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Serving: Ina, 22, sex worker, Central London

Joanna Biggs 8 March 2016

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"All kinds of workers in all kinds of jobs are now encouraged to create an experience out of an ordinary transaction – the smiling and fucking that the Wages for Housework campaign identified as worthy of payment – and we are only just beginning to understand what sort of experience of work the service economy allows. The way emotions are used at work is something sex workers understand better than most of us." All Day Long

Joanna Biggs' All Day Long is an beautifully observed set of case studies of people at work in contemporary Britain. The chapter 'Serving' includes profiles of two Pret baristas, a call centre advisor, a Downing Street special advisor, and a sex worker, whose portrait is excerpted here. The story of Ina, a 22-year-old sex worker in Soho, captures the pressures sex workers face from police raids and gentrification, and the centrality of sex work to feminist understandings of social reproduction and feminized emotional labour. 

On 16th March at Foyles, Verso launches a special series of events previewing the London Mayoral elections in May in collaboration with Compass. Joanna Biggs will be discussing how we identify with our working lives alongside journalist Frankie Mullin, who will be talking about sex work and the gentrification of Soho. Meanwhile Will Davies, author of The Happiness Industry, explodes myths of well-being and workplace happiness and Nick Srnicek, co-author of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, maps a route to a post-work future. Emma Dowling, author of the forthcoming Care (Verso, 2017) – a book about care and emotion work – will chair the event.

The sign on the wall of the flat where Ina works reads ‘Beautiful Young Lady’. ‘That’s it,’ Ina says, ‘it doesn’t say nothing more. It doesn’t say name, it doesn’t say colour, it doesn’t say nothing. And who wants to come up, comes up.’ Then Ina waits. ‘It’s a gamble. You flip the coin. The same as working in an office. You might have somebody calling who pisses you off with a million questions and asking something ridiculous which doesn’t exist in your type of job. It does piss you off. For example, they come to me and they say, “Oh, I would like blow job without a condom!” Crrr! Who do you think you are! “No.” They are like: “Why not?” And I’m like: “Because I don’t want to.” “Why?” “I don’t do! So that’s it!” Same as in an office: we don’t provide this paper, we don’t do this.’

Ina had worked until 2 a.m. last night and woke up at 7 a.m. The Crossroads Women’s Centre is in a mews behind Kentish Town Road: she arrived early with a sandwich, and napped on the sofa as she waited. She wore a black top edged with black and silver plastic jewels, and her wavy blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail. The English Collective of Prostitutes, formed in 1975 with the aim of decriminalising sex work, has shared the centre with fifteen other women’s groups, such as Women against Rape and Global Women’s Strike, since the late 1990s. There is a pink babygro with the slogan ‘I’m a full-time job’ on sale in the entrance hall and Selma James, the feminist writer and activist who helped found the ECP, is being trailed around the building by an old white sheepdog and a young black labrador.

Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel about industrial Manchester, began with the disappearance of Mary’s aunt Esther, who has fallen in love with an army officer and become pregnant by him. When the officer disappears and their daughter falls ill, Esther stops working to care for her, but needs to buy medicine. ‘Oh, her moans, her moans, which money could give the means of relieving!’ Esther remembers. ‘So I went out into the street one January night – do you think God will punish me for that?’ Sex workers are no longer primarily presented as fallen women to be pitied and rescued; more recent depictions such as the Cinderella story Pretty Woman and the glamorous memoir Secret Diary of a Call Girl are more likely to talk about the pleasures than the difficulties of sex work or about the conditions that led them there.

Ina grew up in Bulgaria. (Up to 81 per cent of off-street sex workers in London come from elsewhere, and a quarter are from Eastern Europe.) She wanted to become a model but her father thought she should do ‘something serious and realistic, not a fairy-tale dream world like a ballerina or a model or whatever, or celebrity and stuff like that – he didn’t want that. He wanted us as serious as possible, hard-working people, serious job, you know?’ Only her mother knew when she started working as a model. The day before a shoot she had done was to be published, her mother told her father and ‘he snapped’. She came to England at 17 with a boyfriend, knowing that she would be going into sex work, almost in a rebellious spirit. ‘First time I started the job, I could say it was revenge. That I’m beautiful and I can make it without anybody stopping me – even if I need to lie, I’m going to lie and prove that I can make it. I don’t need to be that terrifying, hard-working woman and proving to people that yes, I’ve got an important job and I’m highly qualified and smart. No, I don’t want that. I want just to be me, to be free. And that’s it.’

On her first day, as she spoke no English, she was talked through what was on the menu card and she memorised it. ‘And the customer only needed to point a finger. And each time they were trying to do something else, thinking I was stupid. I used to pting!’ Ina mimed a comic-book bop to the nose: ‘Go between their eyes! I was like “No!” I wasn’t speaking English so I was speaking my own language. And if they were trying again I was like schting! And I was pressing the button for the maid!’ She punched at least two customers on her first day, but she made money: ‘My first day at work, it was the best day ever! I made a thousand pounds, my first day. I was new. This is what they usually say, the maids, “Oh, if you’re new you make lots of money and then it slowly goes down.”’ She paid the rent and part of the deposit on the flat she lived in, sent some money to her mum, bought clothes for herself, topped up her mobile and called all her friends. A Scottish colleague at the flat she worked in taught Ina English by pointing at things, getting her to repeat the word and then testing her on it later. The boyfriend who brought her to England became a drunk and an addict; they fought and he hid her passport. She got a pickpocket to steal it back, dumped him and never looked back. The maids were right about the money. After four years of sex work, Ina earns £400 a day, and rates have fallen after the financial crash of 2008. On average, Ina earns around £65 a visit.

Most of the week Ina studies English, Maths and IT as she hopes to move into care work, but when she has a shift, she’ll wake up around midday, have a coffee and two cigarettes and take the train for thirty-five minutes to Central London. She likes to watch other commuters: ‘I try to read every person on the train: the way they behave, the way ... their body language. What they tell you. This is what I try to do because it makes me understand the customer, the way they behave if they are angry or they’re pissed off and stuff like that. So I’m trying to read as many people as possible to make it as safe as possible for me.’ She might pick up a toothbrush or some mouthwash from Boots, and then get ready by undressing, washing her hands, using the bidet and putting on work clothes. ‘I could be a police officer, I could be a schoolgirl, I could be a dominatrix, I could be in sexy lingerie. It always depends on the day and how you feel like.’ She puts on make-up and then arranges condoms and lubricant in a basket and the maid – who acts as her receptionist as well as intervening for safety; she is paid from customers’ tips – helps her lay out tissues, baby wipes, hot water, soap, mouthwash and a toothbrush, plastic cups so that she can have a clean cup each time she needs to rinse her mouth, as well as clean towels and bedsheets. The room has four lights, two orange and two red, for atmosphere. She switches them on, and she’s ready to work.

She sleeps while she waits, or she goes shopping (the maid will ring her if a client arrives). She aims for the day to unfold undramatically; she pushes customers away ‘if they’re bad in language’. ‘Most of the time I try to make it as comfortable as possible, as relaxing as possible and to forget that it’s a job. But obviously with some rules. Always use a condom, never French kissing, no anal, no this, no that. Make sure these things are all cleared out from the beginning. So yeah. And then it just rolls on. It comes easily.’ She’ll have around six clients a day who stay for around half an hour, and prefers a day with ‘less money, nicer people. Better than too much money and arseholes.’ She knows she’s good at her job – ‘I am a very confident person at work. I’m not outside. But at my job I’m very confident in myself because I know what I’m doing and I know I’m going to get it right’ – but that she’s not good at giving marital advice. ‘I’m terrible! I’m not married! I’ve got a relationship but I didn’t get to the point where I wanted to marry that person, so I don’t know how to ... They always ask me: “How do you keep so well? How come you can make me happy any time I come, and smile all the time?” I don’t know what to answer to them.’ Other clients ask: ‘“What can I do better in my relationship?” How would I know how you  behave at home? They expect you as a sex worker to give advice on their personal relationship but you don’t get to know them so well because some of them they don’t want to open so much. You can’t give them an advice or even if you try to give them an advice, you’re sort of pushing back and trying to ... Am I doing the right thing? I don’t want to ruin his relationship.’

Many clients think they’re buying loving attention rather than unadorned sex. On PunterNet, clients write reviews of the sex workers they’ve visited: they’ll give a rating for the room, whether the sex worker matched her photo, what positions she did and where she let him come. PunterNet is its own world with its own language: a ‘punt’ is the half-hour or so they spend with a sex worker, ‘OWO’ is oral without a condom, ‘mish’ is missionary. (Sex workers have a parallel version of PunterNet: the Ugly Mugs Project collects sex workers’ accounts of clients who rape, or are violent, to be circulated among other sex workers and shown anonymously to police.) The majority of reviews on PunterNet are positive – the website says it ‘aims to promote better understanding between customers and ladies’ – but negative reviews are most reliably earned for lack of enthusiasm. ‘She made no attempt at conversation let alone seduction,’ Peachmuncha says of a visit to Sabrina in November 2014, ‘and was looking off into the middle distance whilst she prodded my back with her fingers. I don’t know about other guys but when a lady just asks “you want blow job with condom or without?” the passion of the moment is kinda out the door and into the Thames for a dampener.’ The punters don’t want to think of it as a transaction, but as a service. In summer 2014, The Economist argued that the arrival of websites such as PunterNet were changing the sex industry: ‘The shift makes it look more and more like a normal service industry.’

Ina and the maid will prepare dinner in the flat from food bought at the supermarket downstairs and eat together, feet up in front of the TV. Her shift ends at 2 a.m. unless she’s had a good day when she’ll leave at 10 p.m. She’ll clear the room up, change the bins, take her make-up off, brush her teeth, shower, put her clothes on and leave. ‘When I go home I want my peace and quiet. After twelve hours of work, you don’t want to hear anything, or you don’t want to see anything. I’m just too tired sometimes.’ When she gets home, she’ll take her shoes off, put the TV on, and at 3 or 4 a.m. she’ll go to sleep.

Her family, most of her friends and her boyfriend don’t yet know she is a sex worker: ‘When the right moment will come, yes, I will tell them. But I don’t think they are ready yet to listen.’ She sees colleagues outside of work, but ‘obviously we don’t talk about the job. We talk about different things. I tend not to take home my work. I always ... That is my main thing. Don’t ever take your job home. Like even if you work in an office or in a restaurant, don’t take it home with you, don’t take the stress with you at home. Try to enjoy it as much as you can. I advise everybody don’t take your job with you home. Just leave it at the desk and that’s it. It’s the best thing. Otherwise it drives you crazy. You can’t sleep if you worry “What am I going to do tomorrow? What am I going to do? I need to do this paper, I need to do this.” No: relax, chill out. You have time. You have time to do it all.’

In 2012, the flat Ina works out of was raided by twenty police officers, looking for drugs and women who were being forced to work. Sex workers’ flats are periodically raided by the police, in the name of combatting trafficking and other crime. The laws around prostitution are complex but broadly speaking the act of paying for sex is legal, but the promotion and coercion of sex workers – pimping, brothel-keeping, soliciting, advertising – is not. ‘They came in and started accusing me of pickpocketing, robbing, begging, many ugly stuff,’ Ina says. ‘They called me a gypsy, they called me rotten and stuff like that. They talked to the customer at the same time and asked him if I use drugs or if I drink, which I didn’t. The customer said, “Not what I know of. I knew this girl for a long time so I only saw her sober and she’s really nice, she’s really polite.”’

The police wanted to know her employment status: did she have a National Insurance number? Did she have proof she was self-employed, a student or on benefits? ‘I never claimed benefits: how can you ask me for benefits? I never claimed for benefits. I work! Can’t you see I’m working!’ She had to bring a letter with proof of her status to the police station within two weeks; in the meantime they reported her to the immigration authorities. She knew that police often took money on a raid without giving a receipt as proof of its existence, so she put her takings in her pocket, and told them they would have to beat her up for them. The police found no drugs, underage or trafficked women or evidence of coercion at her workplace.

Ina rang several lawyers afterwards to help her but none wanted to get involved. On her monthly sexual health check-up a woman she’d known for years gave her a leaflet about the ECP. The ECP found her a lawyer and helped her prepare a letter confirming her student status. ‘Being an Bulgarian, don’t forget, you are allowed to stay in this country, because we are in the European Union. What they actually done, it wasn’t right. They thought I don’t know, they thought, oh, she’s young – I was only 21 – they said: “Oh, she’s only young, she doesn’t know nothing about it.” I proved them wrong. They let me go. They were so lovely when I went there. They treated me so nicely because I was the only one with a lawyer. The lawyer talked very properly and she handed the letter and you don’t have a right to do this, you don’t have a right to do that.’

Since then she’s been working with the ECP, visiting sex workers to talk to them about their problems and handing out rights sheets in English, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Thai and Bulgarian. In December 2013, 200 police officers (trailed by photographers from the Daily Mail) raided twenty flats in Soho on suspicion of trafficking and trading in stolen goods linked to the crack cocaine trade. Sex workers were evicted and given cautions; thirty were arrested. Others were body-searched by male officers, and one woman was thrown on to the street in her underwear. Officers confiscated earnings and threatened to tell sex workers’ families what they did. In response, the ECP organised a protest through the streets of Soho. Their slogans were drawn on pink cardboard hearts: ‘Bulgarian Women Say No Evictions, Safety First’, ‘Benefit Cuts Drive Women into Prostitution’ and ‘No Bad Women Just Bad Laws!’ They also fought the evictions in the courts: two flats in Brewer Street closed down for coercion were reopened in February 2014 when Judge Kingston at Isleworth Crown Court was persuaded that the sex workers organised themselves co-operatively and freely.

When the ECP was founded in 1975, they argued that housewives should stand with sex workers: ‘All women benefit from prostitutes’ successful attempts to receive cash for sexual work, because the cash makes it clear that women are working when we are fucking, dressing up, being nice, putting make-up on, whenever we relate to men.’ Apart from a Premiership footballer I approached, Ina was the only person who asked to be paid for the work of answering my questions. She suggested a rate of £50 for half an hour, and I agreed: sex workers let us see that just because something is performed for free, or understood as a service that is often given for free in different circumstances, doesn’t mean it’s not work.

In the last few years, there have been more downs than ups. ‘It’s a lovely job to be in but when the raids are coming in, it’s just outrageous what is going on.’ Ina wants ‘to be treated as any other job. I want to be treated as an equal. So if I have a problem to be entitled to call the police without me being prosecuted. This is what I want.’ The most recent parliamentary inquiry in March 2014 recommended the Swedish model, which criminalises the clients. Sex workers themselves point to New Zealand, which has decriminalised sex work, making it safer for women and men: when a man pulled off his condom in a brothel, he was fined NZ$400 and his name was printed in the local newspaper covering the case. He was the bad guy. Ina will vote in the 2015 election ‘no matter what they think about my job’, but without much conviction: ‘Talking about election it just drives me mad. Everybody says I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that, but when it comes to actually doing it, they don’t.’ Politicians might not campaign with sex workers in mind, but that doesn’t mean sex workers don’t contribute. In 2014, sex work was included in GDP figures, in order to harmonise with the rest of the EU’s financial reporting. (Counting the grey economy into GDP in dark times is an old trick: Italy recognised sex work as economic activity in 1987 and raised its GDP by 18 per cent overnight.) With no reliable figures on prostitution, the Office of National Statistics guessed, using a 2004 Poppy Project report about London’s sex industry, that it added £5.3 billion a year to the economy. The British economy grew at 0.7 per cent in the third quarter of 2014; a good proportion of this growth is down to the kind of work many people would like to pretend doesn’t exist.

Sex has been linked to servitude for a long time: Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel of seduction, Pamela, showed how serving a master in the dining room might slide into serving him in the bed chamber; in the mid-nineteenth century a Salvation Army register showed that 88 per cent of prostitutes they helped had once been domestic servants. The service industry employed 44 per cent of the British workforce in 1948, and employs 85 per cent of it today. All kinds of workers in all kinds of jobs are now encouraged to create an experience out of an ordinary transaction – the smiling and fucking that the Wages for Housework campaign identified as worthy of payment – and we are only just beginning to understand what sort of experience of work the service economy allows. The way emotions are used at work is something sex workers understand better than most of us. Ina is used to changing how others feel: judging the emotional state of the customer, calming him down, relaxing him. She does this part of the work by taking another name, putting on a costume and acting a role: ‘I can be a man: so I have a strap-on and wear leather, you know, trying to be rough and stuff like that. I could be a little angel sometimes. Sometimes you need to pretend you are a schoolgirl. I’m good at uniforms, you know, playing a role.’ It may have become central to our economy, but the invisible demands of service work, and how to defend ourselves against the effects of those demands, are rarely talked about. You can legislate for a safer working environment and a shorter working day, but how do workers organise against emotional labour?

Esther considers herself lost to society at the end of Mary Barton: ‘She had longed to open her wretched, wretched heart,’ Gaskell says when Esther meets her niece Mary again at the end of the novel, ‘so hopeless, so abandoned by all living things, to one who had loved her once; and yet she refrained, from dread of the averted eye, the altered voice, the internal loathing, which she feared such disclosure might create’. When Dickens founded Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush in 1847, it was because he thought he could rescue prostitutes from themselves. But do modern Esthers need saving? Ina chooses sex work over other more menial service work; she organises her hours, defends herself against the state, and works uncoerced. The Economist noted that sex workers behave like freelancers in other labour markets; there is even a graduate premium. (The situation is different for the women who have been trafficked to the UK to work in the sex industry against their wishes.) Esther may not have been able to turn people away and Pamela couldn’t escape from Mr B, but Ina can follow the mood she wakes up in: ‘If I’m at work and I don’t fancy sex I will be like, no, I will wait for the next customer and probably he will want dominations and he won’t touch me.’ She finds enjoyment in her work: ‘You could have good times at work, you know, like having a pleasure moment.’ Did she mean orgasms? ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. You still can have it. But it’s like having sex with your partners: one time you might come and one time you might not come. Sometimes it can be too quick and you are like Crrh! “Oh come on! Not now!”’ 

- Read more on the Verso blog: Staff picks: Feminist books for International Women’s Day
Love’s Labour’s Cost: The Political Economy of Intimacy By Emma Dowling
- Visit Serpent's Tail for more about All Day Long by Joanna Biggs

Filed under: feminism, sex-work