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She lives in London. There are two abiding myths of Victorian Britain. In reality, this bizarre idea was a retrospective creation of the 20th century. The second myth, to counterpoise the prudery, was that Victorian men were always on the prowl, serviced by tens of thousands of prostitutes instead of their trouser-averse wives. Many experts at the time and many since have stated confidently that there were 80, prostitutes in London, in a population heading towards 2 million by mid-century.
But it cannot be stated too emphatically that we have no firm knowledge of the number. First, there is the question, what is a prostitute? Apart from a woman actively soliciting on the streets or working in a brothel, does it include a woman living with a man, to whom she is not married, on a long-term, monogamous basis? A woman intermittently or regularly given cash by a long-term, or short-term, partner? A woman whose wages do not entirely support her, or who is temporarily out of work, who receives financial help from one or more men?
A woman who had sex outside marriage, with no cash element at all? Many in the nineteenth century regarded all of these women as prostitutes.
But shortly this number was taken to as the figure for women being paid for sex by strangers, and simply increased in line with population increases, turning into that mythical 80, within a couple of decades. By , the surgeon William Acton, one of the main contributors to the debate, claimed the figure was now ,, calculated by taking as his starting-point the 42, illegitimate births that year. This despite knowing full well because he quotes the figure too that the police had, in , thought there were fewer than 10, prostitutes in London.
Another expert, Michael Ryan, the author of Prostitution in London , appeared every bit as innumerate and even more credulous. So 80, murdering pimps, yet only pages before, he cited police reports that listed only one brothel robbery, and no murders. As this shows, the real problem in writing about prostitution was a lack of direct information. But the section for prostitutes was different.