Tuesday July 9, 2002
Sex in the city
The clampdown on prostitutes advertising in phone boxes is driving them out on to the streets
Sex sells and judging by the proliferation of sexual images we rub up against every day without batting an eyelid, on billboards, in magazines and in movies, we don't have a problem with that.
But a group of women who sell sex in central London have discovered that some steamy ads are more acceptable than others. They are on a hit list of 89 addresses which police in Paddington have earmarked for raids.
Like many other advertisers, they use explicit sexual images to sell their services in their case, cards in phone boxes. Nobody seems to mind giving over acres of space to ads for some women in the sex industry, such as those who work at the increasingly popular lap dancing clubs, but the palm-sized phone-box cards appear to be an explicit image too far.
In response to bitter complaints from residents, police have mounted an undercover surveillance operation, the first of its kind in this country. First, they phone the women who advertise, posing as punters. Once they have an address, they find out who the owner of the property is. Next they go calling and, in time-honoured fashion, make their excuses with a flash of their ID.
Placing cards in phone boxes to advertise prostitution became an offence under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 and the women are told to remove them. If the women are illegal immigrants, a swift removal from the UK is arranged. At the very least, the women are likely to be evicted because police have a duty under the new act to inform landlords if a flat rented as a home is being used for commercial purposes. A landlord who might have had little interest in what was going on as long as there were no public nuisance problems and the rent was paid on time becomes duty-bound to turf the woman out.
The sex industry in this country is many things from women and men who give verbal blow jobs on chatlines and those who work in porn movies, to those who sell sex and the voluptuous dancers who promise sexual nirvana, but deliver nothing. But not everyone selling sex, or the idea of it, is governed by the same rules. The laws covering the parts of the industry where no sex act between purchaser and provider takes place are more straightforward, but when it comes to "live" contact, the law is as clear as mud.
Prostitution is legal, but once a woman starts working she is likely to break the law. If she works on the street, it's an offence, although a non-imprisonable one, to solicit. If she works inside, it's an offence to work with one or more other women, even though that will afford extra protection, because then she is operating out of a brothel.
Priscilla Alexander of the North American Task Force on Prostitution identifies three approaches to sex work prohibition (making prostitution illegal, as it is in most of the US), "abolitionist" (in the UK this means a pragmatic approach to reducing harm to sex workers), and regulation (as in the Netherlands, which has mandatory testing for sexually transmitted infections).
A network of projects exists across the UK, many funded by the NHS, to support sex workers by handing out free condoms, offering advice on safe sex, circulating descriptions of violent punters and helping women who want to leave prostitution. But just as our attitudes to sex are a muddled mixture of prim and randy, our abolitionist, harm-reduction approach is muddled by prohibitionist laws.
The law is becoming increasingly prohibitionist. Anti-social behaviour orders, introduced to tackle neighbours from hell, have recently been applied to women who sell sex on the street. A woman issued with an order is forbidden from working within a geographical area. If she breaches it, she faces up to five years in jail, even though soliciting is a non-imprisonable offence.
The carding law is another example. As part of the Paddington operation, 60 "boys" have been convicted of placing cards in phone boxes and faced fines. But the women face a far more drastic penalty eviction and deportation. Those deported are dumped at an airport, often with no way of getting back to their homes apart from by selling sex. If they have been trafficked and not yet paid their debts, their lives may be in danger. Those who are evicted may be left homeless and with few choices but to sell sex from the street.
These measures suggest that the real agenda is not getting rid of the cards, but getting rid of the women. Just as prohibition didn't turn the US into a nation of teetotallers, these measures are unlikely to drive hordes of sex workers into convents. What they will do is force them underground, where they have less access to support networks and risk more violence.
What is needed instead is decriminalisation of all aspects of sex work involving consenting adults, the right to work on the same basis as other self-employed people, clean and safe places to work, and an end to social attitudes which stigmatise sex workers. Someone needs to start making sense of sex work legislation because no one in the sex industry can.
Jenn Clamen is spokeswoman for the International Union of Sex Workers, which recently affiliated to the GMB union.
Created: November 14, 2002
Last modified: November 15, 2002
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