Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Paula Nicol from the English Collective of Prostitutes, which campaigns for the abolition of the prostitution laws which criminalise sex workers and their families, and for economic alternatives and higher benefits and wages.
I have worked as a sex worker in at least ten different flats in Soho over the last six years. To my great fortune I wasn’t there on Wednesday 4 December when 200 police raided the walk-up flats.
I saw that Met Police Commander Alison Newcomb said the raids were “not about the prosecution of prostitutes” but to “to close brothels where we have evidence of very serious crimes happening, including rape and human trafficking”. I say to her: “show us the victims.” I haven’t heard of one arrest for rape or trafficking. Instead some of my friends were held for 23 hours and bullied into accepting cautions for criminal offences. Other women I know were taken to a “place of safety” despite them saying that they weren’t being forced to work.
Westminster Council backed the raids saying it aimed to “help any vulnerable woman” and that “their safety is paramount”. If the aim was to help victims, why did the police break down doors and handcuff women while they searched premises? Why did they bring the media with them, which then published photos identifying women?
Soho is one of the safest places to work. This action will force women out onto the street where it is 10 times more dangerous. Most of the women who have been evicted are mothers and grandmothers who have now lost their livelihood.
Closure orders against sex workers’ flats are trundling their way through court. One was granted yesterday and approximately seven more are scheduled over the next two weeks. Meanwhile the flats remain closed. In order to get a closure order, the police have to show that prostitution offences are being committed on the premises, namely “causing and inciting prostitution” and “controlling prostitution”. Two women gave evidence yesterday to say that they were working independently, found out about the job from a friend, or by knocking on the door of the flat and asking for a job, that they decided which days they would work, could turn down clients and — crucially — far from being controlled by a maid, they wanted to work with her because she helped protect them from attack. Police evidence said that normal employment practices such as being required to work certain days of the week, between certain times, charge a specific amount of money for each service (which the police say is “treating the sex worker as a commodity rather than a human”) all adds up to us being controlled. We take great offence at this. Does what we say about our own situation not matter?
We have heard this before. In the run-up to the 2010 Policing and Crime Act, prominent feminists, including those in government, claimed that 80% of women in prostitution are trafficked. When we protested that we are working to support ourselves and our families, often our families in our home country, we were told that “you don’t realise that you are a victim”.
I came to the UK from Romania. I came with my boyfriend and knew I was going to work in the sex industry. I was not trafficked. But when I got here I got into trouble. My boyfriend turned violent. When I tried to get the police to help they wouldn’t do anything. I escaped by my own efforts. I kept working in the sex industry, but for myself, keeping my own money and setting my own times. I did this partly because racism against immigrants means I couldn’t get another job. I don’t want to stay in this job forever. I am terrified that if I get caught up in a police raid, it will come out what I do for a living. Can you believe that the police who claim to have our interests at heart went to the home of one of the women arrested during those raids, and told her daughter what she did? Vindictive!
Evictions and closures of sex workers’ flats are opposed by many other Soho residents and businesses because they feel that if the “girls” go, the whole character of the historic area will change. It is this unique, diverse and tolerant community – immigrant, LGBTQ venues, small independent businesses, theatres – which attracts many visitors from around the world. The raids, like the bedroom tax and benefit cap, are socially cleansing Soho for the super-rich.