Between 1990 and 2015 in Britain an estimated 152 sex workers were murdered. Many more have experienced violence such as rape, attempted rape, and other forms of sexual assault. A 2015 survey found that 49% of sex workers worried about their safety, and an equal number felt either ‘unconfident’ or ‘very unconfident’ that police would take their reports seriously. Although lobby groups, policy makers and police forces are working to improve the safety of sex workers, which includes debating the decriminalization of sex selling and the criminalization of sex buying, those who sell sex and experience violence often face discrimination by the criminal justice system.
Complicated and often conflicted responses to sex workers who become victims of violence is by no means new, and is not limited to police and the courts. If we look at evidence from earlier centuries it is clear that both social and legal responses often had little to do with the legality of sex work, and far more to do with attitudes towards women’s sexual reputations.
Some of the richest evidence about sex work in eighteen-century Britain can be found in court records. This may seem obvious at first, but when we consider that prostitution (as it was known at the time, but hereafter referred to as sex work) was not technically illegal in England or Wales at this time, finding abundant evidence of it in the legal system seems paradoxical.
The reason why so much evidence of sex work appears in court records is because many sex workers and their clients found themselves involved in crimes that happened around the same time as a sexual transaction. This include crimes of opportunity, such as pickpocketing. Historians of sex work have considered these sorts of criminal activities, as well as sex work itself, as part of an ‘economy of makeshifts’ that many economically-marginalised women in the past partook in to make ends meet.
Framing sex work in terms of economically-marginalised women actively engaging in sexual labour is the legacy of feminist historians, such as Judith Walkowitz and Marion Pluskota. These important histories emphasise women’s agency rather than their victimhood, and are relevant to political discussions about sex work today. However, these approaches do not negate that fact that many female sex workers were, and still are, vulnerable. The economic precarity that motivates women to turn to sex work makes them vulnerable to sexual violence from men. Cultural and legal attitudes towards sex work can then compound, complicate and exacerbate these vulnerabilities.
The best way to illustrate this is with an example that comes from a court case. In my own research I explore women, sex and gender in eighteenth-century Wales, and utilise the records of the Court of Great Sessions, which was the highest criminal court in Wales prior to 1830. In this case, the woman in question was not implicated in a crime that took place around a sexual transaction, but was herself the victim of fatal sexual violence.
In 1788, in the west Wales town of Cardigan, widow named Elizabeth, who was known in her community to have previously run a bawdy house, was murdered. Witness depositions provide fascinating evidence of how woman involved in sex work could be on the receiving end of support and compassion from her neighbours, and at the same time, be left to suffer as a result of her sexual reputation.
In July of that year two men, Samuel Mann and Ephriam Wells, a brick maker and brick layer from Cheltenam, entered the Black Lion pub in Cardigan. They asked the landlord, John Mason, where they could ‘find a girl’ to which Mason replied he didn’t know. Mann and Wells then asked where ‘Old Bessy’ was, to which Mason replied she was very sick and had been for some time.
Not taking no for an answer, Mann and Wells helped themselves to a bottle of brandy and left. Mason followed the pair ‘in secret’ to the house of Elizabeth George, where he watched from a distance. Mason deposed that he heard commotion coming from in the house, including the men offering her money, and Elizabeth crying out to be left alone, followed by the sound of chairs of benches being moved about. When Mason heard Elizabeth cry out (in Welsh) ‘for god’s sake let me alone’, he threw a stone at the house, and then went away.
A married woman named Sarah, who lived next door to Elizabeth, deposed that Elizabeth had an ‘asthmatic complaint or a dropsy in her chest and in her stomach for a very long and tedious time’, and over the preceding month Sarah had tended to her and helped her to bed each night by propping a bench against the wall, and attaching her clothing to the wall to keep Elizabeth upright so she could breathe through the night. On the evening when Mann and Wells forced their way in, Sarah had already been by to tie Elizabeth to the wall.
Later that night, Sarah and her husband were awakened by a noise in Elizabeth’s house, and she urged her husband to investigate. He went to do so, but because of Elizabeth’s reputation as a person who kept a bawdy house, ‘frequented by loud persons of both sexes’, and because the noise soon after stopped, he never actually investigated or intervened.
Early the following morning Sarah went to tend to Elizabeth. She found the door open, and Elizabeth dead on the bed in an ‘indecent manner’ with her lower body exposed and her legs ‘spread as far as seemed physically possible’. Elizabeth was deemed to have died of an asthma attack. Wells and Mann both fled, avoiding prosecution.
This case is fascinating because it reveals the complex, and at times conflicted status of women who engaged in sex work. Elizabeth reputation as the owner of a bawdy house was clearly known in the community, but that did not prevent her from being on the receiving end of charity and care from her neighbours. Sarah tended to her each night, and the pub landlord attempted to limited degree to dissuade her assailants from going to her.
However, her neighbours’ interventions had limits. We can’t know why Mason threw a stone and ran away rather than intervening or seeking help. But, her neighbour’s deposition makes clear that, despite her ill health and compromised physical position, her history of keeping a bawdy house prevented him from intervening. It is impossible to know if there was any deep-rooted moral judgement at play, but at least on the surface, it seems as though it was not only Elizabeth’s ill health that made her vulnerable, as her reputation prevented any meaningful intervention on her behalf.
If we think of this in terms of changing attitudes towards sex work elsewhere in Britain, this is more than 30 years after the establishment in London of the Magdalen Hospital for The Reception of Penitent Prostitutes. Over the eighteenth century, women involved in sex work were increasingly seen as victims of poverty and men’s lust rather than being lusty, sinful characters themselves. Those who were willing to give up the trade were therefore eligible for charity, but if they returned to sex work, charity could be revoked. Elizabeth’s case may reflect this dynamic.
This is one of only a handful of cases relating to sex work in eighteenth-century Wales that exist. Although limited, cases like these present an opportunity to re-evaluate women’s agency and vulnerability in ways that very much resonate with debates around sex work, agency and the vulnerability of economically-marginalised women in Britain, and elsewhere, today.
 House of Commons, Prostitution (Third report of sessions 2016-2017), p. 3.
 House of Commons, Prostitution (Third report of sessions 2016-2017), p. 17, citing National Ugly Mugs (PRO0082)
Angela Muir is a lecturer in Social and Cultural History at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on sex, gender and the body in eighteenth-century Britain. She has published on illegitimacy, and maternity care and childbirth in eighteenth-century Wales. Her first monograph, Deviant Maternity: Illegitimacy in Wales, c. 1680-1800 will be published by Routledge in 2021. She tweets @DrAngelaMuir and has a blog here.