Stigma and sex workers from a small Yorkshire City.
Prostitution, is a highly controversial topic, often resulting in debates surrounding legalities, morals and stigma. However, how does this affect those who chose to participate in this industry? This dissertation originally set out to discover how local sex workers, in Kingston Upon Hull are affected by the law, those who make the law and those who argue that their chosen profession is morally and legally wrong. However, what was discovered was that they had very little interest in the legalities of the profession but rather the stigma that affected them. This research also discovered the double standards that ran so apparently throughout the debate of prostitution. It also discovered that regardless of how sex is sold indoor or outdoor those who sold sex for a living faced stigma everyday even if it was not directly aimed at themselves.
What many people forget is that sex workers are human too something this research hopes to remind its readers. This dissertation has set out to give local sex workers a platform to voice their own opinions and experience on their chosen profession.
The following are their words: ‘I wish there wasn’t that stigma. I think what would happen if everybody knew…yeah that’s her she’s just a prostitute…’ Zoe an indoor sex worker ‘They don’t think I can do this job and still be a normal person. People quickly judge as soon as you tell them you’re a prostitute’ Ava an indoor sex worker ‘There’s nothing ever good said about the sex industry, unless its glamorised…’ Lilly an indoor sex worker.
Author: Jade Lee Thomson, May 2019
BA (Hons) Criminology
Firstly, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Dr. Billie Lister who without her endless encouragement, expert knowledge and constant humour I would not have survived this academic journey. You have encouraged me to be the best version of myself and for that I am entirely grateful. Thank you.
My family and friends that have supported me. Without your support I would have fell at the first hurdle. I could not have done any of this without you, Words cannot express how much you all mean to me and how grateful I truly am.
To my grandparents who are no longer here… I told you I would make you proud one day.
Finally, to the women who participated in this research, without you this would not have been possible. I just hope that I have done you justice and shown you ladies in the light you deserve. You all are amazing, powerful and strong women who deserve nothing but respect and admiration for who you are and what you do.
I hope in time people can learn to respect sex workers and you can all finally be proud openly for who you truly are.
Table of Contents
This research is based on the thoughts, opinions and experiences of local indoor sex workers from Kingston Upon Hull. It is with the intention of this dissertation to give local sex workers a platform to voice their thoughts on the current legislation and social stigma that currently affects them. Prostitution is a highly emotive subject, almost everybody has an opinion on prostitution and how it effects our social surroundings, with many academics, such as Teela Sanders and others, dedicating their work to researching phenomenon that is prostitution, with much literature and other types of research, such as ethnographic studies dedicated to prostitution. Although, there appears to be a lot of literature, on prostitution most of it is based on street prostitution. Indoor prostitution is a very under researched section on the industry. This of course can be explained by the lack of accessibility to indoor sex workers, as contact with indoor sex workers is often very limited. According to Zheng (2013:47), ‘it seems very rare that sex work researchers happen to be friends of brothel owners or managers.’ Even the legalisation that surrounds prostitution is largely aimed at those who participate in street-based prostitution and those who are forced into this industry. Indoor prostitution is remarkably different to that we observe on the streets, women who work indoors in brothels and massage parlours are in some cases protected more by their surroundings for example, indoor prostitutes are rarely alone and often have somebody on the premises with them, whether it is a receptionist/manager or other workers. Indoor prostitution is often also more tolerated then street prostitution this can be due to them being less visual and therefore causing less of an annoyance then those that work within the public view (Kingston 2012).
‘Prostitution is often referred to as the world’s oldest profession’ Benoit et al (2017:1), yet prostitution in the 21st century is criminalised and those who participate in prostitution stigmatised. Selfe and Burke (2001:217) explain, ‘…from around 25,000 BC to 2,500 BC many societies were matriarchal and based on the religious and sexual authority of females…whores existed… they possessed religious authority and thus a large degree of social and political influence and power’ Suggesting that those who participated in prostitution where once not only accepted into society but in fact had a lot of power and the ability to influence the politics of the time. However, with the raise of a patriarchal society, women where then seen as the ‘good’ wife and the ‘bad’ whore. Women where to been seen as property of the husband, therefore, sexually licenced but only to her husband. Women who were seen as sexually independent where seen as bad whore, the divide between the ‘good wife’ and the ‘bad whore’ appears to have deepened with the rise of the Christian Church (Selfe and Burke 2001). This also suggests that stigma surrounding prostitution actually goes back further then this dissertation initially thought. Stigma according to Weitzer (2017:1) ‘is one of the most important problems in sex work’, yet as it has been established, stigma goes so much further back that one anticipated and it is so deeply rooted within our society.
This dissertation is not to argue whether prostitution is right or wrong but to argue from a sex workers point of view on why they have chosen this profession, and why the stigma surrounding prostitution must change. This dissertation originally set out to argue why legalisation must change in order to keep these workers protected. Not just by decriminalising prostitution in order for them to have the same working rights that everyone in other jobs have the privilege of having but to acknowledge this as a legitimate form of work. It was with the intention to interview indoor sex workers on their opinions, experiences and their beliefs over the current legalisation. However, what transpired through these interviews was what the participants thought about themselves and the stigma that surrounds this profession. This dissertation acknowledges that there is a dark side to the sex industry and that there are cases of forced sex work and those who a trafficked for the purposes of sex work, however, this dissertation is going to focus on those who choose to participate in this industry and from their point of views. It is with hope that this dissertation will shine a light on those who choose to work as prostitutes and in hope reduce some of the social stigma the surrounds prostitution.
The focus around this dissertation is the views of indoor prostitutes, therefore in order to represent them properly semi structured interviews took place in a place they felt more comfortable in, where they work. It was important for those participating in the research to feel as comfortable as possible in order for them to speak freely about their thoughts, opinions and experiences. Therefore, a local coffee shop would not have been suitable. As stated previously, access to researching indoor sex workers is often very limited, nevertheless, in this case access to the brothel was easier due to a prior working relationship through an organisation called Corner House and their work in regard to out-reach programs. This meant that the bases of respect and trust had already been long established well before any research had even been considered. Secondary data had been rejected due to there being very little data on indoor sex workers .
2 Literature Review
Radical Feminism is one of the most dominant theories surrounding prostitution. This theory focuses on the inequalities between men and women and is at the forefront of many debates surrounding prostitution. Inequalities that go further back then the theory itself around the time of the patriarchal society was established, men owned their wives and they were only to be sexual with their own husbands. Those women who more freely expressed their sexuality where deemed as whores, however, while the good wife was only to be sexual with their husband. Men were not ready to give up their prior freedoms of the matriarchal society they once dominated by (Selfe and Burke 2001). Suggesting that the double standards of men go further back then the feminist theory. Selfe and Burke (2001:233) suggests that the economic inequality between man and women means that ‘the prostitute woman is seen openly to be subject to male domination’. Suggesting that all women are forced into prostitution due to the economic imbalance that lays within the capitalist society. Although radical feminist theory has a lot of substance to their argument and of course is one of the most dominate strand of this theory, it also must be noted that those who shout the loudest are normally those that are heard. Suggesting that because they are the most dominate stand in feminism they are the most listened to. However, one must note the language that is used in radical feminist arguments never is a prostitute referred to as a sex worker, this is because radical feminist refuses to acknowledge this as a form of chosen work. Although, the term free choice could also be argued, if an individual cannot obtain legitimate employment then the informal economy which sex work is part of may become an option for them. However, it must be acknowledged that the notion of choice in an inherently loaded concept, influenced by both individual and structural factors ( O’Connell Davidson as cited in Sanders et al 2018). According to radical feminist no woman would choose to partake in this form of work willingly, of course at this point it would be imprudent not to recognise that not all sex workers regardless of the form it takes, enter this industry under their own free will.
However, for the purpose of this dissertation it will focus on those who do willingly choose to enter this profession. It is for that reason that the radical perspective is flawed as it fails to recognise that some people do enter prostitution voluntarily. Radical feminists also fail to include all prostitutes in their arguments, for example male prostitutes or transgendered, therefore reinforcing that prostitution is a form of female subordination under the influence of a system made for male supremacy (Kingston 2014:11). This strand of feminism also fails to recognise that although they still maybe some inequalities in regard to gender, women are now not just seen as ‘little women who should stay at home and look after the family’ but in some cases have some of the most powerful job in society, for example our current Prime Minister is a woman.
However, even with the flaws with this theory, for example it often being argued as outdated. Radical feminism still survives today and is used in many political arguments surrounding the legalisation around prostitution and sex work. This is evident in such activist groups like Save Our Eyes, who are based in Holbeck Leeds. Their agender to save prostituted women and a peaceful life free from prostitution and abuse. Although suggested that Radical feminism is outdated in such groups like the above it is evident that radical thoughts and opinions still exist. It is activist groups such as Save our eyes that help feed the stigma of what it is like to be a prostitute, images on their website and social media pages, show women soliciting, dirty/used needles, used condoms and their wrappers. All adding to the dirt discourse that surrounds prostitution. Not only do they use pictures to suggest that those selling sex are on drugs but the state that they need freeing from their situation, ‘We aim to see prostituted women freed from the grips of a drug addiction that was created to enslave them’ Save our Eyes (2018). Typically, of radical feminism, they make no reference to male prostitutes, nor do they make any reference to anyone who works in this industry out of choice. Radical feminism, as shown above, is still relevant in the latest debates surrounding prostitution and in many cases feeds the stigma that prostitution is wrong and harmful to those who participate in prostitution. According to Save our eyes, just like the radical feminism perspective, people do not choose to be in this industry. Save our eyes even have an education section on their website, with headlines such as 18 myths about prostitution, Prostitution is the enemy of sexual liberation and many more including testimonies from ex- sex workers (Save our eyes 2018). This section gives readers to opportunity to read about sex work and workers, however, it is all one sided and does not give readers a balanced view of prostitution . Just like radical feminists, this site also use language like rape to emphasise their arguments that woman cannot choose to partake in prostitution. Also suggesting that ‘men who buy sex are, therefore, sexual exploiters’ Kingston (2014:11). However, many theorists, such as Sanders (2008) have argued that it may not be the men who is doing the exploiting, some have argued that within sex tourism, it is the sex workers that exploit the customers. Radical feminism feeds the public perception that women are solely there to be used by men, that women do not choose to be a part of this industry, directly or indirectly. However, others argue that men and women do choose to enter sex work as a profession.
Sex positive theorists argue that prostitution is a form of sexual freedom, it is an essential factor of women’s freedom, suggesting that women who participate in sex work are not victims, rather powerful women who choose to sell a product that is in demand. Bell (2009) as cited in Sanders et al (2018:6) argues that ‘Every human being has the right to make informed decisions about his or her own body…’. Suggesting that laws that criminalised sex work revokes human rights for people to decide how they use their use own bodies, if they understand and have all the right information available. Bell (2009) as cited in Sanders et al (2018) also argues that sex work has been criticized due to the beliefs that sex work is immoral and degrading to women. Queen (1997:133) argues ‘the stereotype about sex workers…we are all driven to this demeaning lifestyle by a damaged history…’, however, she goes on to state that this image of sex workers is not universally truthful. So, while maybe true that some sex workers entering prostitution may have had troubled histories, it is unfair to suggest that this applies to all, however, stigma surrounding prostitutes and the sex industry is something that has been around for centauries and it is unlikely to change.
Without proper knowledge and those who it does affect not speaking out, then the stigma will forever go unchallenged.
Regardless of what strand of feminism is to be followed, it is evident that both may not be right, or wrong, but both may hold some truths, either way when arguing prostitution, it is not just theories that should be considered but those who work in the industry. Academic arguments are accepted as theories and even in some cases relied on for evidence from research but the real voices that need not be forgotten are prostitutes themselves. This is something that this dissertation has set out to achieve, sex workers regardless if they are prostitutes, lap dancer’s or porn stars, all deserve to be listened to. After all the laws and the opinions of academics, politicians and the public all affect them, indirectly or directly. In an article for the Guardian March (2019) states that ,the English Collective of prostitutes, claim ‘that the legislation forces sex workers to operate alone, leaving them vulnerable to crime and reluctant to report violence to the police because they fear arrest.’ Suggesting that the laws currently surrounding prostitution is working against those who participate in sex work, leaving those vulnerable and for those who do work together for safety leaves them at risk of arrest and prosecution. Sex workers either work alone and risk becoming a victim of crime or commit a crime to stay safe.
Indoor prostitution is significantly different to street prostitution from the nature and the organisation of how it operates, through to how to public see indoor prostitution. According to Sanders (2005:16) ‘the owner dictates the price of each sex act and the percentage the worker must hand over. For instance, if a service costs £60, the worker could be expected to relinquish half of this to the owner’. Although, this research cannot argue for all brothels, it would appear to be different in the brothel studied. Although the management did dictate how much a minimum service was (there was a price list of how much it would cost to spend a specific amount of time with a lady and this could be seen upon entrance), the ladies interviewed stated they were in charge of how much they earnt. They also stated for the percentage they paid to the house (management); they felt the fees were extremely fair for what they got. This included advertisement on their behalf, personal cleaning products and security. Sanders (2005) further suggests that due to competition between workers to earn their wage, brothels also tend to have a huge staff turnover. However, again the brothel studied, many of the ladies in the brothel that was studied had been there a number of years with one girl being there at least seven years. It would be imprudent to suggest that all brothels are the same and this research does understand that not all brothels will operate in the same way this one does. However, if sex work was seen as a legitimate form of work and regulated like any other profession, it would mean that all brothels would have to operate under certain laws, which would create a better working environment for those who participate in the sex industry. Indoor prostitution often has a set of house rules that girls have to abide by, and the amount of money girls can potentially earn, the clientele also differs. Men who visit indoor sex workers tend to want more of an intimate service, for example in a study conducted by Sanders, friendship was normally important to clients that visited a particular girl regular, with many of the men in her study claiming they were friends with the sex workers they saw (Sanders 2012:97).
Although, stigma still shows in both street and indoor prostitution this takes form in the legislation that appears to be against those who work indoors, to the media who make mass generalisations about prostitutes. Therefore, the media frequently creates moral panics, that create worries and /or fear of crime such as stories that are related to teen pregnancy( Doughty, n.d.) and the Mods and Rockers (McPhee 2014). The media has played a huge role in creating moral panics in certain stigmatised groups, that leave the public fearing them or reinforcing the stigma that these groups already have. In relation to prostitution, media outlets often refer to prostitutes causing distress to the public (Campbell (B) 2018). To the health workers that offer sexual health support to sometimes prostitutes themselves. Benoit Et Al (2017) describe this as Macro, Meso and Micro levels of stigmatisation. They also go on to state that while it is not known where stigma originates many scholars agree that stigma in linked to how stigmatised groups threaten the social order of society. This is reflected in legislation not just in the UK but all over the world. Groups that are against not just direct prostitution but all sex work, use various different emotive language and visual arguments not only to voice their opinions but to reinforce the stigma of sex workers that all aspects are dirty, sleezy and that sex work is deep rooted in immorality. The language that, not only anti- sex work groups but government, use should never be underestimated. Power struggles between on what is morally right or wrong is consistent throughout the argument of prostitution. The term prostitute itself is and can be used in a derogatory way. The term ‘prostitute’ acknowledged by sex workers themselves to be inherently stigmatising ( Benoit et al 2017). This was acknowledged by the participants within this study also agreed that the term prostitute is used in a way to spread hatred about them. The term prostitute continues to be used by the general public who presumably are in part influenced by legal and political discourse; until recently legislation referred to sex workers as ‘common prostitute’. The term was first used in the 1824 Vagrancy Act (Lee 2013). In 2009, the Policing and Crime Act removed the term ‘common prostitute’ and replaced it with ‘person’ (Policing and Crime Act 2009), meaning the term prostitution is now gender neutral. However, the law still continues to stigmatise sex workers by not acknowledging this as a legitimate form of work. This can be identified by sex work not being protected by work laws. The law surrounding prostitution is also further stigmatised by those who are prosecuted under this law, as sex workers are prosecuted under the same law as sex offenders. The fact that the law does not use the term common prostitute in its legislation is irrelevant, when they do not have the same working rights as any other profession. When conducting interviews for this research the women involved identified themselves as sex workers or working girls therefore, this dissertation will no longer use the term prostitution when referring to sex work or sex workers. In order to keep this research as a framework for their voices, it will refer to them only as working girls or sex workers.
For the purpose of this research semi-structured interviews where used, this was because although I was known to the participants through volunteer work I have done, I did not want the interviews to be too structured. According to Noaks and Wincup (2004:79) ‘semi- structed interviews offers more opportunity to probe, typically with the use of follow up questions.’ This meant that if the participants said something that was particularly interesting the structure of the interview allowed me to investigate further into their answers. It also meant that even though it was research it would not feel as such to the participants. As a working relationship was established beforehand it was also important that the research did not compromise the work that was already going on with the participants as that may have had a lasting effect from a professional point of view. Of course, semi structured interviews did have the potential to go off topic, however, with having some questions already in place it allowed the research to stay focused.
The research also ruled out interviewing male sex workers, although this research does recognise that they are male sex workers, there was none working in any of the local brothels at the time of research. The research also focused on one brothel in particular this was because of the working relationship was more relaxed in this brothel in particular and the management of this brothel was more accommodating to this research. Therefore, this research understands that the women interviewed is only a small proportion of indoor sex workers in Hull and understands that experiences for other sex workers may differ considerably.
There was three interviews that took place, the women that was interviewed where all slightly different in ages and appeared to have different backgrounds, due to my volunteer work I already knew two of the participants this could have been problematic due to researchers bias, however, I found that due to having a previous relationship with the two ladies I felt that they would be a lot more honest with me about their jobs and opinions on the sex industry. Two of the three interviews took place in the communal lounge and one of them in a privacy of a bedroom, the locations of the interviews were chosen by the individuals themselves. This was important as I wanted the girls to feel as comfortable as possible. It was interesting that one of the girls choose the privacy of a bedroom, although her choice was not questioned, in reflection it would have been interesting to know why she choose this and her reasons for it. The same applies for the two ladies that choose the lounge location. The only thing I could think of was when the interview happened in the bedroom the brothel was slightly busy with at least three other girls working plus the receptionist. Of course, this is speculation only and not something this research could or wishes to imply.
All three ladies where visited before the interviews took place and given consent forms, information sheets and the proposed research and a copy of the questions that I wanted to ask (see appendix two). I felt this was important as, I felt if the girls knew what kind of questions they were to be asked they would feel more comfortable participating. This also gave them the opportunity to state if they did not want any particular question to be asked prior to their consent. Due to the research being focused around indoor sex workers it was extremely important to ensure that the participants where comfortable at all times whilst still ensuring my own safety. Although I had previous contact with the establishment owners and the women who would be participating, I still ensured that my supervisor was informed when the interviews were to be conducted and where. My supervisor was also notified when I entered the parlour and when I left, again this was to ensure my own safety.
There have been studies on the sex industry that have shown a negative impact on the researchers that have become involved in the sex industry, for example the researchers becoming involved within the industry itself. For example, Zheng (2013) stated in her own research she found herself working as a hostess in a brothel and feeling a sense of powerlessness and vulnerability when she witnessed girls being abused by establishment owners. She also goes on to state that many of her friends excluding her when becoming involved with the sex industry, even though she only become involved for research purposes and this brought along its own types of stigma. This is something I myself had to be aware of.
Although throughout this research, I did not feel as though I was being stigmatised I did feel in some parts being told to ‘be careful’ when interviewing sex workers, in fact many of my friends where deeply worried when telling them what this dissertation was about and who I would be interviewing. This showed the deep rooted stigmatization that the sex industry has, as ‘my friends’ who were not sex workers constantly telling me that in the world of prostitution I had to be careful I did not get mistaken for one and for me not to dress a certain way otherwise I may end up being propositioned by a perspective client. For that reason, I was even apprehensive about the clothes I choose to wear on the days of interviews, although I knew I would not see any clients I was still very wary of small things like my appearance when I visited the brothel.
As the participants where not to be paid for their time and given the sensitive information that may have been shared it was decided that the interviews would take place in the brothel itself while the women were on shift. This was because the women could still earn their wage and not have to take any personal time to participate. This was important as I did not want the girls to feel they were being exploited by myself in order to gain knowledge from them.
As the research was unpaid if the girls where too have been interrupted when it came to earn their wage this could have been detrimental to them, in the sense that they have come to work to earn money and I did not want to be the reason they did not that day. So, it was agreed that the girls would carry on their shift as normal and I would fit my research around them and try to cause as little disruption to them as possible.
This did present its own problems as the first interview was interrupted due to the lady having to leave to deal with a client. Although it was problematic it did give me an opportunity to briefly observe how the participants body language and persona change when there was a perspective client in the building. For example, the lady was relaxed and sitting in a comfortable position wearing a hoodie and a pair of joggers, when the doorbell rang she immediately undressed and put a pair of heeled shoes on, without saying anything walked off to answer the door. I gathered my things and made myself scarce. This interruption gave me an opportunity to be able to briefly speak with the management, although nothing in detail was discussed she did imply that even though the working girl had been booked for half an hour and I quote ‘she has half an hour but she is not always that long’, girls that work in this establishment may not always work for the full time they are booked or paid for. This is quite interesting as in a ‘normal’ office job you would be paid for the time that you are there, however, it appeared that in this job you are paid for as long as the client wants you, or as long as the service lasts. What was interesting is the girls get paid first, so regardless of how long the client has paid for, if that time is cut short for any reason the girls have already been paid in full. So, in some instances a girl could be paid for an hour and in that hour she could do two more other jobs, therefore increasing their earning potential.
Although this research wants to reflect what it is like for an indoor sex worker, it is also extremely important that this research does not give any indication to who the participants are therefore pseudonyms were given and their descriptions have been slightly altered in order to keep their anonymity. This is important as many of the girls working do so without anyone knowing in order to protect themselves. This can be from public reaction, the laws and from those who they know such as family and friends. Also given the nature of this job it is highly understandable that those who have participated in this research wish to remain anonymously. It is also with the wish of the ladies interviewed that the term prostitute was also not used. This is because they did not see themselves as prostitutes but referred to themselves as working girls. In order to keep within ethical guidelines, I did as per request and refrained from using the term prostitute where possible.
4 Data Analysis
The interviews of each participant took approximately an hour each, this was because many of the questions the participants give in-depth answers to. Although only 45 minutes was reserved for the interview some of the participants gave quite long and in-depth answers. As the bases of this research is to give the working girls a platform to voice their own opinions on the industry it would not have been palatable for the interviews to stick to a scheduled time. Also, the interviews where recorded in order for the researcher to be able to pay full attention to the women while they were talking and only the basic of notes, such as body language, where taken during the interview. This also meant that the recorded data was accurate to those involved when it came to transcribe the interviews.
Although the interviews where semi structured there was a number of questions that was the same, for example all the interviews started with a brief chat beforehand, this was to ensure that everyone was comfortable before starting. All the interviews asking for a bit of background information such as how old the participant was and how they started work in this profession. Two of the ladies had friends who already worked in the industry and was curious about the work. All three participants stated the need for extra cash or income being one of the main driving forces behind their reasons. Lilly states ‘ I started doing this mainly for quick money, also a bit of curiosity but it was mainly for the quick money’. She sates that her rent was owed, and she had a friend in the industry who told her of the earning potential.
Interestingly enough all three participants researched the job before they started working in a brothel. Lilly stated, ‘I went on the internet’ Zoe asked her friend who was already working she stated that ‘she was always asking her (the friend that was already working) loads of questions, I couldn’t believe she worked here’ and Ava stated ‘ I was already doing favours for a man; I knew it was going to happen every Sunday. I just thought they must be more to be made…so I then looked into it and to see what I could do’. Ava stated that she was paying for her rent by giving this man favours in return. ‘the guy (who I was giving favours to) thought he had a hold over me cos he knew I had fuck all’.
It appears that Ava had fallen into prostitution due to her landlord taking advantage. Suggesting that even though she had eventually decided that this job was her choice, radical feminists would suggest she was forced into prostitution due to the economic imbalance between herself and the male landlord she had. Something that Selfe and Burke (2001:233) had previously suggested.
Four major themes where then found throughout the three interviews, stigma being the main theme. Kingston (2014:143) implies indoor sex workers ‘caused less of a public nuisance then street prostitution’. However, according to the working girls interviewed it would seem that stigma around prostitution as a whole topic is highly controversial. All three participants suggested that the stigma surrounding their profession was why they did not tell people what they did for a living. Although Ava told me that her family had found out at one point, but she had told them she did not work anymore. ‘My family found out but now don’t and no one knows, as it is the best way’. When asked why she thought that she replied with; ‘Cos your parents think bad things. Other people think prostitution is just street crawling and it leads to other things. They don’t think I can do this as a normal job and still be a normal person. People quickly judge as soon as you tell them you’re a prostitute. People don’t understand.’
When questioned over her respond she continued with ‘they just washed their hands. They did not want that tie to them.’ Suggesting that when family members and friends did find that Ava was working as a prostitute they felt the stigma applied to prostitution would somehow apply to them as well as Ava. However, Zoe later mentioned in her interview that her mother knew of her job, but it took her six years to tell her. When her mother did find out she found her mum was ‘totally supportive, but only cos I reassured her I was doing it in a safe environment’. Lilly stated she did not know if she had the strength to tell her mum about the job stating, ‘it’s not like its seen as a normal job’. This suggests that working within this industry can be quite lonely for those who do not have a support network outside of the brothel. It also suggests that indoor sex work is just as stigmatised as outdoor sex workers although it is more hidden. Ava, quotes that, when being asked about media outlets publishing stories on street sex work and if it affects her, ‘we all get paid to do something, I’m choosing to do this. it does not make me more of a bad person’. This was a common thought between all three women interviewed. Zoe who also stated that ‘when people are reinforced to believe that (negative views on prostitution) they are just scum (prostitutes) it’s not very practical and not very useful’. In another interview, Lilly was not sure on how to answer the question and took a while to answer it. Eventually saying that once a story had been published about a very serious crime commit against another sex worker and some of the comments posted on the papers Facebook page was and quoted ‘ some nasty comments which were uncalled for’. Stating that the victim, of the serious crime, ‘She was not a prostitute, she was a mother and a grandmother, I’ve heard people talking about it on the street and that they were saying she must have deserved it if she was a prozzy’.
Something that all three participants related to quite often was the dehumanisation of sex workers in general when they had been a victim of crime. Kingston (2014:60) states that in her research around community attitudes towards sex workers that‘many residents voiced their views that ‘women of the night’ were either wholly or partly to blame for any sexual/or physical violence perpetrated against them’ . This was backed up by all three of the women interviewed who all expressed that when something is reported in the media about girls/women like them the term is always prostitute, never the names of the victims.
Therefore, the publics opinion on the crime that has been committed is already tainted because the victim is known as a prostitute not a mother, daughter, sister or friend.
The second theme was the working conditions of working indoors. This is again was a very strong theme, for example current legalisation does not support prostitution as a legitimate form of work. Therefore, it is not protected by legalisation such as employment laws, health and safety or even protection from sexual harassment. In a report from the House of Commons in 2015, under the debate of decriminalisation, Catharine Heely of the New Zealand prostitutes collective, stated that there had been a successful case of sexual harassment within a brothel, where the lady in question had been awarded $25,000 in compensation and the brothel owner sent on a sexual harassment course (House of Commons 2015). Suggesting that once prostitution had become a regulated profession, sex workers felt they could be protected under working laws the same as any other profession.
Third theme was workplace comradery, a community within a community therefore creating their own subculture of stigmatised individuals. This is important, as it is already been established that for some people working in this industry, they do not have the support network outside of the brothel therefor they tend to look out for each other. Lilly stated, when asked about isolation within the industry, ‘I don’t ever dread coming to work. This job has given me confidence and when I’m coming to work, I feel like, erm.. I’m seeing friends.’ Suggesting that the community feel within the brothel itself not only offers safety, but it also offers much more such as company, friendships and self-confidence. Subculture themselves are taken to be exaggerations of what they are perceived to look like (Rock 2016). This can be apparent in trying to articulate what a prostitute looks like. For example, they all wear fishnets, wear bright red lipstick and next to no clothing. However, in the parlour I visited very few of the women wore over the top make up and where normally sat around in lounge wear such as pjs and hoodies. Therefor they did not fit the perceived look of the subculture. In fact, in the parlour visited it was extremely apparent that these girls could be anyone, there was no distinctive differences between these women and the women stood next to you in the local supermarket. Suggesting that what the public think a sex worker looks like and what they actually look like is completely different. Of course, the popular stereotype of what a sex worker looks like is often dominated by popular media outlets such as the news or films. In most films where there is a character of a prostitute, they are often dressed in the stereotypical image that we associate with prostitution.
Even though the research took a different avenue to what was first anticipated legislation was mentioned when it came to debate their safety and how whilst working together in a brothel. All three participants were shocked and disgusted at the realisation that if they wanted to work safely then there where in fact breaking the law. In the Sexual Offences Act 1956 section 33, it states that ‘It is an offence for a person to keep a brothel, or to manage, or act or assist in the management of, a brothel.’ Suggesting it is only partly illegal, this of course is problematic to those who work in the indoor sex market. Lilly states ‘I thought laws were there to protect us. I keep hearing sex workers are vulnerable yet it’s the law that makes us vulnerable’. Lilly makes a valid point; laws are there to protect people yet in this instance those who willingly partake in sex work are not protected. Something that the decriminalisation of sex work would help, although, it would not stop those who wish to cause sex workers harm if they really wanted to, but it would make it harder to hurt them. In such a marginalised group then, it does not appear that difficult to find that workplace comradery is high on everyone’s agender, with all those interviewed stating that if any trouble was to happen then the girls would help each other out, even if they did not particularly like that person they would still help if a punter ‘kicked off’. Although, they all stated that it does not happen very often, due to punters already being on a backfoot when they entered the building, with one of the women stating that if needed they would call the police and would do so without hesitation if she felt she was in danger.
The final theme was safety, for example, one of the participants, Zoe, stressed she was happy to break the law, in regard to working in a brothel, if it meant that she was working safely.
She continued to state that if should change any section of the law then, changing the laws around sex workers working together would be what she would change. Under the current Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is illegal to solicit, inciting prostitution for gain or controlling prostitution. Within an indoor environment, girls are also currently not allowed to work together as it is seen as a brothel, this can be seen under section 33-36 (Phoenix, 2002). In a report from the House of Commons in 2015, Jenn Clamen stated that ‘violence in the sex industry is inevitable’ House of Commons (2015:21). Therefor those that do work in brothels do so in fear of not being safe, something that the decriminalisation of prostitution would benefit who from, sex workers being able to work in safety. In the parlour that was visited, all three participants said they felt safe in this establishment, as they had plenty of safety measures, such as CCTV in public areas, panic alarms in the rooms, but failing them measures they knew all they would have to do was scream or raise their voice and somebody would be there to assist them. However, two of them expressed it was not the case in other places they had worked. Prostitution is not a regulated form of work, there for those who work inside parlours/brothels are not protected under any working laws, meaning that these safety measures are not compulsory, and it is something that this parlour itself has decided to do.
During the research the local newspaper did write a story on a local brothel, this provoked some comments from the public with some of the comments on their Facebook page being discourteous about those who may work or visit there. There where even comments on how the place looked in general, for example one person expressed how ‘dirty’ the place looked, adding to the dirt discourse that surrounds prostitution. When the story broke I contacted the Hull Daily Mail, through their social media page, asking why they had posted this even though they advertise the parlour in question in the back of their printed version of the local newspaper and have done so for a number of years. They replied with ‘advertising and editorial departments are run separately, and they cannot answer for their colleges in advertising’. It would appear that they are willing to post stories of prostitution and still advertise and make money from them., it would appear that double standards throughout all aspects of prostitution is highly evident.
This research began with the intention of finding out how the current legislation affects sex workers working in a local brothel. The original intention was to ascertain to what extent the decriminalisation of prostitution would be beneficial to them with regards to health and safety at work. The intention was to offer a platform to voice opinions and to gain an inside knowledge on this relatively under researched area of the industry. As sex workers voices ultimately guided the research, what transpired was that although the impacts of the law were mentioned, the women were less interested in discussing the ramifications of the laws and more on the impacts of the stigma that they faced on a daily basis. Because the intention of this research was ultimately to promote the perspectives of the participants and therefore contribute to the body of research which seeks to empower sex workers lived experiences, ultimately the dissertation focus evolved from one which concentrated solely on the impacts of law to one which was more concentrated on the impacts of stigma, resonating with Weitzer’s (2017) observation that stigma is one of the most important problems within sex work.
The theme of stigma perpetuated all three interviews with participants who claimed that it was out of fear of people expressing their (presumably negative) opinions on the job which was why they kept this part of their lives secret. Ava stated that ‘No else knows, as it’s the best way’, …‘they don’t think I can do this and still be a normal person’. On the theme of preservation of separating the ‘deviant’ identity, interesting the brothel staff room, where the workers get ready for their shift, also acts as a ‘hiding place’ if they do not wish to see a customer. This can be for various reasons such as they recognise the person on the CCTV and do not want them to know of their occupation. On a more positive note from the point of view of workers having choice of who to service however, the staff room could also be used if a worker did not want to be available for whatever reason; meaning that the workers could choose and dictate who they saw as clients. This appeared to be the general consensus throughout the research, girls dictated who they saw and who they did not. It also appeared that management did not dictate who the girls saw as clients. However, this research recognises this is not be the case in all indoor establishments, due to this form of work being unregulated and the power this gives to the brothel owner. During the first interview, with Ava, it was disrupted by a client, this meant for the time being the interview is over. Although this was slightly frustrating as I felt Ava as starting to relax within the interview it was also interesting to see the transition in Ava’s persona and to see her role immediately change when there is a potential customer. At this point I went into the staff room and briefly spoke to the manager, who was busy promoting their site, who stated I was able to wait for Ava to finish. The place itself appeared to have CCTV throughout the establishment and also appeared to be very clean and presentable. It almost felt like I was in somebodies’ home, something that was later backed up when Lilly states that ‘to some girls it’s like a second home to them because it’s a homely environment, other than clients (she laughs) it’s like home from home’. This I felt was really important as the girls appear to be very comfortable and relaxed in this environment, suggesting that all the girls that participated in this research was there out of choice.
Stigma although is quite apparent from the public sphere, is also apparent from the girls themselves. Zoe stated that before she started working, she had also thought very stereotypical images of prostitutes. She thought that the people that used sex workers where all ‘pervs and flasher mac’s, and yeah, all the girls being badly treated by horrible men and dirty men’, suggesting that it is not just sex workers that have stigma applied to them, those who buy the services of sex workers. Sanders et al explain that ‘this scenario is made popular by repeated images of street prostitution, and high-profile cases of male celebrities arrested for buying sex on the street’Sanders et al (2018:104-105). This suggests that unless you are involved in this industry then the only access you have is via the media, suggesting that the media has a very powerful role when it comes to stigma. At one point, in her interview Lilly, makes a comment on how, if anyone watched the CCTV, boring they all are.
She states when there are no customers about she and the other ladies sit around in dressing gowns drinking tea, either reading books or online shopping. She states,‘ we just talk a lot of shit really about what we’ve bought in Asda, we are nothing like what people think we are’.
Discussing the stigma of prostitution with those who are affected by it meant, as a researcher, I gained first-hand knowledge of how it affects these ladies, they were all proud of the job they do, but felt that they couldn’t be outwardly proud. Zoe did not fear the stigma from those whom she knew but feared it from those who she did not know. Lilly feared her family knowing and stating ‘people are interested in their job but then don’t want to know what happens in this job. I think if we all could just talk freely about it; it would make everything easier’. Lilly was talking in relation to sex work being decriminalised and how if it was, she would feel less isolated by the job. Lilly stated that if something bad happened to her at work, if she had a ‘bad client’, there is often times she would leave the brothel and it would ‘lay heavy on me, when you leave work it’s like a stewing process.’ This suggests that if sex workers do have a negative experience with a client it could affect their mental health and wellbeing, suggesting that if this was a regulated form of employment, those who participated in this industry may be able to get support from places such as mental health.
Working conditions that the women experienced also was a strong theme and how different brothels experience different conditions of work. Zoe had never worked anywhere else so she could not compare her current place to anywhere else, however both of the other ladies had. With one of them also previously working is a different city. Ava expressed this when asked how she felt about her current working conditions, such as the percentage paid to the manager, nature of self-employment and any rules that they have to keep to? Whilst all three ladies strongly stressed they were in charge of the services they provided and they in fact could dictate what service they gave it was evident that it may not always case in other brothels. This is something that if sex work was regulated would change according to Sanders Et Al (2018:48) ‘…without the labour protections of employees, yet also lacking the freedom of independent self-employed workers…’. Suggesting that because this is not a regulated industry then those who run and own brothels can do what they want, without reprisals of the working conditions that the girls work in. This was confirmed by Ava stating that ‘in the last place I worked she would be fined if you wanted to go home’, stating further ‘you would be told to get a shower and sort yourself out and get back to where you need to be’. Ava was referring to a condom splitting whilst with a customer she appeared to be slightly uncomfortable, at this point I reminded her that she does not have to say or tell me anything she does not want to. She smiled and stated she was fine to continue. She also goes on to state that here (the brothel I am interviewing her in ), if she was to state she wanted to go home she could even without giving a reason. Ava states that;
‘when something like this happens (a condom splitting), he could have had anything, basically you’ve had unprotected sex. I would message the manager if she was not here and the receptionist was, tell her I want to go home and get a Dettol bath.’
She laughed at this point. I thought it was interesting that she used the term Dettol bath, does this mean that having unprotected sex made her feel dirty, this could be in relation to the dirt discourse that is often applied to the sex industry. In reflection this is something I feel I could have asked more on but with Ava previously looking uncomfortable, I was aware this would have been a very personal question and I did not want to push the matter further in fear of upsetting her. Zoe also stated that for what they pay it is fair for what they get in security alone, although Zoe had not worked anywhere previously so she could not compare it to anywhere else. Lilly also commented that she also thought working conditions here was also fair. She had worked somewhere else before and had stated it was not that different, however, there were times she would be left on her own while the owner popped out, then she stated she did not feel safe.
The Deviant Community and safety
All three ladies stressed that if at any point they or any other girls needed help, then help would be available even if they did not particularly like the girl, ‘we would all have each other’s backs’. They all stated that they were plenty of safety measures throughout the building not just the use of CCTV but there were panic alarms in each of the private rooms and only the girls knew where they were located. Zoe also stated that even though the doors had locks on they were not that strong and would only take a shove to open them. Safety throughout the establishment meant that the girls could work with less fear then they would have on their own or working the streets. However, according to British law it is illegal to work with more than one person being present, even if that other person is manager or receptionist. This of cause makes it problematic for those who enter this industry and wish to do it safely. The problem with the law surrounding this was expressed by two of the participants, however, the fact that one of them did not know the law was also really interesting as this showed that there are some working inside brothels that do not know what laws they are currently breaking. Both the other women expressed how the laws surrounding sex work frustrating due to them not being able to work safely without breaking the law.
The safety of sex workers, as with any other stigmatised group, is extremely important, as they are more at risk of vigilantes. For example, in 2018 the Hull Daily Mail reported that members of the public on Hessle Road would soon patrol the streets to tackle prostitution themselves (Campbell 2018). This is highly problematic as it could drive street workers to take unnecessary risks in fear. Although, the girls interviewed worked indoors they still had safety provisions in order to protect them in case anything did go wrong. Although, it was stressed on many occasions that the girls did look out for each other. Lilly stated, ‘it’s a nice friendly environment, depending on the girls (she laughs), but even family don’t get on, and that’s what we are like’, Lilly also commented on how the brothel has become her second home. When visiting this parlour as a researcher or in my volunteer position, this parlour has always come across very friendly and welcoming. While research was being conducted a ‘new girl’ had started working and she instantly fell into place with compliments to other girls and stories of other brothels she had worked at. Although, this could be seen as the new lady trying to impress the others, they listened to her and welcomed her into their community.
The sense of community within this industry I found very empowering. These ladies, if they did not ‘get on or bond’ with other ladies in the same profession still appeared to have each other’s safety at the top of their priorities.
Lilly stated: ‘ We are each other’s competition and jealousy does play a big part but if owt like that was to happen ( taking about if a customer got heavy handed with the girls) I do feel, and I have witnessed, they do come together still because at the end of the day our safety is paramount’
As noted within the data analysis, participants noted negative sentiments that affected their lives arose from those not involved in the industry and were trumpeted via outlets such as the Hull Daily Mail, whose usual focus of interest is the outdoor industry concentrated on Hessle Road, due to the apparent issues that sex workers bring to those who live in the area. Interestingly, at the time of writing this research the Hull Daily Mail did publish a piece on a local brothel, unfortunately it was after the interviews, so I was not able to ask the women what their opinion was on this subject. I did, however, speak to the owner of the brothel, who stated that it was not the first time the Hull Daily Mail posted a negative story on brothels in the area, and that in response they would be doing their best to ensure the girls safety when entering and leaving work. This suggests that stigma may become more of a problem for indoor sex workers due to the local media’s focus on it, however this is an area which should be revisited in a research capacity in the future.
Interestingly enough the same lady told me they had no choice but to have each other’s backs, as the public and law is not going to. What transpired a lot throughout these interviews was how all the ladies felt about the way they are stigmatised not just through the media domain but from the current laws. With all three participants expressing their frustrations when asked about the law. Although all three participants acknowledged that it would take more than the laws changing in order to change the stigma that surrounds sex work those who participate with in the industry. Ava asked me at the end of her interview ‘why do you want to do this research?’. After taking a few moments to answer her, I finally replied with:
‘ I want to be able to give you girls a voice. If the laws did change it would affect you directly. I think it’s important that you lot have your say and I’d like to think that research like this one day may help you girls. Also, people need to realise that your all normal women, trying to make a living’
I appeared to have hit a nerve
with Ava, as she hugs
me and wishes
me luck, in matter of fact
manner, states ‘it will
take more than
this for people
to change their
minds and opinions on girls like me’.
This dissertation set out to give local indoor sex workers a platform to voice their own opinions on the current legalisation that affected them by working in a brothel, in Kington Upon Hull. The research wanted to know how decimalisation would affect them. However, what transpired was they was more interested in speaking about the stigma that surrounds the sex industry and the social shaming that affects them by the work choices they have made. This research has discovered that there are many double standards that run throughout prostitution and the double standards run far deeper than one anticipated. What transpired through this research is that local media outlets such as the Hull Daily Mail, are happy to advertise personal services and earn money off them yet are willing to print and post stories on the sex industry that add to an already highly stigmatised group of individuals. Therefore, adding to the double standards that have emerged throughout the investigation into prostitution.
All three participants had stated they entered this industry out of free choice. Although it could be argued that the choices they made was in fact a result of other circumstances, such as restrictions in the economy. This research has accepted and acknowledged that not all who are in the sex industry are there out of personal freedom and choice. This dissertation has acknowledged that only a small proportion of those who work in this industry was involved and therefore does not speak for the majority. It also has acknowledged that for some prostitution is not a chosen profession and in some cases, there are victims of this industry. There is a dark side to prostitution and not everyone who works in this profession is a willing participant. However, it was the intention to give those who have chosen this occupation to provide them an opportunity to give them a voice and offer them a platform in order to share their opinions and experiences. This is something that this research feels it has achieved. It has recognised that for some, those who willing work as sex workers, their opinions, thoughts and experiences are invaluable when it comes to discussing the phenomena that is prostitution. It has also recognised that when debating prostitution as a legitimate form of work, it is the opinions and experiences of those who work within the industry that truly matter. They have and continue to walk the walk and live with the stigma that surrounds prostitution. Legislation surrounding prostitution was discovered to be very confusing, the law states it wants to protect those who are deemed vulnerable yet they make sex work more dangerous for those who chose to work indoors. The participants in this study acknowledged they were breaking the laws but were happy to if it meant they were not putting themselves in danger by working outside. Even with the legalisation removing the term ‘common prostitute’, it has been established that the laws still stigmatise and put sex workers at risk by not only recognising this profession as a legitimate form of work but by forcing them to work alone.
It is with this that the recommendations into further research into indoor prostitution should include those who work or have worked in this industry. Further research should include a cross section of sex workers and customers who pay for their time. Prostitution has a long history of stigmatisation and is deeply rooted into society, with many opinions not coming from those who matter in these arguments. Sex workers themselves, it is about time they were not only given a voice, but they were heard too.
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Appendix : Biography of participants
Participant 1: Ava
At time of interview, Ava had worked as a sex worker for 4 years. She migrated into the sex industry as a result of personal difficulties which made the immediate nature of the sex industry e.g. fast cash. The lack of social capital in terms of being able to rely on family for money were part of her decision to make the rational choice to move into the informal economy. She has previously been
involved in ‘legitimated’ employment such as retail work. Ava has experience of working in one additional brothel to the one which was the subject of this dissertation. Ava’s interview emphasised the differences in how difference brothels are managed in relation to her experiences in the indoor sex industry and pointed out that different establishments operate different protocol which may or may not be aligned with the best interests of the self-contracted sex workers. Ava argued her profession has offered her the financial independence she needed to be self-sufficient. Since our interview , Ava has now moved on to another brothel in Yorkshire.
Participant 2: Zoe
At time of interview, Zoe had worked as a sex worker for seven years. For Zoe, sex work adds to the income she makes from separate self-employment in order to allow her to enjoy commodities such as holidays and so on. She has experience working in a variety of ‘legitimate’ sectors, such as working in residential care. Zoe continues to work in the establishment of focus and has no desire to leave the sex industry.
Participant 3: Lilly
Lilly has been working on and off in the sex industry for six years. Her initial reason for starting the work was due to need a way of making quick money, for her rent was due. Lilly already had a friend who worked in the industry, so decided to look into the realities of the work herself. She has experience of working in two brothels, including the one which is focussed upon in this dissertation, and is qualified in a trade. As with Zoe and Ava, Lilly has previous work experience in other sectors such as the retail industry. She pointed out differences in working conditions in the two establishments she has worked in, noting she prefers to work at her current place of work as she finds it a more pleasant environment and had autonomy with regard to who she provides services for. Although, her interview is not as in-depth as Zoe’s, . Further saying that ‘my job is nothing special. We might come out of a room and say fuck sake he did my head in or he was lovely, whatever, but that would be about it really. I’m sure people say stiff like that in any other normal job’. Lilly is extremely relaxed throughout the interview and only appears to get irritated when asked about the medias perspective on the sex industry. she also states that she feels that she cannot dictate her prices as the house sets a minimum price for an allocated time, however, feels that in this place she can dictate to how much she can charge in extra services. Lilly continues to work in the same brothel.
All three ladies explained that to them this is a normal job to them and if anything, they prefer this job to anything else they have done.