Sex Work and Touch in the Slum – Jess White

In a patriarchal Victorian society, which ‘praised self-vigilance as the key to manliness, moral worth and material success’[1], touch acted as a signifier of control. Prostitution demonstrated the intricate relationships between class, gender, sex and power, although modern perceptions of these relationships are influenced by current social values. The loss of power men felt during lapses of sexual self-vigilance was regained by the controlling of working class women via prostitution. It is important to mention that while not all sex workers lived in a slum, or were female, this article will primarily discuss the hardships working-class women faced because of their involvement in prostitution.

Figure 1: Rowlandson’s political cartoon ‘Touch for Touch’

Figure 1, a cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson depicts a doctor and a sex worker just before engaging in the act of prostitution. While the woman appears to be dressed as though she is middle-class, she is showing her ankles, a symbol of immorality[2] and a sign of being a sex worker. Henry Mayhew makes distinctions between many kinds of prostitute[3] (suggesting who is part of the ‘deserving poor’), however, the variety of descriptions allowed influential men, such as William Acton, to label[4] any woman who did not fit gender ideals as a prostitute or a ‘fallen woman’[5]. This cartoon (and other works by Rowlandson) portrays sex workers as carefree and ‘clever infidel[s]’[6], showing the disconnection between upper class ideas of immorality and the reality of working-class suffering. Rowlandson highlights the differing experiences of touch between classes and genders, but fails to acknowledge the power and control signified during these experiences. Sex workers’ experiences of touch were often forced and presenting them as aloof or promiscuous was a way of solidifying the idea that sins were for the working classes. This allowed the upper-class men who engaged in these acts to avoid any social guilt.

For sex workers in the slum ‘abortion was probably the most prevalent form of contraception’[7]. While men were protected socially and physically by condoms, women often became pregnant and caught sexually transmitted diseases. These diseases were the physical representation of moral decay and for men, condoms hid the evidence of the immoral act. The threat of venereal diseases being spread from sex worker to soldier was paramount in the creation of the Contagious Diseases Acts. These allowed suspected prostitutes to be forcefully examined, with a failure to comply resulting in prosecution. These examinations were not reserved for adults. Despite the age of consent being raised from 13 to 16, in the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885[8], to try and combat child prostitution, there was still high demand for young girls and specifically virgins. Intrusive examinations would take place to try and prove virginity and sell for a higher price.

Figure 2: Advertisement for abortion pills

While there were advancements in contraception to protect men, the illegality of abortions, under the Offences against the Person Act 1861[9], meant that many women suffered physically and mentally because of back-street abortion procedures. Despite claiming to want the eradication of the slums, many men were physically contributing to their population, showing the hypocrisy in the idea that it is only poor people who sin. Pills to induce miscarriages were advertised in newspapers, though the language was ambiguous to help avoid legal investigation. Women who didn’t have an abortion and delivered a baby had few options, they could try and raise a child they could not afford, or give the child to an orphanage or ‘baby farmer’ out of desperation. These women claimed to look after the children though, unfortunately, there were cases of women, such as Amelia Dyer, killing the children instead. Experiences of touch for fallen women were based around being dominated or taken from; working class women did not experience the upper-class feelings of pleasure or control.

Figure 3: Illustration of Oliver Twist’s ‘Nancy’

Magdalene Asylums were set up by philanthropic groups to try and teach fallen women how to act in a manner deemed moral. Although these reformatories were based around religion and charity, intrusive and belittling punishments, such as shaving women’s heads, were used to control the women. Shaving a woman’s head was a removal of her femininity, her appearance then represented the broken gender ideal and her fallen woman status. However, there were kinder reformatories that existed. Charles Darwin helped run Urania Cottage, writing a letter to appeal to fallen women who needed help. Dickens had a sympathetic attitude towards sex workers[10]; which can be seen in pieces of his work, such as Oliver Twist. His work challenges the views of people like Mayhew, and despite being fictional serves as a reminder that, along with any aspect of living in the slum, it is not possible to truly understand the struggles people living in the Slum went through.

Philosopher Michel Foucault argues that the combination of Victorian repression and conversation on sexual desire was revolutionary[11], however it was not revolutionary for working-class women until much later. Sex workers in the slum were used as an outlet for socially immoral male desires. Like most aspects of slum life, it is difficult for historians to gain an accurate perspective on what it meant to live as a fallen woman and how experiences of touch were perceived.

Jess White


[1] Marsh, Jan. ‘Sex and Sexuality in the 19th Century’, Available Online: Date accessed: 14/12/2016

[2] Atwood, Nina. ‘The Prostitute’s Body: Rewriting Prostitution in Victorian Britain’, (Routledge, 2016), p. 149

[3] Mayhew, Henry. ‘London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work’, (London: Griffin, Bohn, and Company, Stationers’ Hall Court, 1862)

[4] Acton, William. Prostitution considered in its moral, social, and sanitary aspects, in London and other large cities (London, 1857)

[5] Liggins, Emma. “Prostitution and Social Purity in the 1880s and 1890s.” Critical Survey, vol. 15, no. 3, 2003, pp. 39–55

[6] Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor.

[7] Patricia Knight. “Women and Abortion in Victorian and Edwardian England.” History Workshop, no. 4, 1977, pp. 57–68

[8] Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, Available Online:, Date accessed: 12/12/2016

[9] Offences Against the Person 1861, Available Online:, Date accessed: 12/12/2016

[10] Golden, Catherine J. “Late-Twentieth-Century Readers in Search of a Dickensian Heroine: Angels, Fallen Sisters, and Eccentric Women.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2000, pp. 5–19

[11] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction (London: Allen Lane, 1976)

Figure. 1: Rowlandson, Thomas. ‘Touch for touch’, Available at

Figure. 2: Available at:

Figure. 3: Illustration by George Cruikshank depicting Nancy meeting with Mr Brownlow and Rose Maylie, from a 1911 edition of Oliver Twist. -Available at: