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A deliciously detailed portrait of sex work in a changing Soho and the compromises women have to make

·5 min read
The Service by Frankie Miren (Frankie Miren)
The Service by Frankie Miren (Frankie Miren)

“She’s heading to the church, to the occupation. She has seen the protest in the news. Sex workers occupy Soho church. Prostitutes’ picket: a different kind of service”.

This is a line from Frankie Miren’s debut novel The Service. Set in a 2019 where a fictional new law has brought down sex workers’ advertising sites and heralded an increase in police raids, it depicts the overlapping lives of three women: two sex workers and a journalist. Along the way, it deftly explores body anxieties, trauma, motherhood and the compromises women have to make in trying to match their feminism to their lives. It is a deeply London novel, one that speaks to “long ago Soho as fields and sky, as wheeling birds, Soho as houses for the aristocracy, as tightly packed slums, as two centuries of prostitution... cute boys in tight jeans who smile and wink and get on their knees” as well as a rapidly gentrifying Soho – a district that is increasingly policed to drive sex workers out, even as the cleaned-up, Mastercard-friendly businesses install neon ‘girls girls girls’ signs above their doors.

Miren has a “long history of sex work in Soho”, she tells me. She worked in a club on D’Arbly street – barely a bar, just a basement, really – in the late 1990s. We talk about the little sofas, the mouldy carpet, the lights turned low, the overpriced champagne that the women made a commission on – and discreetly poured into the fake pot plants rather than drink themselves. Miren tells me, “my main memory of that one night is this guy trying to rescue me, just being very like ‘you don’t have to do this, why are you doing this’ ... and then I remember him saying, ‘I’d love to have you as a girlfriend’, as if those were the two options in life – prostitute or girlfriend! I remember thinking, ‘uh, I just need some money’”.

I know Frankie from years of sex work organising together, and from the cameradie of sex work stories, some funny-funny, some funny-awful

I know Frankie from years of sex work organising together, and from the cameradie of sex work stories, some funny-funny, some funny-awful, shared over glasses of wine. Her novel is thick with the delicious details that she has always had an eye for in her anecdotes. In The Service, we get a text from a guy who’s cancelled today’s session because he’s in hospital having an operation he’d forgotten about; a scene where an oblivious client grunts to a bored sex worker, “Lucky you … getting to do this job when you’re such a nymphomaniac.” Sex work is often boring – but it is still unusual to see that reflected in fiction, laced with deadpan humour.

While the law that brings down sex work advertising sites in Miren’s novel is fictionalised, it is all-too scarily plausible. Several other forms of criminalisation which the novel grapples with are very real. Policing and the ever-present threat of raids shape the lives of sex workers across the UK, and in Soho, where the sheer volume of sex businesses makes such tactics particularly lucrative – the Proceeds of Crime Act means police forces get to simply keep the cash they take from sex workers on these excursions. Miren tells me about returning to sex work in Soho in more recent years, and getting a work flat with a friend until the pandemic forced them out. Working with a friend from a shared flat is much safer, but as The Service depicts, it comes with the risk of arrest for brothel-keeping, even when two friends are just sharing bills and looking out for each other. It is partly Miren’s long personal history in Soho that gives the novel such a visceral emotional heft. As one character, Lori, asks, “And in the end? So many flats closed down, women arrested, deported, a conviction for a penknife, and all for what?”

Policing and the ever-present threat of raids shape the lives of sex workers across the UK

Politicians, particularly Labour MPs, continue to push for laws which will further criminalise sex workers’ lives. At the time of writing, MP Diana Johnson had proposed amendments to the already-authoritarian Policing and Crime Bill that would criminalise the clients of sex workers. In The Service we see in human terms the cost to sex workers when clients disappear: “The sites are still down, and Lori’s phone is silent. Yuli is in a blind panic, her messages a well of need so huge Lori simply has to mute them or she’ll drown”. The return to exploitative managers; the scary car-meets. The way every sex worker tries to stay safe somehow, and how a reduction in clients pushes them to compromise on whatever safety measures they use.

Perhaps this all sounds very specific to sex work. And yes, it might make you see Soho – and the women who work there, and in parlours and flats all across London – differently. But in fact, one of the strengths of The Service is that it will be deeply recognisable to everyone who has ever struggled with a bad job or a pushy manager. It speaks to looking back over how your mum raised you and seeing her as a real person who was struggling and doing her best. It speaks to break-ups and friendships. It speaks to having had a hard year. Can anyone relate?

Molly Smith is the co-author of Revolting Prostitutes: the fight for sex workers’ rights, with Juno Mac (£9.99, Verso Books); The Service is out on 8 July, £9.99, Influx Press

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