A History of Sex Work: The “Common Prostitute”

As the “oldest profession in the world”, the history of sex work is long and complicated by society’s weird relationship with it. For centuries sex workers have occupied an odd space in society: reviled, segregated, treated as a necessary evil, pitied, seen in need of rescuing, seen as being vital parts to the economy…but not often as individuals in different circumstances.

This is partly because of preconceptions and expectations around women that have existed for years. Throughout late medieval and early modern Europe women’s sexuality was to be feared: they were all lustful, insatiable and unbridled and mildly terrifying because of it. (That’s why it was so important to get them married so that they could be satisfied safely.)

There were so many rules and restrictions around sex, that when researching about ‘ordinary’ sex workers (i.e. not the lives of courtesans, who were a different sphere of experience) it’s sometimes hard to tell whether a woman is taking on sex work, or if she’s just, well, having sex.

Judgement of women was intense – a woman walking alone after dark was instantly considered to be a sex worker. I know, imagine not being able to walk around safely in the dark. Thank goodness things have changed.

Sex workers were all different: they got into it for different reasons; some had awful experiences and were abused and exploited, some reached the highest points of society, some enjoyed and took pride in their work, some were ruthless business women and some were trying to put dinner on the table, and some were a mix of these experiences and more.

However, it’s hard not to talk about a thousands of women over several hundred years without generalising, and that is a little bit what I’m about to do here with this non-definitive list of the types of ‘ordinary’ sex workers around in Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Portsmouth Point (1814) Thomas Rowlandson

Registered or unregistered?

Some countries, like France, believed that sex work was sinful, unfortunate but alas! inevitable, and so it was better to try and regulate it as much as possible. 16th century Germany had municipal brothels while Italy attempted to segregate sex workers in ghettos in Rome; in Paris registered sex workers had a long set of regulations to stick to.

In Florence, being a registered sex worker actually gave these women some legal rights – this meant they could (and did) take clients and each other to court, and gave them more legal rights than the average woman in the city. Germany also had cases of exploitative brothel-owners being removed from their positions by the authorities. However in some cases it could be highly restrictive.

19th century Parisian registered sex workers, known as filles soumisse weren’t allowed out in public apart from set times, or to live within a certain distance of a school. Maybe worst of all, they were subjected to hideous and humiliating health checks, where an unsatisfactory report (i.e. discovery of an STI) would lead to forced admission into a prison hospital.

For countries where there was no regulation – England for instance – or those who took their chances anyway, unregistered sex work still flourished. These women had to keep an eye on the police and were constantly at risk of being arrested and punished.

Casual workers and criminals

Sex work isn’t always a life-long profession. Sometimes, women would have casual sex in return for favours – this could just be taking advantage of an opportunity, or could be a way to survive when times were hard.

Some women also didn’t consider themselves sex workers. There are reports of women using their bodies to entice men in and then picking their pockets in Georgian London, and it’s likely that sex was just the bait for the trap they sprung.

The “Common Prostitute”: Streetwalkers to Squirrels

This is a massive umbrella term, but essentially covers those women who were further down the social scale, often living in poverty and working in brothels or having to walk the streets. There were lots of inventive names for streetwalkers, including ‘hedge-whores’ and ‘dolly-tripes’, but essentially these were your “classic” fallen woman.

Some of them worked in bathhouses and brothels, some would stand on street corners, often looking for work in return for “a pint of wine and a shilling”.

Moving up this ladder slightly are the “squirrels” of Georgian London, or the “demi-mondes” of 19th century Paris. These could be young women at the start of their careers – often working at poorly-paid servants by day, and heading to parties to meet rich students who would pay for their company.

Not all of these women would work from brothels – some would take the men back to their own home, lodging houses and taverns.

Detail from March of the Guards to Finchley (1750) William Hogarth – sex workers lean out of the windows of a bawdy house to entice the soldiers inside


There were all sorts of brothels, from the worst hovels to the kinds of places that MPs and Lords would visit.

In Germany, when sex work was legalised and regulated, brothels were bought by the town and then leased back to the brothel-owner. The owner would pay tax, charge board and lodging to the women working there and could also sell food and drink to make extra money. Brothels sprung up in port cities especially – despite being outlawed for the most part in England there were some licensed brothels in Southampton, for instance.

Sex workers could expect to hand up to 3/4 of their wages over to brothel-keepers, and were often tied to bawds by the debts that were run up by their “keeping” – if an owner had to buy a woman a new dress, or if they broke something, for instance, the cost of that could be added to their debt.

The very top brothels often were decorated with the most beautiful fabrics and furniture and boasted the most beautiful women and the most exotic services. Women at these levels were often educated and witty, and the brothels themselves were nicknames “nunneries” or “Schools of Venus”.


In a busy market, sometimes women needed to stand out to make their living. Flagellation was mocked as being a service for old men who couldn’t get it up, but the range of places that offered it as a service suggests it was more popular than just for them – Theresa Berkeley’s whipping parlour was considered one of the finest and even had a hook and pulley to ‘draw a man up by the hands’.

There was no end to the specialisms being offered: these could either cater to sexual fantasies such as role play or BDSM, or use specific talents to promote themselves (like oral sex). Some even catered to specific “tastes”, with one brothel only selling the services of black women.

Higher in the social scale were the kept women, the bawds and the courtesans, as well as, arguably, the mistresses to royal and aristocratic men, but they would have had different experiences, not just in their work but their general day to day life.

The image of the “common prostitute” is of a woman forced into her profession, who lives in a brothel and is taken advantage of by cruel bawds and lecherous men or lurks on a street corner in rags; or as a greedy, grasping, giggling saucy wench who only takes her pleasure in the gold coins handed over at the end of a particularly bouncy sex scene. No doubt both kind of women existed, along with a whole wide range in between, but what these ideas forget is that they were also people living in a very real world.

Was sex work a respected profession? No. Did people actually like living by a bawdy house? Also no.

But sex workers were often a vital part of the local economy and society: buying goods, renting lodgings and bringing other trade to the area. In Rome in the 16th century, the prostitutes were seen as being a tourist attraction, even getting a mention in the Roma Sancta, an early guidebook to Rome in 1581.

Between 1400 and 1900, across the whole of Europe millions of women engaged in some form of sex work in their lives. This is a huge amount of people, and would tell us so much about women’s lives, including expectations and understandings of sex. And yet, there’s still so much about them that we don’t know, will never know – and, often, don’t seek to know.

Enjoyed this? Why not check out these posts too!

A History of Contraception

A History of Menstruation

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