While many history books and academic articles describe the Victorian Era as a morally uptight and restrictive society, the underbelly of this time period was full of sex and drugs. Despite the rigorous moral codes of the time, there were actually more brothels than schools and there are an estimated 80,000 women who practiced prostitution.
In studying prostitution and the women who participated in the worlds "oldest occupation," one must look at the socioeconomic climate of the time and why this career was a viable option for many lower class women seeking a better life. Between 1837 and 1901, Queen Victoria ruled over the British Empire and was a public icon known for her strict personal morality that influenced the moral codes during the time.
During the Industrial Revolution, there was an economic shift in Great Britain from an agricultural economy to an industrial one and due to the lack of labor laws in the pre-Victorian Era, women and children often worked in mines in unsafe and "improper" conditions. Women who worked in the mines were often scantily clad which shocked the sensibilities of the middle class as they worked alongside men. The Mine and Collieries Act of 1842 restricted women and children's ability to work in mines which led to a serious loss of income for many lower class women and families. With nowhere else to turn, women began to sell the one thing they had, their bodies.
Prostitution, despite the moral outrage against it, was one of the highest paying careers for women during this era as many had few options besides working as domestic servants or as shopgirls, both of which paid dismal wages at best. Prostitution offered an outlet for women to express their own sexual freedom in response to the harsh criticism of women's sexuality during the Victorian era.
There were three different types of prostitution in the Victorian Era, the lowest class woman who worked in brothels under the hands of, in modern day vernacular, a 'pimp' could not refuse their clients, the 'streetwalker' who was able to pick and choose her clients, however, was a higher risk of catching venereal disease, and the high-class escort who typically had a single client who they usually ended up marrying.
While prostitution in the Victorian era offered a way for lower class women to earn a living, there was the prevalent issue of child prostitution during this time as well. The age of consent in Victorian England was only 13 and many pimps took advantage of this, as these child prostitutes were assured to be virgins so the price they charged for their 'flower' was often higher as it was an assurance not to catch venereal disease. Prostitution was an important part of the socioeconomic environment of Victorian-era England despite the harsh moral codes and the stigma placed on female sexuality.