Aspects of Sex Work in the 18th and 21st Centuries, Part 1

I’m currently reading Tony Henderson’s excellent book on prostitution in London in the 18th century, Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730-1830. I’ve only just started but I can see from the table of contents, and from the clear and forthright writing I’ve read so far, that this will provide me with some valuable background information for my own book. Henderson mentions his three main aims early on in the book, two of which are: “to identify the dominant social characteristics and the motives of those who entered prostitution [and] to describe the relative importance of the street and the brothel.”

henderson book

As with many things associated with sex work (or, frankly, with sex generally) there were various demographics and constituencies who for self-serving reasons, or because of a lack of honest analysis, attributed ludicrous reasons to women becoming prostitutes. Early on in his book, Henderson cites these as some of the reasons suggested:

  • “increasing frivolity and indiscipline in the manner in which female children were raised … corrupted by novels and the general luxury and opulence of the nation” (1); the child then considers herself “ripe for Joy,” as Father Poussin puts it in his harsh and weirdly titled book (2)
  • “the ‘ruining’ of the girl by a ‘Rampant rake,’ thus leading her to the streets or to a brothel
  • “innocence, rather than appetites … prostitution [drawing] its recruits … from the respectable families of the impoverished lower middle classes”

In the 18th century as often in our own century, it turns out that the main reason for women entering prostitution was this simple poverty. The women needed money and either because of their upbringing or their lack of success in gaining experience in “respectable” jobs, they had few options for earning enough to keep themselves fed, clothed, housed, and alive. Selling access to their bodies was at least theoretically an option that was available to any woman. (3)

There are more details to come in the book, as evidenced by the table of contents …

the structure of the trade
sexual practices
disorderly houses in the City
the secular law 1670s-1830
policing in practice
the prostitute as victim

… just to mention a few. But for this post I’d like to concentrate on one of the things that Henderson mentions in passing, and to compare it to sex work in the 21st century: the streets and the brothel. Those may have been the two main modes by which men met, had sex with, and paid prostitutes in the 18th century, and though these still exist today in various countries or parts of countries, there’s been a kind of “fine-tuning” or “granularity” — I’m finding it hard to find a word that’s neither pompous nor mechanistic — that exists today which defies the simplicity of the two modes, and frankly serves the dual purpose of allowing women to carry on this work while at the same time concealing its very existence from the tender eyes of moralistic zealots.

We now have the internet of course, and it has enabled sex work to be practiced more directly and “conveniently” and in effect making it in some cases completely invisible to the general public. I would delineate these methods at a minimum as how the trade is carried on today:

  • stripping
  • pornography
  • streetwalking
  • brothels
  • escorting
  • erotic massage (“spas” or “clubs”)
  • erotic massage (“rub and tug”)
  • sugar-babying
  • webcamming

I make no argument that this is a comprehensive list, but I will discuss the last five from the point of their invisibility to regular society. Escorting has connotations for many people of the very wealthy man who pays a beautiful woman for sex, and often in addition treats her to gifts and dinners in fancy restaurants and the occasional trip to Paris to see the sights and do some shopping. No doubt there are some cases like this, but escorts are also available to the much less wealthy. They sometimes work in their own home, or in an “in-call” location (e.g., a rented suite of rooms), or they do “out-calls” to men in hotels or even at their (the men’s) own homes.

Erotic massage is one of the very hidden modes of sex work. The sex workers (referred to as massage attendants or MA’s) work either in suites of buildings that you may pass every day, or in industrial parks, far from curious prying eyes, the massage rooms themselves with their lights flashing incongruously among the tool-supply shops or wholesale distribution offices.

Sugar-babying is essentially amateur escorting — amateur not in the sense that the women aren’t paid, but that they are not professionals who do mostly escorting for their living. The sugar-babies cover a very wide range of mostly very young women who need money for an ad hoc or ongoing purpose: tuition fees (many are college or university students), debts, even just food.

Webcamming takes full advantage of the internet in order for the women to make money. The men view them online only and either tip them for their performance, or — similar to stripping — move to a “private session” where the man can actually give the woman instructions on what he wants her to do.

In the 18th century, of course, many of these forms of sex work were unavailable or technologically impossible, but one could imagine an equivalent of sugar-babying perhaps (e.g., a man simply having an affair and paying the woman). Brothels and streetwalking were the two main methods in the 18th century, whereas in our own century the former are often illegal except in certain countries, and the latter has to be managed carefully by the woman so that she doesn’t put herself in danger from unpredictable clients or from the police who are trying to, as the parlance has it, “clean up the streets.”

In a future post, I will discuss some of the other aspects of sex work mentioned above for both centuries.

(1) The Evils of Adultery and Prostitution, with an Enquiry into the Causes of Their Present Alarming Increase, and Some Means Recommended for Checking Their Progress (1792)

(2) Pretty Doings in a Protestant Nation: Being a View of the Present State of Fornication, Whorecraft, and Adultery … (1734)

(3) A similar argument is made by Mr. White (played by Harvey Keitel) in the famous scene in Reservoir Dogs about tipping waitresses. “Waitressing is the number one occupation for female non-college graduates in this country. It’s the one job that basically any woman can get and make a living on. The reason is because of their tips.” (1992)

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