Magdalene Laundries

Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and William North (Danny Sapani) at the door of her brothel in Harlots.

Harlots is a new drama on Hulu following the misadventures and rivalries of two competing brothels in mid-18th century London. Created by Moira Buffini and Allison Newman, and loosely based on research by Hallie Rubenhold, Harlots isn’t only notable for being about harlots—all the writers and  directors are women also, which allows for a truly unprecedented lack of the male gaze and titillation shots, and instead creates room for the characters to be fully-fleshed people. History geek Tits and Sass contributors Kitty Stryker and Red discuss the first episodes and what sex worker life was like in the Georgian England setting of the show. 

On historical context:

Kitty: The one in five women are sex workers at the time statistic, cited in the beginning of the show, is a high estimate, but it is quoted a lot, and may not be incorrect. The number appears to come from historian Dan Cruickshank in his book, The Secret History Of Georgian London: How The Wages Of Sin Shaped The Capital. He is also where the number of of £1.5 billion in today’s money as the gross turnover of sex work funds at the time comes from.

Red: Capitalism and a market economy were just starting to take over and the situation of women was changing, as the public sphere became the exclusive province of men in England. At the same time, capitalism was pushing the growth of a relatively new genre: porn! Much of the earliest porn consists of dialogues between whores or a whore recounting her exploits (a la Fanny Hill).

While the one in five stat is high, women dipped in and out of sex work as necessary, and the word whore didn’t exclusively mean a professional until later on in the century.

Kitty: It’s also worth noting that while sex work was prominent, “bawds,” or madams, were deeply loathed by London society—one famous bawd was stoned to death for her part in “corrupting the innocent.” Now, to be fair, many bawds did go around looking for naive farm girls to offer free housing to, only to then trap them with false debt for the lodgings and food they used. But this is also definitely where the hatred of pimps strongly developed.

Covent Garden was the place for sex workers at the time! Golden Square, also referenced in the show, incidentally, went from being a place for wealthy up-and-coming sex workers to a place for dire poverty—it becomes the epicenter of the cholera epidemic that wiped out a lot of London in 1854.

On Harris’ List, an anonymous book of commentary on Covent Garden prostitutes, a kind of antecedent to today’s board escort reviews—the show opens with Lucy (Eloise Smyth) reading each brothel worker’s entry aloud to her:

Kitty: The history of Harris’s List is actually super interesting and this was a good book on it—Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold, the book this show is actually loosely based on. You can read the list here for free, by the way!

Red: Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) is based on a real woman Rubenhold wrote about, and so is her mother—Elizabeth Ward, Samantha Morton’s character. They changed the last name to Wells in the show, and her first name to Margaret. The real Charlotte changed her last name to Hayes after she got her first rich protector and left her mother’s brothel.

Interesting note: Some of the women who paid Harris to write good reviews of them in his list formed a “Whores’ Club” where they met and drank together and paid dues, and any of the club members who needed help got some of the dues.

On the contract Charlotte’s thinking about signing with her benefactor and how it compared to marriage at the time:

These contracts were common among famous, sought-after sex workers. Some had two or more going at a time sometimes! Many times these contracts were oral contracts, and would stipulate how much the kept woman would get per month in cash and gifts, if she would be given an apartment or not, if her bills would be paid, new clothing, etc.

Because what she gave in exchange was often just “understood,” it left a lot of wiggle room for her. Often, when such a contract was broken and the arrangement was declared over, she could also negotiate for annuities, perhaps in exchange for keeping his secrets.

One attractive thing about having such a contract is that the person paying often paid to the bawd who “owned” the sex worker in question. In order for the sex worker to be “released” to the status of kept woman, the buyer would have to pay off all debts the sex worker had accrued according to the bawd. Becoming a kept woman could mean less risk of syphilis, which was a disfiguring death sentence at the time, and also could mean when the arrangement ended, you were free to do what you wanted as you weren’t indebted to a house anymore.

I think it’s interesting that while Margaret obviously feels a lot of resentment for being sold to Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) when she was 10 (a sadly pretty common occurrence at the time—the youngest on record was eight, and people believed having sex with a child would cure you of STIs), and Charlotte’s virginity was auctioned off at the age of consent (which was 12 for girls, 14 for boys at the time), Lucy appears to be at least 18 and is still “not ready.” I wonder if Charlotte is upset that her mother got her into sex work, or that she’s upset that despite her mother’s distaste for marriage, here she is being roped into a different but similar contract with Sir George Howard (Hugh Skinner).

Red: My main thoughts on watching were how laughably anachronistic both Charlotte and Lucy ‘s (a fictional character made up for the show) unwillingness to participate in such a huge money generating activity is. The contract that Charlotte turns her nose up at wouldn’t have given him anything close to coverture over her. Instead, it would have offered her either carte blanche over his money or a specific amount of credit to use when shopping. It couldn’t have prevented her from having other lovers; he would have to rely on her discretion. The idea that someone raised in the poverty of Covent Garden would turn up her nose at that and just want to fuck for money without it is so hilarious to me. This was the ultimate goal of whores in the 18th century, because it was a step up to a security just below that of marriage (which also could and did happen between contemporary sex workers and their clients).

My guess is that Charlotte’s reluctance comes from the producers thinking they need some sort of 21st century young woman angst in order to make these characters relatable.


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RIP Gabriella Liete, veteran Brazilian sex workers' rights activist (photo by Tomas Langel)

RIP Gabriella Liete, veteran Brazilian sex workers’ rights activist (photo by Tomas Langel)

An open letter extravaganza began this week when Sinead O’Connor wrote to Miley Cyrus, warning her that the music industry “will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its[sic] what YOU wanted.. and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone.” Oh, Sinead, please don’t use the word “prostitute” and all that anti rhetoric—all we want is to keep listening to I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, admiring your bravery for disclosing your Magdalene Laundry trauma. Amanda Palmer joined the fray, writing an open letter on her blog to Sinead, in which she maintains that there should be “room for Miley to rip a page out of stripper culture and run around like a maniac for however long she wants to.” Right, go ahead, Miley, please feel free to keep appropriating Black sex worker culture. Shut up, Amanda Palmer (this should really be said more often.) Autostraddle posited that all this would start a never ending sequence of offensive open letters. O’Connor then wrote a second and a third open letter to Cyrus in which she expostulated further about “acting like a prostitute and calling it feminism,” and how such behavior engenders mental illness (?).

Gabriela Leite, veteran sex workers’ rights activist and founder of Brazilian sex workers’ rights organization Davida, died of cancer yesterday, October tenth, at the age of sixty two.

Tracy Clark-Flory rants in Salon about why she didn’t want her husband to get a lap dance at his bachelor party (but, hey, she’s cool, she’s spent so much time writing about porn!) In the process, she reveals more about her own dysfunctions than any problem with strippers.

Ottawa police officer Sgt. Rohan Beebakhee is under fire in court for meeting with escorts, giving them his card, and saying things like: “I’m just here to let you know, should you have a bad date, or you find yourself in a bad situation, I don’t want you to be hesitant about calling police.”

The World Health organization published a new document informing government agencies and NGOs that sex worker led programs are a fundamental part of the fight against HIV. Sex workers themselves have known for ages how important peer-led projects are, but it’s nice to see it affirmed by mainstream organizations.

In related news, Kenya’s Medical Research Institute states that gay men working in the sex trade need to be included in the country’s HIV prevention strategy. Men who have sex with men are often prevented from accessing HIV testing and medication, and consensual sexual activity between men is illegal under Kenyan law and carries a maximum penalty of fourteen years’ imprisonment.

Cathy Reisenwitz critiques New York’s new prostitution and trafficking courts in Reason. Her op-ed also discusses recent FBI trafficking stings, and there’s a choice quote included from an FBI special agent’s press conference which makes the agency’s agenda of stripping sex workers’ agency abundantly clear: “The FBI is part of the apparatus in place to protect people, sometimes even from their own poor choices.”

In reference to the closing of Edinburgh’s saunas, Vicky Allan writes in a Scotland Herald op-ed that one thing much worse than a world full of super brothels is a world in which sex work is driven underground. At this point, though, we’re pretty tired of feminists prefacing pro-sex workers’ rights sentiments by going on about how uncomfortable they are with sex work. This isn’t about your comfort.

Strip club Rick’s Cabaret banned Giants watching at the club, because their recent string of losses soured customers’ moods.

Socialist PM Maud Olivier, writer of a new proposal for the French government to fine clients of sex workers, acts like she invented the Swedish model. The Local interviewed a spokeswoman for French sex workers’ rights organization STRASS, who explains how the law would further endanger sex workers.



Turkish LGBT groups protest Dora Oezer's murder in Istanbul. Her face stares out of multiple signs that demand, "Justice for Dora!" (Photo by AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda/Scanpix)

Turkish LGBT groups protest Dora Oezer’s murder in Istanbul. Her face stares out of multiple signs that demand, “Justice for Dora!” (Photo by AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda/Scanpix)

On July 2nd, 24 year old Turkish trans sex worker Dora Oezer was murdered by a client. The following Friday, a 100 plus person protest against transphobic violence, organized by Turkish sex workers’ rights organization Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, was held in Istanbul, while a similar protest was held in Berlin. International sex worker community outrage over Dora’s murder and the murder of Swedish sex worker Petite Jasmine have led to plans for further Justice for Dora/Justice for Jasmine protests in eighteen European cities, six Australian cities, three North American cities, and Seoul today outside of Swedish and Turkish embassies. While most of the mainstream media has maintained silence on this topic, HuffPo UK did run a sympathetic piece, as did The Local. Stay tuned for a Tits and Sass exclusive interview with Turkish sex workers on Dora’s murder and the realities of trans sex workers’ lives in Turkey, to be posted next week.

What the anti-prostitution loyalty pledge has to do with the brutal beating of a pregnant Indian sex worker.

NYC sex workers’ rights org The Red Umbrella Project and its lit mag, Prose and Lore, hit the big time with a profile on ABC News.

Occasionally, Jezebel renews our faith in it by doing things like running this great piece on copwatching escort Nicole Masterson.

Toronto police have yet to classify homeless sex worker Kassandra Bolduc’s death as a murder. Local charities and the homeless community are concerned that there have not been enough press releases urging people with information on the case to come forward.

This week, it’s Farrah Abrahams’ visit to a strip club which is apparently big news.

The four religious congregations that have refused to contribute to the compensation fund for residents of their former Magdalene laundries have combined assets worth €1.5 billion, the Irish Times reports.

Greece has reintroduced mandatory HIV testing—as if interning drug users, sex workers, migrants, and radicals in detention camps weren’t enough to give it that fascist vibe.

An Alwaba article on Syrian refugees in Lebanon turning to survival sex work is more nuanced than most on “the delicate line between prostitution and sexual exploitation.”

Apparently, we should legalize prostitution to fight terrorism (?) and to provide lonely men with companionship, not because, you know, sex workers might want labor rights. As the kids on the internet say, FAIL. [READ MORE]


Deeply ironic image of a protester on her way into the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality in Ireland to debate the criminalization of payment for sex. (Photo by Eric Luke/The Irish Times)

Deeply ironic image of a protester on her way into the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality in Ireland to debate the criminalization of payment for sex. (Photo by Eric Luke/The Irish Times)

Registration for the Desiree Alliance Conference is still open with hotel room discounts until July 7th.

Tensions over escorting simmer in rural Australian towns, where touring sex workers follow the market that transient miners create, even after the Queensland Supreme Court upheld a ruling that allows hotel owners to refuse accommodations to sex workers.

Beijing police rejected the ruling of a Guangdong court in southern China stating that “happy ending” massages are legal.

Kenyan activists have raised the alarm over increasing attacks targeting gay men, male sex workers and transgender women after three brutal assaults, all within the span of several weeks.

Scotland’s bill to criminalize clients of sex workers seems to have failed. No official coverage on that yet, but MSP Rhoda Grant, the proposed law’s main backer, issued a statement on her web site today about how disappointed she was, which was then taken down. Diligent sex workers’ rights activists kept screenshots, however. [Update—Scottish sex workers’ rights org SCOT-PEP issued a press release announcing the defeat of Grant’s bill.-ed.]

Ireland will pay several hundred former residents of Catholic-run Magdalene laundries at least 34.5 million euros ($45 million) to compensate them for years of unpaid labor and human rights abuses, the government announced Wednesday, following a decade-long campaign by laundry survivors.

Meanwhile, The Irish Times reports that a law criminalizing payment for sex has been recommended by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice. Tellingly, the article quotes a representative of Ruhama, one of the organizations behind the Magdalene Laundries, in which countless sex workers were incarcerated and abused, as being in favor of the bill.

Apparently, “rescuing” sex workers against their will is something honeymooning couples can enjoy together now.

Courtney Trouble, progressive porn maker extraordinaire, asked quirky indie actress Ellen Page what she thought of feminist porn, and she responded with a rousing endorsement. We personally have always wanted Ellen Page’s approval.



Courtesy of the Red Umbrella Project, art by Tanya Mensen, story told by a 20-year-old white Hispanic cisgender woman

Courtesy of the Red Umbrella Project, art by Tanya Mensen, story told by a 20-year-old white Hispanic cisgender woman

This week, the NYPD’s ridiculous and oppressive practice of using condoms continued to be written up in various venues. RH Reality Check weighed in, as did the Daily Mail, and Jezebel, while the Red Umbrella Project stepped up their campaign against the cops by creating postcards illustrated with victims’ stories that NYers can send to their representatives. Meanwhile, Washington made NYC look awful in comparison when D.C.’s police department clarified that carrying more than three condoms at a time was not against the law, distributing cards to both wayward police officers and (justifiably)wary sex workers reminding them of that fact.

Rabble in Canada ran one of the most genius anticapitalist takedowns of sex work abolitionist feminism we’ve ever read. Sadly, the sex worker who wrote it chooses to remain anonymous as “Sarah M”, so we can’t all make a pilgrimage to bask in her brilliance.

Two anonymous nuns from the religious orders that ran the Magdalene Laundries, where Irish sex workers and other women who defied heteronormative standards were sent by the state and then abused, exploited and buried in mass graves, attempted to justify the Laundrys’ existence as providing ‘shelter’ and ‘service.’ Another Irish newspaper printed an apologist opinion piece by a church flack, in which he claims that most Magdalene inmates were there ‘voluntarily.’ Meanwhile, an Irish Labour rep reminded the world that the orders profited quite a bit from the Laundries, and urged them to make a contribution to the survivors’ compensation fund. And Justice for Magdalenes, an advocacy group for Magdalene survivors, created an 800 page report of survivor testimony and evidence that weren’t included in the official government  inquiry. Brace yourselves for heartbreak reading it. The org also submitted a report to the UN Committee Against Torture on the Laundries.