A Global History of Prostitution: London

In: Selling Sex in the City: A Global History of Prostitution, 1600s-2000s
Julia Laite
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London is deeply connected with prostitution in the popular historical imagination. A skim through a library catalogue, a history channel, or a bookstore reveals many accounts of “bawdy” London through the ages. Any given night in the East End, crowds pad around the old haunts of “Jack the Ripper”, hearing about the prostitute women whose lives have been revealed to us through their murders. The modern gates that enclose “Crossbones Graveyard” in Southwark are covered in ribbons and tokens, commemorating the Tudor prostitutes that some believe to be buried there. Tourists and punters alike flock to Soho, and peek down side roads where sex is for sale up bright staircases, its flavours advertised on a neon poster board. The city described in 1885 by William Stead as “the largest market in human flesh in the whole world” remains central to both historical and contemporary understandings of worldwide commercial sex. 1

Academic historians share in this fascination, and a number of important works have appeared in recent decades that consider the history of London prostitution in social, cultural, and economic terms. This research has revealed striking changes in metropolitan commercial sex over the early modern and modern periods, but also some fascinating continuities. The following account, a brief history of female prostitution in London since 1600, is organized thematically and draws attention to both change and continuity over time. It considers the geography of commercial sex in a changing urban landscape; it assesses the way that women’s labour choices and urban masculinities created supplies and demands for sex; and it looks at the backgrounds of the women who sold sex in London and the experiences they had. Through this discussion, I will also address conceptual issues and historiographical debates surrounding prostitute women’s agency and victimhood. Finally, this account will examine the complex ways that prostitution was controlled, regulated, and repressed in London over the past four hundred years, and how this has helped dramatically reshape commercial sex in the present-day metropolis.

Space and Place

London saw immense changes in its physical and cultural geography in the 400-year period under examination. Much of its mediaeval core was destroyed by fire in 1666, and there was also a massive expansion of its suburbs over the next three centuries. It witnessed one of the most significant population growths in Europe, going from as little as 200,000 people at the start of the seventeenth century to over eight million regular residents (and many more daily commuters) in the present day. As London grew and shifted and changed, so too did the areas in which prostitution occurred. In the seventeenth century, most of the sex for sale in the metropolis could be found in Southwark around London Bridge, harking back to the Tudor and mediaeval periods which saw the official regulation of brothels there. 2 On the margins of the early modern city’s commercial and political centre, these “suburbe stewes” were also known for their street and theatrical entertainments. 3 Seventeenth-century prostitution in London could also be found around the busy docks just east of the City of London, which saw the arrival of people and merchandise from the Continent and, increasingly, the colonies. 4 Prostitutes and their clients could also be found in well-known streets within the City itself, and Ian Archer’s map of late sixteenth century bawdy houses shows them scattered around Cheapside, Whitefriars, Clerkenwell, Aldgate, Shoreditch, and Smithfield. 5 Despite the changes wrought by the Great Fire, the City of London remained a popular area for commercial sex in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, particularly the areas of Outer Farringdon such as Turnbull Street. 6

Tony Henderson has charted a distinct move of on- and off-street prostitution out of the City and, overwhelmingly, to the west by the 1750s, which mirrored the shift in population centres more generally, but likely at a greater pace. 7 While it was already infamous by the late seventeenth century, by the late eighteenth century Covent Garden could claim to be the most popular home of the metropolitan sex industry. 8 By the early nineteenth century, meanwhile, prostitution was even more widely distributed, with major centres throughout the West End, but also in the East End. 9 All over London, prostitution was closely associated with music halls, pleasure gardens, and fairgrounds, as well as certain bars and restaurants.

By the later years of the nineteenth century, prostitution had become more concentrated in the West End, where women selling sex mingled with the evening crowds of Regent Street, the Haymarket, and Piccadilly and in places where apartments and furnished rooms nestled on top of or beside workshops, restaurants, and working-class housing. Yet despite this concentration, it is in fact difficult for the historian to pin-point any area that developed into a red-light “zone” to rival those in Continental and colonial cities. Prostitution in modern London remained geographically diverse and dispersed, and even areas where there were large concentrations had no clearly defined or permanent boundaries. This era also witnessed the expansion of rail travel, and women who sold sex tended to find good business around London’s major terminuses such as Paddington, Euston, King’s Cross, and Waterloo. Prostitution was also predictably clustered around other entertainment districts outside the West End (for instance, Commercial Road in Whitechapel, and Earl’s Court in the west), in parklands (especially Hyde Park), and near docklands and military bases. 10

Throughout the early modern and modern periods and until the mid-twentieth century, prostitutes in London primarily solicited on the street, in entertainment establishments, and in parklands. Some would also perform sex acts outside, but many others would go to a “bawdy house” or “brothel” (usually a house that rented rooms by the hour or part-hour, or one that rented rooms on a longer term basis to individual women) in order to have sex. Because of the lack of formal regulation in both the early modern and modern periods, the relationship between indoor and outdoor commercial sex in London was a loose and fluid one. 11 In seventeenth century London, as Faramerz Dabhoiwala points out, “a bawdy house could be any number of things: a private home or a tavern or a brothel, of greater or lesser sophistication and expense.” 12 Tony Henderson has found that in eighteenth century London, most women worked for themselves, using bawdy houses by the hour or for the evening. Other indoor public sites proved equally popular for solicitation and commercial sex, such as the bagnios or hot-houses which were a common feature of the eighteenth century cityscape. These gave way later in the century to cheap hotels, of which prostitutes made equal use, alongside the public and lodging houses of various stripes that could be found everywhere in the metropolis. 13 In the nineteenth century, many prostitutes worked in cafés, coffeehouses, and restaurants, while others lived and took clients to their own rooms, flats, apartments, and lodging houses. In part instigated by the legal crackdown on brothels after 1885, women also began to work in massage parlours and other clandestine establishments that advertised modelling or health services in the late nineteenth century. 14 Less common were enclosed brothels, where women lived and worked under a madam or brothel-keeper and where clients would come to find them, like in many maisons found in Paris. However, as with street prostitution, brothel prostitution in London was marked above all by diversity, and throughout the period, we catch glimpses of very exploitative brothels where women worked under the control of another woman or a man. 15

These disperse geographic locations and diverse on- and off-street spaces persisted into the twentieth century. There were more dramatic changes in the spatial pattern of prostitution in London during World War i and World War ii, as prostitutes flocked to areas where troops would be concentrated. But however dramatically the World Wars affected commercial sex, it was moral panic about the state of London’s postwar streets and legal developments in the so-called “permissive” era that were to have the most significant impact on the spaces and places of London prostitution. The Street Offences Act of 1959, put into place after the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, significantly increased police powers to clear the streets and imposed much tougher penalties for street solicitation. 16 Almost overnight, London street prostitution had all but disappeared, replaced by off-street establishments, such as the walk-up flats in Soho that became so iconic of the sex trade in London in the second half of the twentieth century. Women also worked increasingly in massage parlours, as call girls, and in furnished rooms and their own homes. While some street prostitution remained, especially around rail stations and in more derelict areas, London went from being a primarily street-based prostitution scene to a primarily indoor scene in less than a decade. 17 That being said, prostitution did not stay entirely indoors for long; not only did some areas, such as Stepney, see a rise in street solicitation and indecency in the 1960s, becoming a home for young and poor women who could not afford indoor accommodation, other areas such as King’s Cross re-emerged in the 1980s as problem areas, in the context particularly of rising drug addiction problems in the population at large.

Changing technologies of communication and transport—especially the telephone and the motorcar—also had an immense impact on the geography and economy of commercial sex in London. Car-based solicitation of women, described by police and prostitutes alike as dangerous, became a chief form of street prostitution by the second half of the twentieth century. 18 On the other hand, the telephone came to be of vital importance to women who wished to work indoors. By the early 1960s London telephone booths were already plastered with the calling cards for which they are so well known in the present day. 19 In the twenty-first century, commercial sex in London is once again being dramatically reshaped, this time by online technology. 20

There are some enduring themes we can see when examining the spaces and places of London prostitution over a four hundred year period. The first is the importance of micro-geographies of prostitution. No defined and delineated red-light zone developed in London, although certain spaces were concentrated sites of commercial sex. 21 Spaces of prostitution could be very small and bleed into one another, and they existed all over the metropolis. Another enduring feature of London prostitution through the ages was the “mixed economy” of commercial sex, where street prostitution and off-street prostitution were interrelated, and where women solicited on the street but also kept flats for clients. Thirdly, prostitution was always spatially linked to areas of entertainment, transportation terminuses, eating and drinking, military encampments, and areas of shipping and receiving. From the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, prostitution was woven into the fabric of London’s economy: leisure, transport, commerce, and trade.

There are also some striking spatial and geographic changes that are worth noting. Since around 1600, there has been a move of prostitution outside of the City and mostly into the west. The greatest change of all occurred after the 1950s, when a perfect storm of criminalization and technological change meant that women moved off the street and worked in walk-up flats, as call girls, in massage establishments and saunas, or on the internet. And yet, the occasional street prostitute who works around King’s Cross in 2013 still shares some fundamental experiences with her seventeenth century counterpart, both of whom were and are caught up within the geographic complexity of the ever-changing metropolis. 22

Supply, Demand, and “Causes” of Prostitution

While there is much historical distance between the women who sold sex in the sixteenth century and those who sell sex in the twenty-first century, historical and sociological studies of the reasons why women became involved in prostitution in London point to some very important continuities. Chief among these is the relationship between female prostitution and other forms of women’s unpaid, underpaid, interrupted, exploited, and menial labour. In the early modern period, prostitution in the metropolis appears to have been deeply connected to—and often done at the same time as—other forms of female employment. Women used the sale of sex acts as a way to supplement meagre, scant, or unpredictable earnings elsewhere, often just for a short period of their lives or in any given year. Many left prostitution for a time or altogether if, in the words of Paul Griffiths, “a better job or husband came along.” 23 Frequent unemployment, particularly in the domestic service sector, was a very significant factor determining the patterns of casual prostitution in the 1600s and little had changed by the eighteenth century, where “economies of makeshift”, as Tony Henderson deploys the term, saw women selling sex casually at times when they were unemployed or denied poor relief. Meanwhile, other women made a regular, or “professional”, living from prostitution. 24

G.P. Merrick, a prison chaplain at Millbank and other women’s prisons in the second half of the 1800s, provides a striking snapshot of women who used the sale of sex as a response to a market that exploited their labour. 25 20 per cent claimed that unemployment and severe poverty had led them to prostitution, while a full 40 per cent had been domestic servants who had left or lost their positions, some surely because of pregnancy. 26 As in the eighteenth century, it seems that many women who sold sex in London in the nineteenth century did so casually or temporarily. 27 While historians of prostitution in Britain emphasize the enormous variety of experiences that compelled, coerced, or outright forced women into prostitution, they also note that very often prostitution was part of a chosen economic and social strategy for disadvantaged women. 28 There is not a great deal of evidence about women exiting prostitution in any period, but it does seem that many women eventually stopped selling sex altogether, perhaps before or after marriage or when they had saved enough money to invest in a licit business. 29

In addition to economic need, abject poverty, and constrained labour choices, a woman’s move into prostitution could include factors such as loneliness, a lack of a support network, violence and abuse, and isolation in the city. 30 Merrick found that many women had begun to sell sex after having been turned out by their parents because of “bad habits”; again we must suspect that pregnancy must have been one of the factors here. 31 Yet it is very difficult for the historian, given the sources available and the extreme under-reporting of domestic and sexual violence in any era, to determine whether prostitutes experienced neglect, abuse, and violence more frequently than other girls and women, and it seems evident that we must consider the abuse and dislocation experienced by women who entered prostitution as part of a more general and upsetting pattern of violence and abuse against all women. 32

These sorts of motivations for choosing prostitution—money, labour, lack of social support, and experiences of abandonment and abuse—persisted into the twentieth century. Despite the fact that there was a growing sense amongst pundits and politicians that no woman needed to sell sex because of economic necessity any longer, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that financial struggles remained the primary reason why women got involved in prostitution after 1900. 33 Nonetheless, especially by the interwar years, more and more people began to claim that psychological and sexual pathology, not poverty, was the strongest “push” factor for prostitution. As one member of parliament crudely put it, “There is none of the romance of ‘Fanny by Gaslight’ in this modern tart […]. She is a hard girl who knows exactly what her value is.” 34 From the perspective of history in the longue durée, this seems a striking return to the mediaeval and early modern concepts of prostitution as wantonness, a significant reversal of the idea, popular from the seventeenth century, that prostitutes were victims of men’s lust and systemic social and economic inequality.

By the second half of the twentieth century, more sources became available that can tell contemporary historians and sociologists about why women sold and sell sex, but these sources also serve to corroborate the diversity of reasons and motivations that historians have uncovered in earlier periods. Some women appear to have chosen prostitution as a kind of labour that pays well, others did it to pay off student loans, while others sold sex as a way to fund drug addictions, particularly after drugs like heroin and crack cocaine became readily available on London’s streets. 35 Still other women were and are forced into selling sex by family members and boyfriends, or because of illegal immigration statuses that render them susceptible to trafficking and human smuggling. 36 In any case, the growing number of first-hand sources has complicated rather than clarified the reasons why women get involved in prostitution in twenty-first century London.

The question of prostitute’s agency remains a contentious one, and one that lies at the heart of the divisions within present-day feminism over the issue of prostitution. For those feminists who see prostitution as inherently exploitative and violent, prostitutes cannot choose to sell sex: they are prostituted women. Other feminists, while recognizing the large amount of abuse and exploitation within the sex industry, acknowledge that prostitutes tend to frame their move into prostitution as a choice, albeit a difficult choice amongst worse ones. Historians of London and British prostitution have uncovered evidence that in the main supports the latter view, and argue that the decision to become involved in prostitution must be considered alongside women’s other—often poor—economic choices. Prostitution routinely challenges any tidy historical conceptualization of agency and victimhood, which appear as false dichotomies in the face of individual women’s complex and contradictory experiences.

Another line of historical and sociological enquiry has also complicated our understanding of commercial sex by pointing out that while women make up by far the largest proportion of prostitutes, there was nonetheless—and especially in London—a very significant market for males who sell sex. 37 The motivations and experiences of these men could differ dramatically from those of female prostitutes, but could also, and perhaps more strikingly, have much in common with them. This calls into question any simple gendered understandings of prostitution in the past and present. While male prostitution is not considered in this chapter, it is important to note its prevalence in London and its important spatial and experiential parallels with female prostitution.

Largely due to the fact that laws against street solicitation were directed at prostitutes, they are rendered historically visible in a way that male clients were not. We know more, in other words, about the supply side of prostitution than the demand. In a sample compiled from court records and literature, Paul Griffiths has suggested that the largest group (40 per cent) of prostitutes’ clients in seventeenth century London were apprentices and servants, 12 per cent were craftsmen and tradesmen, while just over 10 per cent were “gentlemen”. He also argues that “the bawdy house [was] an expression of the sexual vitality and camaraderie’s of males”, especially young urban ones. 38 This observation mirrors other findings from different periods and different cities, suggesting that prostitution has long been an important part of the masculine urban environment and not easily relegated to the disconnected “underworld”. In the late 1700s, meanwhile, Patrick Colquhoun described the clients of prostitutes as “the multitudes of young men yearly arriving at the age of puberty—the strangers who resort to the metropolis—the seamen and nautical labourers employed in the trade of the River Thames, who amount at least to 40,000.” 39 By the late nineteenth century the middle class “gentleman” had become the stereotypical buyer of sex, but there is convincing evidence that the purchase of sex occurred at all levels of the social spectrum. As one Police Commissioner complained at the turn of the century, “The apparent admirers of these women belong to all classes from the peer to the shop-boy.” 40 While these comments demonstrate the ubiquity of sex-buying they also suggest that it was considered a natural, inevitable, and normal thing that all groups of men would do. The historical record in this case is likely sharply skewed, seeing as we have compelling evidence that higher-class brothels—the sort to which the richest and most powerful men would resort—were ignored and at times outright protected by the authorities. The most striking case is that of the unsuccessful prosecution of Mary Jeffries’ Chelsea brothels in the late nineteenth century; not only did it take a great deal of pressure to compel the vestry to prosecute in the first place, when the prosecution was underway the lawyers and judges insisted on total anonymity for all the male clients who were involved. That was a courtesy they did not extend to the women.

Despite these often deliberate obscurities, there does nonetheless seem to have been a greater concentration of clients of prostitutes in certain occupations. Soldiers and sailors were disproportionately represented amongst the buyers of sex throughout the entire period, and it was certainly these categories of men—and their attendant sexual health—that most concerned the state. For the four hundred years in question, London was a hub for both these groups: along the docklands mercantile sailors came and went in droves, and several barracks in and around the city were home to thousands of soldiers. During the Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars, these numbers were far higher, and evidence suggests that at these times the commercial sex market was booming. Meanwhile, another study of London sex-buying in the mid-twentieth century found that men from “mobile occupations”, commercial travellers, and lorry drivers, for instance, were far more likely to buy sex. In a rare instance where male sex buying was denaturalized and even pathologized, the researcher concluded that the psychological factors that had driven these men toward such occupations also drove them toward buying sex; this pathologization of sex buying would gain ground in the later twentieth century. 41 Despite the fact that some historians have argued that the popularity of sex buying declined in the twentieth century as more non-mercenary sex became available, by the early twenty-first century surveys in Britain continued to suggest that anywhere from one in ten to one in twenty men buy sex in the u.k. 42 It is therefore surprising that there continues to be a real dearth of research into male sex-buying in London even in the twenty-first century, while the writing on prostitutes could fill a library.

Demography, Labour, and Lifestyle

One of the key questions about prostitution in any city is how much of it there was at any given time. I remain circumspect overall about any historian’s ability to come up with a firm answer. Even in regulated systems, a lot of prostitution went unmonitored, and in unregulated systems, the dark figure is simply enormous. Trying to work backwards from information like arrest statistics and the highly flawed reports of social investigators and moral reformers can give us only the vaguest idea of numbers. London furnishes a very good example of these uncertainties.

Part of the problem lies in the imprecision and blurriness of historical labels and identities. When a historical source makes claims about “whores”, “harlots”, and “prostitutes”, about whom are they speaking? At the start of the early modern period, while the concept of prostitution as a mercenary activity certainly existed, the courts and wider culture made very little distinction between prostitution and other forms of fornication or adultery. Not only was the term “whore” used synonymously and more commonly than “prostitute”, both these terms could mean any “unchaste” or unruly woman. 43 From a social standpoint, Dabhoiwala has found that “women who engaged in prostitution were not, as a group, socially or economically distinct from respectable society. They were part of wider metropolitan communities.” 44 Little had changed in the eighteenth century; there were only vague distinctions between “prostitutes” and “mistresses”, and “whore” remained a very loose term. Henderson, like Dabhoiwala, has argued that a distinct “class” of prostitutes in eighteenth century London is impossible to find. 45

In keeping with more general attitudes to social categories and crime, it is in the nineteenth century that we start to see more attempts to classify, define, and count prostitutes in London. In this statistics-loving era, several commentators and authorities attempted to enumerate prostitutes, although most relied on each other’s estimates, and most included all unmarried mothers and other “unchaste” women in their figures which could reach as high as 80,000. 46 The mid-nineteenth century Metropolitan Police estimates ranged from 8,000 to 12,000 women, although they were criticized for not accounting for the vast swathes of casual prostitution. In any case, all attempts to enumerate prostitutes in the nineteenth century were inseparable from the biases of moralizers or the politics of crime control.

Are we able to get a better sense of numbers by the twentieth century? Certainly there are more and better standardized sources, particularly within the criminal justice system. In addition, by the mid-century there appeared to be more carefully delineated sociological research that examined prostitution and offered estimates. Looking at arrest and recidivism statistics, it seems that by the twentieth century the levels of casual prostitution were falling, meaning fewer and fewer women sold sex but those who did so did it more frequently than ever before. It is, however, difficult to be sure, because just as the police, the courts, and social sciences were getting better at statistics, prostitution in London was effectively pushed out of public view. Another attempt to enumerate the vast world of off-street commercial sex in London in 2008 by the Poppy Project estimated that there was an “absolute minimum” of two thousand women working in the off-street industry. 47 However, this report was criticized by social scientists as deeply methodologically flawed. 48 It seems that only a little more certainty about numbers can be found in the present age of information than could be found in Elizabethan London.

Historians have been able to collate other kinds of quantitative data—found for instance in court records, police files, rescue home reports, social investigations, and lock hospital records—to build a picture of women who sold sex in different time periods. From the seventeenth to the twentieth century, there seem to be some broad demographic trends. Various investigators (both historical and contemporary) have found that around 40 per cent of prostitutes in London were born there, a lower proportion, generally, than the female population of London at large. Around 10 to 15 per cent each came from Ireland, the Home Counties, and the Southwest, with other areas of Britain and “everywhere else” making up between 2 and 5 per cent. 49 By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was an important demographic change, when significant numbers of London prostitutes began to come from the Continent, especially France and Germany. 50 By the late twentieth century, meanwhile, new European and global migration trends had reshaped the ethnic profile of London prostitutes; while white British women still engaged in prostitution in high numbers, women of Afro-Caribbean descent, Southeast Asian women, and most markedly women from eastern and southern Europe (especially non-eu countries) are disproportionately represented in the London prostitution market. 51

We also have some information about the families of prostitute women. Many women who sold sex—likely across the periods—were married or had long-term romantic partners, although many experienced estrangement and abandonment as well. 52 A high proportion of them were orphans, or had lost one parent, but this is a family experience that women who sold sex largely shared with other groups, such as domestic servants and female migrants. 53 Prostitutes were also often parents themselves, though we have strong reasons to believe that rudimentary condoms and other forms of birth control and abortifacients were often used by prostitutes, even in the seventeenth century, to limit fertility. The effects of undiagnosed and untreatable venereal diseases, especially syphilis and gonorrhoea, may have meant that many prostitutes were infertile. Throughout the period, while many prostitute women—like single or widowed mothers more generally—gave their children up, many others kept them, sharing their care with other members of their community, or paying for their care and board elsewhere with the proceeds of their prostitution. By the late nineteenth century, legal measures that enabled the British state to take children found in the company of prostitutes from their homes meant that there was increased incentive for prostitutes to conceal their motherhood; many preferred to send their children away to school or out to board. 54 And so again, historians are faced with increased clandestinity just as statistics were becoming more available.

Similar guessing games must be engaged in when trying to determine prostitutes’ health experiences, particularly their experiences with venereal diseases. Before the Wasserman test in the early twentieth century, syphilis and gonorrhoea were both difficult to diagnose, and rates of the disease (as well as other venereal diseases) are extremely difficult to determine. We do know that from the very early seventeenth century, syphilis was common amongst the sexually promiscuous in London, and there were certainly many cases of “the pox” in London’s Bridewell and workhouses. 55 By the late eighteenth century, the London Lock Hospital, specializing in the treatment of venereal diseases, had opened its doors and was admitting, often via the courtroom or rescue home, high numbers of women who sold sex. 56 Prostitutes who were suspected of carrying a disease were frequently coerced into being examined and treated in lieu of (or during their) imprisonment, a practise that continued, it seems, well into the twentieth century. During the two World Wars, London prostitutes were made de facto targets for exceptional wartime legislation that attempted to curb the spread of venereal diseases. 57 In the present day, hiv/aids is the most significant venereal disease within the commercial sex industry, though the evidence for the rate amongst prostitutes who do not use intravenous drugs has been called into serious question. Similarly, prostitutes in the present day are also frequently associated with drug addiction, though researchers Helen Ward and Sophie Day, reporting on a longitudinal study of sex workers in London, stress that the correlation between mental health, venereal infections, drug addiction, and prostitution is “complex”. 58 It therefore remains difficult to separate the actual health experiences of prostitutes from their pathologization within the British criminal justice and social work systems.

For other women, avoiding penile-vaginal intercourse was their chief strategy to avoid pregnancy as well as infection. This points to a much wider and often overlooked question; namely, which sex acts were performed by women who sold sex. There is an assumption that most prostitutes sold vaginal intercourse; however, a great deal of evidence from London challenges this. Many women traded only in masturbation, while others allowed men to ejaculate between their thighs, breasts, or in their mouth. 59 Henderson has uncovered convincing evidence that masturbation was a very common form of prostitution in eighteenth century London; and in the nineteenth century it is likely that the “knee tremblers” of Victorian lore were offering similar acts. 60 Even in the twentieth century, manual and oral sex remained more common than penetrative sex, and was preferred by many women as a much less unsavoury (if also less lucrative) way to sell sex. 61

As might be imagined, prostitutes’ earnings varied widely and were determined in no small part by the sex acts they were willing to perform. In his study of Bridewell records, Griffiths has found evidence of very high earnings (ten pounds, in one instance) by London prostitutes in the seventeenth century and he posits a very tentative 4 shilling 3 pence average charge in this period, which was striking considering the average male day labourer earned only around twelve pence a day in this same period. 62 There is also evidence that women would frequently supplement their earnings with petty theft from clients, especially inebriated ones, and also often trade for forms of payment other than cash (drink, food, and clothes, for instance). When more figures do start to become available for the nineteenth century, their range is striking. Some women would charge as little as 3 pence, almost certainly for masturbation; while others could earn incredible annual sums (as much as a male professional salary) working in higher-class (though still street-based) prostitution. A similar range can be found in the twentieth century. Although there is some evidence to suggest that the average prices of sex acts like oral and penetrative sex were falling by the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, there were (and are) also women who charge thousands of pounds as escorts to London’s super-rich. 63 Despite some changes, the continuity here is just as significant: women still charge a huge diversity of prices, many still engage in barter (for drugs, for instance) instead of cash payment, and most could earn more through prostitution than through any other form of labour that was open to unskilled women in any given time period. However, particularly after third-party control began to rise, we must also consider what percentage of her earnings a prostitute—working under the control of a pimp or owing rent to exploitative landlords—was able to keep for herself.

The experience of selling sex varied so dramatically from woman to woman it belies a totalizing term like “prostitution”. Women who sold sex belonged to different “classes” both within society at large and within the world of commercial sex. Some women worked in isolation, or under third-party control, while others worked in highly sociable environments with other prostitutes. Still others worked as part of wider communities and families, sometimes in licit and sometimes illicit labour. Some women earned very little, some earned staggering sums. Some only masturbated their clients while others offered “fetish”, anal, and other “perverse” activities. This highly diverse and dynamic character of commercial sex is one of its most enduring historical realities.

There are, however, some ways that experiences, at the macro-level, have changed. A greater and greater percentage of prostitutes in London now hail from eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and often encounter language barriers as well as the vulnerabilities that come with having the status of being an illegal migrant. This must dramatically reshape some of the fundamental experiences of selling sex. But by far the most significant macro-level change that affected women’s experiences of prostitution was their increasingly common encounters with the criminal justice system and the rescue and reform industry, which sought to more carefully define their activities as a legal category, more thoroughly monitor and record them, more effectively police and prosecute them, and more consistently punish and reform them according to new moral, social, and medical understandings of prostitution.

Official Attitudes, Control, and Punishment

This account begins just a few decades after Henry viii outlawed the licensed “stewes” of London’s then disreputable South Bank in 1546, effectively ending the city’s use of regulationism as a way to control prostitution. The period from 1600 to the present in London has been marked by many different attempts to control and repress prostitution and punish prostitutes, but none have taken the form of official regulation. London had a very brief, early, and ultimately abandoned experiment with official regulation, setting it apart from many other world and European cities (including many within the British Empire). 64

The laws and regulations that were used to govern prostitution in London were and remain a patchwork, developed in the absence of a criminal code and combining specific clauses against prostitution in statutes with more general national and municipal regulations that came to be directed against prostitution. Within London, the licensing and legal powers of individual local authorities (parishes and vestries, and later Borough Councils, the London County Council, and the Greater London Authority) were immensely important in the control of commercial sex in the metropolis. As with most precedent-based legal systems, legislation surrounding prostitution in London is historical in its very nature; the law which operates to outlaw street solicitation today can be very clearly traced back to the nineteenth century, while these Victorian laws were also based upon much older jurisprudence from the early modern period. This makes it very hard for the historian to tell a simple story of prostitution control in London, dealing as they are with a system that was dynamic, complex, administered by multiple and changing officials, and subject to immense amounts of discretion on the part of different local authorities, police officers, magistrates, and social workers. Drives against prostitution also came in waves, ebbing and flowing according to public pressure and the politics of crime control.

Nonetheless, one pattern does emerge: between the seventeenth and the twenty-first century, prostitution in London came to be increasingly—though not straightforwardly—criminalized. While the actual buying and selling of sex was not (and, as of the time of writing, is still not) illegal in Britain, over the four hundred year period in question prostitution was separated from other forms of moral offence and public disorder, authorities found ways to more effectively identify women as prostitutes, and there was a marked increase in statutory laws, regulations, and licensing restrictions designed to suppress commercial sex.

At the close of the sixteenth century, prostitution was conceptualized, on the one hand, as part of a spectrum of sexual behaviours—like fornication and adultery—that were considered felonious and punishable under church court jurisdiction and, on the other hand, as entangled with wider laws against vagrancy. This rendered prostitutes, according to Melissa Mowry, “indistinguishable from their underclass brethren and thus legally invisible.” 65 As the seventeenth century progressed, however, in the words of Faramerz Dabhoiwala, “sexual discipline in the capital was changed out of all recognition”; adultery and fornication were no longer prosecuted, and churches began to pass responsibility for the control of sexuality over to increasingly professionalized police and municipal authorities. 66 Prostitution—referenced in terms like “nightwalking” and “wicked and lewd practises”—was one of several problems of public and moral order (such as vagrancy and begging) that came under increasing attack in London in the seventeenth century under the reinstated Poor and Vagrancy Laws. 67 There was a growing understanding that there were important differences between private and public immorality; in other words, in this period we see sex crimes going down and street crimes going up. 68

At the same time, the concept of “nightwalking”, used in regulations since the fourteenth century, became increasingly “feminized” and associated with female sexual misbehaviour in London. 69 London’s Bridewell prison and hospital, established in the mid-sixteenth century as a kind of summary court and site of incarceration for London’s “idle and disorderly persons”, became a common destination for women who came under the notice of the night watchmen and the parish beadle for vagrancy and nightwalking. While it is extremely difficult to determine which of these women were selling sex, it is safe to say that Bridewell saw many prostitutes come through its gates and, given that its records show a sharp rise in female recidivism, it seems many passed through several times. 70

Despite these new measures and definitions, open and visible prostitution remained a common feature of London street life, which inspired a late seventeenth-century explosion of moral reform and anti-vice associations (the influential London Society for the Reformation of Manners was founded in 1691, for instance). 71 They had few legal powers but, together with Justices of the Peace, they found informal methods of dealing with prostitutes in public, 0including binding them over to keep the peace, and committing them for other offences to the Bridewell, whose incarceration numbers peaked during this time. 72 These informal, de facto, and backdoor tactics of arrest and imprisonment would become one of the defining features of the control of prostitution in London, stretching into the nineteenth century and the present day.

In the first few decades of the eighteenth century, “a narrower, sharper definition of public prostitution and its legal culpability […] slowly emerged.” 73 While there was still no law that referred to prostitutes by name, general laws preventing vagabondage, begging, thieving, and disorderly behaviour were increasingly aimed at them. Still, as Henderson has described, “flexibility, compromise, and absence of system were almost defining characteristics of the policing of street prostitution in this period.” 74 Anti-vice campaigners were more successful, to a certain extent at least, in bringing brothels under the law. The Disorderly Houses Act of 1752 gave local authorities more power to monitor and deny licenses to establishments, and a later Act allowed them to prosecute disorderly houses through their own time and cost. 75 Although this system was very prone to corruption and the costs were a disincentive to potential prosecutors, it is a model of local authority control over “brothels” that persists into the present day.

The nineteenth century brought some very important legal changes, which came along with wider changes in policing and criminal justice. A clause in the Vagrancy Act of 1824 stipulated that any “common prostitute found wandering and behaving in a riotous or indecent manner” could be liable to arrest, and a fine or incarceration; this was the first time that the term “common prostitute” was used in a statute. 76 The most significant law for the policing of London prostitution was the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act. Clause 54 of the Act stated that “any common prostitute loitering or soliciting for the purposes of prostitution to the annoyance of inhabitants or passengers” would be liable to arrest. 77 This law only allowed for the magistrate to sentence with a fine, though prostitutes were frequently subsequently given prison time in default of fine payment. Together, these two laws formed the backbone of prostitution control in the metropolis in the nineteenth century; it is very important to note that the Contagious Diseases Acts, though very famous in the historiography of British prostitution, were never put into effect in London.

Nineteenth-century prostitution control, like its antecedents, was sporadic and poorly monitored. Statistics are very unreliable before the 1890s, and many arrested prostitutes have been hidden from history forever by the use of a different clause in the Vagrancy Act directed against “drunk and disorderly persons” and another in the Metropolitan Police Act against those likely to “cause a breach of the peace”. Until the very end of the century, many arrests in London were recorded as “drunk and disorderly prostitute”, even though no such charge actually existed in the statute books. This example illustrates nicely the idiosyncratic nature of prostitution control in the capital in the modern period: despite firmer laws and better policing techniques, the policing of commercial sex remained disorganized, informal, localized, and very often corrupt.

By the late nineteenth century, a series of scandals that highlighted the extent of corruption within the police and exploitation within the commercial sex industry forced new changes in the law. In 1885, journalist William Stead painted London as a “modern Babylon”—where poor children were bought and sold for sex under the averted eyes of the Metropolitan Police—and helped to push the Criminal Law Amendment Bill into law. The new Act, by making it cheaper and easier for local authorities to prosecute brothels in their areas, witnessed a very large increase in prosecutions, going from seventy per annum before the Act to almost 900 by the early years of the twentieth century. 78

Yet again, however, prostitution control in London was anything but straightforward. The Criminal Law Amendment Act failed to define a “brothel”, and up to the present day police and borough councils struggle to address the legal loopholes that saw women operating out of individually rented flats. Meanwhile, simultaneous attempts to crack down on street solicitation met with still greater and more scandalous challenges: a series of cases of mistaken identity, and police brutality and corruption, culminated in several government committees, inquiries, and commissions that looked at the policing of prostitution in the first half of the twentieth century.

Despite this, the early twentieth century saw some increasing power and efficiency in the control of prostitution. Arrest rates, and more importantly rates of conviction, began to rise and (apart from during World War i) remained largely steady. Police began fingerprinting prostitutes in 1917, and this system began to improve the criminal justice system’s ability to identify, arrest, and punish prostitutes. By 1950, 99.97 per cent of prostitute’s arrests ended in their conviction, a truly stunning figure in relation to almost all other offences. 79

Despite these moves towards criminalization, informal regulation was still alive and well. There were countless reports from prostitutes that police operated a “rota” system of arrests, for example, using the fines imposed as a kind of licensing fee; local efforts to repress prostitution in one area merely displaced it to others, and many brothels continued to be tolerated so long as they conducted their business quietly. As one sociologist argued in the 1950s, the relationship between the police and prostitutes was a “working, though pointless, compromise.” 80 Unlike in the seventeenth century, criminalization and organized repression had become the official stance toward prostitution. Much like in the seventeenth century, however, the situation on the ground was complex, regulatory, and frequently ineffective.

But while systems of prostitution control may have been ineffective in dealing with the overall problem of prostitution in London, this does not mean that these attempts to repress or regulate prostitution did not seriously affect the lives of women who sold sex, as they were subjected to a number of different official and unofficial controls and abuses. While statistics from the eighteenth century suggest that the majority of London prostitutes were simply discharged after being arrested, for example, this benign calculation surely hides a great deal of potential emotional duress, harassment, and sexual and physical violence that many accused prostitutes must have experienced between their arrests and their release the next morning. For those who were not discharged, they could be sent to a higher court, committed to a hospital, or sent to a prison. 81 And while most women who were incarcerated in the eighteenth century (and, for that matter, in the nineteenth century) saw sentences of only seven to fourteen days, we must not be quick to assume that this was an easy experience for these women.

The institutional alternative to prison, for much of the period in question, was a reform or rescue home; these various private philanthropic initiatives also formed part of the informal system of control and punishment. Historians have charted a “radical cultural shift” in attitudes toward prostitution in the eighteenth century, when more and more people began to consider the prostitute not as a licentious villain, but an exploited victim. 82 It was in this climate that reform homes were established as places to rehabilitate recalcitrant prostitutes; the London Magdalene Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes opened its doors in 1758, and it and similar institutions grew into very popular charities. 83 Yet, within the walls of these reform homes the “the janus-like nature of the sentimental discourse” surrounding prostitution in the eighteenth century was revealed, and “reform” looked a great deal like punishment. 84 These complicated and contradictory attitudes and practises persisted within the prostitute reform charities into the nineteenth century, and many prostitutes, given the choice between a long stay in a reform home (with its strict schedules, spartan meals, and domestic service training) and a short stay in prisonchose the latter. 85 This helps to explain why reform homes were frequently under-utilized and tended to cater to young women who were pregnant out of wedlock, sexually promiscuous, or sexually abused, rather than to women who regularly earned their living selling sex. 86 By the turn of the twentieth century, many of these organizations had begun to act in concert with the state, especially through their monitoring of immigrant prostitutes. 87

The second half of the twentieth century witnessed a rising panic about prostitution on London’s streets which were, some felt, “without parallel in the capital cities of other civilised countries.” 88 The 1959 Street Offences Act was the product of a significant rethinking of London prostitution policy in the 1950s, and its simple legal adjustment belied a major change in approach. The Act largely kept the working of the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act, but removed the need to prove that the “common prostitute” in question was doing anything to the annoyance of other people. While this clause had often been overlooked by police and magistrates in the past, its sanctioned removal, alongside a steeply increased fine and the distinct possibility of imprisonment, allowed the Metropolitan Police to effectively clear prostitution from London’s streets. Virtually overnight, London went from being a city with one of the most significant street prostitution scenes in the western world to one in which prostitution occurred almost exclusively behind closed doors.

Even this was not without its subtleties, however, and a resurgence of street prostitution in the 1980s saw the passing of the very first prostitution law in the history of Britain to be directed against the male customers of prostitutes, addressing habitual solicitation of prostitutes by men in cars, known as “kerb krawling”: the measure enjoyed some limited success in reducing traffic in problem areas, however, the need to prove “habitual” male solicitation made the measure difficult to enforce overall and ineffective for foot traffic or solicitation by telephone. 89 By the 1990s, “Anti-Social Behaviour Orders” also began to be used against women who sold sex in public, and served as a way to reintroduce prison sentences. 90 More “backdoor” attempts to criminalize prostitutes were included in the new immigration acts of the early 2000s, which played upon fears of trafficking to strengthen older laws against the immigration of “undesirable” people into Britain. 91 The early twentieth first century has witnessed several more significant attempts to “rethink” prostitution policy in Britain, including using “tolerance zones” as well as legalized brothels; however these regulatory measures have largely been discarded and at the time of writing, the u.k. has been embroiled in serious debates about dealing with prostitution through what is known as the “Nordic model”, which criminalizes the purchase of sex. 92

While the criminalization of prostitution in the metropolis has never been able to totally repress it, it has had a major role to play in shaping the geographies, structures, and experiences of people within the commercial sex industry. There is very clear evidence that as legal sanctions against prostitution increased, so too did third party involvement, as women sought the assistance and protection of pimps, touts, landlords, and human smugglers to secure their workspaces, their bodies, and their mobility in a socio-political landscape that was increasingly intolerant of prostitution. Third parties had of course always had an interest in prostitution, and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sources provide us with glimpses of the bawds, pimps, and advertisers who helped prostitutes secure custom and often exploited them within the “black economies” of early modern London. 93 But by the late nineteenth century, even the police themselves were frequently noting the ways in which legal restrictions encouraged pimping, and the first laws were passed directly addressing crimes such as procurement for the purposes of prostitution and living on the earnings of prostitution, whose application was (for the former) extremely rare and (for the latter) extremely patchy. 94 In the twenty-first century, prostitutes’ exploitation and abuse by third parties is tied most significantly to the politics and economics of undocumented migration. 95

The legacy of the 1959 Street Offences Act also set firmer borders between indoor and outdoor sex in London, and created a hierarchy of commercial sex in which street sex workers became the poorest, most vulnerable, and most marginalized. 96 The late twentieth century has also witnessed new crusades against brothels and lap-dancing clubs, made possible not only through the Sexual Offences Act of 1956 (which reiterated the terms of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act) but also through a patchwork of licensing regulations and local bylaws. 97 Meanwhile, sporadic raids on brothels and walk-ups in areas like Soho and the East End have become a regular feature of twenty-first century prostitution control in the metropolis. These are joined by crusades against calling cards, lap-dancing clubs, escort services, and internet sites, and spurred on by specific moments of heightened panic. During the recent London Olympics, for instance, there was heightened concern over the threat of migrant and trafficked prostitutes flooding London, echoing earlier panics surrounding such events as the Franco-British Exhibition and the Olympics in 1908, the Festival of Britain in 1951, and the Coronation in 1953. As was the case in the centuries before, today local community organizations, private and quasi-governmental charities, local authorities, and local health care and social work initiatives join special police squads and general beat officers in the effort to control and suppress commercial sex. London prostitution, always important in a global context, has also become, increasingly, a global affair, and the control of commercial sex has expanded significantly into the control of migration and international organized crime. The sex industry in the metropolis today is marked by postcolonial and new European immigration, as well as by human trafficking, as the legacies of historical, imperial, and present-day global inequalities and migration patterns play out in London’s streets, saunas, telephone booths, and walk-up flats. Meanwhile, despite the discussions surrounding the criminalization of clients, male buyers of sex remain almost as culturally and legally invisible as they did in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. 98


It is possible to trace important continuities as well as significant changes in the control of prostitution in London over the past four hundred years. Throughout both the early modern and the modern period, we can see the importance of de facto regulation and tolerance, accommodation, and compromise. Even as prostitution in London fell increasingly under the jurisdiction of the modern and centralized criminal justice system, local authorities and charities have remained central to prostitution control right into the present day. However, we can also see important changes. There was an enormous increase in the power and technology of the state to control and identify prostitutes, reflected in the dramatic rise in the conviction rate and the introduction of near countless direct and indirect laws and regulations to the arsenal of prostitution control. This gave rise to a growth in the off-street and clandestine commercial sex industry and contributed to a significant increase in third-party involvement in prostitution in London. In other words, the increasing legal prohibition of activities associated with prostitution helped to shape prostitute women’s experiences of selling sex. Prostitution became more professionalized, as women were less able to move in and out of the trade without legal stigma and third-party pressure, and as firmer lines between prostitution and other kinds of semi-commercial promiscuity were drawn by society and by the law. As the inequalities within British society were mirrored on a much larger scale with the rise of globalization, more and more women of colour and immigrants could be found within London’s sex industry. Women worked increasingly indoors, and street solicitation—at one point the norm for most women who sold sex, including very high-class prostitutes—came to be seen as the resort of the poorest and most marginalized women, even as indoor prostitution also rendered many women isolated and vulnerable.

One of the most significant narratives of prostitution control in London over the course of 400 years is the increasingly careful and in some ways successful attempts to separate prostitution from other kinds of moral and public order offences and to separate prostitutes from other kinds of potentially transgressive women and women in public. That being said, the actual definition of prostitution, and the line between who is and who is not a prostitute, continues to defy tidy categorizations every bit as much as it did in the seventeenth century. Nowhere do the lines between “prostitutes” and “other women” appear blurrier than within the glimpses we get of the lives, experiences, and opinions of women who sell sex. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such sources are rare indeed, and while “whore biographies” (of mostly high class prostitutes) were a popular genre, they tell us much more about the social and political context of these highly stylized accounts than about most women who sold sex in this period. 99 In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, London prostitutes appear within the police files and reform home records that were steadily growing and yet their experiences remain fragmented within these sources, and are heavily mediated by the authorities that produced them. Most of all, these women only appear to us in times of duress: after an arrest, within a prison, as a victim of an attack. For historians of the future, the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century will mark an immense change in this regard. This era has seen the proliferation of stories from women who sell sex, sometimes through the work of sociologists, but also through the narration of their own lives. Unlike in past sources, where they are caricatured, ventrioloquized, or marginalized, we are now getting a real sense of the experiences and opinions of many different women who sell sex in their own words. 100


William T. Stead, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, Part iv, Pall Mall Gazette, 10 July 1885.


Ruth Mazo Karras, Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England (Oxford, 1996), pp. 37–41.


Paul Griffiths, Lost Londons: Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550–1660 (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 78, 96–97.


Ibid., p. 79.


Paul Griffiths, “The Structure of Prostitution in Elizabethan London”, Continuity and Change, 8 (1993), pp. 39–63, 54; Ian Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge, 1991), p. 212.


Griffiths, Lost Londons, pp. 77–78, 85.


Tony Henderson, Disorderly Women in Eighteenth Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730–1830 (London, 1999), p. 74.


For Covent Garden in the late seventeenth century, see for instance the ditty “HELLS Nightwalker: / OR, / The Devil in Petticoats. / Being a dismal Ditty concerning two Gentlemen, / who went to pick up a fine Lady, as they thought, walking in Covent-Garden”, c. 1690–1700, Facsimile on the English Broadside Ballad Archive, available at: http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/32797/image; last accessed 7 July 2017.


Henderson, Disorderly Women, pp. 52–75.


Julia Laite, Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial sex in London, 1880–1960 (Basingstoke, 2011), pp. 78–83.


Henderson, Disorderly Women, pp. 23–27; Laite, Common Prostitutes, pp. 60–62.


Faramerz Dabhoiwala, “The Pattern of Sexual Immorality in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century London”, Londinopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London (Manchester, 2000), pp. 86–106, 93; Griffiths, “The Structure of Prostitution”, pp. 43–45.


Henderson, Disorderly Women, pp. 30–32.


Laite, Common Prostitutes, pp. 135–148.


Griffiths, “The Structure of Prostitution”, p. 45; Laite, Common Prostitutes, p. 61.


For an extensive account of the Wolfenden Committee and the formulation of the 1959 Street Offences Act, see Helen Self, Prostitution, Women, and the Misuse of the Law: The Fallen Daughters of Eve (London, 2001).


See for instance, Phil Hubbard, “Cleansing the Metropolis: Sex Work and the Politics of Zero Tolerance”, Urban Studies, 41 (2004), pp. 1687–1702.


Cecil Hewitt Rolphe (ed.) (Rosalind Wilkinson unattributed author), Women of the Streets: A Sociological Study of the Common Prostitute (London, 1955), p. 9.


A prostitute calling card ephemera collection going back to the 1960s is archived at the Wellcome Library. See also, Caroline Archer, Tart Cards: London’s Illicit Advertising Art (West New York, 2003).


There is very little work focusing on the impact of the internet on the sex industry in Britain and London. For general research with an American focus, see Scott Cunningham, and Todd Kendall, “Prostitution 2.0: The Changing Face of Sex Work”, Journal of Urban Economics, 69 (2011), pp. 273–287.


Henderson, Disorderly Women, p. 70; Laite, Common Prostitutes, p. 80.


King’s Cross remains one of the few areas of London that has a comparatively prominent street sex scene. See for instance Erin Sanders and Lucy Neville, “Women’s Open Space Project Evaluation: Final Report”, New Horizon Youth Centre and Middlesex University, 2012, available at: http://www.nhyouthcentre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/WOS-Final-Report-12-Sept.pdf; last accessed 18 November 2013.


Dabhoiwala, “The Pattern of Sexual Immorality”, p. 94; Eleanor Hubbard, City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in Early Modern London (Oxford, 2012), pp. 107–110; Griffiths, Lost Londons, pp. 149–150.


Henderson, Disorderly Women, pp. 14–16; Henderson is following Olwen Hufton’s concept of “economy of makeshifts” developed in her work on the poor in eighteenth century France. Olwen Hufton, The Poor of Eighteenth Century France, 1750–1789 (Oxford, 1974), p. 16.


Merrick, Work among the Fallen as Seen from a Prison Cell (London, [circa 1891]), p. 46.


Ibid., p. 23.


Mary Higgs, Glimpses into the Abyss (London, 1906), pp. 208–209.


Daboiwala, “The Pattern of Sexual Immorality”, p. 98; Paula Bartley, Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in England, 1860–1914 (London, 2000), pp. 6–12; Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State (Cambridge, 1980), p. 219.


Griffiths, Lost Londons, p. 5; Henderson, Disorderly Women, p. 109; William Acton, Prostitution: Considered in its in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspect (London, 1858), pp. 57–58; Wilkinson, Women of the Streets, p. 99.


Griffiths, Lost Londons, pp. 49–50; Merrick, Work among the Fallen, p. 46.




Hubbard, City Women, pp. 100–101; Garthine Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 56–58.


The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (London, 1957), p. 79.


Mr. Reese-Davis, MP, House of Commons Debate, 29 January 1959, Hansards vol. 598 cc 1, pp. 267–386, 1267.


Sophie Day, On the Game: Women and Sex Work (London, 2007) passim; Teela Sanders, Maggie O’Neill and Jane Pitcher, Prostitution: Sex Work, Policy and Politics (London, 2009), pp. 39–40.


For prostitution, trafficking, and immigration law in the wider European context, see Rutvica Andrijasevic, Migration, Agency, and Citizenship in Sex Trafficking (Basingstoke, 2010).


For early modern male prostitution see Rictor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700–1830 (Stroud, 2006). For modern male prostitution, see for instance Katie Hindmarch-Watson, “Male Prostitution and the London gpo: Telegraph Boys’ ‘Immorality’ from Nationalization to the Cleveland Street Scandal”, Journal of British Studies, 51 (2012), pp. 594–617.


Griffiths, Lost Londons, p. 55.


Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis (London, 1806), p. 340.


Edward Bradford to Home Office, 27 November 1901, London, National Archives, ho 45/10123/B13517.


Trevor Gibbens and Martin Silberman, “The Clients of Prostitutes”, British Journal of Venereal Disease, 36 (1960), pp. 113–117.


This most recent study also found that men who bought sex were more likely to be between the ages of 25 and 34, never married, and living in London. They also had a higher rate of stis. Helen Ward et al., “Who Pays for Sex? An Analysis of the Increasing Prevalence of Female Commercial Sex Contacts among Men in Britain”, Sexually Transmitted Infection, 81 (2005), pp. 467–471.


Dabhoiwala, “The Pattern of Sexual Immorality”, p. 88.


Ibid., p. 101.


Henderson, Disorderly Women, pp. 43–47.


See for instance Acton, Prostitution, p. 15.


Julie Bindel and Helen Atkin, “Big Brothel: A Survey of the Off-Street Sex Industry in London”, Poppy Project/Eaves (London, 2008), p. 5.


United Kingdom Network of Sex Work Projects (uknswp), “Academic Response to ‘Big Brothel’”, available at: http://www.uknswp.org/wp-content/uploads/AcademicResponseBigBrothelFinSept2008.pdf; last accessed 7 July 2017.


Paul Griffiths, “Meanings of Nightwalking in Early Modern England”, The Seventeenth Century, 13 (1998), pp. 212–238, 228; Henderson, Disorderly Women, p. 19; Merrick, Work Among the Fallen, p. 27.


Laite, Common Prostitutes, pp. 106–107.


Bindel and Atkin, “Big Brothel”, pp. 17–19.


Merrick, Work Among the Fallen, p. 46.


Ibid., p. 31.


1880 Industrial Schools Amendment Act (43 & 44 Vic, ch. 15), 1908 Children Act (8 Edw 7, Ch. 67).


Griffiths, Lost Londons, pp. 266–267.


Linda E. Merians, “The London Lock Hospital and the Lock Asylum for Women”, in Linda E. Merians (ed.), The Secret Malady: Venereal Disease in Eighteenth-century Britain and France, (Lexington, 1996), pp. 128–148.


Pamela Cox, “Compulsion, Voluntarism, and Venereal Disease: Governing Sexual Health in England after the Contagious Diseases Acts”, Journal of British Studies, 46 (2007), pp. 91–115.


Helen Ward and Sophie Day, “What Happens to Women who Sell Sex? Report of a Unique Occupational Cohort”, Sexually Transmitted Infection, 82 (2006), pp. 413–417.


Dabhoiwala, “The Pattern of Sexual Immorality”, p. 89.


Henderson, Disorderly Women, p. 38. For the immense variety of sex acts for sale in nineteenth century London, see “Walter” (Anonymous), My Secret Life, 11 vols (London, 1995 [1888]).


Wilkinson, Women of the Streets, pp. 59–60; Laite, Common Prostitutes, p. 37.


Griffiths, Lost Londons, pp. 48–49; Jeremy Boulton “Wage Labour in Seventeenth Century London”, Economic History Review, 49 (1996), pp. 268–290, 278.


Sanders et al., Prostitution, pp. 36–37.


Karras, Common Women, pp. 3435. On regulation in the colonies, see Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (London, 2001).


Melissa Mowry, “London’s Bridewell: Violence, Prostitution, and Questions of Evidence”, in Joseph P. Ward (ed.), Violence, Politics, and Gender in Early Modern England (Basinstoke, 2008), pp. 207–222, 211.


Faramerz Dabhiowala, “Sex, Social Relations and the Law in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-century London”, in Michael J. Braddick and John Walter (eds), Negotiating Power in Early Modern Society: Order, Hierarchy and Subordination in Britain and Ireland (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 85–101, 86–87.


Mowry, “London’s Bridewell”, pp. 211–212.


Griffiths, Lost Londons, p. 203; Dabhiowala, “Sex, Social Relations and the Law”, pp. 86–87.


Griffiths, “Meanings of Nightwalking”, pp. 216, 221, 223.


Griffiths, Lost Londons, pp. 205–206.


For a full account of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century anti-vice movements in London, see Alan Hunt, Governing Morals: A Social History of Moral Regulation (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 28–54.


Henderson, Disorderly Women, pp. 86–89.


Dabhoiwala, “Sex, Social Relations and the Law”, p. 93.


Henderson, Disorderly Women, p. 140.


1751 Disorderly Houses Act (25 Geo. ii, c. 36) s. 5 and 25.


1824 Vagrancy Act (5. Geo. iv, c. 83) s. 3, 4, and 5.


1839 Metropolitan Police (2 & 3 Vict., c. 47) s. 54.


1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act (48 & 49 Vict., c. 69); The Judicial Statistics of England and Wales.


Judicial Statistics of England and Wales; Laite, Common Prostitutes, p. 225.


Wilkinson, Women of the Streets, p. 18.


Henderson, Disorderly Women, p. 134.


Mary Peace, “Figuring the London Magdalen House: Mercantalist Hospital, Sentimental Asylum or Proto-Evangelical Penitentiary?”, in Ann Lewis and Markman Ellis (eds), Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture, (London, 2012), pp. 141–156, 141.


Henderson, Disorderly Women, pp. 186–187.


Peace, “London Magdalen House”, p. 155.


Third Annual Report of the National Vigilance Association, 1888, London, London Metropolitan Archive, LMA A/FWA/C/D150/1.


Bartley, Prostitution, pp. 94–115.


See “Expulsion of Foreign Prostitutes: Co-operation of the National Vigilance Association, 1913–1933”, London, n.a., ho 45/15041.


Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, p. 81.


Teela Sanders, “Kerbcrawler Rehabilitation Programmes: Curing the ‘Deviant’ Male and Reinforcing the ‘Respectable’ Moral Order”, Critical Social Policy, 29 (2009), pp. 77–99.


Catherine Jane Benson and Roger Matthews, The National Vice Squad Survey (Middlesex, 1995).


Home Office (2007) The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, available at: http://www​.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp2007/rp07-065.pdf; last accessed 20 November 2013.


Marianne Hester and Nicole Westmarland, Tackling Street Prostitution: Towards a Holistic Approach (London, 2004); “Paying the Price: A Consultation Paper on Prostitution” (London, 2006).


Griffiths, “The Structure of Prostitution”, pp. 45–46; Griffiths, Lost Londons, pp. 148–149.


Laite, Common Prostitutes, pp. 87–99.


Andrew Boff, “Silence on Violence: Improving the Safety of Women. The policing of off-street sex work and sex trafficking in London” (London, 2012), available at: http://www​.uknswp.org/wp-content/uploads/SILENCEONVIOLENCElondonmajorofficereport19thmarch2012.pdf; last accessed 7 July 2017.


Rosie Campbell and Lynn Hancock “Sex Work in the Climate of Zero Tolerance: Hearing Loud Voices and the Silence of Dissent”, paper presented at the Sex Work Reassessed conference, University of East London, 2008; Phil Hubbard, “Morality, Sexuality and the City: The Marginalisation of Street Prostitutes”, Gender, Place and Culture, 5 (2008), pp. 55–72; Sanders and O’Neill, Prostitution, p. 35.


Phil Hubbard, “Cleansing the Metropolis: Sex Work and the Politics of Zero Tolerance”, Urban Studies, 41 (2004), pp. 1687–1702; Phil Hubbard, “Legal Geographies: Controlling Sexually Oriented Businesses: Law, Licensing, and the Geographies of a Controversial Land Use”, Urban Geography, 30 (2009), pp. 185–205.


Susan Collinson, Reg Straub, Georgina Perry, “The Invisible Men: Finding and Engaging with the Male Partners of Street Sex Workers”, Journal of Men’s Health, 8 (2011), pp. 202–207.


For a critical edited collection of these biographies, see Julie Peakman (ed.), Whore Biographies: 1700–1825, Parts i and ii (London, 2006 & 2007).


More pamphlets and accounts began to be published from the late 1970s with the rise of the organized prostitutes’ rights movement, some of which can be found in the English Collective of Prostitutes’ files at the Women’s Library, London (see for instance 3AMS/B/16/05). However, the internet has been the most significant medium facilitating an even wider range of prostitutes’ voices. See for instance the “Sex Workers” subreddit on Reddit, a popular community-focused and community-moderated web content aggregator, available at: http://www.reddit.com/r/sexworkers; last accessed 7 July 2017.

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