While history and popular romance novels may today portray Victorian England as a particularly prudish era, the reality was however very different, as we are talking about a time when brothels were clearly more in number than schools! Can you imagine that?
Relative estimates suggest that more than 80,000 women were making a living in London by publishing themselves, which naturally reveals just how much lords and gentlemen of another era were obsessed with sex. Oh my!
And while the prostitutes had a particularly bad reputation in the big lounges of high society, acting as an example to avoid the ladies of honor, prostitution was legal and, at the same time, welcomed by the same circles that condemned it publicly. Hypocrites, right?
For the elite men this was the ideal way to escape the pervasive puritanism and for women themselves the only option to earn a living that they could only dream of…
Oh, well, keep reading my dearie! There is a lot more to learn…
Prostitution as the Most Lucrative Female Work
The only opportunities for female employment during the Victorian era were in low-paid jobs under dangerous and often excruciating conditions. From street vendors to factory workers, the woman’s professional perspective was not promising. If she were lucky, she might have joined the service staff of a big house and that’s all. Lucky, eh?
Even those who had been educated in vocational schools as shorthand writers and secretaries were earning 25 pounds a year! That is to say, the minimum wage to raise a family without the presence of a spouse. So prostitution was necessarily the only legal profession to secure jealous wages and financial independence, especially for the low-income classes…
The Three Levels of Categorization of Prostitutes
Although their job usually involved the same tasks, not all those women were the same. The lower caste of the prostitutes consisted of young, uneducated women who worked in brothels and were obliged to copulate with everyone, usually living in the dirt and poverty.
The middle class consisted of independent women who had their own spaces, but also women of the sidewalk who had acquired a reputation. They could choose their clients and were independent of madam and promoters, but lost in terms of both protection and health.
The third and highest caste of prostitutes consisted of beautiful and well-educated women who could stand with the aristocrat in their social skills and good manners. These often served as hired lovers and many even ended up marrying their benefactors…Well, not bad…
Even Married Women Didn’t Say No to Paid Love
As all other women’s jobs were not enough for one to make a living, it was not uncommon for working-class women to provide other services at the right price. In particular, the spouses of street vendors used to sell their bodies on the sidelines of their formal work alongside their husbands, who had no problem lending their wives to gentlemen with thick wallets.
It is said that 50% of women of street vendors were issued with honor and pride, as they contributed the most to the meager family budget. In the most extreme scenario of this case, the husband was acting as his wife’s promoter, selling her as a sex slave wherever and whenever he wanted.
But also single working-class women with poorly paid jobs (dressmakers, shopkeepers, and domestic helpers) supplemented their meager earnings with that money. Although here the hypocrisy of society was obvious since the loss of virginity before marriage condemned the young woman to eternal prostitution…
Child Prostitution Was Legal
In the Victorian era, the age of consent was only 13 years of age, as was the threshold for also legal child labor. So many families sold their children as merchandise as there was no other way to maintain them. Even younger children of 11 or 12 years old who could easily pass for thirteen had no choice but to go down the sidewalk under their paternal blessings.
The British publisher William Thomas Stead was the pioneer of investigative journalism. With his “new journalism” he became the forerunner of today’s scandalous press and set out to uncover the corruption of Victorian society and the problem of child prostitution in London. Stead arranged with a pair of alcoholic parents to sell him their 13-year-old virgin daughter for £5 so that he could show how easy it was to buy a child in London as a sex slave! Oh my!
Lily, as the great journalist named her in his article, underwent a medical examination for him to determine her virginity. The same doctor advised the client to “drug her with chloroform” so that she is anesthetized during sex and does not feel pain. The Victorian public was shocked when they read Stead’s revelatory article, which led, shortly after 1885, to the legislative decree that raised the age of consent to 16 years.
Advertising Lists with Prostitutes
The greats of Victorian society were able to graze brochures with prostitutes, complete lists of physical characteristics and biographies, to choose the ideal one for their sexual needs. These booklets contained ages, exterior descriptions, personal details and many more interesting details about the prostitute…plus the price, of course, ranging from 2-3 pounds up to 5 pounds if the woman was a virgin.
These “Metropolitan Night Guides”, as they were commonly called, were especially popular with tourists, as prostitution was another attraction for the young and wealthy travelers arriving alone in the English capital. These tourist guides of decline also provided information on luxury brothels, gambling clubs, of course, pubs…
Charles Dickens and Women’s Reformatories
It was in 1847 when Dickens, together with a shrewd philanthropist, put his hand deep in his pocket to set up a shelter for prostitutes, former prisoners, and poor foodies to help them escape the tragedy of their lives. The purpose of Urania Cottage, as they called it, was to teach them social skills as well as professional skills so that they could switch to other occupations.
Dickens published a brochure calling on the fallen women to change lives and he even put into his novels many prostitute-like characters, changing for a while the way Victorian society treated prostitution: they were now victims of one era rather than cunning women chasing easy gain.
At the same time, despite the fact that prostitution was legal, prostitutes were continually arrested for side offenses many of which brought them in jail for months. Public drunkenness and crowding on the streets, for example, which was illegal until 1847. If a prostitute were to fall into the hands of the authorities then they would be placed in special reformatories, usually of the church, that maintained hostile feelings towards prostitution, considering it a derogatory and selfish act.
That is why for those fallen women these reformatories were clearly worse than the traditional jail, having stayed there for at least two years to “heal” themselves. When they did not apologize to God for their shame, they would get up at 5:00 in the morning, pray four times a day, pray two more, and do heavy manual labor…
Well, my dear, this is it!
I hope you found this article interesting and that you learned a lot!
Thank you for reading…I would love to know your thoughts about this article so, please reply to this message or simply leave a comment below!
You’re fantastic 🙂
Written by Scarlett Osborne