of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He walks cobblestone streets, his way illuminated by flickering gas lamps. Beside him are green, slime-covered walls. We hear the ** sound of running feet, boisterous laughter, a screaming voice. Shadows disappear into the fog.

These shadows, the author suggests, are not just figments of 19th-century imagination. They are -- and this is where the book's significance lies -- the dark shapes from which we create our own stories.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "City of Dreadful Delight."

Author: Judith R. Walkowitz.

Publisher: University of Chicago Press.

Length, price: 353 pages, $15 (paperback).

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