Red Light London


The world’s oldest profession is changing. Smartphone apps and the ongoing euro crisis are posing some of the newest obstacles for sex workers already confronted with traditional, deep-seated challenges: violence, health risks and ostracism. Senior correspondent Corinne Purtill looks at the changing nature of prostitution in Britain and the policy problems it poses.

Sex workers demonstrate for rights in London. (Corinne Purtill/GlobalPost)

Sex workers demonstrate for rights in London. (Corinne Purtill/GlobalPost)

Mz Jane knows people find it titillating when she tells them what she does for a living.

The dark-haired, 40-something London dominatrix — identified here by her professional name — also knows that many see her differently once they know she’s a sex worker: stigmatized, other.

What they don’t appreciate, she says, is how many skills becoming successful in the business requires, many of which she accumulated in a previous job as a community volunteer.

Most people don’t recognize how much work goes into managing time, finances and customer relations. They don’t understand that sex work is actually work.

“I love it when someone puts down an envelope full of cash,” she says. “I wouldn’t do it otherwise. It’s not a hobby. It’s my job.”

In the United States, where prostitution is illegal in all but a few Nevada counties, independent sex workers are criminals.

Here, they’re freelance professionals with many of the same obligations and challenges facing other workers in a tough economy.

British law reflects a fairly pragmatic approach to the sale of sex.

Soliciting in public, or “streetwalking,” is against the law. It’s illegal to act as a manager or agent for prostitution — no pimping or running a brothel. All forms of human trafficking, for sexual purposes or otherwise, are also strictly prohibited.

However, it’s perfectly legal for an individual working in private premises to sell sexual services for a living and for a client to purchase them.

Escorts must declare their income to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs — the British equivalent of the IRS — and pay taxes.

They’re also affected by the economic climate, migration trends and changes in technology, which are changing the nature of the world’s oldest profession.

Sex work — the term favored by many workers, advocates and academics over “prostitution” — encompasses a surprisingly diverse industry.

It includes men and women, people who are gay, straight, bisexual and transgendered, migrants and native British, people whose work stays completely within the law and others who stray out of it.

It covers self-employed people who earn hundreds of pounds an hour from expensive London flats, those eking out a living in saunas or walk-up brothels, others working the dangerous illicit street trade and everyone in between.

There’s no template for the kind of people who do sex work, why they started in the business, what services they offer or how they integrate work and personal lives.

Like in any industry, there are people who hate their work and want out. Others enjoy what they do and fiercely oppose the suggestion that theirs is a lesser occupation or that it should be illegal.

In this four-part series, we look at just a few of the issues affecting the sex industry in Britain today: policy debate, safety concerns, what a modern brothel looks like and what it takes to make it as a young escort in London.

– GlobalPost