I Marched Through Soho Last Night In Support of Britain's Sex Workers
Yesterday was the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, and the London demo had last year's excessive police raids on Soho's working flats at the front of its mind.
Last night, I joined a march through Soho in support of sex workers. It's an area of London that – despite what the surveyors, developers and local council might tell you – belongs to these people, and has done for much of the 20th century.
Other events were taking place across the world for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, but in London the date seemed especially poignant, marking a year since one of the most cynical crackdowns on prostitution the country has seen – the police raids that took place on these streets last Christmas.
The raids were playing on the marchers' minds, as were the 174 sex workers known to have been killed around the world in 2014, their lives commemorated with the candles we carried. However, the march was as much as a celebration as it was a vigil; sex workers have won some important victories this year and, for that, we sung sex work-themed Christmas carols.
Starting at Soho Square, we wound our way through the streets, past Christmas parties spilling out of bars, before pausing outside the offices of Soho Estates. Here, the "Save Soho, save our girls!" chant melted away into jeers and boos.
Soho Estates is the legacy of Paul Raymond, one-time "King of Soho", a man who built a £650 million empire on strippers, porn and property. Raymond died in 2008, but Soho Estates still owns a significant chunk of the area. Importantly, Walker's Court – one of London's most gloriously sleazy alleyways – is part of its portfolio. Once filled with sex workers doing their thing in flats above the alley's shops, Soho Estates has other plans for the area: regeneration, transformation, cleansing. The plans are well underway.
Ironically, Soho's cultural capital – the reason bar owners and restauranteurs have chosen this location for their faux-speakeasies and Mexican joints mocked up to look like brothels – is partly due to its association with the sex industry and all the seedy, titillating connotations that presents. Now, that aspect of the area is being bulldozered in favour of luxury flats and sanitised retail spaces.
"Boo!" yelled the crowd. "Shame on you, Soho Estates!"
Some passers-by looked surprised – it's Christmas, why are people being so shouty? I suppose, if you haven't been paying attention, Soho seems much as it's always been. A little less grubby, perhaps, but who cares about the disappearance of a couple of sex shops when you can now get an £8 frozen yoghurt instead?
The march eventually reached its destination, St Anne's Church, so the marchers snuffed their candles and shuffled inside, laying down their placards and squeezing into seats. Subversive Christmas carol-singing over, this was why they were really there: to reignite the rage about the systematic abuse of sex workers, both here and around the world.
The church was hosting a screening of Ana Aranha's film, Soho Trot, which documents what happened during the raids last year.
"The maid and I are handcuffed and held to the floor. The police smash up everything in the flat," says one woman.
"The police have their own television people with them. Reporters are taking photos of so-called vulnerable women," says another. "I am taken outside in my underwear. It is freezing. Is this for the cameras?"
You may remember those pictures, splashed across the internet last year. The tabloid-friendly shots of skimpily-clad girls cowering from cameras were the result of an 18-month operation by the Met. "Operation Companion" was initially sold to us as targeting trafficking, but the sting failed to find trafficked women.
Instead, they found women who were working – by choice – in what they said was the safest place in England. The women were immediately evicted. However, after a series of farcical court appearances – bewilderment over the fact that women, not pimps, had organised their own neon sign, for example – 18 of the 20 closed flats were reopened. Sex workers were vindicated.
Rev Simon Buckley of St Anne's Church initially supported the police operation; billed as "saving sex slaves", who wouldn't be? However, once he met the women themselves, Buckley switched sides. Last night, he stood up to welcome us to his church.
"English Heritage put up plaques to commemorate great battles," he said. "There should be one here saying: 'In 2014, the battle between the girls and the Met was fought and won.'"
The re-opening of flats may have been a victory, but everyone knows the battle isn't over. With vigorous gentrification annihilating Soho's seedy origins, it's only a matter of time until the last sex worker is pushed out. And something changed after the raids; what had previously been a reasonable relationship with the police in Soho was shattered.
Niki Adams is part of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), the group behind last night's vigil. She told me that violence against sex workers doesn't only come from dangerous clients.
"Our experience of violence goes deeper," Adams told me. "We protest police violence. Who do we report violence to if our attackers are police? We protest racist witch-hunts which mean that people of colour are the vast majority of sex workers who lose their lives. And we protest the violence of poverty; the majority of sex workers are mothers, standing between destitution and the survival of our families. Finally, we protest the violence of criminalisation because it undermines our efforts to work safely and organise for our rights."
In a working flat around the corner, I heard the same thing. Welcomed in, I took a seat on the sofa in the pink-walled room, kitted out with a kettle, microwave, TV and CCTV cameras (to keep an eye on the men who come here for sex). Catalina*, a woman in her 20s wearing a fluffy dressing gown and stripper heels, was working in a flat on Walker's Court last year when its door was smashed down by police.
"I came to work like normal, and after I see police running up the stairs," she told me. "They had dogs. They were shouting at me: 'Don't move, don't move.' They started yelling at me, asking me if I was trafficked, because I'm from Romania. It was scary. I still shake when I see the police."
Catalina's maid, Jody*, was also there that day. It's illegal for more than one woman to work together, but sex workers can employ maids to open the door to clients, pop to the shop for them and generally act as another pair of eyes. Jody is formidable. She told me she won't go without a fight. That, like the women who work here, she would do anything to provide for her children and grandchildren.
"I've worked here for 17 years," she told me. "I know all the café owners, the shop owners, the people in the sun bed shops, the boys on the market. We've always had the backing of the community. If something happens in one of these flats, you can just lean out of the window and shout for help. The raids were really about Soho Estates' redevelopment. They've literally ripped the heart out of Soho."
Soho still has a heart, but hearts are fragile things, unlikely to withstand the iron fist of commercialisation. At the vigil, Soho residents expressed their dismay at what's happening to their beloved, free-thinking area.
"We support the girls. They're our sisters," said Katie, who's been hanging out in Soho for as long as I've been alive. "They're trying to turn Soho into Brent Cross, but we like it seedy. If you take the sex girls away, Soho is finished."
The night ended with representatives from the Sex Worker Open University reading out a list of the 174 sex workers who were murdered in 2014. It was, unsurprisingly, bleak. Most sex workers are killed while working on the streets, so with Soho's safe apartments under threat, it's horribly likely that the below list of sex workers killed in the UK this year is going to be even longer come next December.
Mariana Pope, 24, Ilford
Maria Duque-Tunjano, 48, London
Rivka Holden, 55, London
Bernadeta Nawracaj/Julia Anders, 43, Richmond
Georgiana Stuparu, 23, Coventry
Yvette Hallsworth, 36, Derby
Lidia Pascale, 55, Birmingham
*Names have been changed to protect identities
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