The Harlot's Progress in the 21st century

As part of the self-assessments the students submitted at the end of the Hogarth project, I asked them to comment on "Hogarth in the 21st Century".  This was important to me. 

Here are the questions I asked them:

  1. Do you think Hogarth is engaged in straightforward documentary (realism), moral commentary, detached satire? Is he advocating for social change?
  2. What is Hogarth’s relevance in the 21st C? Consider A Harlot’s Progress in the context of current discussions around sexual violence and harassment in Canada. For example, think about Plate 1 in the context of #WhoWillYouHelp.  

Here is a selection of the responses:

A Harlot’s Progress makes it easy to put the blame for Moll’s downfall on herself. We can say that these were her choices and her mistakes. We can say that she got herself to where she ends up. But as popular discourse suggests, are we blaming the victim? In the first plate we can see men looking at her and even one, a recognized rapist, fondling himself in her direction. It’s strange to think about helping Moll in the time period she’s in because of how normalized it seems. The oppression of women seems so strong that it feels, from my position, that I would be as helpless as her. Moll’s situation, even in present time, hasn’t changed much. Victim blaming is prevalent even though it’s being seen as an issue. It’s hard to think about her situation in the present because it’s not something we’ve moved on from. Women are blamed for what happens to them. Women are taught how to prevent being sexually assaulted or harassed rather than men being taught how to not do that. The Steubenville rape case that happened in 2012 is an example. A lot of time has passed but the treatment of women, especially within these situations or contexts, is disgustingly similar. (Sarah) 


Hogarth’s social commentary in A Harlot’s Progress is still extremely relevant in contemporary society today.  Specifically, the carnal male gaze present in Plate 1 from Colonel Charteris to Moll parallels the largely misogynist society today.  This is particularly evident in contemporary media where women are largely objectified to  fall under the desirable gaze of men. (Natalie) 


The issues of sexual violence and harassment that are seen in A Harlot's Progress are relevant in the 21st Century. This is seen with the current hashtag #WhoWillYouHelp, that is being used on social media in order to raise awareness about harassment and sexual violence in Canada. A Harlot's Progress and #WhoWillYouHelp can raise awareness about sexual violence and harassment for women regardless of what time period someone is living in. They also both emphasize the idea that these incidents can be witnessed and easily prevented. This is seen in Plate 1 of A Harlot's Progress. The people in the background act as witnesses of the interaction between Moll and the brothel keeper who is trying to recruit young girls into the world of prostitution. Furthermore, there is a realization that these crimes have existed for centuries given the fact that Hogarth illustrates such sexual violence and harassment in the eighteenth century. (Jasmine) 


Hogarth’s ability to provoke discussion around issues such as prostitution through a subtle satire is praiseworthy. Satire, especially political satire, is highly effective when attempting to push people to think critically about certain issues. Visually exploring and depicting issues such as religious figures and its relationship to prostitution (placing a portrait of a reverend who was caught with a prostitute next to Moll’s bed) confront society and force the audience to dwell on these narratives.  Through his ability to intertwine current politics with his paintings Hogarth proves to be an agent of social change by being the starting point of significant and necessary conversations around prostitution. Unfortunately, Hogarth’s paintings are still relevant in the 21st Century context as the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment among marginalized communities in Canada is at it’s highest. In Plate 1 the clergyman has his back to Moll and the bawd, and this is exact representation of the way the current Conservative government’s responded to the murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. Our prime minister was quoted saying that this issue was “not high on [their] radar” when asked about a public inquiry into missing indigenous women. Once I had heard about this statement, I knew that Stephen Harper’s face would have made a great replacement for that of the clergyman in Plate 1. (Laxana) 


Hogarth’s series of paintings is pathos-laden and might produce similar effects such as the #WhoWillYouHelp advertisement. Both media have centred in their narrative the effects of the social world around a vulnerable woman. Yet, it could be argued that both also focus on the actions of the bystander. The new anti-sexual violence campaign from the provincial government advocates for bystander intervention to help potential victims of sexual assault and violence. While Hogarth’s series may not advocate for social change, as directly as the Ontario government’s ad does, it is still jarring to see such vivid representations of sexual exploitation. Hogarth’s work cements into historicity what is still a contemporary reality for women. In Plate 1, the audience is able to see an opportunity where bystander intervention may have stopped any progress of Moll into the harlot’s life. (Ranziba) 


The context in Plate 1 could easily applied to the current #WhoWillYouHelp campaign.  The people surrounding Moll in Plate 1 are responsible for Moll’s path into sex work by their acts of omission. Choosing not to interfere and prevent the sexual violence/harassment that women are statistically and consistently faced with enables predatory behavior.  Anyone who turns a blind eye to these women is complicit in perpetuating rape culture and sexual harassment. (Caroline)