Prostitution has long been frowned upon by society, but at no time was it so despised as in the 1800s. Newspapers and pamphlets would regularly write about what they called the ‘Great Social Evil’ in reference to prostitution in Victorian London, and it was this frequent belittling that led to such intolerance towards sex workers that it put them at risk of attack, especially from those like Jack the Ripper who so clearly had a deep-set hatred for every Victorian prostitute they came across.
The media at the time were guilty of overstating the truth with regards to crime, and as such, it was widely thought that sex work was a scourge on society and was fast becoming an epidemic, but what really are the facts surrounding prostitution in Victorian times? Was it as bad as it was made out to be, and what happened to women who were charged with it?
Getting into Sex Work
To understand sex work in the 1800s, it’s essential to understand what drove people to it. Rather unsurprisingly, the reason many women started in sex work was for the same reason so many still do today: money.
Jobs were hard to come by in Victorian London, especially for women who were so heavily restricted in what jobs they were allowed to undertake. The three most common jobs for women were as servants, factory workers or seamstresses, but with the population increasing rapidly, there weren’t enough jobs for everyone, and those who did manage to find employment were often underpaid and overworked. Wages scarcely covered living expenses, and so there was a need to find other ways to make money.
For men, they often did this by pick-pocketing. For women, sex work proved to be relatively lucrative. There was certainly a demand for it, although many were forced into it. Rape was common in the Victorian era, but prosecution for it was rare. Instead, it was seen as a scandal rather than a crime and it could severely damage a woman’s reputation, meaning she couldn’t get married or get a good job. If a woman was raped, her standing in society was almost certainly damaged beyond repair and her job prospects would be next to nothing, leaving sex work as the only other option to make a living.
Types of Victorian Prostitution
There were three main types of sex work women could undertake: lodging with sailors and soldiers, living in a brothel or walking the streets. Most women did the latter, despite it being the riskier of the three options.
Whilst physical abuse and rape were prevalent across all forms of prostitution, walking the streets had one much more dangerous risk: murder. Jack the Ripper famously targeted prostitutes, but his victims certainly were not the first nor the last sex workers to be murdered.
What Did a Victorian Prostitute Look Like?
Working laws in Victorian times were very different from modern times, with children being sent out into the workforce at the very first chance. Children typically worked in workhouses or jobs such as chimney sweeps, both of which were very dangerous, but they were surely better than undertaking sex work.
Most prostitutes were late teens to early twenties, with 18-22 years making up the majority of prostitutes, but it wasn’t uncommon for children as young as 12 to walk the streets. Younger children were highly sought after because they possessed the most desirable asset of all: virginity. The major benefit of a man hiring a virgin prostitute was that they largely remained free of disease. Sexually transmitted diseases were somewhat of an epidemic in Victorian London, and when left untreated, they could prove deadly. For this reason, many men opted for virgins and child sex workers because they were seen as pure and untainted.
Aside from the high risk of venereal diseases, generally speaking, prostitutes were in much better health than most other women. This is because sex workers tended to work fewer hours, and the hours they did work provided better wages than could be expected elsewhere, allowing them to eat two meals a day.
Considering most prostitutes came from the lower class, the promise of a somewhat comfortable wage and the ability to support themselves and their families with consistent food made prostitution a somewhat attractive prospect, especially to those with illegitimate children.
A lot of prostitutes more than likely had main jobs and engaged in sex work after hours. The few jobs there were for women were terribly underpaid and did not provide women with enough money to pay for their living expenses and food, meaning without walking the streets to supplement their wages, many women would’ve starved.
Victorian Prostitution Laws
To say prostitution was frowned upon would be an understatement, but the police were very reluctant to do anything about it. Rather than a crime, it was treated as more of a nuisance and prosecution was rare, meaning more women were able to walk the streets and solicit sex without being reprimanded. This lead to a stark increase in STI’s, many of which were passed on to military personnel who began falling ill with them so regularly that the government took action. In the 1860s, the Contagious Diseases Act sought to force women who were accused of being prostitutes to have tests, often against their will.
Not only was this law a violation of women’s rights, but it was also especially problematic to be labelled as a prostitute a woman didn’t necessarily have to sell sex. Many women who lived with a male unmarried, who were raped or who had illegitimate children were referred to as prostitutes, and this meant most lower-class women were hauled in for testing against their will and with no valid grounds to do so. In 1883, the act was suspended and it was repealed in 1886 following the fierce protests lead by Josephine Butler and the Ladies’ National Association.
It became even rarer for police to arrest sex workers following the Elizabeth Case in 1887. Miss Cass was walking down Regent Street at 9pm and was arrested under the premise that no respectable female should be outside at that time of the day. As such, she was cautioned as a prostitute, but her employer supported her claim that she was simply on her way to buy some gloves. Some MPs took interest in her case and went on to overturn her case and publicly humiliate the police. As a result, the Metropolitan Police were prohibited from arresting a female unless a specific complaint has been made.
Following the Jack the Ripper murders, attention turned from looking down on prostitutes to putting into place processes of reform and protection, though this is still an ongoing process to this day.
Contact us or book a place on one of our Jack the Ripper tours to find out more about prostitution in Victorian London, as well as what life was really like at the time the most notorious serial killer wandered the streets of the capital.