What Life Was Like As A Sex Worker In The 1700s

In 1760s London, sex was big business. There were brothels on almost every street corner, and thousands of enterprising women collecting their share of the massive wealth that poured through the city.
Most people's views of sex workers in Georgian times are limited to a few glimpses of courtesans in paintings, or the occasional character on TV. However new show Harlots (which is now airing on BBC Two) follows the fortunes of women selling sex in the 18th century, giving us an intriguing insight into their everyday lives – and there are some surprising similarities with the sex we have today...
18th-century sex workers had client review websites (kind of)
In 2020, sex workers can post adverts online to market their services, and on some sites clients can even leave comments and reviews. The Georgian version of this was a book called Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. A bestseller in its day, it effectively functioned as a Who's Who of Covent Garden sex workers, telling potential punters where the best brothels were, who to ask for, which services could be procured and – of course – the price.
But as well as the headlines, Harris's List also contained intriguing snippets of back story, often explaining how the women came to be working in the city. Miss Le__ of Soho was a "tall and genteel" lady who was caught one day "with a certain naughty book". After being whipped by her governess, she ran away and was eventually taken in by a city merchant who was himself "fond of the rod". This submissive suitor helped Miss Le__ find her feet.
Sex work in Georgian times was big business
How big? Estimates vary but historian Dan Cruickshank, in his book The Secret History Of Georgian London, posits that the sex trade in London at the time had an annual turnover of around £20 million. That's close to £1.5 billion in today's money.
Why so much money? Well, back in Georgian times there were far more women working in the sex trade – it wasn't just the quickest route to riches, it was one of the few ways women really could earn money. As historian Dr. Kate Lister explains on her blog Whores of Yore, there were far fewer options than there are for women today: “Historically, men have always held the money and the power and there was only three ways a woman could access some of that for herself; she could inherit it, she could marry it, or she could shag it.”
Sex could cost anywhere from a few pennies to £9,000
As a Georgian sex worker, how much you could charge depended on a number of factors. Your Harris review would certainly make a difference, but so would the reputation of the brothel you were working in. Apparently, the average cost was just under one guinea (about £1), although haggling wasn't unheard of. Harris's List explains of one woman:
“Her price is one pound one, but, like many others of the fraternity, she will not turn her back on a less sum, she will rather accept of half a guinea, than her friend should return home with his burthen.”
More genteel establishments could command much higher prices, though. It is estimated that a night at one of the most fashionable and successful brothels in Soho – with an emphasis on well-groomed women and high-class clientele – could cost up to £2,000 in today's money.
Special services cost even more. Many would charge huge sums – up to £50 (£9,000 in today's money) – to people who wanted to buy a woman's virginity. Naturally, there was big money to be made, as a savvy businesswoman could sell her 'virginity' many times over.
Some rose to the status of major celebrity
Kitty Fisher, a real-life sex worker, was such a celebrity in her day that she even attracted the Georgian equivalent of paparazzi: newspapers and ballad-writers mocked her for falling off her horse one day, playing on the notion of the 'fallen woman'. Her portrait – by one of the most prominent painters of the time – hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
They used condoms (though not as we know them)
Long before the invention of latex there was... sheep intestine. Condoms in Georgian times were made from washed-out sheep guts, tied at the end to stop leaks, and sewn at the other end with ribbon. The resulting condom could be tied on to the penis before sex and rinsed out afterwards.
The Georgians were as keen on porn as we are
The more you look at the sex lives of the Georgians, the easier it is to spot similarities between the sex industry of the time and what we have today. Though our tech might be a little better – porn sites, webcams, nude selfies and the like – Georgians weren't limited to using their imagination. One of the reasons Harris's List was a bestseller was because it wasn't just used as review material, it also served as the Georgian equivalent of porn. People would buy it purely for the titillating reviews inside.
Like the review of Miss S__tt of Cavendish Square, who was “amorous to the greatest degree, and has courage enough not to be afraid of the largest and the strongest man that ever drew weapon in the cause of love.” Or Miss Fra___r, who “enjoys the sport with all the vigorous ardour that may be expected from a girl of one and twenty.” Or Miss H__y: “very active and nimble, and not a little clever in the performance of the art of friction.”
Photo: ITV Picture Desk

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series