What 'Harlots' Tells Us About the Lives of Sex Workers Today
Hulu's newest original series is similar to my own experience as a London prostitute.
Hulu's new show Harlots opens on some familiar territory for me: a young woman hurrying through a dirty London street to giggle and gossip with a community of sex workers. The main character, Lucy Wells (Eloise Smyth), knows the streets and alleys well, picking her way among a diverse community of people struggling to survive in one of the more lively parts of town. I remember similarly maneuvering deftly through streets others feared to tread, feeling safe because it felt like home.
I, too, was a London prostitute for a time, working out of a house established by older women who advised, lectured, and kept an eye out for their younger counterparts. The feeling of female camaraderie snuggled right up next to flashes of capitalist competitiveness felt incredibly familiar as I watched the women of Margaret Wells's house. The fear of police raids and the violence the cops brought against the brothel workers rang all too true. The clothes, of course, were vastly different, and thank God we had plumbing, but many of the feelings rang true to my own experiences as a sex worker—about 250 years later.
Granted, Georgian London had far more women believed to be working as sex workers: The number quoted in Harlots—specifically, 1 in 5—appears to come from historian Dan Cruickshank in his book The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital. It's hard to say how accurate that number is, as it was relatively easy to reinvent yourself under a different name in the days before social media.
Sex work, too, was a bit of a revolving door. Women turned to it to make a bit of coin, then went back to other industries (or financially generous) lovers as they saw fit. But we can note some similarities to college students who use stripping, professional domination, or other sexual services to pay their way through high student fees and expensive cities. The women living in 1763 would weigh the options between being a maid at £5 a year, or a sex worker making £400 a year; now, co-eds are making a choice between working multiple part time jobs at minimum wage or engaging in one of the many opportunities the adult industry is perhaps too happy to provide.
I also found myself resonating with the respectability politics that came through in the first two episodes of Harlots. There are two main houses under the spotlight: the homey but run-down brothel of Mrs. Wells (Samantha Morton) in Covent Garden and the pristine, sterile, bright brothel of Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) in Golden Square. Even now, there are divides that exist among sex workers—between street workers and brothel workers, and those with a pimp or madam and those who are independent.
Among sex workers, we call it the "whorearchy"—the idea that while, say, a professional dominatrix may feel that she is a "better class of sex worker" than an escort because she doesn't have sex with her clients, an escort may feel she has higher standards because she doesn't have to be emotionally involved with her clients. The clients were also different when I was making £200 an hour versus when I was making £500 an hour—the wealthier the client, the more entitled he felt to my body and the more capable of pushing my boundaries. The wider the class divide between us, the crueler men often became. That trend certainly reinforced my firm dislike of capitalism.
Alongside the respectability politics that rise among sex workers themselves are the respectability politics of those who wish to save us "fallen women." Just as modern-day abolitionists wring their hands about white college students going into the industry, their 18th-century counterparts offered warning tales of fresh-faced country girls being kidnapped in the city and put to work against their will. And just as we do now, these stories ignored the grim reality of poverty for women: workhouses and illness then, homelessness and illness now.
Of course, the narrative of "innocence" needing to be rescued was exclusively concerned with white women and their purity, a trend that sadly hasn't shifted particularly far. Even as we excuse men for being rapists because of their talents, women are still divided into whores and wives: Wives must be pure and forgiving of their husbands trespasses and whores provide a class of women that are disposable. If you doubt me, look at the number of stories of sex workers who never see justice for crimes against them, even when murdered. We are still the sacrifices for the protection of "good" women: you can see this in the way that Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown-Findlay) is treated both by her wealthy keeper, Sir George Howard (Hugh Skinner), and by his wife, Lady Caroline Howard (Eleanor Yates).
That's not to say that harlots had no recourse. If you were on Harris's List, the Georgian version of Redbook (rest in peace), you had access to the rumored Whores Club, a society of sex workers where dues were paid in exchange for future availability of funds if emergency befell you. Lady Quigley's own son Charlie (Douggie McMeekin) warns his favorite doxy, Emily Lacey (Holli Dempsey), about a client who is considered "the short straw." Now, sex work communities like SWOP, St. James Infirmary, Sex Worker Open University, and HIPS provide resources from sex workers to sex workers. Bad date lists, tricks and tips, and safer sex techniques are shared in these spaces, alongside food and drink. When you can't trust society to protect you, it's invaluable to form your own.
While there are many historical departures for the sake of narrative in Harlots, I still find myself resonating with the main themes. The tension between facing the stigma and institutional dangers of being a sex worker and the need for financial security in a society that offers such to very few is so real to me. The sacrifices one makes to achieve class mobility rings true to my experience, too—and the harsh reality that the police will never treat you as a human being, but as an expendable object, is one I wish I didn't feel so deeply. Perhaps this show will help viewers see how ridiculous it is that our morality has shifted so little from 1763. Let us leave sex work stigma in the past, along with beauty spots to hide our syphilis marks and lambskin condoms.
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