The Reclaim the Night march past lap dancing clubs and ending in Soho has been organised without any reference to women workers in the clubs or Soho flats. Prostitute women in Soho and elsewhere are facing raids, arrests, detention, eviction, deportation, and are being forced out of flats onto the street where it is 10 times more dangerous to work.
On 8 March 2000, as part of the Global Women’s Strike and International Women’s Day, we organised our own march through Soho to protest these attacks but no feminist organisation supported us. By targeting the sex industry as the problem this march will invite more raids and deportations everywhere, and therefore more rape and murders of women who end up on the streets.
When we remember the victims of violence we remember Elizabeth Valed who was hounded out of Soho and was picked up and murdered by the “Camden Ripper” whilst working the streets. Where are the protests against the police and medical establishment that let him go knowing that he hated women, especially prostitutes?
Anti-trafficking legislation has led to unbridled racism where all immigrant sex-workers are targeted, not for protection but for deportation. The march claims to be ending in Soho “to mark the presence of women trafficked into Soho, who are unable to make their voices heard”. This echoes the police lies that they were raiding flats to “liberate women from traffickers” while deporting immigrant and asylum seeking women, including mothers with small children.
When women who have fled Western-backed wars and dictatorships protest against being denied protection and being forced into destitution and prostitution, we are dismissed as being too frightened to tell the truth. One sex worker from Albania told a press conference in Soho to stop the raids and evictions:
“We are freelances, working for ourselves. Apart from what I need to live on, I send all my money back home . . . I just want to be left alone.”
Those of us who are victims of rape and exploitation, whether we have been trafficked or not, need what all victims of violence need: a place of safety, housing, benefits, the right to stay and to see our attacker prosecuted. Far from strengthening the position of women in the industry to defend ourselves against rape and exploitation by pimps and employers, the march divides us from other women and makes us targets for those men who hate women.
Organising a march in Soho ignores that Soho is one of the safest places to work in the sex industry. The government estimates that 60 women have been murdered – but not one woman has been murdered in a Soho flat. When women have been in the grip of violent pimps and traffickers it’s other working women who have helped them escape.
And what of the claim that reported rape and sexual assault in Camden have increased since the arrival of Spearmint Rhino and other strip clubs? Why is an increase in reported rapes necessarily bad news? Reported rapes have increased nationally by one-third possibly because more women are reporting their attackers “despite what they know about the police and the crown prosecution services refusing to bring the case.” There is no evidence that this increase represents an increase in rape or that it has any connection with lap dancing clubs.
How can a march against violence against women say nothing about the daily mass murder of women and children in Iraq and most recently in Falluja? And where are the protests at the wars that turn men (and even women) into torturers, rapists and murderers? And what about the obscene military budgets that starve us of benefits and resources, forcing many of us into prostitution to survive?
The English Collective of Prostitutes has never glamourised prostitution. Neither do we glamourise other jobs women have to do to feed and protect our families, which are exploitative, unhealthy and soul-destroying but do not carry the stigma of criminalisation.
There is no going back to the times when prostitutes were targeted by feminists as “uniquely degraded”, banned from feminists venues and blamed for the violence we suffer. It’s time those who truly support women’s and children’s human rights, and our right to protection, take a stand against those who aim to divide us between “good women” and “bad girls”.
We invite all those concerned with safety and welfare to our conference
Contact: Cari Mitchell, English Collective of Prostitutes,
Crossroads Women’s Centre, 020 7482 2496 or 07956 316 899.