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  • Writer's pictureRM Anderson

London Sex Trade (Fleshly Pursuits)

Modern dating can present a minefield of problems; where to go, what to wear. What exactly constitutes a lie and how much rohypnol is too much? We can easily make the mistake of harkening back to the 'good old days' assuming things were better then. Back to a time when romance and chivalry was perhaps demonstrated more fully than through a begrudging concession to go dutch on the morning after pill.

However for many in London's dark past, dating was also built upon a shameless bed of deceit and deception, the fallout of which however could far outweigh modern concerns; mild embarrassment, a persistent itch and the niggling concern that those happy snaps you took together (though demonstrating a level of flexibility and suppleness rarely seen outside of the Olympic village) were perhaps ill-advised and almost certainly now in digital global circulation until the end of time.

However many of the girls that work the corners streets and parks in bygone London were often there simply as the result of a date gone wrong.

Henry Mayhew was a journalist and being one of 17 children was very used to being ignored. As an adult he put this experience to great use by seamlessly integrating into crowds and subcultures in Victorian London, capturing the whispers, murmurs and undertones emanating for some of London's most downtrodden places. Equally skilled in disappearing (as he demonstrated to creditors in 1835), he would then vanish and record these findings in several illuminating works. Interviewing over 200 people that ran the corners, slept under bridges, and walked the alleyways, he released a book called 'London's Underworld'. In that book there is recorded time and time again the same sad story over and over. A sad story that comes from the mouths of many different girls from many different backgrounds.

Their account usually goes as follows: pretty young Victorian girl whose head is filled with romance and whose days are blissfully spent embroidering, swooning and butchering Alphonse de la Martin, one day on a walk in the park or perhaps even outside of their own house, meets a personable young man. This gent pays her a compliment and she's dazzled by his sparkly eyes, his love kindled lips and his words that drip with honey. Each day they take a walk further and further away from home. One day her new beau takes her just a little further than she's comfortable (geographically speaking) whereupon she realizes that she doesn't actually know where she is anymore. "Don't worry!" He reassures her. "This is my neighborhood. My mother lives nearby. Perhaps we could call in and I can introduce you?" Well of course it'd be very poor form to refuse such an invitation and so this introduction is made. Things progress beautifully. The conversation flows, the laughter rings out and it is perhaps mid-flow in an impassioned defense of the view that "Le Lac" was certainly the most fully realized creative expression of all the great French poet's work, that she's drugged, raped and woken up in the sex trade. Her family will never see her again and perhaps assume she's run away. It was a very difficult task to find people in those days. And so begins 10, 20, 30 years of intimate dealings with lords and gentlemen all the way down to men whose connection with high society begins and ends with the scent of their breeches that is strangely not dissimilar from that of a rare and expensive continental cheese.

Sex workers of course came from other walks of life; factory workers that worked late into the hours maybe suffered sexual violence at the hands of their employers and ended up in the profession. Seamstresses looking to supplement their pitiful income. Even simple servant girls who might suffer rape and now,. left with no prospect of marriage, fell into the trade themselves.

It has also been estimated that 50% of the street vendors were also selling a 'bit on the side', which certainly brings a new dimension to the promise of being 'open all hours'. Whilst my corner shop offers the same, the closest I've ever come to an erotic exchange with Sandip, is when I've been invited to 'pay by touch'. And so we are left only to imagine the offers delivered through those vendors loyalty cards and consumer reward schemes. Perhaps a tad miffed with the knowledge that any complaints leveled in their time would have been dealt with swiftly, professionally, and culminating almost certainly, in a happy ending. (A level of commitment one should certainly keep in mind next time one is asked to fill out a customer satisfaction form at one's local eatery).

This life of solicitation was tough and grueling no doubt but it wasn't all bad. Not only would one find their social circle richly diversified working shoulder to shoulder (or perhaps cheek to cheek) with a colourful array of local men and women, but prostitutes generally lived longer than others due to the shorter working hours. A couple of extra years to squeeze some more jobs in!

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