Women who were actually what we would call prostitutes, engaged in sex for money (and this can often only be determined when they were working in the officially sanctioned brothels that existed in many parts of Europe) tended, as one would expect, to come from groups of low social status. (Walkowitz 1980) Perhaps more relevant than working prostitutes, however, is the greater number of women whom the justice system called “whores” but who may not have been engaged in commercial sex. Here, too, it seems likely that the conflation of extramarital sexual behavior with prostitution was more pronounced for urban workers or the poor than the bourgeoisie or aristocracy.
The courts do not get very specific about the social backgrounds of women accused of being “whores”, or of repeated offenses of fornication or adultery with a number of different men. Nevertheless, while any woman who engaged in sex outside of marriage fell within the purview of legal regulation, poorer women were more likely in practice to bear the brunt of enforcement. (Bloch 1991) Certain occupations were seen as particularly suspect of sexual deviance, for example, laundress or washerwoman. London citizens who wished to keep bathhouses had to give sureties that they would not permit laundresses to enter: it was assumed that they would be there for sexual purposes.
Similarly brothelkeepers in the legal stewhouses of Southwark were limited in the number of laundresses they could have, again probably because there was a danger of unofficial prostitution taking place alongside the sanctioned trade. (Bloch 1991) Court records reveal laundresses and accused whores lodging together; they came from the same social milieu. Courtesy books warned against the dangers to a noble house’s honor of having too many women servants in the household, especially laundresses. (Bloch 1991) This sort of warning is particularly telling, because it implies that within the aristocratic establishment it was not elite but subordinate women who were seen as the bringers of sexual disorder. (Bloch 1991)
Laundresses were perhaps the clearest example of a group suspected of sexual immorality based simply upon occupation. They had free access to houses (including those of celibate men), had knowledge of intimate details of status and behavior, and were associated with filth. But all female domestic servants were potentially sexually available to their employers or men of their employers’ milieu in much the same way and were seen as disruptive because of this. Women who came to the city in search of domestic work might end up working as prostitutes — because of deception by wicked bawds, they claimed, although it is possible that some entered the sex trade because of financial necessity, fully aware of what they were doing. (Karras 1996) Even those who did find domestic or other work might find themselves prostituted by their employers.