A woman named Mary Ann Walker was born in London on the 26th of August, 1845. She wasn’t a person of societal importance until later in her life. She was a flawed woman who lived among other flawed people.
At the age of 18, she was married to a machinist named William Nichols. Together they had five children, between the years of 1866 and 1879, starting when she was 20-21 years old until she was 33-34 years old.
In early September 1880, aged 35, Mary and William separated. This was possibly due to a number of factors; her husband may have been cheating on her with the nurse who was present at the birth of her last child, or it was due to Mary having developed an addiction to alcohol. He claimed, later, that she’d abandoned the family.
They also had five children together. Keep in mind that in that era, one in 200 women died during childbirth. Even today, people who live in poverty, especially among women of color, face a much higher mortality rate in childbirth than those with more resources.
Pregnancy and childbirth are not easy on the body, and she could’ve had injuries and infections that may not have healed well. It wasn’t until the 1870’s that surgeons began washing their hands, so the conditions she may have given birth in were nothing like what we’d see today.
I could see very well why a woman might start drinking to cope with so many children, possible pain and injury from pregnancy and childbirth, and a husband that may have cheated on her.
After they separated, she worked different types of cleaning oriented jobs, because there were so few options for women to work in that age, even if she’d had much of an education. She was also a sex worker to earn money, which in of itself can be very difficult to cope with and lead to a heavier dependency on alcohol.
Sex work, even today, is seen as shameful, even though there has likely never been a time when its so common place with the tens of thousands of women who rely on different forms of sex work to either fully or partially support them financially. From women who sell nude photos of themselves on snapchat to cam models, the porn industry, all the way to full service sex work.
Along with society demonizing sex work, despite the vulnerable nature of the people who do it, they have almost zero protection. If a client becomes violent with you, you can’t go to the police. They’re more likely to arrest you, prosecute you, and put you in jail than to care what a man might’ve done to them. Making sex work illegal means you have to choose between safety and making enough money to live.
Even within the legal forms of sex work, the prejudices are very sexist to ridiculous levels. There was a case where a woman teacher had previously modeled underwear, and she was fired from her position teaching children. Similarly, elsewhere, a male teacher was found to have been an underwear model, and he was praised for being so handsome.
Police have repeatedly shown that they’ll rape sex workers in exchange for not pressing charges, and some police have been found to be running prostitution rings, exploiting vulnerable women. The police know they have power over these people and aren’t afraid to use it.
Mary Ann Nichols died 31 August 1888. She’s thought to be the first victim of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.
To this day, sex workers face violence and death, but all society seems capable of doing is making it less and less safe, to where there is nowhere for them to turn should things go badly. And should they try to find more societally acceptable work, their past could ruin their chances. And yet, for many, sex work is the only way for them to survive.
When, as writers, we include sex workers as characters, and especially if we make them victims, it’s important to portray them as human. I don’t believe that every sex worker needs to be portrayed in a positive light, but it’s important to not demonize them for being sex workers.
I’ve included sex workers a lot in my stories. I’ve been a sex worker for nearly ten years in the realm of BDSM, so it’s an area I’m familiar with. I’ve known sex workers who are really awful people, I’ve known some who are wonderful people, and most I’ve known fall somewhere in between because they’re human. We’re all human. We all have faults, skills, make mistakes, and show varying levels of compassion to others.
In Kindly Mrs. Roberts, I’ve portrayed a 1940’s housewife who needs to make money to assist her family financially. It’s a type of work she’s skilled at and enjoys, but this doesn’t make her a bad person.
In 8mm Model and Desperate for Divorce, I’ve portrayed a woman who became a sex worker because it opened up more avenues for financial security than fashion modeling did. In The Exchange, I portray a woman who became a sex worker to earn money for her family, so her more domestic husband could stay at home and raise their children. It gave them the ability to focus on what they were good at rather than be forced into a situation neither would have enjoyed.
In Fear of a Successor Wife, I’ve portrayed several women who are or were sex workers with different experiences in that work. I’ve included a chapter devoted to one character’s beautiful sexual experience with a client. I’ve also included another character who struggles with the trauma she faced at having to endure it to survive while growing up.
Everyone has their own reasons for becoming a sex worker, whether it’s by choice or survival, or whether it’s enjoyed or endured. As writers, we need to express the diversity of experiences of people. And if you have only ever included sex workers as sex objects rather than characters, or have only included them as victims, perhaps examine why it is you do this. Whether it's simply easy to do or having some prejudices you weren’t previously aware of. Self reflecting isn’t a bad thing. Knowing you have them and knowing why we feel something can be helpful when writing, because it helps us to understand others.
If you were to write Mary Ann Nichols as a character in your stories, how would you portray her? What challenges would she have faced? What path would have lead her to where she appears? How would you develop her story?