The closure of brothels and police action against sex workers is changing the famous red light district’s make-up.
Virginia Moreno Molina
Soho is known to be the heart of the UK’s sex industry, with a concentration of sex shops, erotic book stores and brothels.
Whether it is or not, there are some certainties: this particular area of the city has long been known for its sex tourism and brothels, and later, as being one of the first areas to have a visible gay presence.
But in recent years, as the nature of tourism in London has evolved, the area has undergone something of a makeover which – many would argue – has had the effect of diluting the identity of London’s red light district.
The changes are stark. New businesses are opening, mainly elegant bars and restaurants – a far cry from the type of ‘services’ offered by their predecessors.
Throughout the years, Soho’s character has changed. At one time it was well known for its artistic residents: both the Venetian painter Canaletto and British painter John Constable took up residence in the area.
The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin both played for the first time at The Marquee Club on Wardour Street, giving way to a new era of entertainment, prostitution and debauchery.
But already by that point the area was thriving – from the start of the 20th Century immigrants set up restaurants there, creating a bohemian hub for the residents.
And, although in 1959 it was declared illegal, prostitution was already a prominent feature of the area.
It saw the birth of ‘walk ups’ – houses where prostitutes offered their services – that became famous and still remain open today (although in much lesser numbers). In subsequent decades, the famous brothels led to a tourism surge.
By the 1980s, the first gay bars had begun to open. Today Old Compton Street is still the city’s main gay area.
A tolerant Soho?
In 1997 Prowler opened, a gay shop with every type of item to satisfy men and women’s needs. It is one of the area’s oldest shops of this type.
One employee says that Soho itself is an attraction because of its history in the world of sex, but that “more and more of these places are being closed down and it’s getting harder to get hold of licences” then adds “the place is losing its identity”.
There are other pubs and nightclubs in the area too, such as Ku Bar, recent winner of ‘London’s Award Winning Gay Venues’.
And in spite of the number of businesses, bars and nightclubs for gay people, there have been incidents in the last two years.
In one case, a taxi driver was openly discriminating of a gay couple who simply held hands in his taxi. The driver forced them to get out, calling them ‘dirty’. The driver was then suspended from the taxi company after they investigated the matter.
And at the start of last year the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, announced that he would be cancelling fortnightly masses for the catholic LGBT community held at a church on Warwick Street. The outright discriminatory move has prompted outrage in the LGBT community.
In recent years, both business and brothels have faced a variety of legal battles. Last December, a number of brothels, sex shops and nightclubs were hit by police raids of up to 200 officers in a strike against organised crime in London.
During the raids, police found drugs, and twelve women were also found to be living in subhuman conditions.
The police made 29 arrests relating to drugs and stolen goods offences in a number of properties including 22 brothels, three sex shops, two nightclubs and a taxi company.
But the closure of the brothels has lead to many sex workers simply moving their trade onto the streets – where they work without protection and are fearful of abuse.
Prostitutes working in Soho have been protesting against the closures. Even Reverend Buckley of St Anne’s Church in Soho has joined the cause in protesting against the closure of 18 brothels, denouncing the actions of the police as “unacceptable, and even, at times, illegal”.
He told how one woman had been forced out onto the street in her underwear. Many women were photographed and appeared in the media. Others were threatened by the police, told that the nature of their work would be revealed to their families.
Tensions are high, with many brothels fighting to stay open in the face of an onslaught of new prohibitions and laws in the industry leading to fewer licences being granted.
Fun, in neon
On any given street, brothels and adverts for girls are obvious. On every corner houses advertise ‘models’ upstairs to ‘have a good time’ with. And adverts in phone boxes persist – although it was made illegal several years ago there are still cards proffering services in every phone box.
Even though there the numbers of these places are dwindling, the posters continue to catch visitors’ eyes. Many go there just for the experience, others are regular clients.
The law in the UK however is clear: buying and selling sex in the UK is legal, but the practice of it, pimping, and owning a brothel are all illegal. Does this signal an end to Soho’s rich tradition as a red light district?
Sex workers are now taking to the streets to protest against the closure of the brothels and their workplaces. In the meantime, the government are proposing they follow Norwegian and Swedish prostitution models, criminalising the buying of sex.
As well as brothels, cinemas have also been an important part of Soho’s make-up. The number of them has dramatically decreased in recent years.
The Sunset Cinema was closed following a police raid. Trouble started in 2006, when a retiree was stabbed in the establishment. Since then, management have been accused of organising orgies at the venue, even when new owners took over. After six separate allegations, the cinema was finally closed in 2009.
(Translated by Claudia Rennie – Email: email@example.com)