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

68 COMMENTS

  1. I am not surprised by this article. People are people and I don’t think there is a major difference. Except of course the ones that get a thrill out of killing and torture of others and I think they have always been around.

  2. This is an interesting article. I thought child sex slaves was something that was only currently done. I guess it’s been around since the beginning of the world. I can’t imagine why people would want to have sex with children. They are depraved.

  3. History continues to repeat itself children are used as victims of child traffickers and there are still many fallen women children that are desperate for survival.

  4. People have complaints about today’s morals and problems but the majority of us have choices , it seems this era isn’t so bad after all.
    Thank you for your articles ,never miss them.

  5. Very enlightening!! Did Queen Victoria and Prince Albert know any of this?? Did they even care?? It’s easy to be moral when you have every need taken care of. Thanks sweetie for the info!!

  6. Is our world much different? There are high paid prostitutes, street walkers, children and young women taken and sold as child sex slaves. The payment may be different but the result is much the same. Women are often seen as lesser then men. Unfortunately, as the years pass society changes yet the base motivations of sexual abuse just evolve.
    Terrific article!

  7. How sad
    To do anything to survive and then
    To feel the pain and disrespect of
    Other humans who could use and abuse

    Thank you

  8. We still have countries in these modern times that treat their women the same – as high earners. Recently there was a rise in the import of wives into North America from some countries as they would be ‘appreciative of their place and not challenge the men who bought them.” The sex trade is till strong and profitable for some while a slavery for others.

  9. I find it sad that prostitution has been around for thousands of years and just shows how little woman had to better their lives.

  10. Definitely another interesting read. Makes for great conversation with friends from my book club. Thank you for such informative reading. I look forward to your newsletters and interesting historical tidbits.

  11. Loved the article. Very Interesting. I always say I wish I was born in the 1800, but I wonder what would have become of me. Not really a great life unless you were born wealthy.

  12. Very interesting article. I was not aware of the income differences between the classes. So…you need to be a high class prostitute to be wealthy and in control of your own future. You could probably retire early in life with prudent investments.

  13. Unfortunately, human trafficking is still a part of current conditions. 🙁
    There is a Blue Campaign against Human Trafficking http://www.dhs.gov/bluecampaign
    1-866-DHS-2-ICE (1-866-347-2423)
    I sincerely hope that you’ll check the site out and publish it as a public service.
    Thanks!

  14. Omg what a horrible choice people had to make. Jokingly they used to say a woman was sitting on a gold mine little did they know what that entailed and the consequences they would have to endure. I cannot imagine my daughter would be subjected to such an act let alone my granddaughter. Such an enlightened item. How lucky are we to be born in the current era.

  15. Excellent read & very well researched. I did know slightly that Charles Dickons was a reformer, that he did actively seek to improve the lives of the poor but I did not know that he successfully improved the lives of the poor women forced to become prostitutes to survive.
    Selling oneself to improve one’s life is such a last resort thing to do & very, very dangerous even today as there is no assistance for health or protection. Drug use is so prevalent today that a prostitute is expected by her pimp to promote the use of such, if not only for herself.
    It is a terrible life; no life really as one does not know just what’s around the corner. The romance novels which deal with this life often don’t touch the subject of the street prostitute but rather the higher order, the women, educated & without fortune due to the financial depradations of those responsible for their welfare, who find some very wealthy male who can & often does marry her despite condemnation of the haute tonne.

  16. Wow it’s all I can offer for this article I never realized that it was like that I mean yes I realize there were tons of prostitutes and I realize there was child labor but I didn’t really I guess it didn’t really hit home until I read this thank you for enlightening me

  17. OH MY! That’s all I can say, did not know that that type of prostitution existed so far back, and child prostitute too?

  18. I found this article very interesting and full of facts that I wasn’t aware of. In most stories this kind of woman is someone the man is keeping in a beautiful home with everything being paid for by him. You don’t often hear about the middle and lower class of women. I was impressed with what publisher William Snead and also Dickens did to bri ng awareness and help to these unfortunate women.

  19. Wow! I enjoyed reading about the Victorian way of living for women. But what happens to them if they became ill from disease?

  20. Great article! If you wish to see any tv programs that do a pretty accurate portrayal of what prostitution was like and the dangers it involved for women and children, then you should check out the shows Ripper Street and Copper. They would probably be available on Netflix or maybe on Hulu. Ripper Street takes place in London in the White Chapel District following the Jack the Ripper murders. Copper takes place around the same time period; just after the civil war in America in what would probably later become known as the Bronx area of New York. Copper deals rather realistically and disturbingly with child prostitution. While they are both excellent shows and very well done; they are not for those who are easily offended or the squeamish.

  21. Very eye opening. Of course, prostitution has been around since day one, the fact that in Victorian times it was not only legal but right out in the open as you described is rather amazing. Always thought it a bit more under wraps. Sick and sad about the use of children for such but I suppose that has been going on forever, too. Talk about hypocritical. Makes me so angry, really. If men didn’t want to have all manner of sexual encounters and were willing to pay for them, there would be no prostitution yet women were expected to be virginal upon marriage. The Madonna/Whore complex. Grrrr!
    Good research, thank you!

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