GlobalPost looks at the changing nature of sex work in Britain in the first of a four-part series.
LONDON, UK — London’s Westminster borough stretches across the capital’s center from posh Belgravia and St. John’s Wood to the rougher streets of Soho and Paddington.
It includes parliament, Buckingham Palace, the theaters of the West End — and up to 100 brothels.
That’s more than in any other London district — and even that estimated figure doesn’t represent the sex trade’s full extent. Officials say the actual number is probably higher.
In addition to the brothels, which are illegal under British law, Westminster is also base for an unknown number of independent escorts who work from their homes or other private accommodations, which don’t count as brothels.
There’s also a small population of about 40 female street prostitutes, most of whom work near the Paddington rail station in the borough’s western end.
Unlike street solicitation, which is illegal, and independent escorting, which is legal, many sex businesses occupy murky legal territory.
Westminster’s brothels are hardly new to the social landscape. In the 1700s, one enterprising pimp published an annual best-selling directory of working girls in the Covent Garden area.
Mayfair’s Shepherd’s Market is now a block of eateries and shops, but until the 1990s, it was the center of London’s thriving sex scene, with placards in the windows advertising the services of ladies working within.
Today, discretion is important for both workers and clients, particularly in pricier establishments.
“We do outreach in flats that are so quiet I wouldn’t mind if they were my neighbors,” says Del Campbell of SWISH, a sex worker support organization.
Employee demographics have shifted over the years: Eastern European immigrants have largely supplanted British-born prostitutes.
The walk-ups don’t stand out among Soho’s proudly bohemian streets, whose storefronts offer a hip mix of tattoo parlors, cafes and expensive denim boutiques.
The brothels identify themselves with hand-lettered signs advertising “models” within. Inside, posters point the way with the cheery enthusiasm of a college sorority house.
“Pretty Young Blonde! Good Service, Very Friendly!” read one sign directing visitors to the second floor of a run-down apartment building.
Prices for sex vary widely. Customers in “walk-ups,” apartments used by one or two workers who each see up to a dozen walk-in clients an hour, pay around $30 each. Rates at higher-end brothels start at $225 an hour.
The industry isn’t immune to economic shifts. Observers say the global financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent euro zone woes have brought more people into the trade, from rookies to returning veterans who had left the profession.
At the same time, customers with cash to spend on sex are also in shorter supply. As a result, some workers reported cutting prices up to 50 percent in an April report. Others say they’d agreed to take on more dangerous work, such as sex without condoms, to stay afloat.
A bathrobe-clad woman answers one door of one upstairs brothel. With olive skin, auburn-tinted hair and an aurora borealis of eye makeup, she appears to be in her twenties.
She says she’s worked here two years. “It’s nice. The people is nice,” she says in accented English. Anyone complaining about the work might not be cut out for it, she adds.
Although it’s known to be far safer for sex workers to meet customers in premises with at least one other person present, any space used by more than one person for prostitution — even if it’s on alternate days, as is often the case — counts as a brothel.
Law enforcement varies widely between police forces, an inconsistency that’s strained relations between sex workers and police.
In April, city officials praised the approach of the city police unit for sex crimes, which makes a point of assuring victims that their immigration status, brothel work or other lesser crimes don’t take precedence over assault investigations.
After a series of brothel closures across the city ahead of the 2012 Olympics, however, politicians and sex worker advocates criticized them for helping drive business underground or onto the streets, where it’s less safe for both prostitutes and the public.
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A 2012 report by London Assembly member Andrew Boff found that police appeared to target the workplaces of all sex workers regardless of whether they were suspected of breaking the law.
Speaking in an interview, Boff echoed widespread opinion by suggesting the police should rethink their approach. “Most brothels actually work very hard in order for their neighbors not to notice them,” he said.
“You’ve got to ask yourself if this is a good use of police time. I suspect other things are more important.”