Eighteenth Century London: Prostitutes

Eighteenth Century London: Prostitutes

Prostitutes in 18th century London


The image of prostitution

Prostitution as a part of the life cycle

Acceptance of prostitutes

Women, prostitutes and consumption

The identity conflict

‘A Harlot’s Progress’ by William Hogarth

The change





Big changes in the 18th century took place. The emergence of commercial society, imperial expansion, the military success, the development of trade and the consumer and financial revolution had enormous effects on the population. A rapid population growth could be seen and also changes in the social structure took place. The political and religious development, changes in social status, and the changed attitude towards race and age affected women’s life.

Access to a variety of commodities was now possible and many things were available in the marketplace. But this new situation also confronted the people with new uncertainties about wealth and value especially when looking at the stock market and they also had to face moral concerns about luxury and unpredictability.1

These factors and the general decline in the standard of living for lower classes because of less free time were reasons for the cause of new social problems like rape, crime and prostitution. Homosexuality was also seen as a social problem in these days.2

The image of prostitution

In the 18th century women were seen as a part of the domestic or private sphere. They were supposed to be in charge of the family life and thus disconnected from public life.

The images we have of prostitution are misleading. And often we owe them to 18th/19th century literature or pornography but not to the reality of prostitution. This time gave birth to expressions like bawd, libertine, sympathetic tart and plush brothel. Here the perspective of generally male moralists also plays a great role in stigmatizing these expressions.3

Throughout the 18th century women sold sex for money in most communities. But many women did not see themselves in the light of a ‘prostitute’. They sold sex as a part of an economy makeshift and thus prostitution could be seen as a normal part of a wide-ranging set of economic and social activities. But moral reformers have constructed it as a social problem.4

Women appeared to drift between prostitution and other kinds of employment to a modern construction of prostitution as “diseased other”.5 This meant that a prostitute was not seen as a proper woman when considering the understanding of a woman and her role back in the 18th century. She was not integrated into society because of not fulfilling the role of the 18th century woman.

In the decades before the 18th century writers did not see prostitution as an economic work. Later in the 18th century prostitution was seen as a way to earn money and to finance life. That does not mean that this way of earning money was in anyway accepted. This can be seen in the fact that writers of that time did not represent prostitution as a legitimate work in their writing. But what they did was an exploration of the difficult situations of women and prostitutes and they tried to figure out the economic effects prostitution had on the emergence of middle-class and labouring class subjectivity.6

In the earlier years of the 18th century, prostitutes were more seen as “the others”. But they became to appear more and more like everyone else.7

A pattern of commercial sex developed and a publicly visible sex industry appeared. In texts prostitutes became virtually omnipresent. A range of meanings concerning sex appeared. These meanings ranged from libertine versions to reformist versions and everything in between. Whereas reformist visions warned the public that prostitution could mean a form of class decent, libertine versions represented prostitution as a form of upward movement.

Most prostitutes worked for themselves and were far from being organized by someone else. They often worked the streets in pairs and either offered their services in some side road or they rented a room. There have also been bawdy houses available but the organization of the ‘trade’ was almost entirely left to the women involved. The activities of the procuresses were usually deeply resented by the broader public.8

Thus the prostitutes showed a surprising degree of autonomy and they were quiet capable of defending themselves against the depredations of the law or social reformers. They demonstrated a certain amount of self-confidence and thus acted very disrespectful towards the authority.9

Prostitution as part of the life cycle

Prostitution was a life experience of many women. It seemed to have been a part of a common life cycle. Especially in the years between 15 and 25 women earned their money with prostitution. In these years the greatest economic insecurity was for many women apparent. The prostitutes had to face a troubling tension between their sexuality and their economically difficult situation.10

Most of the women came from poverty stricken homes. Prostitution was connected to a world where economic despair and sexual irregularity were the norm and it was often an integral part of plebeian society. Thus prostitution can be seen as a response to the living standards of the vast majority of the plebeian women.11

After this part of the life cycle most of the women probably went on to marry and set up a household. They even might have saved up the main part of their earnings to do so. So being a prostitute did not always ruin their reputation and they still had a chance to marry and build up a family life.12

Acceptance of prostitutes

The Plebeian culture still did not tolerate promiscuity or sexual laxity because prostitutes were actively acting against one element of the most basic moral code of plebeian culture. The sexual reputation was of central importance to plebeian women in the 18th century.13

This whole issue displays a certain contradiction between the evidence of the acceptance of prostitution implied in demographic and criminal court records and the cultural antagonism that the idea of prostitution and the disorderly behaviour inspires. Thus a neighbour or individual friend working as a prostitute might have been seen as a friend and might have been accepted but still prostitution was not accepted. The prostitutes found themselves in a conflict between traditional norms and the modern economic possibilities.14

Women, Prostitutes and Consumption

In the 18th century women have always been aligned with the body. A women’s body always threatened to dominate either the male world or consumption or both. This is the reason why women were supposed to consume everything at sight, resulting in the association of the consumer culture with women. It was assumed that women were hungry for things.15

This consuming woman would then threaten male power because women were too present in the economy and had the power over everything they wanted to consume. What happened here was an ideological construction of the female subject. Women were seen primarily as consumers. Secondary they were seen as evil because they consumed mainly foreign things which was supposed to cause increasing economic disenfranchisement. This is the reason why women had to be removed from the scene of business and were banned to the domestic sphere.16

Prostitution was now the remaining profession in which women continued to do business. They had nothing left except their bodies. Women did the business of the body. The prostitutes had to serve the carnal needs of the business community. They had to negotiate their identities and they had to survive in this new modern world.17

Prostitution is “something other than the hours and the men reserved for pleasure” 18 because it is a form of work.

In this respect consumption was metaphorically seen as a bodily phenomenon, not of the mind. Hence woman as a body could be seen as ready to be consumed.19

The symbolic function of prostitution in the economic modernity became to condemn the consumption of exotic luxuries brought by trade. But prostitutes consumed in excess as well and focused in their consumption especially on exotic fashion and they tempted men into irresponsible indulgences which meant that commercial sex represented a seduction of the new economy.20

The elite prostitutes represented the leaders of London’s fashion. That meant that they were bringing men and their money to the city and that they were also supporting the high end clothing industry. The women saw the elite prostitutes as idols and wanted to wear similar clothes. In this way prostitutes fostered economy and increased the income of tradesmen, shopkeepers, merchants, and industrialists. This represents the obvious ties of prostitutes to the marketplace.21

But the prostitutes were also a reminder of everything which was strange and threatening about the new global trade and commerce. Thus prostitutes gained purchasing power because of publicly exchanging sexual labour in the marketplace.22

The identity conflict

But prostitution was also often connected to degradation, eroticization and exoticization in 18th century literature.23

Prostitutes represented the fallout of commercial society. When they took part in the market they first had to claim masculine position of self ownership to be successful. Moralists argue that women could find a different type of work and were not forced to sell their bodies. They could have done easy works like sewing, selling and so on. What was found out is that many prostitutes did indeed have a second work. Many women who had to supply their family worked in jobs which did not bring in enough money to feed everyone, thus they had to take on a second work and this could be found often enough in the field of prostitution, as a supplement to the meager income.24

A connection to urbanization, enclosure and the limited employment possibilities in the city is obvious. People had to find their ways to make a living.25

Prostitutes drifted into a field where the private sphere is no longer private and struggled hard to keep or to find their identity. The conflict in themselves was a threat to their personal identity.26

Female prostitutes were seen as “jades” and “hacks” which means that they were horses “exhausted by drudgery and by extension anyone who hired him/herself out for remunerative but unengaging, degrading, or unenjoyable work”27. Prostitution was seen as a scandalous form of trade and it was gendered as feminine. While women “produced” sexual goods men consumed these goods right away. This linked consumption directly to production, whereas it was a linkage people did not want to be aware of during this time. They wanted to forget where things came from and how they were produced because only in this way they could enjoy luxury.28

The new construction of prostitution also helped to form a new understanding of gender, class, sexuality and discipline.29

Prostitution also symbolized self-division and alienation and while doing so it was one way of a self- characterization in a modern commercial market society and at least one way to set yourself apart from others. In fact there could be seen a movement from a patriarchal to a contract society. This allows and demands female capacity to make contracts on an equal basis. Even if there was the risk that a contract may not be followed or honoured by men and that there was no punishment for such a thing, this was still a possibility of power for prostitutes.30

Women had to endure dispassionate sex and following this circumstances there appeared to be an emergent reconceptualization of the female body.

Prostitutes were not seen as being able to achieve commercial success because even when they earned money they would spend it on luxuries. In this context prostitution could be seen as an unpleasant social performance for profit which was accompanied by a transition of social identity. Instead of being just dependent on birth, the identity became more and more dependent on different forms of activities of labour, self-representation, manners and accumulation.31

It was hard to distinguish between a woman and a prostitute but there were efforts to achieve this distinction because not every woman at that time was a prostitute.32

There appeared to be a certain cycle which a woman experienced. The first stage was supposed to be at the level of an omniscient servant. Women were the victims of a young rake who debauched a woman and after using her for his own pleasure abandoned the ruined woman. Hitchcock described this cycle as followed:

‘A young creature perhaps is debauch’d at
fifteen, soon abandoned, quickly common, as
quickly diseas’d, and as quickly loathsome and

‘A Harlot’s Progress’ by William Hogarth

In ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ by William Hogarth, a sequence of six pictures shows this presumed stages of a woman coming from the countryside to find a job in the city.

Picture 1

In picture one there can be seen a young woman, Mary (Moll) Hackabout. She just arrives in London and comes actually from the countryside. She goes to London to find work as a servant. A bawd praises her beauty and suggests that she should do something more profitable. She proposes that Mary should work as a prostitute.

Picture 2

In the second picture we can see Mary/Moll as a mistress of a wealthy Jewish merchant who just returns home from business. Moll turns over the table so that the merchant does not see her lover on his way out.

Picture 3

Picture three is the first image drewn by Hogarth. It shows Moll Hackabout doing her morning toilette in a garret. Moll is drawn very erotic, being loosely dressed and sitting inactive on her bed, the place where her profession takes place. In the background there can be seen a magistrate entering the room. He arrives to arrest Moll for selling her body.

Picture 4

The fourth picture displays Moll being in Bridewell Prison and beating hemp. The inscription on the wall says: “Better to work than stand thus.” There is a black woman standing next to Moll. She represents the parallelism between Moll’s present situation and slavery. Both has to do with damaging one’s body and with working for other people without having to any trights. Both are not respected in society and end up in the same situation, captured and punished.

Picture 5

In the fifth picture Moll is out of prison but is infected with syphilis. She is living in poor conditions and is dying. There are two doctors present but they are fighting about the right indication and thus are occupied. We can see a child trying to cook a meal which is also ignored by everyone. Presumably this is Moll’s child.

Picture 6

The sixth picture shows a funeral. We see Moll’s coffin. On the plate on top of the coffin it says: “23 years old”. The funeral is a gathering of her professional colleagues. No friends, no family. There is a mixture of grief and disinterest. The clergyman seems to be distracted by his female companion which shows that not even he takes his profession serious.

This was an ironic presentation of a life cycle of a woman at that time and it makes clear that Hogarth wants to criticize the image of the woman as a victim because it is far from realistic. Still this sequence shows how the life of a woman as a prostitute was seen in these days and what kind of life expectancy such a life promised.34

The change

There could be seen a great change in the way in which the broader society constructed and responded to the idea of prostitution. The literary and sociological image of prostitution and prostitutes changed. The cause for becoming a prostitute was seen somewhere else now. In the 18th century a modern form of prostitution developed. Prostitutes started to be set apart by others from other women. New legal strategies appeared which were established to control disorderly women. This was at a time were an increasing tendency for prostitution was noted.35

Prostitution as an activity to earn money stayed the same but it was the idea about it which changed extremely. Throughout the 18th century the idea of a prostitute was created and re-created a few times.36

At the beginning of the 18th century the reason why a woman would become a prostitute was an individual moral failure, a failure of virtue and the absence of honour. Women were supposed to be very lustful, physically desirous of sex and not able to hold back these drives and thus the private sphere was violated. It was seen as a weakness and a moral depravation of women. One assumed that prostitutes chose idleness over eagerness and this was associated with sin.37

In the 1690s and 1700s societies for the reformations of manners appeared. They were motivated by a providential religious understanding of social change. Prostitutes were seen as aggressors and criminals and needed to be punished.38

In the mid 18th century there could be seen a rise of the cult of seduction. It occurred a changing in the understanding of female and male sexuality. The new image of the ‘fallen women’ arose. The women were now seen as the victim of seduction.39

According to the new assumptions women had a rather passive role and were presumably lacking sexual desire, whereas men took the active part in this idea. All the sudden women appeared to be the object of pity, charity and manipulation. Thus the idea about women changed from being lustful and full of barely controllable desire to being sexually numb. This is why the assumption was made that women should be protected and hence be confirmed in the household.40

During this period workhouses have been established , so that women had to find a place to sleep, help and work. In these institutions they taught the women manners and skills. Many women knew how to behave themselves to get into such a workhouse so they used the new image about prostitutes to improve their situation knowing that this new image is not close to reality.41


Prostitutes were not seen as a part of the society in 18th century London. At the beginning of this century it was understood that these women were leading a life full of sins. It was not understood by the society that for some women this was the only opportunity to earn money and to finance living. They have been stigmatized as the females who try to dominate the male part of society and this was the reason why women were removed from the scene of economic opportunity and positioned as the object of consumer society instead of being a proper subject like the rest of society.

Whereas the experience of the prostitutes did not change much through 18th century, the opinions about them changed during time. Considering that prostitutes have been seen as the active and evil part of society, using men, they are seen as victims at the end of the 18th century, playing a passive role in society.


1 cf. Barker & Chalus 2005: 1; Hitchcock 1997: 94; Rosenthal 2006: 10
2 cf. Barker & Chalus 2005: 2, Hitchcock 1997: 94
3 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 94
4 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 94
5 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 4
6 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 4
7 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 5
8 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 94/95
9 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 5
10 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 95/96; Rosenthal 2006: 7
11 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 95
12 cf.Hitchcock 1997: 96
13 cf.Hitchcock 1997: 96/98
14 cf.Rosenthal 2006: 7
15 cf. Kowaleski-Wallace 1997: 4
16 cf. Kowaleski-Wallace 1997: 5
17 cf. Kowaleski-Wallace 1997: 13; Rosenthal 2006: 6
18 Rosenthal 2006: 6
19 cf. Kowaleski-Wallace 1997: 13
20 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 10
21 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 11
22 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 11
23 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 7
24 cf. Kowaleski-Wallace 1997: 13; Rosenthal 2006: 11/12
25 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 12
26 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 99; Rosenthal 2006: 7
27 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 6
28 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 12
29 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 94ff; Rosenthal 2006: 6
30 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 8
31 cf. Kowaleski-Wallace 1997: 9; Rosenthal 2006: 9
32 cf. Rosenthal 2006: 10
33 Hitchcock 1997: 105
34 cf. Ackland Museum 2010; Hitchcock 1997: 100; Rosenthal 2006: 12/13
35 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 98; Rosenthal 2006: 4
36 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 98
37 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 99; Rosenthal 2006: 6
38 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 99
39 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 99
40 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 100
41 cf. Hitchcock 1997: 103


Ackland Art Museum. 2010. A Harlot’s Progress. The University of North Carolina.
URL: http://www.ackland.org/art/exhibitions/reasonfantasy/harlot1.htm
(Stand: 08.05.2010).

Barker, Hannah; Chalus, Elaine. 2005. Women’s history: Britain, 1700-1850. London: Routledge.

Hitchcock, Tim. 1997. English sexualities, 1700-1800. Basingstoke u.a.: Macmillan.

Kowaleski-Wallace, Elizabeth. 1997. Consuming subjects: Women, shopping, and business in the Eighteenth-Century. New York: Columbia University Press.