Channel 4 goes to Paradise
The legalised brothel issue has long been a favourite British media topic; and one to which our legislators and moralists of all stripes frequently return. In recent times it has been given added momentum by the trafficking problem. Early in 2014, egged on by commercial interests eager to turn the area into more luxury apartments and sheltered by Articles 52 and 53 of The Sexual Offences Act, police raided a number of the modest Soho flats used by prostitutes and their maids. These sex workers were abused, turned out of their places of business and, it is alleged, had their money confiscated. The details and a passionate commentary by Rupert Everett on behalf of the sex workers involved can be read in The Observer Magazine 19 January 2014.
Cutting to 2015, last month XX-Experimental Experience presented The Sex Worker’s Opera at the Arcola theatre. This was a performance event, the authorship and cast of which were sex workers.
One of the professional facilitators and directors noted, “I think many of us are afraid. Sex work is so steeped in stigma that for many of us it is hard to even acknowledge. But to ignore these stories, these communities, is to collaborate in their oppression.”
To its credit, Channel 4 does not ignore these stories. While it boosts its viewing figures by broadcasting tits and bums in a morally justifiable context, it also fulfils its obligations as a public service broadcaster. One of the leading protagonists in the opera – Charlotte Rose – worked as a home-based freelance sex worker in Exeter. Last year she featured in Channel 4’s documentary on UK prostitution Love for Sale with Rupert Everett. Viewers discovered that she enjoyed her job and limited her clientele to ensure she could have orgasms. How de-stigmatising is that?
Mega Brothel (Ch.4 29.01.15 & Ch.4OD) took us to Germany to explore a ‘high end’ brothel in that country’s legalised system. Filmed in chiaroscuro lighting worthy of Wolf Hall, the piece was evocative and sympathetically narrated. It subtly highlighted some of the realities of sex work which might not be comfortable for libertarians. On the other hand, it also brought into focus the hierarchy of the business in terms of motivation and reward: this should give opponents of legalised brothels pause for thought.
Paradise (the brothel chain featured) attracted girls who wanted a safe environment in which to earn good or reasonable money. The brothel was run like a combined 3-star urban hotel and a club. If not as high up the status chain as a smart metropolitan escort service it was light years away from the street corner.
From the viewpoint of owner Jürgen and his daughter, this was a family of happy people. He was adamant that trafficked women were never admitted. On-line applications were treated like CVs; Romanians were regarded with suspicion as being most likely to be working for a pimp (which information will no doubt warm the cockles of Nigel Farage’s xenophobic heart).
Mostly the girls lived in the brothel in small dormitories. They chose their working schedule. The brothel took a €79 entry fee and the state an automatic €25 tax deduction plus the dormitory cost €25 per night. Where they lived when out of Paradise and whether pimps were in the background (as alleged by opponents of the brothel) was not elicited. So far so good: the women who were outstanding at their work could earn up to €5000 in 3 days manager Michael told us. The two working girls featured – Josie and Felicia reckoned that €5-600 per day was good money.
And how about ‘happy families’? ‘Most of these people are fucked up. They have no soul and put nothing into their work’ is manager Michael’s opinion. Blonde Josie, a pretty, wholesome looking age 23 with four years in the job, took us through her ‘toolkit’ of condoms, gels, wipes (some men were unclean), a vibrator (small because some men were rough), and a cream that made her vagina numb (15 men a day is why). She also told us how giving oral sex for 30 minutes really crocked the jaw and face muscles. Felicia (product of a children’s home) hated what she did but it was for her father who was unwell. As always (and the film left us to make up our own minds), the impression was of deprived or abused childhoods and the lure of enough earned money to provide for dependants and escape. Josie was studying criminology in her free time.
The most depressing moment of the programme was an interview with a ‘client’ who after his encomia about the services of the brothel was asked about his opinion on the effect the work had on the girls. From behind his banal faux Carnivale bird’s beak mask he replied in puzzled tones ‘Oh, I’ve never thought about it’.
Well, we all do need to think about it. And unless we are deluded enough to think that the oldest profession (and its relatives in the porn industry) can be preached or legislated out of existence we have to come up with a better solution for both the social origins (poverty, family abuse, drugs) and the abuses (subjugation, exploitation). Criminalising the protagonists is not the answer; creation of tenable working conditions is.
As a start, instead of reacting to the outrage of moral pressure-groups, instead of adopting uncertain legal remedies for poorly defined offences and using the police as a blunt instrument on the wrong enemy… As a start, we should consult sex-workers honestly and properly and listen to what they have to say about their job, then legislate sensibly and sensitively, based upon how their work contributes to our society and how we can protect them as fellow citizens.