'The Service’ Captures the Messy and Mundane Realities of Sex Work in the UK

Writer and activist Frankie Miren discusses her debut novel and the need for more complex accounts of what it feels like to be a sex worker.

25 June 2021, 8:30am

The Service is, above all else, a story of endurance. 

Set in a fictionalised time in which the UK has criminalised the advertising of sexual services, sex workers in London suddenly find themselves without a means to an income. Writing from the perspectives of three women – two sex workers (Lori and Freya), and a journalist campaigning against prostitution (Paula) – author Frankie Miren draws on years of experience and activism to tell a story about the sex industry that is groundbreaking for its complexity, warmth and humour.

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With an abusive former partner and the fear of criminal charges looming over her, long-term sex worker Lori fights to provide for her young daughter. Freya, a student, finds herself wading through a new world of independence and employment, in tandem with her own mental health problems. Meanwhile, journalist Paula struggles to untangle her trauma from her moral stance on sex work. As the characters’ lives become increasingly tangled up, things reach a climactic end in a church in central London – a scene inspired by real-life events, where sex workers occupied churches in King’s Cross in 1982, and Lyon, France in 1975, to protest police brutality and harassment. 

While it touches on everything from police raids and online censorship to issues around domestic abuse and childcare, the vast majority of The Service is about the act of living. The characters are friends and parents; they go on dates and get drunk at dinner parties; they take ketamine and argue with each other; they are hurt and they are resilient. Carefully balancing the harsh realities faced by sex workers with a sprinkling of fictional magic that offers hope in the dark, The Service is an intimate portrait of ordinary lives and struggles that resonate within the sex industry and beyond.

I caught up with Frankie over Zoom to talk about her debut novel, the ongoing fight for full decriminalisation and the need for more complex accounts of what it feels like to be a sex worker.

'The Service' by Frankie Miren (Influx Press, 2021)

VICE: Hey, Frankie! So my first big question is: why did you want to write a book about sex work?
Frankie Miren: A part of that was just the ego-driven feeling of wanting to know that I can create something. I'll be 45 this summer, so I've felt like, ‘God, life is going so fast!’ It was partly that, but also because I wanted to say something. I feel really strongly that, outside activist circles or very small circles on the left, the discourse around sex work is so basic still. I don't know if the SWERFs [sex worker exclusionary radical feminists] are being deliberately or wilfully basic, or if they genuinely still don't get that it's so much more complex than whether it’s empowering or whether we’re all happy, and the bearing that has on whether we deserve rights.

I've done sex work since I was 18, and how I saw it back then is really different to how I see it now. I sometimes think my 18-year-old self would be like, “Hey, that’s not how it was,” but now that I’m older I feel that actually I was really traumatised, and I was taking so many drugs, and I feel pretty horrified at the memory of old men paying to fuck me. At this stage, I’m doing sex work in such different circumstances and feel very in control of it. It’s another world. And I’ve met so many different sex workers over the years, so I know there’s all these different viewpoints that I wanted to get across, without trying too much to tell stories that aren’t mine.

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Another reason to write the book was that there are so many non-sex workers telling our stories and cashing in big time – I obviously haven’t cashed in big time with this [laughs], but I’ve got it published – and I wanted to take a bit of that space back.

I feel like the book gets across the realities of sex work – the difficulties and the violence faced from the state and society in general – but it’s also incredibly tender. I think we’re so starved of warmth and humour in depictions of working class life in general at the minute, but especially when it comes to sex workers.
I had to really battle not to make the book too much of a lecture. I wanted it to be entertaining, and I wanted it to feel warm without coming across as twee or sentimental – and I really didn't want to leave everyone feeling horrible at the end. I feel like, unless you're the most exquisite writer in the world, you're not allowed to leave people feeling sad at the end of a book!

The book follows three different intersecting narratives from the perspectives of three different women. Could you talk a bit about the decision behind structuring it this way, and what it enabled you to do?
I feel like I’ve seen such different worlds of sex work, and a part of that is obviously the amount of time I’ve been a sex worker. I did have a break from the industry, and in that time the internet appeared, and when I came back it was to a supportive community rather than the isolation of before. But even within this supportive community, there are big disagreements about how to do things – how to fight for decriminalisation, how to think about sex work itself. So it was mainly to talk about the divisions among sex workers. I wanted to show that it’s not a monolith. There’s definitely space for more complex, conflicting accounts of what it feels like to be a sex worker.

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I also wanted to have a non-sex worker character [Paula] in there to talk about how some of the things that apply to sex workers also apply to the things she’s dealing with. I wanted to talk about some of the issues that people think of as being very sex work-specific, which are really not.

There are so many conversations in Paula’s storyline – with her family, her peers, herself – that show how issues affecting sex workers often apply to women and work more broadly. There’s a conversation about one of her mates having a nanny, for example, which feels very intentionally paralleled to sex work. Why was it important for you to include a character like Paula, and how did you find the experience of writing from her perspective?
I've got a grizzly fascination with SWERFs. There’s a few of them that loom so large for activists, they're like these kind of monsters! But beyond those very hardline characters, I feel like there’s a lot of women who have those views who I actually have a lot of sympathy for. I feel like their analysis is often not that wrong, I just disagree with what they’re suggesting as a solution, i.e. more criminalisation.

So with the conversation about the nanny – one of the things I really wanted in this book was to think about authenticity and what that means. I think part of that was me going back into sex work, and finding that, this time around, it was much more about selling this fantasy of authenticity – these intensive girlfriend experiences where you might spend a lot of time, over years, with someone – and the amount of work that's required to make clients believe that you’re also having a nice time and that this is real and you’ve got a real connection.

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Then I was thinking about how this expectation for things to be “real” is true of a lot of feminised jobs, and nannying felt like there was some real similarities [with sex work], because I honestly think most parents would not be OK with the thought that their nanny hated or didn’t care about their kids. Even if the nanny was doing a great job, and the kids were having a lovely time. We want to believe it’s real because it’s in this sphere of work that we think of as women's work, and we're uncomfortable with that being commodified.

I wanted all the characters to be haunted by themselves in different ways. Paula definitely is, and she was really hard to write because her life is so different to mine. I’d initially written her like a boomer, because in my head people with lives like that are, but then I was like, ‘No, she’s kind of my age!’ So I went back and rewrote her. With my first draft, my agent was like ‘You’ve made her like this walking mouthpiece for bad opinions,’ so it took loads of work, because I hated [Paula] so much. But then I started to understand her more, and I do have affection for her by the end of the book.

Paula is quite a sympathetic character in some ways, because the sort of domestic loneliness and lack of compassion in her life is so stark. There’s one bit where it seems like she’s looking for solidarity, almost, from Carmen [a sex doll she has while researching sex doll brothels], and there’s a pretty violent scene where she physically assaults the doll. Could you talk a bit more about the doll and what you feel she symbolises to Paula?
Often it feels like women like Paula see prostitutes, in this quite symbolic way, as the ultimate degradation of women. And as separate from themselves, or very “other” to themselves. The way they talk about sex work feels very ideological, and not at all grounded in this very mundane thing that’s going on. There’s also a particular group of them that I think are obsessed with sex robots, so [Carmen] is a physical manifestation of these ideas that they have about sex workers. For Paula, she’s taken all of her personal pain, and pain in general – which is all really legitimate stuff – and focused it in on prostitution as the ultimate evil. It’s like if she can sort that out, she can rescue her mum. It’s kind of misguided, but the doll is the symbol of all that.

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It’s interesting that you say she projects all of her pain onto the doll, because for most of the book she locks her away in a box where no one can see or engage with it.
I read this book called Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas – literally 20 years ago, when I was at uni, so I’m probably completely misquoting it – but it’s about this idea of how, in every culture, the idea of dirt or what’s dirty is just matter out of place. Like, something in the wrong place becomes dirty, and you can use that for ideas about pollution and taboo. Sex outside marriage is dirty, sex in the world of commerce is dirty. So I really liked the idea of weaving that all the way through.

Lori’s really obsessed with physical dirt and keeping clothes and things separate, which is something I relate to a lot. I have completely different clothes that I wear for work, and I like to keep everything physically and mentally separate. Paula brings the sex doll into into her family home, and when the hookers occupy the church, that too is a transgression of a boundary.

The church occupation in The Service is inspired by real life events – an occupation in France in 1975, and another in London in 1982. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about them?
The whole idea of hookers in a church is just so brilliant. That transgression of boundaries – the sacred and the profane! With the occupation in Lyon, sex workers were protesting violence from the police and dangerous laws. And the way they got treated felt so familiar – they were called “pimps”, and the spectre of “the pimp lobby” was conjured up, which I’m sure would happen now. It was an iconic moment, even though France has the Nordic Model [where the purchase of sex work is criminalised and the sale of sex work is partially decriminalised] now.

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The occupation in King’s Cross got a lot of non-sex workers involved and seeing the issues for the first time. People came down to the church who had just heard about what was happening. And it got a lot of new sex workers politicised, because so many sex workers don’t work in a politicised way. I didn’t for years. I worked all over the world and I had never thought about legal models. A lot of sex workers are too busy working to read up on legal models, but I think [the occupation in King’s Cross] really politicised people, and that was something I wanted to get across in the book. For these brief moments, you get a sense of how much power you really have.

The ECP have told me that public perceptions of sex work did change a bit after that, and the way the media talked about sex work changed after the occupation. Before, the raids had been quite gleefully celebrated, but afterwards they couldn't get away with talking about it in quite the same way, because this little bit of humanisation had crept into the public imagination. So it was really powerful. But I just love the image of it, and I often wonder about what it would be like if we did it now.

There's one bit where the newspapers are interviewing the priest, who is like, “Yeah, I support these sex workers, they can use the church.” Is that how it went down in reality?
Yeah! For a bit, he was. There’s some amazing footage of the London occupation of this disgruntled parishioner and a priest with glasses – it was like a Monty Python sketch – and he did say something along the lines of, “In my mind, it wouldn’t be a very Christian thing to do,” to evict them from the church. Apparently there was a lot of pressure on him, and he did push to get them out in the end. But there were still services going on throughout the occupation. The sex workers would sit in the church quietly while these services would happen, and the parishioners would leave and they’d carry on with the occupation.

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The Service is set in a fictional time where the UK has criminalised the advertising of sexual services, alluding to legislation like FOSTA-SESTA in the US. Why did you want to set it in this slightly “alternate” reality?
Because it’s so close to becoming a real reality. There’s been repeated attempts to introduce the Nordic Model in various ways, and that's not going to stop. There’s all these high-profile women in the Labour Party who are really pro-Nordic Model, and it’s just so frustrating and frightening. We’re surrounded by Nordic Model countries now. I've got friends in France and in Ireland, and in France so many [sex workers] – almost all of them trans migrant women – have been killed since they introduced the Nordic Model. The book took me so long to write that I kept thinking, ‘Are we going to actually have the Nordic Model by the time it comes out? Will advertising platforms be banned?’

When we talk about laws changing, it sometimes seems a bit hypothetical and up in the air, but I wanted to show the really mundane things that would happen if advertising platforms got banned. Like, how do you get in touch with your clients – even your clients for the next day? It’s really ordinary but really terrifying at the same time.

One of the first things that happens in the book is a threat particular to our current reality, which is raids. Without giving too much away, a raid is the backdrop to Lori's storyline, and we see the devastating effects of it throughout book, but to bring the discussion into reality – in your experience, what do raids mean for sex workers in the UK?
The raids that stand out in my mind, and as I was writing the book, are the Soho raids of 2013. That was so violent and frightening. Two-hundred-and-fifty police officers in riot gear stormed into these flats and dragged women in their underwear onto the street. And they brought along the Evening Standard, so the next day the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail published pictures of girls in their underwear that were barely blurred. That was done under the guise of anti-trafficking, and they didn’t find any trafficking victims. Then, in 2016, there was another round of raids.

In general a lot of the stuff that happens to Lori in the book can happen [to sex workers in reality]. You can be done for brothel keeping if you share a flat with another sex worker, which is ludicrous. There’s been cases of women going to the police because they’ve been attacked and then getting done for brothel keeping. I feel that surely the tide has to be turning on this idea that the police are safe and benevolent, and that it’s fair to bring them into contact with this group of people who often have other marginalisations – for example, a lot of sex workers are migrants or undocumented. None of it makes sense.

There’s a line towards the end, when the dust is settling a bit, that really punched me in the gut, about “how people keep making lives for themselves”. It kind of felt to me like the overarching theme of the book. That everyone is just trying to live, and shouldn’t they be treated with equal compassion regardless of their ways of living. The way it’s written feels very accessible, very human. Ultimately, what do you hope that people reading this book, regardless of how much they knew about sex work beforehand, will come away feeling?
I hope that for people who’ve not had much contact with sex workers, or done sex work, have a bit more understanding of how complex it is, how many different viewpoints there are, and how you can feel one way about sex work one day and completely differently the next day. Hate it, love it, none of that stuff should stand in the way of being allowed to work safely, or have respect, or get on with your life. So that would be the most important thing I hope people come away with – a bit more nuance.

@emmaggarland

‘The Service’ is Frankie Miren’s debut novel, and will be released on the 8th of July via Influx Press.

Tagged:

sex work, Fiction, decriminalisation

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