In a follow-up from my last entry, I thought I’d talk a bit about Soho. There’s a vintage clothing and second-hand bookshop on Berwick Street that I visited while clothes shopping the other day. On the way, I passed a doorway that had a small, handwritten sign proclaiming that therein could be found a “model.” There are a lot of these in Soho and quite a few in Chinatown, and I think you have to be a little bit naive to think you’ll find an Airfix kit in there. But what, specifically, is the deal with those places?
Well, if you know anything about Soho’s status as London’s red light district (sorry, King’s Cross, you’re just too respectable these days), you’ve probably worked out already that “model” is a euphemism for “prostitute.” But this raises a number of questions. Prostitution is illegal in Britain, isn’t it? Why are these places still allowed to exist?
Fortunately for us, the Internet is here, and I have a number of books on the seamier side of London. Having sullied my browser history almost to the point of no return, I bring you my findings.
These places are known as “walkups,” and basically they are a way around the ridiculous laws in place in Britain. Contrary to popular belief, prostitution is not actually illegal in Britain. However, it is illegal to be a pimp, to run a brothel, to openly advertise and to kerb crawl. The walkup sidesteps the restrictions.
The way it works is this. You have the coded advertisement for a “model.” It might give a brief description of the model, including body type, hair colour, race – pretty much everything except “and you can have sex with her for money.” And some just seem to say “model” as seen above. Anyway, your man, the “punter” to use the lingo, goes in and walks up the stairs to a flat (hence the term “walkup”). The door is answered by a “maid,” basically a receptionist. Then the punter goes in and meets the girl (“WG,” abbreviation of “working girl”). The usual set-up seems to be that the WG shows the punter a list of services and prices. Money is exchanged, and services are received.
It’s not technically a brothel, because there’s only one WG there at a time, although it is rented by several WGs on a timeshare basis. The WGs are self-employed, so no pimp (at least in theory; more on that below) and the maid works for them.
Personally, I think it’s a slightly stupid set-up. It’s as if you were to legalise cannabis, but make it illegal to possess bongs, pipes, rolling papers or bloodshot eyes, and you couldn’t call it cannabis. And it’s not like people don’t know what goes on. I rather take the view that prostitution should be outright legal or outright illegal, just so everyone knows where they stand. If I’m honest, I think the former – it’s going to happen anyway, and if you bring it out of the shadows then it can be policed and taxed.
The fact is that prostitution isn’t all about the tart with a heart of gold and the victimised punter whose wife just doesn’t understand him, or the glamorous pimp portrayed in countless hip-hop tracks. It’s true that many of the women involved do so out of choice, but it’s also true that there is such a thing as human trafficking. Many of the women are forced into the trade and controlled by criminal organisations. This is most common in the case of brothels (euphemistically referred to as “massage parlours” or “saunas”), but it’s far from unknown in the case of the walkups. The difficulty is that nobody seems to know exactly how many are trafficked and how many are legit. The numbers vary wildly depending upon whether the person you talk to is pro- or anti-prostitution, and both sides frankly seem to pull the figures out of their arses.
If it’s brought out of the shadows, as I say, things can be improved. Prostitution could be made subject to the same rights as any other field of employment, including pensions, health benefits, a clean and safe working environment, unionisation and, most importantly, police protection. Trafficking and coercion could be, if not eliminated entirely, greatly reduced. Punters who suspect a criminal set-up could report it without fear of running into the ridiculous halfway laws of Britain. And here’s a thing, The Government, you could cream a bit of money off the top in taxes. If there are as many thousands of prostitutes as the government claims, the potential earnings are enormous.
Anyway, enough soapboxing for now. I’ll finish where I started – on Berwick Street. Did you know that the first brothel in Soho opened on Berwick Street in the mid-eighteenth century? It was kept by a Madam Goadby and was known as a maison, “catering for all tastes at the most exclusive prices.” Quite a long way from the shabby street we see today. And for some reason Berwick Street always smells of cough medicine. Why is that?