When we think of prostitution, we think of lurid sex shops lining the streets of Montmartre, bikini clad girls dancing in Amsterdam windows or perhaps seedy back alleys in London. It is something removed from us, here in our academic bliss. But the so called “oldest profession” permeates every city. It is hidden behind suburban doors and in dusky alleyways wherever you go. Even amongst the dreaming spires.
I’ve heard male friends joke “oh well, I hear there’s a brothel in Cowley” after they’ve failed to pull at Park End. Yet very few Oxford students are aware of the full extent of the on-going sex work within the city. When I originally presented my findings to the Christ Church Feminist Society, there was noticeable shock on my audience’s faces when I mentioned a friend who had been propositioned by a sex worker on Cornmarket, less than two hundred metres from where they were sitting.
So what form does prostitution take in Oxford? They are generally female, and at the lower paid end of the spectrum. Calculating the exact numbers is difficult. Police know of the existence of at least ten women working on the streets in Oxford. Whilst at first glance this does not sound a large number, it is worth bearing in mind that this is almost exclusively on the Cowley Road area so the concentration itself is quite high, and that police suspect far more work either from brothels or even from their own homes. The vast majority of work done by these women happens at night, and there are given dress codes which allow the worker to indicate she is looking for business to potential clients. The most common of these is carrying a coat over her right arm.
When discussing those working as prostitutes, one has to be very careful not to stereotype. It is particularly important to remember that for some people it is an active choice and to state that those working in the profession somehow need help to escape the profession is not only misguided, but also deeply patronising. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that women involved in the sex industry do face serious problems, particularly those working on the streets. It is estimated that at least 75% of women working as prostitutes have been sexually assaulted, significantly higher than the national average. Daisy*, an ex-sex worker in Oxford, was once gang raped.
Furthermore, of those working on the streets, almost 85% admitted to having used heroin in the past two weeks. Adrian Childs, who works for Elmore, agrees that these are common to Oxford too. He believes the most common problems for prostitutes here to be “finding suitable accommodation; accessing statutory mental and physical health services, including drug and alcohol support and scripting services”. The sexual health services in Oxford for prostitutes are poor. The nearest GUM clinic is at the John Radcliffe hospital, a good bus ride out of the centre of Oxford. For women with drug problems or those with very little money, getting there simply isn’t an option.
Frustratingly in the past few years, there has been a concerted effort by the police force and the local council to clamp down sex workers with somewhat alarming results. In 2011, the council stated that one of its aims was to attempt “a new approach to prostitution” that balanced “the needs of the sex workers with…the wider community and enforces against kerb crawlers. Whilst it’s easy to understand why such an approach may have been adopted, particularly in light of the public outcry over the Oxford child sex ring, the way in which offences are dealt with remains problematic. Back in 2010, a woman described as a “prolific prostitute”, was arrested. She was a heroin addict and had been working from her home, and was eventually arrested after months of complaints for local residents. Indeed, police had threatened arrest several times, to which she simply responded “prove it”. After been found guilty, she was given an ASBO and her face and name were splashed across the front page of the Oxford Mail.
Emphasis on trafficking has created other problems as well within the UK sex industry. A deluge of cases, particularly related to child prostitution, has caused a police clamp down on brothels, with some prostitutes being arrested and some banned from working in the premises. Owning a brothel is illegal, but generally up until recently police have rarely bothered to shut them down or raid them, as they recognise it’s safer than for the women to be on the streets (this highlights the somewhat contradictory nature of British law surrounding prostitution; whilst it is legal to work as a prostitute, it is illegal to solicit a potential client, be a client, be a pimp or work in a brothel!). However, this has started to change. The ECP, the English Collective of Prostitutes, has noticed raids “skyrocket” in London, Coventry and Birmingham and despite some pressure from some high profile campaigners such as Rupert Everett, this trend has continued. This has led to huge distrust towards the police due to claims of underhand tactics being used into justifying closures, a distrust with catastrophic consequences should it lead to sex workers being less likely to report crimes against them. This has not yet spread to Oxford, but given the national trend there will be little surprise should this happen here too.
There are no easy answers as to how to tackle these problems. On a national level, legalising prostitution remains a popular idea within the UK but it is important to consider the implications this could have for trafficking. On a more local level, a sexual health clinic in the centre of Oxford would be a good place to start. Charities such as Rape Crisis and Elmore are also present, with the latter currently running a project attempting to join together various support groups as well as putting together a guidebook for sex workers, including safety and health information. This is being done by current and ex-sex workers themselves, and will hopefully make a real difference to the work experience of those who are able to access it.
Discussions into the dangers associated with prostitution are already ongoing, particularly amongst feminist groups in Oxford. However, it is all too easy look at them from a purely academic perspective and not remember that these are real people, with real lives on the line. In sum, we need a pragmatic conservation about what we can do and what the local authorities can do as well, and a more practical approach to a topic which remains deeply uncomfortable and controversial to many.