Guest post: What motivated the raids on sex workers in Soho?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Mitzi Poesener. Mitzi Poesener is the pseudonym of a British sex worker, writer, and activist, living and working in London.

It’s been six days since the raids on sex workers in Soho, and there is still rampant speculation about the real motives behind the actions. The operation (code named Demontere) was the result of 18 months worth of investigations, and involved 200 officers in riot vans supported by sniffer dogs and a helicopter.

It has been reported that this is Westminster council’s biggest operation in years. For such a large operation it is interesting to note that only 22 people have been arrested. Other sex workers have been sent, without charges, to detention centers run by UKBA, despite apparently stating they have not been trafficked or made to work against their will.

There was a strong media presence on the raids, with journalists and photographers from all the main media outlets being invited to follow the police, and consequently publishing photos that have incensed the sex worker community.

While the police rhetoric is that ‘this is not about the prosecution of prostitutes’ it is hard to reconcile that when the media coverage has been saturated with photos of sex workers having their pictures taken against their will. Statements from the sex worker lead organizations English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Workers Open University show how little trust the sex work community has that the raids were carried out in good faith.

Prostitution is legal in the UK, although there are restrictions on the kind of work permitted. The main restriction is on multiple sex workers working from a single residence. This generally occurs because having other people close by can help keep a worker safe, and help protect them from potentially dangerous situations. However this is deemed to be a ‘brothel’, whether it fits our stereotypical melodramatic vision of a ‘brothel’ or not.

The police have used the concept of brothels both as an excuse for this week’s raids as well as for putting pressure on landlords to evict sex workers in Soho back in October. Sex working tenants were told that they could face eviction if found to be allowing ‘immoral activities.’ When the tenants refused to leave police backed up their landlords’ warnings with enforcement notices. The police justified their actions by saying that they were ‘[tackling] historic crime problems’ and as stated, used the fact that some of these residences might qualify as ‘brothels’ in their defense.

There was speculation at the time that the threat of eviction was motivated by a wish to ‘clean up’ the area, as property owners begin building more and more retail and entertainment areas looking to lure tourists to the area. While at the time their suspicions were hard to confirm, it seems that Councillor Roe’s comments on this week’s raids add fuel to that fire:

‘The night time economy is a cornerstone of the West End’s success and, as part of the West End Partnership, Westminster City Council works to promote the area as a safe place for law abiding people to live and do business.

‘Drugs, theft, handling stolen goods and human trafficking have no part in that which is why Westminster City Council stands shoulder to shoulder with the Metropolitan Police Service in Operation Demontere.

‘Together, we’re sending the clear message that the insidious tentacles of the criminal underworld will not be allowed to spread through Soho unchecked and unchallenged.

There is no mention of the fact that sex workers have helped make Soho the vibrant area that it is, but rather lumping them in with pick pockets and thieves.

It is easy for the police to say that they are helping sex workers by detaining them when they frame sex work as being something that is perforce touched by ‘the insidious tentacles of the criminal underworld’. The public, who are not generally acquainted with sex worker lead activism due to their denial of platforms by the mainstream media, see the rhetoric that these brothels are creating an unsafe area, and that they are harbouring trafficked women, and think that the police will be able to ‘give them the help they need’ in exiting the industry. However if we were to look beyond police statements, and listen to sex workers we would hear the voice of the ECP:

Some immigrant women were taken into custody on the pretext that they may be victims of trafficking, despite their protestations that they were not being forced to work.

Had the raids culminated in the arrested of score upon score of thief, drug dealer, money launderer, and human trafficker, then it would be easier to believe and support the police’s claims. However, it seems trafficking rhetoric has been meshed with the usual platitudes about cleaning up an area, and helping ‘vulnerable’ women. Sex workers are vulnerable because their work is not afforded the same respect and access to safe working spaces that others are. By punishing them for working together in brothels to ensure their safety, and taking them into custody on the off chance they might be trafficked (presumably in order to make a large scale police operation seem more effective), the police show that their concerns over safety may not not be as altruistic as first stated.

At every level, from street workers to ‘courtesans’, there are people working because it is the right job for them. What we all want is the freedom to work in ways that make our lives safer and easier. To assume that we are all coerced, or working for pimps, is to totally disregard the legitimacy of our choices and the free agency we are capable of having.

Are there trafficked people in sex work? Of course, but the problem extends to domestic workers, manual labourers, and factory workers. If the trafficking campaigners genuinely cared about people working in inhumane conditions against their will they would be pushing to help ‘liberate’ these people too. Their lack of interest in non-sex workers shows that their actions stem not from concern about our freedoms and safety, but from their distaste for our jobs. As it has been said, time and time again, sex work is work, and we deserve the same respect and protection that all workers (theoretically) receive from the state.

Currently I do not work from a flat, or a ‘brothel’, and therefore am unlikely to have the police breaking down my door any time soon and for this I am thankful. However I support the rights of my colleagues to work however they best see fit. Whether my support comes from standing outside the court where they are being tried on Wednesday protesting the raids with my colleagues, or writing this piece so that the wider public can hear about the state aggression they face, I want them to know that they are not alone, and that I truly believe that in time we will be able to work without fear.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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