Sex and the City

Lidija Haas on London getting duller

Text by Lidija Haas

To someone who had visited in, say, 2000, King’s Cross – one of London’s best known and most instantly identifiable red-light districts for over a century – would now be all but unrecognisable. After the 1960s, when the Regent’s Canal lost its status as a major vein bringing London coal and cargo, the area became a byword for blight, and among its disused buildings and unlit corners, illegal business of various kinds could flourish more or less in public. Yet that period has left no visible trace. The new King’s Cross, part corporate gleam, part old-industrial chic, part giant playground (complete with a swing inside a kind of white birdcage), has been thoroughly cleansed. A “boulevard” barrels, yellow-brick-road-like, through commercial and residential blocks that spread in every direction, their windows emblazoned with LOVE KING’S CROSS. The campus of Central Saint Martins provides an arty, youthful splash in the middle of it all, but the effect is one designed primarily to make international business types and their local equivalents feel at home. The whole project is described by the developers, Argent LLC and its partners, as “The Mix”, one of those War-is-Peace-style corporate locutions that can’t help but draw your attention to the homogeneity actually on display. Another is “affordable housing”, of which Argent, like its equivalents elsewhere in London, fought to keep the proportions as small as possible.

If you were looking to define a real urban “mix”, a red-light district would seem a logical place to start: sex work is one of a number of activities that spans social class in a manner you’d expect to see more often in big cities, but which seems increasingly rare in central London. In November 1982, sex-worker activists and other women’s groups occupied the Church of the Holy Cross in St. Pancras to protest police harassment and illegal arrests; they drew attention and support from many different sources. To read Selma James’s account of it in her essay “Hookers in the House of the Lord” is to be confronted with a politically and culturally lively, diverse King’s Cross, utterly unlike the slick corporate funhouse of today, where even candidates for the small pockets of social housing are vetted to keep out people with any history of mental-health troubles, and to reduce the number of families with children.

The way the UK treats sex work has always said a good deal about the way it sees its cities and their populations more generally, but what has happened to inner London’s sex workers in the last few years offers an especially vivid capsule view of what has been done to the city’s spaces. Sex work is also a fairly emblematic example of the overlap between leisure and commerce, between private and public space. That the lines between work and play, public and private have eroded is now a commonplace: from high-end branding that primarily sells a feeling to the enforced perkiness of low-waged Pret employees, there is a universal requirement to show the client a good time and fake one yourself. If you watch Live Nude Girls Unite!, a documentary on the first US strip club to unionise – made in 2000, around the same time King’s Cross began smartening up – you may well feel a shock of recognition: at one stage in the negotiations, the peep-show bosses try to force their workers to have the word “fun” included in their contractual job description. It is a “fun job”, not unlike the ones presumably being done behind those LOVE KING’S CROSS signs.

Swathes of the neighbourhood – it even has its own brand-new postcode, N1C – are to be taken over by those titans of work-life imbalance, Google, Facebook and Twitter, for whom the former urban wasteland provides an ideal expanse: the rooftop swimming pools and other amenities designed to keep employees at work as much as possible require spaces of the kind once found only in out-of-town industrial parks. It says something that these companies can afford to be in the city centre at all – indeed, it’s not easy to think who else could manage the £650m Google is said to have dropped on its new 90,000-square-foot premises. UK authorities seem much more worried about some types of commodification than others: women who sell sex are a problem, but there’s less fuss about the sale of other things you once hoped to get for free – most obviously the “piazzas” and suchlike now meant to serve as “public” space. A cheery sign on one hoarding reads, “Welcome to King’s Cross. Please enjoy this private estate considerately.” And adds that CCTV images are being recorded “for your safety and protection”.

The cleansing of King’s Cross was a concerted operation that took several years: sex workers, like the homeless and the buyers and sellers in the once-thriving street drug trade, didn’t simply vanish with rising rents and general sprucing up. Alongside increased CCTV, gated communities and the like, particular use was made of a then relatively new police power. The Anti-Social Behaviour Order, a New Labour invention sold to the general public as a way to target thuggish youths, is perhaps the cleverest method you could imagine to control the movement of people you don’t like and restrict their use of public space. It covers any behaviour that causes, or indeed “is likely to cause”, harassment, “alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household” as the accused. So far, so broad, and since it’s a civil rather than a criminal measure, the standard of evidence required to issue an ASBO is extremely low. A police officer can simply tell a magistrate that he or she has been told this is going on – no need to produce witnesses – for the ASBO to be issued. Once in place, though, a person found to be violating the order can be subject to a prison sentence of up to five years. And the order will tend to specify an exclusion zone, which can cover the whole borough where you live, so that in effect, all you have to do to be in breach of it is leave the house. Voilà: what was once just mildly unpleasant behaviour you put up with from your fellow city-dwellers can now be criminalised.

At the very least, it’s creepy – but of course, it works, as shiny King’s Cross can attest. In the first few years after the legislation was adopted in 1999, 25 per cent of ASBOs granted in London were applied for by Camden council, and by 2006, they had 218 of them, around a quarter of which were in King’s Cross. Naturally, those considered undesirables don’t melt away overnight, but the ASBO was an especially fast and effective tactic – some were displaced to other areas around Caledonian Road or further east, some went to prison, some retreated indoors or found alternative ways to work and advertise. The effect was the same: King’s Cross, open for business on a whole new scale.

ASBOs are still very much in use against sex workers in London, but they also offer a kind of metaphor for UK prostitution laws more generally: apparently designed as a gentler form of policing that aims to make us all feel safer and more comfortable, it results in a dangerous and confusing obstacle course that, once begun, seems well nigh impossible to escape. Having sex for money is not illegal here, but almost every activity that surrounds it is, especially those that might make it safer for the people whose job it is: working from a flat in groups (which counts as brothel keeping, or, if the law is feeling a little bit 17th-century, running “a bawdy house”) or having a friend live with you, offer protection or help (which can be construed as “controlling” or pimping). When asked, which they all too rarely are, sex workers have made it clear that they have more to fear from police than from pimps, and that when they do face other kinds of exploitation and violence, their precarious legal status makes it all but impossible to seek help. A parliamentary group led by the delightfully named MEP Mary Honeyball is now keen to extend this logic: they hope to get new laws through on the so-called Nordic, or Swedish, model, which punish the clients rather than the sex workers themselves. Criminalising one side of a transaction, of course, affects the other in myriad ways – it will make it harder for sex workers to protect themselves (by making sure, for instance, that they know as much about the client as possible), and in any case it seems obvious that the easiest way to catch punters is to go after the workers, so it’s likely police will keep doing just that. Unfortunately, much of mainstream feminism, in characterising all sex work as a form of gendered exploitation or violence, risks further harming and endangering women who are already at a huge disadvantage under the law.

Sex workers themselves have been making these arguments for decades. The 1982 church occupation in King’s Cross was inspired in part by similar protests in French cities in the 1970s. In Prostitutes: Our Life, a 1980 book on the French occupations and the sex trade there, one sex worker who had taken part in the activism noted that the kind of sinister large-scale pimping operations so many people like to wring their hands over were increasingly rare. In any case, she said, “right now”, the truly entrepreneurial type won’t be wasting his time exploiting “pros”: “It’s making money on property that interests those kind of men.” If that sounds like something of a conspiracist cliché – “You only have to look at the doctored accounts, the property business,” she says a few pages later; “the crooks are no longer where you think they are” – then look no further than London’s other historic red-light district, Soho. There, just such a man, Paul Raymond, was so successful at turning one kind of entrepreneurialism into another that in 2008 he died in possession of a reported 60 of Soho’s 87 acres. He built his property behemoth off the proceeds of ventures like Raymond’s Revue Bar, whose advertising featured women wearing nothing but banknotes (“She gives her last pound away”). Raymond famously got around the old rule that the women in a peep show had to stand motionless by privatising – writhing was OK once the club was members-only. Now, his company, Soho Estates – in the spirit of King’s Cross’s “Mix”, it claims to be “Building the Future, Respecting the Past” – is expanding ever more aggressively.

Soho’s bohemian, melting-pot past is admittedly well behind it now, and yet, until not long ago, it seemed to have preserved a rather benign sort of uneven development, where cheap caffs, small alleys full of low-end sex shops and raffish-looking residents could just about coexist with the yuppier elements. Only in the last few years has big capital really taken matters into its own hands. Soho landlords, as well as raising rents across the board, have been encouraged to target and evict certain kinds of tenants, and policing has become increasingly draconian: in December 2013, there was a major raid on sex workers’ flats, notably those in the tiny Walker’s Court – 200 cops in riot gear, dogs in tow, dragged women into the street. Closure orders were mostly upheld in court even though the workers made clear they were just making their living, not being “controlled” or exploited by any shadowy villains. A week after the raids, Soho Estates got the go-ahead from Westminster council for one of its many new projects in the area: it will redevelop Walker’s Court and the surrounding buildings into a £45m space comprising its own headquarters and a theatre, among other things. Across the road, Berwick Street too is looking different: from the alley you can see an expanse of wood and green tile housing Gosh Comics, a juice bar and a purveyor of silk bowties. Presumably there will be no more “Model Upstairs” signs in Walker’s Court – those women will probably have to find riskier work on the streets – but nonetheless the company is “delighted to announce that the iconic Raymond Revuebar sign is to be reinstated” as a tribute to the man who built it all, and “to maintain the sense of identity this location has for Soho residents and visitors alike”. Any colourful old Soho touches in future will apparently have to be heritage only, and won’t make a living for anyone but the team at Soho Estates. Unlike King’s Cross, where every trace of the famed illegal activities has been painstakingly expunged, and the picturesque elements are provided only by cutesy freight salvage such as the Fish and Coal buildings, Soho’s owners will keep profiting off the nostalgic, aestheticised sex trade even as they clear out its remaining workers.

The actor Rupert Everett wrote winningly in the Observer in January about several of his friends being chucked out of Walker’s Court, and about the protests he took part in. He described the plans for towers complete with heliports as the latest manifestation of “Cool (tax haven) Britannia” and scoffed at the plan to build a new theatre, the managing director of Soho Estates’ supposed concession to the area’s bohemian culture. Banners at the protests read, “Don’t rip the heart out of Soho”, but, of course, that’s almost literally the plan. The enormous recent influx of cash is in large part the product of Crossrail, which is devouring around £15bn of public money and whose purpose is precisely to tunnel through the heart of London, so that one can hop from Heathrow to the City and back with as little Londonness in the way as possible – a project that rather counter-intuitively hikes the price of land along its route. Crossrail’s branding equivalent of “The Mix” is “The Link”, and its irony is similar, since it seems set to sever far more than it connects.

The police justified the Soho raids as an attempt to “make Soho safer”, though they seemed confused as to exactly for whom and from what. There was much talk of the need to rescue victims of sex trafficking, but none of those were found, and women were arrested rather than helped. The English Collective of Prostitutes, perhaps recalling its 1982 sanctuary, went to the vicar of the local St. Anne’s Church for help. The idea of a church as the heart of a London community seems an old-fashioned one, but intriguingly enough, the police had had the same idea. Reverend Simon Buckley of St. Anne’s had been among the local leaders briefed beforehand about the operation and its supposedly helpful, humanitarian purpose. After the raids, Buckley approached the police for some explanation of why their purpose and methods had turned out to be so different from what was claimed in advance. When no such explanation was forthcoming, the vicar switched sides, telling the papers what he thought of the treatment of Soho’s community.

Buckley is far from alone in expressing a newfound disillusionment with London’s policing. It is by no means only sex workers who are kept isolated from one another; there has been a noticeable crackdown in recent years on free association of every kind. From the repeated “kettling” of demonstrators in 2010 to the tightening of squatting laws in the midst of a housing crisis, while lots of buildings lie empty, to the routine mass arrests of peaceful protestors, planned in advance and resulting in hardly any charges, it has become increasingly obvious that much policing is not intended to protect the law-abiding from their criminally inclined fellow citizens, but to safeguard property and big money from almost everybody else in London.

The blurring of social boundaries involved in sex work has often made people uncomfortable, and the policing of it, both literally and metaphorically, has reflected that discomfort. In Playing the Whore, Melissa Gira Grant’s book on labour rights for sex workers, she notes in passing that the unwillingness to treat sex work as work seems to have increased as the sex and service industries converge in more and more areas. It’s not hard to grasp why the increasing overlap between the sex industry and other parts of the service sector, in terms of working conditions and even personnel, makes people uneasy. But you’d think the Met might understand something about those blurred boundaries, given that some of their number are specifically employed, for instance, to sleep with activists in the line of undercover duty. Still, when sex workers are evicted from the safe spaces where they can look after each other, and those forced onto the street risk being ASBO’d out of their neighbourhoods altogether, several things are clear. Not everyone can be allowed to decide how best to make their living. And few of us are as free as we might think to move around or gather together in London’s public spaces, to determine what gives a city centre its “identity” and what precisely it means to keep those places “safe”. §