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Prostitution has been nicknamed “the oldest profession”. It has certainly been a popular one at times. By the 1700s in London, the setting for the new 8-episode TV drama series Harlots – now available first and only on Showmax – an estimated 1 in 5 women was earning her living on her back. But their lives and ambitions were far more complicated than lying there like fleshy, coin-operated sex machines – for one thing, the women themselves controlled the industry with profitable sidelines in theft and gambling.
Instead of offering up soft-core tantalising camera shots of nude bodies, Harlots focuses on brothel madam Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), her daughters Charlotte (played by Jessica Brown Findlay, better known as Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey; 2010-2015, all 6 seasons are available on Showmax) and Lucy (Eloise Smyth) and her working girls’ machinations to grab their slice of the dirty pie, while their rival and Margaret’s ex-boss Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) carves out her own piece. “It’s a show about economics as much as it is about sex workers,” says series creator Moira Buffini.
And it’s not an exaggeration. Prostitution was a real money spinner during the 1700s:
- Prostitution was so commonplace that an unofficial guide to London prostitutes, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, started circulating during the 1750s. It ran to nine editions and continued publishing for nearly 40 years, selling 250 000 copies! In a wonderfully funny moment in the first episode, viewers overhear the prostitutes having a whale of a time as they read out one another’s “reviews” – based on real entries in the original List, which included sections for “The Full Figured, The Unusual, Ladies of Experience and The Poxed”. (It was, in fact, this Yellow Pages of London’s prostitutes that inspired Harlots.)
- In modern currency terms, prostitution brought around £1.5 billion (over R23 billion) per year into London’s economy at the time.
- A common prostitute earned about 80 times a housemaid’s annual salary (which was just over £400 or R6 970 – yes, per year) and the working conditions and chances of promotion were arguably better, as was the chance of social mobility – prostitutes were accepted in all sorts of places that respectable women were not.
- Sold to the correct bidder, auctioning a virginity could bring a brothel £11 000 (R191 681). And a canny madam could use a variety of tricks to sell the same girl’s virginity several times over until word got around.
A hundred years later when Taboo (2017-curent, now also available first and only on Showmax) is set, German madam Helga von Hinten (Franka Potente) could only look back in envy at the madams and courtesans of the 1700s. Her power is somewhat reduced as she’s forced to share half of her profits from her dockyard brothel with her landlord James Delaney (Tom Hardy), and to look to him for protection.
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