Masked Indian sex workers participate in a protest in Bangalore after the alleged gang rape of a prostitute by policemen. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on sex work: The Soho raids show us the real problem with sex work isn’t the sex – it’s low-waged work itself

The moral crusade against the sex trade, whether it is pursued by the police or by high-profile feminists who have never done sex work, serves the same function that it has always served, writes Laurie Penny.

On 4 December, hundreds of police, some in riot gear, raided more than 25 premises in central London. Under the guise of looking for stolen goods and tackling trafficking and drug dealing, they raided the flats of prostitutes and turned them out on to the street. They invited members of the press to witness them taking women into custody and confiscating their money and possessions, all in the name of “saving” them from a life of prostitution.

Britain is not the only European country taking a tougher line on sex work right now. France has just passed a bill making it illegal to pay for sex, despite protests from prostitutes who say that laws criminalising clients make their work more dangerous, driving it underground. Germany, which has had progressive prostitution laws since 2002, is considering reversing them after a national debate on the issue. At a time when millions of women and girls across the continent are being forced to make hard economic choices – including prostitution – why does the biggest public feminist conversation still revolve around whether or not it is moral to have sex for money and whether doing so should get you locked up and deported?

The public shaming of sex workers has been a feature of the recent years of austerity in Europe. For the press, it’s a spectacle that plays well with readers drawn to a bit of titillated outrage. If you can’t get mugshots of the women, you can illustrate stories with stock photos of disembodied legs in miniskirts and heels, informing readers that this item will make them angry, horny, or both.

The recent raids in Soho were not the first occasion on which journalists and photographers have been invited by the police to cover the story. “What more clear signal do we need that the police are more interested in exposing these women than ‘saving’ them?” asks Melissa Gira Grant, author of the forthcoming book Playing the Whore: the Work of Sex Work. “How is their safety compromised now by these images and their spread online, as well?”

The story that is not being told in pictures of riot police raiding brothels is that the same police are authorised to keep a percentage of the cash they take from prostitutes. Under the Proceeds of Crime Act, money and valuables confiscated from sex workers – including anything set aside for rent, medicine and food for their children – get divvied up between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the HMRC.

Worse, sex workers who are also migrants often find themselves turned over to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) following these “compassionate” raids. The English Collective of Prostitutes states that, during the recent Soho raids, “Some immigrant women were taken into custody on the pretext that they may be victims of trafficking, despite their protestations that they were not being forced to work.”

If tackling human trafficking is a priority, arresting the alleged victims, taking their money and handing them over to the UKBA seems like an odd way to go about it. Elsewhere, the public shaming of sex workers has a more explicitly political agenda. In Greece in the spring of 2012, the right-wing press ran stories blaming sex workers for the spread of HIV. The infection rate had indeed risen by 60 per cent in just one year – but not because of prostitution. Rather, the surge in infection was a direct result of swingeing cuts to the health budget, including the removal of needle exchange programmes.

We have been here many times before. It was Emma Goldman who first noticed, in 1910, that: “Whenever the public mind is to be diverted from a great social wrong, a crusade is inaugurated against indecency.” The idea that the dangers and indignities of certain kinds of work can be separated from the economic circumstances of that work is a seductive one but, as Goldman reminds us, “What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women, as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labour, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution.”

Most of the public conversation about the rise in sex work in Europe, particularly among poor and migrant women, assumes that it’s a consequence of immoral laws, immoral women, or both. The notion that five years of austerity, rising unemployment and wage repression across the continent might have something to do with it rarely comes up.

Separating prostitution from all other work and driving it underground does not just harm sex workers. It also allows people to imagine that just because they might be serving chips or wiping bottoms rather than having sex for a living, they are somehow preserving their dignity – they may be exhausted, alienated and miserable, but at least they’re not selling sex. Women who work as prostitutes do sometimes face abuse on the job – and so do women who choose to work as night cleaners, contracted carers and waitresses. The truly appalling choice facing millions of women and migrant workers across Europe right now is between low-waged, back-breaking work, when work is available, and destitution.

Even if we accept the shoddily supported notion that most women who choose to work as prostitutes do so because they have been traumatised in childhood, it does not follow that they should be stripped of agency, denied privacy, robbed of their possessions and arrested.

The public shaming of sex workers is a global phenomenon and too much of the media is complicit. The moral crusade against the sex trade, whether it is pursued by the police or by high-profile feminists who have never done sex work, serves the same function that it has always served. The problem with sex work isn’t sex, but work.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war