Aspects of Sex Work in the 18th and 21st Centuries, Part 2

In Part 1 of this topic, I concentrated on sex work in general in both centuries, but in this post I will focus on the specific detail of how sex workers made money. This may seem obvious, but in a telephone interview I did with William Savage on September 6, for example, he talked about more than just the obvious. (BTW, Savage is a writer of historical fiction set in the Georgian era, and also a prolific tweeter on a wide variety of details about general life in the long 18th century. See his site here or follow him @penandpension.)

The one thing that I hadn’t known about, which Savage enlightened me on, was that one of the key ways that sex workers made — or at least acquired — their money during the 18th century was through theft. A man approaching a prostitute on the street might give her his payment first, and she would then simply run off with it. Kind of ingenious in its simplicity really. The other way for prostitutes managed to get money was indeed the obvious: they would perform a sexual service and then be paid for it. The sexual acts would generally take place in one of three places:

  • outdoors – the prostitute and the customer would simply walk to some more or less secluded area and do their business (e.g., under a bridge)
  • in a brothel
  • in a “common lodging house”1

The lodging houses also made a fortune off the work of the prostitutes. Tony Henderson writes:

… the keepers of quite ordinary houses were able to demand hugely inflated rents from the prostitutes who lodged with them. Compare Dorothy George’s estimate of the average rent of a London artisan of around 2s.6d. a week with the 14s. [prostitutes] Ann Thompson and Elizabeth Webb each paid for board and lodging in the house of Jonathan Britt — with an additional 2s. due for every occasion on which a man accompanied them to their rooms.2

There are some analogies between these things and some practices in 21st-century sex work as well. The taking of the money from a customer without actually providing a service can sometimes be accomplished electronically. If the man sends funds electronically, for example through PayPal or Interac, for a sex worker to arrive at his own home or hotel room (a “reverse common lodging house” perhaps!) then he is taking a chance that the sex worker will show up at all. If she’s responsible, or if she sees the potential of a repeat customer, she will. If not, the money will be in her account and the man may never hear from her again.

You may wonder why I’m interested so much in sex work in the 18th century when I’m nominally writing a biography of Samuel Johnson, who was not known to frequent prostitutes (unlike Boswell of course). Sex work is just one of the parts of the milieu of 18th-century England that I want to provide information about to the general reader for whom I’m writing the book. Unlike scholars, they likely won’t know much or anything about how society worked 250 years ago, and so I want to be able to provide some of that background in order to orient them. I find the comparisons with the current century are useful in order to make the points clearer — and to demonstrate what’s changed or not, and how it’s changed. My plan is to do the same with other aspects of life and culture, such as clothing, publishing, households, and much more.

  1. See Tony Henderson, Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730-1830 (Routledge, 2013) for excellently and succinctly written chapters on all aspects of the sex trade at the time. Chapter 2 covers the basics on the “infrastructure” of the business, including payment and income.
  2. Henderson, pp. 34-35.
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