While the police force was getting its knickers in a twist over the expected G20 protests, an altogether more serene demonstration took place in central London yesterday. A swarm of red umbrellas surrounded the Eros fountain in Piccadilly Circus, carried by sex workers campaigning against Jacqui Smith's new Policing and Crime Bill. "What the hell," they were saying in effect. Why can the Home Secretary put porn purchases on expenses, when those working in the sex industry face increasing levels of criminalisation?
Eros has long been a rendezvous spot for lovers and would-be lovers. As such, it seems as good a place as any to campaign about a different type of tryst, that between prostitute and punter.
The Policing and Crime Bill seeks to better "police" prostitution. In doing so it will criminalise sex workers and their clients under the guise of making the industry a safer environment to work in. Safer for those working against their will, that is, as the Bill conflates sex slaves and sex workers, grouping together those working under force and those of their own volition.
The plan is to transfer the burden of blame from the prostitutes onto the punters, making punters so afraid of punishment they will always ask a prostitute his or her provenance before getting down to business. If they are working under coercion, goes the theory, the punter will then demur from any action, ergo killing the market for trafficked sex workers.
There are more than a few dropped stitches in Ms Smith's woolly argument. Sex workers are insulted at being grouped together with slaves, and the Bill could penalise anyone involved in the sex-for-sale market, be it on celluloid, in print or in person, via a lap dance or penetration.
Ava Caradonna, a spokesperson for x:talk, the organisation behind the red umbrella protest, is keen to highlight the Home Secretary's hypocrisy. "The Bill will make it less, not more, safe for us to work," she says, "whether as strippers, escorts, working girls, maids or models. Purchases from our industry can find their way into her expenses, while she attacks us as workers."
Apart from the embarrassment factor for Ms Smith and her husband – it was he, we are told, who watched the two adult movies charged to the public purse – this matter emphasises the lack of understanding of the sex industry by those who are trying to repress and contain it.
There is nothing to be celebrated when women feel the best way to make money is by selling sex. Punishing them for doing so is inexplicable and inexcusable. Yet Ms Smith has gone about further criminalisation of the industry with the assumption that she exists above and beyond its enclave. This has been shown to be untrue, certainly on one level. At least everyone else pays for their own porn.