A portrait of the dangers in the sex trade

March 29, 2010

When Natasha Gomperts went for a job interview to become a “hostess” in a Mayfair club in London it was an eye-opening and brief introduction to a world in which men paid for women’s company — at the very least.

“I had no idea what the job involved,” Gomperts says, reflecting on a brief teenage adventure. Now, decades later, she is a portrait artist and a middle-class mother of three. But a forthcoming exhibition in a London gallery has led her to once again consider the silent voices of sex workers, and how changes in the law this week will affect their security and livelihood.

The faces of dozens of prostitutes stare incongruously from the debris of her North London family life. The pen-and-ink sketch of a “maid” in a brothel is tucked under a violin case.

By tradition, buying sexual services in the UK has been a relatively straightforward commercial transaction, mired in legal complexity. Inventive prostitutes, and the pimps and gangs that often control them, found endless ways of circumventing the rules while their customers paid for their services free from threat of prosecution. Now supporters of the new Policing and Crime Bill, which comes into force on April 1, believe many legal loopholes will be closed: cracking down on kerb crawling and women working indoors in flats and houses, as well as seeking to help the 5 per cent of the UK’s 80,000 sex workers thought to be trafficked from overseas. For the first time many men seeking to buy sex will be criminalised. Anna Van Heeswijk, of the campaign group Object, says that she hopes the new law will cut demand and have a “chilling effect” on men who turn to prostitutes.

Working in the West End, however, soon led Gomperts to conclude that such an expectation is naive, and that the Bill is misconceived: “Shepherd’s Market has always been a red-light district — except now the girls have pink lights in the windows. The gallery I am exhibiting in is across the street from a brothel. When I heard the women’s stories, and realised they feared the implications of the new laws, I decided to draw a thousand portraits in support of legalising the industry.”

Gomperts sketches quickly, each portrait taking no more than five minutes. Although some of her subjects work in the sex trade, hundreds more are of ordinary members of the public whom she has encountered and asked to be part of what she calls a “Drawn Petition” in favour of greater liberalisation.

“Harriet Harman may be well intentioned, but this law will not stop trafficking,” Gomperts says. “Many trafficked girls are freed because punters report their concerns to the police. That will stop because those men will be criminalised for the first time. It will also criminalise girls working in flats, and on their own, and it could increase the violence and intimidation these women face because no one will want to turn to the police.”

Catherine Stephens, a prostitute and dominatrix, is supporting Gomperts’s petition on behalf of the International Union of Sex Workers: “This law will affect girls’ income,” she confirmed. “Part of the new law aims to rehabilitate drug users, but when income falls there is no money to pay the rent — or to pay for drugs.”

Street prostitutes are the most vulnerable, and Stephens believes that there will be an increase in women “swapping sex for drugs in crack houses and that is far more dangerous”. Though Gomperts, and supporters of the Drawn Petition, believe the new Policing and Crime Bill will harm, not help, women in the sex trade, the solution she favours — the legalisation of prostitution — has been equally difficult to implement. Liberalisation of the sex trade in New Zealand led to a dramatic increase in street prostitution, and pitched battles with locals who were incensed that their neighbourhoods had been turned into sex-zones. Similar schemes faced difficulties in countries as diverse as Australia and the Netherlands.

Although Gomperts hopes that her exhibition will encourage the public and policy-makers to “face up to sex freedom”, she concedes that the issue is complicated. While some of her subjects are high-earning and articulate escorts, the majority of women in the sex trade work in harsh, unappealing, and lonely conditions — with some studies showing that up to two thirds of prostitutes suffer from post-traumatic stress, akin to torture victims. It may be time for a grown-up approach to the policing of the world’s oldest profession; but that does not make it pleasant.


The escort: Emily

Emily is 35 and has been a prostitute for ten years. Dressed as a well-to-do 1980s housewife, with a hint of cleavage, she works alone from a minimalist West London mews flat. There is white bed linen, a vase of poppies and no hint of the most important thing in her life — her dog. With an annual income of £140,000, Emily can afford far more than if she were, as she claims to be, an aromatherapist. Until now she has been untroubled by the law, seeing a host of middle-aged businessmen, who tell her they have become sexually incompatible with their wives. Emily believes her work is crucial in “keeping marriages together”.

Although she grew up in a middle-class family, Emily joined an escort agency to avoid student debt. Her greatest challenge at the moment is to put up her fees to £300 a hour.

While she concedes that her relationship with her long-term boyfriend may “not be going anywhere”, she expresses little thought of the future, apart from making more money. Despite cheery good manners, Emily has proved hard to sketch. Her mask of bland indifference has been difficult to penetrate.

The “maid”: Hannah

Hannah decided to become a prostitute when she was 12. Drawn by the glamour of black-and-white films, Hannah left home at 18 and headed for Mayfair to work in the clubs. After a few years in the sex trade, Hannah met a Middle Eastern family at the Dorchester and went to work in their household — a position that allowed her a peek into the wealthy lifestyle she coveted. Later, after a failed marriage, Hannah returned to prostitution as a “maid” — the term for older, often working-class and slightly care-worn, women who look after one girl at a time in a brothel. Until now flats with only one working girl and a maid have been legal. Within her domain, Hannah lays down the law: deciding which clients can enter and policing a strict no-alcohol or drugs rule. Her biggest concern about the change in the law is that it jeopardises her relationship with the police. “They are our only security,” she says. “Whenever I’ve had problems with a client I just stick my head out of the window and holler. But not any more.”

The foreign sex worker: Violetta

“The worst thing about this work is that I am so bored,” says Violetta, 22, a Bulgarian, who shows off impressive capped teeth as proof of her earnings. She works with Hannah (above) in a sparsely furnished flat in the West End of London, servicing clients for £20 a time. Although some prostitutes prefer longer sessions, Violetta is keen to get rid of her punters in five minutes.

She insists they all clean up first, and provides a wet wipe for each one in lieu of a washbasin. Violetta speaks limited English and conducts lengthy mobile phone chats with her mother in Bulgaria, careful never to disclose that her real occupation is not working in McDonald’s. Despite professing to enjoy playing the role of a “tart” by casting comically seductive glances at punters and speaking in a dusky voice, Violetta expresses most interest in improving her education — suggesting that the Open University could provide courses for East European sex workers.

The male prostitute: Neil

When Neil started working as a rent boy his customers were usually scared and naive. Now the advent of drugs such as crystal meth, and internet pornography, has made the world of male prostitution much more dangerous and unpredictable. As with many sex workers, Neil grew up in care, although his family were respectable “pillars of the community”.

At first Neil catered to City gents, calling himself “Sebastian” and allowing them to punish him. Fashions change however, and more recently Neil adopted a “mockney” accent and worked out in the gym for three hours a day to get a “builder’s physique”. In between stints in the sex trade, Neil has carved out a career as a small businessman and property developer. Now in his late thirties his glory days may be behind him. The word that he believes most suits his career is “entrepreneur”.

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