Forty years ago, a group of sex workers and their children occupied a King’s Cross Church in protest against Police harrassment.
The 12-day sit-in saw the masked women speak out in frustration at unfair laws which criminalised them while failing to protect them from violent assaults.
TV crews and MPs visited the protest at Holy Cross Church on Cromer Street, which helped change attitudes towards sex workers.
“There was massive media interest – Tony Benn came and asked ‘what do you want me to do?'” said Niki Adams of Kentish-Town based English Collective of Prostitutes which organised the action.
“People saw the injustices they suffered and came to support them. It really did put the policing of sex workers on the political agenda and publicised what was happening to them. It changed how sex workers were seen. You saw the press change; before they were described as ‘vice girls,’ part of a criminal underworld, but because of the action and their banner, the public started to see them as like other women – working to support their children.”
The women wore masks when giving interviews as Adams says: “It was impossible for any sex worker to go public, there is still an enormous abount of stigma and discrimination against them.”
A reunion event; Hookers in the House of the Lord takes place at Holy Cross on Friday as part of the Bloomsbury Festival, to look back on this “significant moment in the women’s movement.”
It includes contributions from Selma James and Nina Lopez from ECP, residents, a retired Bishop, a policeman, and a staff member from nearby Gay’s The Word bookshop, who brought the women soup.
“Women were being criminalised for working in Argyle Square,” explains Adams. “It was 1982 and many women came down from Northern cities to work in the square, earn some money and go home. Police were very heavy against them. A number of women lived in the area, they would go to the corner shop in their slippers and get arrested for loitering and soliciting, labelled a common prostitute, it was like being branded.”
The protest was inspired by a similar occuaption of churches in Paris in 1975 following a series of brutal murders.
“The Police did nothing about it, and it was the same in King’s Cross,” says Adams. “There was a real problem with violence and Police were refusing to act. A particular incident triggered the protest, something had to be done to bring it to public attention.
They found sympathy with Holy Cross’ vicar who understood the poverty and social circumstances that could push women into prostituition.
Protestors included women of colour who felt the prostitution laws were “what the SUS laws were to young Black men, a law used against anyone they decided to say was a prostitute.”
One of the womens’ demands was for a third party to monitor Police arrests incidcating how far trust had broken down.
Founded in 1975, the ECP was based on Judd Street at the time of the protest.
Adams recalls: “It was a squat, damp and very small, we had it from Camden at a peppercorn rent. Sex workers in our network were in and out of the centre for support and legal advice. When we were evicted it took us a year to find our new home in Kentish Town which is positively palatial by comparison.”
She also remembers recieving death threats and having NF (National Front) daubed on their door, and struggling to get Police to take their security seriously.
“People didn’t have much money but there was a strong sense of community. Sex workers were very much part of the community, bumping along and looking out for each other.”
Based at Crossroads Women’s Centre in Wolsey Mews the ECP continues to campaign for the decriminlisation of prostitution and for sex worker’s rights and safety.
“Spelling out the injustice the impact of the laws, when sex workers are criminalised they are prevented from reporting violent clients for fear of arrest and discrimination and can’t rely on protection from police and courts.”
Hookers in The House of the Lord is livestreamed at 7pm on October 21. Event: Hookers in the House of the Lord ‘The Reunion’ – 21 Oct – English Collective of Prostitutes (prostitutescollective.net)