The sex industry, specifically sex work and prostitution, has long been perceived and regulated as a “dirty and disorderly” feature of residential communities. The stereotypical, and unfair, view of sex workers is that they are vectors of disease and social contagions; it’s a moral hangover from the Victorians.
Regardless of their legal status, wider society still tends to stigmatise those who provide commercial sexual services, with street-based sex workers often most the subject of public, political and police scrutiny. This is reflected in the regulation and marginalisation of sex work by local and national government policies to dark and secluded areas of cities.
This marginalisation and stigmatisation is because many people’s knowledge and understanding of sex work is generally limited and informed by moral panics and stereotypes – particularly surrounding issues such as STI rates and trafficking. While it is important to recognise that such problems may occur in sex work, it is also important to stress that these are not experienced by the majority of those engaged in consensual sex work and should certainly not be portrayed as being the most important factor in all sex worker narratives.
Nevertheless, local councils and police forces periodically engage in “clean-up” campaigns that seek to purge local areas of sex work. The police raids in London’s Soho during December 2013, when around 200 police targeted dozens of premises, have been one of the most high-profile examples of this strategy.
Such raids are generally justified by the media and local authorities on the basis that locals, especially women and children, need to be protected from the harmful effects of “sleaze”.
Interestingly, however, there has been little detailed or systematic research on the impacts of sex work on residential communities. Generally speaking, local authority “clean-up” strategies tend to be based not on science, but on a small number of complaints from a vocal minority who assert particular moral agendas.
The evidence that sex work is a problematic issue is rather limited, but it is clear that sex workers themselves are not considered community members and are rarely consulted about their own concerns and needs. Sex workers are just ordinary people – someone’s mother, aunt, brother, friend – trying to make a living.
Research by Phil Hubbard and colleagues, Penny Crofts, Sarah Kingston, and [Emily Cooper’s own work] suggests that sex work contributes to residential communities in much more complex ways than is commonly portrayed in the media.
Sarah Kingston’s research on the impact of sex work on residential communities in Leeds highlights that the presence of sex workers can actually generate positive outcomes. For example, they (and associated clients, etc) provide passive surveillance against criminal activities and will report crimes. In addition, sex workers and their clients also contribute to local economies via the renting of premises, booking hotel rooms and spending money in local shops, bars and restaurants.
The Blackpool community
Cooper’s research on massage parlours and surrounding residential communities in Blackpool, reinforces these findings. Fifty-three in-depth interviews were conducted (often more than once) with local residents, as well as a number of sex workers, police officers and council officers. Observations were also made over an 18-month period.
Those parlours surrounded by other non-sex work businesses and residences were often referred to by nearby non-sex work business workers as a means of breaking the ice and building rapport with customers, because of questions asked about the parlours being there. Reputedly, for some residents, the parlours also brightened up the mundane routine of peoples’ daily social and work lives. This was also reinforced in Kingston’s findings.
More crucially, some residents highlighted that the parlours – and their 24-hour vibrantly neon-lit presence – engendered a feeling of security in an area that is commonly frequented by “either nobody or large groups of stag parties, which can be a bit intimidating” (quote from resident).
Such views dismantle the common narrative, which suggests that the sex industry is something that attracts criminality rather than a feeling of security.
The Blackpool Gazette often uses “dirt and disgust” rhetoric to characterise the impact of massage parlours and the subsequent “clean-up” campaigns by regulatory bodies. Despite this, plus the ongoing effects of the recent recession, the massage parlours have shown resilience and remain an integral part of the social and economic fabric of Blackpool.
The stigma and stereotyping that tends to surround sex workers (and their clients) has the effect of alienating them and diminishing their sense of safety when working.
Very few residents in the study explicitly stated that they would like to see the sex industry removed. Those that did so were coming from either a stereotypical view of sex work as being inherently harmful or criminal, or from a desire to protect sex workers, who they considered friends and neighbours, from “dodgy clients”. Many residents discussed spending time with sex workers, as they would with any other neighbour.
Despite the fact that several sex workers in my study area lived locally, the long-established presence of massage parlours in Blackpool, and the friendly relationships between sex workers and wider community members, sex workers were still excluded from certain community spaces.
One sex worker, for example, noted that although she had a good relationship with residents adjacent to her place of work, she and another worker were asked to leave a Police and Community Together meeting by other residents because the meeting was “partly about them”.
Such exclusionary actions merely serve to reinforce the stigma imposed on sex workers and deny them their basic democratic rights. Community-based policy and consultation processes need to be more inclusive and appreciative of the fact that sex workers are as much a part of the local community as the next person. Their presence in and near residential communities needs to be viewed through a wider lens based on evidence, rather than a narrow moral one under the control of a vocal minority.
Emerging research suggests that the role and impact of sex work on local areas is more multi-faceted and less extraordinary than is commonly portrayed in the media or television dramas. The urban mythology and regulatory fetish surrounding sex work needs to be dispelled.
A more productive policy approach to regulating commercial sex premises would be to treat them like any other business. Ultimately, sex work should be decriminalised as this regulatory approach offers what other approaches don’t – it guarantees the greater safety, health and well-being of sex workers.