What It Was Like Being A Male Sex Worker In An 18th Century London Molly House  

Genevieve Carlton
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What is a molly boy? In the 18th century, Londoners began calling young gay men and male pros "molly boys," using the term as a derogatory term for those men they found effeminate or soft. Molly boys might walk the streets of London looking for johns (clients), while others visited molly houses - secret and discreet meeting places for gay men. In molly houses, men could dress in drag, have relations with other men, and even perform play marriages and pretend to give birth, all while avoiding society's condemnation. Molly house culture led to the flourishing of London's LGBTQ+ community - at least until the police raids started. 

While female working girls faced the prospect of being taken in by police, and sometimes faced terrible conditions, it was nothing compared to London's male workers. From the time of Henry VIII, lustful contact between two men was not only prohibited, but punishable by execution. Men busted in police raids found themselves on trial for their lives, and many ended up hanging at Tyburn for having relations with another man. The prudish attitudes toward intercourse in the Victorian era only pushed molly houses further underground. But during the heyday of molly houses, London's gay men found a welcoming community that accepted them. 

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Photo:  Gift of Jean Charlot, 1930/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
In London, A 'Molly' Was A Gay Man

By the late 17th century, English speakers developed a new word to describe gay men: molly. According to Cassell's Dictionary of Slangthe term originally referred to a gay man or a man who was seen as effeminate, perhaps drawing from the Latin word mollis, which meant soft or effeminate.

But by the early 18th century, molly had taken on another meaning: a male "working girl." At the same time, the phrase "molly house" emerged as a term for a gay brothel. Molly could also be used as a verb, meaning to sodomize someone. London's elaborate vocabulary also called gay men "molly-cull" or "tom molly."

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Molly Boys Walked The Streets Of London To Find Johns

Certain parts of London were well-known as cruising areas - or places to elicit gay relations. One, near Moorfield Park, was called "The Sodomites' Walk." Other streets bore names like Cock's Lane and Lad Lane, hinting that men could find molly boys on those streets.

Molly houses often congregated near these areas, making it easy for men to pick up a molly boy on the street and take him to a safe place to engage privately. Thomas Newton, a molly boy caught by police, eventually let two constables follow him as he tried to find johns, who were then taken in for attempted sodomy. 

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Molly Boys Had To Be Careful Of Sting Operations

Molly boys walked the streets of London looking for customers. One of those molly boys, Thomas Newton, described how he picked up men: "I takes a turn that way, and leans over the wall. In a little time a gentleman passes by, and looks hard at me, and at a small distance from me, stands up against the wall, as if he was going to make water."

The customer then stepped closer to Newton, saying, "’Tis a very fine Night." When Newton nodded, the man reached out. Newton described it: "Then he takes me by the hand, and after squeezing and playing with it a little (to which I showed no dislike), he conveys it to his breeches, and puts [his genitals] into it."

The customer, a man named William Brown, didn't realize he had walked into a sting operation. Two constables seized Brown, who reportedly defended himself by saying, "I did it because I thought I knew him, and I think there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body."

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Molly Boys Wore Women's Clothing And Adopted Fake Names

Molly boys also visited molly houses to cross-dress in secret. The mollies adopted fake names, like Plump Nelly, Susan Guzzle, Primrose Mary, and the Duchess of Camomile. One molly, known as Princess Seraphina, even sued a man in 1732 for stealing a gown. A neighbor described Princess Seraphina as someone who "commonly used to wear a white gown, and a scarlet cloak... and then she would so flutter her fan, and make such fine curtsies, that you would not have known her from a woman."

In drag, mollies held balls and masquerades in secret, where they were able to dress how they pleased.