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Everything Hulu's 'Harlots' Gets Right (And Wrong) About Brothels In 18th-Century England

Updated February 20, 2019 59.9k views15 items

Set in rival parlors in 1700s London, the Hulu show Harlots goes where no other show has gone: It explores the dramatic lives of women who lived and labored as ladies of the night in an era that really, really liked "doing it." How accurate is the show? Like any piece of historical fiction, it hits some facts and misses others.

Overall, Harlots accurately depicts the life of an 18th-century working girl. Through the experiences of Margaret Wells, a woman who runs a bawdy house alongside her partner and children; Lydia Quigley, a madam who caters to high society in her classy, fashionable establishment; and their female workers, the show depicts how diverse the world of sex work was in the 18th century.

There are nitty-gritty details that Harlots doesn't explore as much as it could, however. The industry in 1700s London was more lucrative and dangerous than the show suggests. From male-only molly houses to the job's serious health risks, there was still more to the industry than Harlots leads its audience to believe.

  • Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    There Were Many More Male Workers In 18th-Century London Than The Show Depicts

    Harlots endeavors to depict strong women in the 18th century; therefore, only a handful of named workers are male. One such character is Prince Rasselas, a man of the night who generally services male clients.

    Though it's difficult to estimate the number of men in the profession, molly houses - establishments providing male-only entertainment - did exist in 18th-century London. Moralists and law enforcement targeted molly houses for what was then considered especially sinful behavior. For example, authorities raided the Mother's Clap molly house in 1726 because of its clientele. There were painfully high stakes for molly house clients; some of the arrested men were executed.

  • Lydia Quigley's Debt Schemes To Entrap Young Women Truly Happened 

    In the show, one way Lydia Quigley entraps young women into becoming workers in her high-class establishment is by making them indebted to her. She provides beautiful dresses, as well as room and board, but charges a fee for all of this, thus creating a debt that requires repayment.

    The showrunners and writers didn't fabricate this. The infamous madam Elizabeth Needham entrapped girls and young women through similar debt schemes. When some workers were no longer useful to her, she condemned them to debtors' prison

  • Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    More Workers Likely Struggled With Venereal Disease Than The Show Depicts

    Though the specter of STIs lurks in the corners of the show, the main characters seemingly don't struggle with it as much as 18th-century people probably did. These conditions were severe and dangerous.

    It wasn't until the 19th century that venereal disease and the sex industry were so closely associated. But for working girls - and women in general - being diagnosed with a venereal disease had tragic social effects: their bodies were permanently marked as diseased

  • Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    Unlike Fanny Lambert, Some Workers Gave Away Their Children

    Pregnancy is one of the potential risks associated with the profession. Though Fanny Lambert, one of Margaret Wells's workers, does become pregnant while on the job, the show does not go far enough in exploring the limited contraceptives or maternal options available to 18th-century women. Rudimentary condoms - made from animal intestines - were available, but not consistently effective. Consequently, workers frequently became pregnant in the 18th century.

    Abortion was an option and women could use herbs to induce a miscarriage - but this proved dangerous. Though some women kept their children, others did not. Many of them who could not afford a child or did not want to raise one turned to charitable institutions, such as the Foundling Hospital, which took in unwanted children to discourage harlotry in 18th-century London.