Prostitution in the 1700s and 1800s


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{See also Cd Acts}

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There has always been different classes of prostitute, distinguished by their background, their prices, and the number of 'clients' they saw each day. Broadly speaking the highest class were known as courtesans and included mistresses kept by one man or independent women who welcomed a small, select group of upper class 'clients'. There does not appear to have ever been any attempt to prevent this type of prostitution. The middling type worked from recognised brothels ('houses of ill-fame' or 'bawdy houses') and under some kind of control or supervision from a madam or pimp (known as a 'bawd'). The cheapest were (and still are) the street girls: uneducated, often dependent on a drug, and servicing many 'clients' at a low price.

Until about the 1830s, the British state tolerated street prostitution, considering it to be a sort of necessary evil for men and a lewd or unfortunate activity for women, which had the benefit of keeping chaste women safe (though whether from rape, or from being importuned by men is unclear). During the eighteenth century, bawdy houses usually went about their business unmolested by the authorities, provided the house was 'orderly', that is to say, not noisy and not causing a nuisance to the neighbours. 'Streetwalkers' or 'nightwalkers' were constantly being arrested, but not for having sex for money; few seemed to mind them doing that, so long as they did so in private, discreetly and quietly. In London in the mid-1700s, every Monday night the authorities would scoop them up and place them in front of the mayor, who would either extract a promise that they would 'quit their abandoned course of life' and 'behave well in the future' or, if they were considered hardened or impudent, would lock them in the compter (police cell), the Bridewell (prison) or a workhouse, give them hard labour as a punishment, then release them back to their old life. Some were arrested for being riotous, for being drunk, or for insulting ladies and gentlemen in the streets: 'No man can walk along the street with his wife and daughters without having their ears abused with the most horrid and obscene expressions uttered by these women' (Oracle, 24 Sept 1799).

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They were not seen as victims but as 'loose', 'disorderly', 'depraved', 'wretched', 'wicked', 'immoral', and and 'public nuisances'. Many of them pickpocketed from 'clients', usually money and pocket-watches; some lured men, with the promise of sex, to put themselves into vulnerable situations such as private rooms and obscure alleys, then they were ambushed by her associates and mugged. In 1743 it was reported that in less than six months the constables of a single London parish - St Bride's - had sent over 200 prostitutes to the workhouse and 20 bawds to prison (General Evening Post 20 August).

Eighteenth-century Streetwalkers were blamed for corrupting 'giddy youths', such as 'idle lads', apprentices and journeymen, 'by their arts and wiles', stripping them of their money and corrupting their morals. In 1799 the editor of the Oracle (3 May) opined that 'an immoderate love for dress or ornament' was far more responsible for the increase in prostitution than 'the depravity of men'. However, it was also reported that almost every streetwalker had hiding in the shadows a 'bully' or 'flash-man', in other words, a pimp.

London Evening Post 24 August 1754 and London Daily Advertiser 6 December 1751

By the 1770s it was reported that the streets were 'more thronged' with prostitutes than every before. Attempts by Sir John Fielding, the Lord Mayor London, to suppress the trade came to nothing in the 1780s, but over the next 50 years concern began to emerge about morality, venereal diseases, public order and the kidnapping of virgin children to supply the ever-growing demand.

Sir John Fielding, the magistrate, called Covent Garden 'the great square of Venus'. He said, 'One would imagine that all the prostitutes in the kingdom had picked upon the rendezvous'

Prostitution has never been illegal and so could only be prosecuted when associated with disorderly conduct or public indecency. Prostitutes were unaffected by the Vagrancy Acts of 1609 or 1744. An Act against brothels that was passed in 1752 did not mention street prostitution.

The first Act that mentioned them was the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which made it an offence to be a 'common prostitute wandering in the public streets or public highways, or in any place of public resort, and behaving in a riotous or indecent manner. The punishment was to be sent to prison for up to one month.

Mid-century middle-class England saw the apogee of the double standard of sexual morality; male sexual access to women was a necessity but any slip from sexual purity on a woman's part cut her off from respectable society. Josephine Butler (1826-1906), who later became the leader of the campaign against the regulation of prostitution, lived in Oxford in the 1850s. She described hearing strong rumours that a don had seduced a 'very young girl', who then bore his child. But, she explained, when she expressed the hope that the don would be brought to a 'sense of his crime' to a man whom she believed to carry moral authority in the university, he advised her that a 'pure woman ... should be absolutely ignorant of a certain class of evils in the world'. For women 'silence was thought to be the greatest duty of all on such subjects', she wrote. Around the same time Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891, later Bodichon) was writing a pamphlet summarizing the laws of England as they concerned women. She was advised to omit any mention of prostitution as 'no more than is absolutely necessary should be said upon subjects, which are considered as forbidden to women'. 3 These statements were quite clear. The subject of male sexuality was forbidden to women. It was women's duty as women to be silent. The dominant sexual culture in mid-Victorian Britain was shaped end by the acceptance of purchased sexual relief for men and respectable women were forbidden to discuss it. This is the foundation of Victorian sexual hypocrisy, and it is intimately tied into the emergence of feminism because that silence was imposed upon women for the benefit of men. This mid-century double standard was a radically different position from the stance taken by moral reformers in the early nineteenth century, and still adhered to by Dissenters and evangelical Anglicans as they had demanded that men also be moral.

from The Long Sexual Revolution


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