Well, Florence shames other women, and tries to get them to stop earning money the only way the know/can, while hypocritically being housed by a brothel madam herself. That makes her a tad worse than Margaret imo.
Yes. Florence is absolutely a hypocrite by virtue of taking Lydia’s offer. And she does shame other women. To try to get them to stop sex work, which this show has been pretty frank is not glamorous or safe or healthy.
Yes, sex work provides a way for women, who may not have any other options, to earn money and to retain their financial independence, rather than losing that independence by doing the respectable thing and getting married to a man who would then own the woman and everything she owns. (“Marriage is the worst kind of thief,” after all.) And certain kinds of sex work — if a girl manages to catch a rich keeper and become a high-class courtesan, for example — can elevate a girl to the trappings of high society and give her not only lasting financial security but also luxuries she could probably only dream about otherwise. This is why I said Margaret has pragmatic considerations for selling her daughters. She believes it gives them the best possible chance at life, and she has a point.
But, as we have also seen, sex work also leaves women open to manifold abuses at the hands of their johns or keepers. It not only stains them with social shame that will stick to them for a lifetime but also presents a very real danger of rape, of being beaten, of getting pregnant out of wedlock, of contracting venereal disease (it’s not an uncommon fan theory, for example, that Florence’s blindness might be due to such a thing) … It is hard, dangerous, and demeaning work, even if you’re lucky enough to have a bawd as kind as Margaret, and most of these girls will never reach the heights Charlotte and Lucy aspire to. Most of them will have short, ill-fated careers. And even courtesans – the ones we’ve seen, at least – truly enjoy only the trappings of the higher class. They are still possessions. They are still outsiders at the dinner table. They are still vulnerable to their keepers and must obey them. There is a sort of freedom and agency to being a sex worker, but it is by no means pretty or absolute.
Florence’s approach is harsh, but she, too, has a point. She’s been there. She knows. So, again: Do we damn the woman who’s trying to save women from a dangerous lifestyle simply because her approach is harsh and moralistic and because she, being very poor and having a daughter to take care of, accepts a devil’s bargain for shelter? Do we praise Margaret for being a typically kind woman and a relatively good bawd while ignoring that she is, nonetheless, a businesswoman who turns a bleeding Emily away and insists Lucy continue in the profession even over Lucy’s protests and misery?
Harlots does not demonize sex workers, but nor does it glamorize sex work. It is a complicated and multifaceted issue, and Florence and Margaret alike are complicated and multifaceted women who both have a point.