Eddie makes his case, from The Lengths 3.
Just been reading that the state of Ontario in Canada has passed a law making it easier and safer for prostitutes to advertise and to work together in brothels. While the article I’ve linked to is right, and this doesn’t address the issues of poverty and addiction affecting street prostitution, it does make sex work a lot more straightforward to do safely and legally.
I remember when I was doing the interviews for The Lengths, one sunny summer afternoon in 2006, I was on the balcony of a friend’s place in Covent Garden. My friend was a sex worker (he has since changed careers), and we’re talking with a mutual friend (also an escort) about our attitudes to safer sex over a coffee and some cakes I’d bought from a shop downstairs. The conversation was frank and honest, and the escort was one of the most desperately sexy men I’d ever met and I could understand why people would pay him a thousand pounds a night for his time. It was difficult to focus on keeping notes when all I think I wanted to do was just breathe in near him and feel lost.
I think that how I felt around him was what ended up as how Eddie feels around Nelson in the story, all swept up in pheromones and confused.
While we were talking, my phone rang and it was the press office from the Home Office calling me back to answer questions about the legal status of prostitution in the UK.
The woman I spoke to was lovely, as people generally are, and explained the difficulties they face in legislating in a way that differentiates between sex work and the enforced sex trade. She said that the laws are there to protect vulnerable women from being exploited, but said that she recognised that those same laws then make sex work difficult and more dangerous for the men and women who choose to do it. We both said that it would be easier to differentiate between the two but that it would be politically tricky to make the distinction, since people tend to only see prostitution as exploitative.
From talking to escorts, lawyers and the Home Office, it became clear that prostitutes are in a very difficult position if they want to run a legal business in the UK. Although there is a tax code for prostitution, the law that prohibits brothel-keeping means that if you work as a prostitute and admit it, you’re in breach of your tenancy agreement. Check your tenancy agreement, there’s a clause about not being a whore, it’s there in case your landlord would fall foul of the “living off immoral earnings” law. That would count even if your landlord or lady wasn’t your pimp, the money you earn is criminalised even if the sex work itself is not.
Similarly, if you’re a prostitute, it’s legal, but if you have a housemate who does it, suddenly your house becomes a brothel and you’re both criminals.
Therefore, by having to lie about the nature of your work, you’re likely to not declare your earnings, which means you’re going to end up in trouble for tax evasion and money laundering.
It’s a foolish state of play where the law muddles the sex trade and sex work. No-one’s outraged by Tesco when they employ staff, only when the government pays them to abuse vulnerable people and force them to work for free. One’s a job, the other’s forced labour and exploitation. I’m not saying Workfare is anything like sex trafficking; there’s no threat of violence or systematic rape, but the loss of freedom and the loss of self-determination’s the scandal.
What Ontario is demonstrating is that it’s possible to differentiate in law between a job and sexual slavery. Between a safe place of work and a sexual prison. Between a man or woman who makes a choice to enter into a pecuniary sexual agreement with someone else and someone who is traded as a commodity in such a transaction under threat or duress.
Suddenly, it’s possible to pay taxes, to be a rent boy who pays rent, to have a housemate with the same job as you. Suddenly you could feel a little more comfortable about the job you do, maybe even a little more honest and accepted for it. Perhaps, even, people could talk about the job you do without being constantly distracted by the need to talk about an obviously horrific and distinct criminal underworld that’s abhorrant and nothing to do with the world you inhabit.
Wouldn’t that feel a lot safer for everyone?
My comic, The Lengths, is based on interviews with male escorts in London and is available from all good UK comic shops or online here.