'Brothel Chic' Is Turning Soho into a Twee, Sex Work Theme Park
As sex workers are pushed out by gentrification, London is selling people a twee, sanitised facsimile of sleaze.
On D'Arblay Street in Soho there's a basement which was once a "hostess bar" I worked in. A clip joint, where we'd blag men into buying ludicrously-priced champagne that we poured onto the floor or into plant pots. Most of the girls were hookers, though not officially. I walked down there recently and it looks as though it's an accountant's office now. These places have disappeared, and rightly so – we ripped men off and watched bouncers threatened them if they complained. Soho has already been cleaned up. The sex workers who remain are operating legitimately, selling a legal service.
And yet, in December 2013, 250 police officers violently raided more than 25 Soho flats, purportedly looking for victims of trafficking. Doors were broken down, women were dragged onto the street in their underwear. Not a single victim of trafficking was found and, after a series of court hearings, most of the flats were allowed to reopen. However, evictions are still underway.
As Soho's sex trade is destroyed, a twee pastiche is being created in its place. A sex-work themed theme-park.
"We're bringing the red lights inside and turning them into art", says Jonny Grant, managing director of Soho's newest member's bar, Lights of Soho on Brewer Street.
Lights was once a brothel. Today, it's a gallery celebrating the historic lights of Soho's sex-steeped alleyways. Neon works by the late Chris Bracey feature heavily. It was Bracey, after all, who helped shape the visual landscape of Soho's sleazy heyday, designing many of the original signs which flashed their garish colours into this one-time fairground of sex.
"We're celebrating 'Old Soho'," Grant says. And he's right.
Many of the peep shows, sex shops and independent strip clubs have gone, phased out by the advent of online shopping and porn, shooed on by developers, evicted by landlords. Just around the corner from Lights, on Walker's Court – once the heart of sex-for-sale Soho – flats used by sex workers have been shut down, as development plans by Soho Estates push through. There's a pop-up shop selling Native American-inspired fashion on the corner.
Lights isn't the only place to cash in on the cache of Soho's sex trade past. At The Old Tom and English on Wardour Street, in slick rooms people sip £10 cocktails which are named after famous prostitutes of the area; Lulu, Nell, Chora, Cynthia. The venue's name itself is a knowing wink towards the old-school slang for sex workers. There's a red light above the door.
Outside La Bodega Negra on Moor Street, neon signs suggest a peep show and sex shop. In fact, it's a trendy Mexican restaurant. All the naughtiness without the grossness and moral ambiguity! Perfect to impress your date!
"I watched with great amusement as well dressed couples sheepishly approached the front door, tugged on the handle and moved as fast as their feet would take them when they discovered the restaurant had not yet opened for the night," wrote food blogger Emily Johnson of Fashion Foie Gras. "There was no lingering here. Heaven forbid someone you know should recognise you waiting in line for the next sex show to start. However, people in 'the know' would of course realise you are waiting for a table at 'the' place to be at the moment."
Across Soho, the bordello theme is a default. You don't have to stumble far to find décor suggestive of dimly lit backrooms and women of the night; a fantasy, filmic version of the sex trade. Marketers aren't afraid to use the trope for all its worth. "Blacklock – your new favourite Soho chop-house, conveniently located in the titty-bar basement of what was until recently a six story townhouse brothel," reads a description by review site, The Nudge. Pretty much every other write-up of the restaurant mentions the same.
As the reality of sex work in Soho disappears, its essence has become a marketing tool. Brothel chic. A Disneyland version of what was for many, a life, work – a world that wasn't particularly exotic or glamorous but simply the thing they did for a certain number of hours a week to pay the bills.
One of Bracey's most famous early signs read, "Girls, Girls, Girls". Old Soho was a playground for men. Nobody's saying that Soho's sex trade – the sex trade anywhere – is free from problems. But Soho was, until recently, one of the UK's safest places to work.
High on the list of the game-changers in Soho, with ever-increasing slice of the area, is Soho Estates, the legacy of Paul Raymond, who built a £650 million empire on strippers and porn. Ironically, flats within its portfolio that used to house sex work (for instance, Walker's Court) have been forced to close.
Other sex workers have been sent packing by landlords.
"Many landlords appear to be under enormous pressure from the police to sell up or change the use of the property," says Cari Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes. "And the police are clearly backed by vulture property developers like Soho Estates who are hovering, ready to snap up any property and pay over the odds to do so."
There's been a backlash against the obliteration of Soho's heritage. Grant's business partner and co-founder of Lights, Hamish Jenkinson, was among those who signed a petition after the closure of Madame JoJo's last year. However, while Save Soho is concerned about closing music and arts venues, it doesn't mention the sex trade. It begs the question, who exactly are we saving Soho for?
Standing in his gallery, amid the neon sex signs (selling for up to £66,000 a pop), I ask Grant about the evictions of sex workers. A flat on the same street as Lights is under threat.
"It honestly doesn't impact on us," he says. "I don't hear people talk about it much."
Around us, people's lives are being demolished and sold back to the wealthy as a gimmick; a fetishised, hyperreal version of London that, if you don't scratch too deeply, gives the illusion that all is well outside the Square Mile. We've got £5-a-beer bars decked out to look like squats, art installations in tower blocks, public school alumni dressed as barrow boys on your local farmers' market. In Soho, we've got brothel chic.
Soho's current wave of development is built on the cultural capital that, rightly or wrongly, exists around sex work. At the level of reality, in flats that bear little resemblance to the tasselled interiors of Soho's bordello-style bars, life is getting harder for Soho's sex workers. Most likely, all will eventually be driven out, forced to work in more dangerous conditions.
But don't worry, we can always name a tapas dish in their commemoration.
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