Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Sex Work and Crime

CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of sexual violence, abortion.

In spite of its position as the world's 'oldest profession', sex work (or prostitution) has been criminalised in Britain throughout history. In this seminar we will discuss the regulation of sex work in 19th century Britain, as well as the concurrent criminalisation of abortion.

Optional intro material:
PODCAST: 'Syphilis', Betwixt the Sheets (2023)

Essential seminar reading:



  • Philippa Levine, ‘A multitude of unchaste women: prostitution in the British empire’, Journal of Women’s History, 2004
  • Nina Attwood, 'Mothers, sisters, and shameless women: Josephine Butler and the Victorian Prostitute', The Prostitute's Body (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014).
  • Hera Cook, The Long Sexual Revolution (2004), chapter 3.

Seminar preparation questions:

  • How was 'prostitution' defined in English law throughout the long 19th century? Did it change, and how?
  • Who was affected by the criminalisation of sex work and abortion?
  • What were the moral, social, medical, and religious imperatives to crack down on abortion and sex work?

Further reading:


  • Paula Bartley, Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in England, 1860-1914 (London: Routledge, 1999).
  • Sean Brady, Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1861-1913 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
  • Kate Gleeson, 'Alleviating the ‘Miserable Condition’: Fitzjames Stephen and the Development of Modern Abortion Law', Plymouth Law and Criminal Justice Review, 8 (2016), pp. 48-67. Available at:
  • Emma Griffin, 'Sex, Illegitimacy, and Social Change in Industrializing Britain', Social History (2013), pp. 139-161.
  • Patricia Knight, 'Women and Abortion in Victorian and Edwardian England', History Workshop Journal (1977), pp. 57-68.
  • Lesley A. Hall, 'Malthusian Mutations: The changing politics and moral meanings of birth control in Britain', in Malthus, Medicine, and Morality, ed. by Brian Dolan (London: Brill, 2000), pp. 141-163.
  • Lesley A. Hall, Sex, Britain, and Social Change in Britain Since 1880 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).
  • Tony Henderson, Disorderly Women in Eighteenth Century London (Abingdon: Routledge, 2003).
  • Marianna Hintikka and Minna Nevela, 'Representations of prostitutes and prostitution as metaphor in nineteenth-century English newspapers', Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics (2017), pp. 219-240.
  • Philippa Levine, 'Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Politics of Empire: The Case of British India', Journal of the History of Sexuality (1994), pp. 579-602.
  • Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (New York: Routledge, 2003).
  • Maria Luddy, "Abandoned women and bad characters": Prostitution in Nineteenth Century Ireland', Women's History Review (1997), pp. 485-504.
  • Linda Mahood, The Magdalenes: Prostitution in the Nineteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2000).
  • Onella Muscucci, 'Clitoridectomy, Circumcision, and the Politics of Sexual Pleasure in Mid-Victorian Britain', in Sexualities in Victorian Britain ed. by Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1996), pp. 60-78.
  • Lionel Rose, Rogues and Vagabonds: the Vagrant Underworld of Britain 1815-1985 (London: Routledge Revivals, 2016).
  • Mary Spongberg, Feminizing Venereal Disease (New York: NYU Press, 1998).
  • Judith Walkowitz and Jane Caplan, 'Male Vice and Feminist Virtue: Feminism and the Politics of Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Britain', History Workshop Journal (1982), pp. 79-93.
  • Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
  • Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight (New York: Virago Press, 1992).
  • Jeffrey Weeks, 'Inverts, Perverts, and Mary-Annes: Male Prostitution and the Regulation of Homosexuality in Britian in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries', The Gay Past: Historical Essays, ed. by S. J. Lucala and R. J. Peterson (New York: Routledge, 1980).