What is it like to work in the sex industry? And what might it mean if the recent law reforms around Europe reach the UK? A working girl talks to Sophie Morlin-Yron about the stigma, fear and dangers of a high-risk environment.
Hooker, prostitute, call-girl, working-girl – it all means the same to 43- year-old escort Stacey. “I don’t really have a preference for what to call me. Some get their knickers in a twist and feel that anything other than working-girl or sex worker is derogatory. I don’t see it that way.”
Stacey, a busty woman with fiery red hair and a curvy figure, has been an escort in London on-and-off for 18 years. She offers both traditional escort services and light bondage. She is degree educated and runs her own business. Escorting provides extra cash on the side.
Last year, working-girls in Barcelona rallied against new laws criminalising prostitution. In Paris it was a new bill, which would criminalise only the act of buying sex, that sparked outrage and demonstrations. Sweden pioneered this Nordic Model back in 1998, now applied in several countries. This sparked a debate. Should the UK follow suit?
Other factors contribute to a changing environment for sex-workers; new EU rules allowing for a freer flow of movement between nations: the Web connecting people like never before; tighter measures for dealing with trafficking and organised crime, all play a part.
Figures for prostitution are difficult to compile as much goes on underground. A 2009 UK Country Report on Human Rights by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, estimated there were around 100,000 people engaged in prostitution in the UK. In London alone, there are an estimated 1,500 brothels, according to a 2008 study by Eaves, a charity fighting violence against women.
According to the Prostitutes Collective (PC), an organisation run entirely by women in the industry, violence against sex workers is a big issue. Looking back on her years in the industry, Stacey ‘only’ recalls feeling unsafe a couple of times. She was once robbed by a client, and once attacked by another. “When I refused to do oral without a condom he became abusive. I ran out still holding the money – I just wanted a quick exit and wasn’t trying to rip him off. He then chased after me, pushed me against the wall and tried to strangle me. Luckily a neighbour came out and I was able to escape.”
Buying or selling sex in the privacy of your home is legal in the UK. However, as soon as two or more women work together – it becomes a brothel, therefore organised prostitution, therefore a criminal offense. Cari Mitchell, a PC spokeswoman, says this makes for a dangerous environment where women are forced to work alone, and reluctant to call the police for fear of attracting attention, which is why the organisation campaigns for decriminalising prostitution.
Pye Jakobsson, a Swedish sex-worker-turned-campaigner who works closely with working girls in Stockholm, has been in Europe’s sex-industry for over 20 years. She says: “Criminalising the act of buying sex drives prostitution even deeper underground, as the client is afraid of getting caught.”
Last month, Maria Duque-Tunjano, a London sex-worker, was beaten to death in a flat in Earls Court. Her bloodied body lay undiscovered for days before it was reported. A murder hunt went on for almost a week before the suspect was finally arrested.
“Maria’s death is only one example of assault against sex-workers, many of which go unreported,” says Cari, who explains that only in the last few months, another woman was murdered and two assaults were reported.
A 2004 Home Office report report called Solutions and Strategies: Drug Problems and Street Sex Markets showed more than half the women in prostitution had experienced rape or assault, and 75 per cent had in some way been physically assaulted by pimps or clients.
Andrew Boff, conservative AM, has published two reports on violence against sex workers and trafficking. He says: “All evidence demonstrates that female sex workers are at a far higher risk of violence than any other group.” He says perpetrators often believe their attacks, even murders, will go unreported, since they know sex workers are reluctant to call the police.
Stacey, now working independently, says since working in brothels many years ago, she has not had much contact with the police. “Would I feel comfortable calling the police now? Not sure. Would depend very much on the circumstances and seriousness of the crime.”
She agrees that working alone poses higher risks, but even if working together, there are no guarantees. “Look, I’ve worked in a brothel where me and another girl and a maid worked. The other girl went into the bedroom with a client and he viciously assaulted her and we didn’t realise until he’d left.”
The Swedish police have reported a significant reduction in prostitution since the law changed. These figures have now been quoted by campaigners lobbying for the Nordic Model.
Both Andrew and Pye say this is inaccurate. “How can you measure this, with most of it going on underground?” says Andrew, and explains that it could just as well be a result – and evidence – of how much it has now been moved into the darkness of remote areas and dark alleyways.
Instead, says Pye, the position of sex-workers in society has changed for the worse since the new law. “Swedish sex-workers are now considered crime victims.” And although legal, selling sex is not an acceptable profession.
There is already stigma in the UK, says Stacey. “My parents are very narrow minded and would never accept me doing this. Very few friends know. It does isolate you, especially working as an independent. Sometimes people make a comment about hookers and it makes me bristle if I think it’s derogatory.”
Social media has increased the scope of abuse, she says. “Anonymous keyboard warriors who judge you and make disgusting comments or threats. I ignore them. Winds them up even more.”
So who are the key players in this underground industry? “A typical client looks like your husband, dad, boyfriend, brother. They come in all shapes, sizes and ages. I tend to see mainly businessmen over 35. I just can’t have a conversation with anyone younger,” says Stacey.
Similarly, there are different types of sex workers. Cari says: “Many are mothers trying to support their family.” And an increasing number of students have turned to prostitution to cover rising tuition fees and living costs, according to PC.
How much does it pay? The workers charge anything from £50 for an hour in Soho to £300 for an hour in Sweden. Stacey says: “I don’t earn as much as you think. Like any self-employed job, it has its ups and downs. Put it this way, I got a tax rebate last year because I didn’t earn over the threshold.”
A motion by labour MEP Mary Honeyball to criminalise sex workers’ clients is being voted on in the European Parliament this month. Her report ‘Sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality’ calls for “strong and appropriate action” to tackle prostitution which, according to the report, is a major factor in organised crime, second only to drugs.
But Andrew says he can’t see the law changing in the UK anytime soon: “It just isn’t a priority for politicians right now.”
He says: “A common defence for criminalisation is: ‘You wouldn’t want your daughter to be a prostitute, would you? Well, no, but then I ask them: If your daughter did, for whatever reason, get involved in the sex industry, wouldn’t you at least want her to be safe?’”
When asked if worried about safety, Stacey says: “You should always be wary and not put yourself in situations that may increase your vulnerability. I don’t drink or take drugs on bookings and I have strict booking procedures, so the person who books me can be traced, should the worse happen. But nothing you do is 100 per cent failsafe.”