‘Sorry, I don’t do bareback,’ is not the kind of phrase you’re likely to learn in your average English language class. But X:talk doesn’t do average English language classes. While all the students have varying degrees of English proficiency, they are united by one fact: they are all part of London’s booming sex industry.
X:talk, an organisation set up to support prostitutes, strippers, escorts and peep-show performers – in fact anyone employed in the sex industry – has been running English classes since 2006. ‘The project grew out of the experiences of Alice, a prostitute who worked with many women from Thailand,’ says 35-year-old Ava Caradonna, a former escort, now an assistant teacher with the project. ‘They had difficulty negotiating with clients about sex acts they didn’t want to perform. Although they offered the same services and worked from the same location as Alice, the Thai girls were paid less and were treated worse by the punters. They wanted to learn English to help them deal with clients and negotiate their pay rates.’
We are at X:talk’s headquarters, an elegant, airy first-floor room of a Regency townhouse off Baker Street. Around ten sex workers meet weekly here for an hourly class. Another group meets in a Soho location. Over the past year, the classes have also taken place in strip clubs, bars and saunas. ‘We might end up holding the class in a sauna changing room, with people often dropping in and out and picking up what they can as they prepare for their work,’ says Caradonna.
Around 80 to 90 percent of London’s sex workers are foreign migrants, according to a study by London Metropolitan University, which collaborated with the Association of Chief Police Officers in 2010. Africa, Brazil, Thailand, Eastern Europe and, increasingly, China are the principal places of origin, and this mix is reflected in the classes’ make-up. ‘Some of the escort workers have quite good English but they might need to be able to talk to the client for a whole evening, or even a weekend, and to talk about quite sophisticated topics. Other students’ needs are basic,’ says Caradonna. ‘Learning English makes them more confident because they can negotiate safer sex acts, and fair rents for their rooms with their landlord,’ adds Katrin, 28, another X:talk teacher.
So what exactly can students expect to learn from a school for sex workers? ‘We might teach them how to call their brothel and say they are sick, or they might want to learn how to describe themselves to a client,’ says Caradonna as she pulls out some worksheets of conversations that the students are encouraged to role play.
‘I am voluptuous/busty/small- chested/well-hung/athletic,’ says one. Another features a list of abbreviations often found in adverts (which would probably be baffling to native English speakers), ranging from the relatively obvious ‘BJ’ (blowjob), to ‘BBBJ’ (bareback blowjob), ‘A-level’ (anal sex) and ‘CIF’ (cum in face).
One worksheet is aimed at helping sex workers advertise their services in print or online. ‘Hello sexy man! I have been featured in fashion catalogues and top-level magazines,’ reads one example. ‘I am naturally horny. I like to kiss and cuddle and also like handcuffs and BDSM games,’ reads another. Another worksheet hints at the darker nature of the work. Its list of useful phrases includes ‘I’m hating every minute of this.’
But how do employers of those who work in the sex industry regard the lessons? ‘There are differing attitudes. Some strip club managers feel that having their workers speak English is actually helpful to the venue,’ says Caradonna. ‘If employers are hostile, it raises our suspicions that the workers are not getting a good deal.’
Such is the stigma that surrounds sex workers that none of the students would talk to us in person. However, they did give us some written feedback on their experience of the classes.
‘I spend a lot of time having conversations with my customers,’ says Katya, a transgender Romanian woman who works as an escort and has been attending the classes for over a year. ‘Sometimes I find it difficult when people use slang, which there’s a lot of in my work. So the classes are really helpful and help me with everyday things like making appointments.’ ‘We can talk about work issues freely,’ says Isabel, a 25-year-old from Spain who is a dancer in an east London club. ‘The teachers are very patient and respectful.’
The classes provide more than just a place to learn the lingo. ‘I tried an English language school when I first came to London,’ says Mariela, a 31-year-old Slovakian who works in a peep show. ‘Many of the questions you answer in class are about your job and your work experiences. I didn’t feel comfortable, and I couldn’t ask for the words I needed to know. At these classes, I am not judged.’
Conditions under which sex workers operate in London are becoming increasingly difficult. Silence on Violence, a report by the by London Assembly Conservative member Andrew Boff last year, found that the two years before the Olympics saw a flurry of brothel raids and closures: Home Office figures show there were 70 brothel raids by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) between January and August 2010 in the five Olympic boroughs. According to the report, this resulted in the displacement of sex workers from east London, leading to a 25 percent decline in women contacting welfare and sexual health outreach services. Meanwhile, Ministry of Justice figures show that the number of people found guilty of brothel-keeping almost doubled over the three years from 2008 to 2010 (the last measurable data on the subject). ‘The MPS had not increased operations targeting crime and antisocial behaviour matters related to prostitution in the five Olympic boroughs. Any police activity regarding prostitution was been undertaken as part of normal policing responsibilities,’ says Asim Bashir from the MPS, adding that since the Olympics, theMPS has not targeted sex workers. ‘The MPS will always remain sensitive to the vulnerabilities of sex workers. There is no evidence that policing activity makes them more vulnerable,’ he says.
Cari Mitchell from the English Collective of Prostitutes, which campaigns for sex workers, says that is not the experience of those in the industry: ‘Clampdowns on brothels and arrests of women are being seen across London. To escape detection, they are more likely to work by themselves, outside the protective environment of a brothel, and take more sexual risks with their clients,’ she says.
X:talk’s Katrin agrees: ‘The climate has hardened against sex workers. They are putting themselves in situations where they are vulnerable. Students tell me that they’ll get a text giving only a pick-up venue. They won’t know where they will be taken, or who they’ll be meeting.’ She says that many sex workers are apprehensive about coming to theclasses. ‘We leaflet clubs with details of the lessons and most workers are wary of us. We spend a lot of time stressing we are not part of the police or socialservices.Thereisafearabout getting arrested or deported.’
More far-reaching are the changes to prostitution laws the government may considerthisyear.Currently,buyingor selling sex is not illegal in England and Wales, but activities associated with prostitution, including kerb-crawling,running a brothel and pimping, are. ‘The current laws don’t serve prostitutes or the communities around them,’ says Gavin Shuker, Labour MP for Luton South, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution. ‘One answer could be the criminalisation of buying sex to reduce demand.’
In response to what they perceive as a threat to their livelihood, many sex workers are fighting back. Last year, the English Collective of Prostitutes published ‘Know Your Rights: A-Z for Sex Workers’ to help them navigate the complex prostitution laws. Meanwhile, since 2009, the Sex Worker Open University has been organising film festivals, seminars and exhibitions around the issue.
In the current climate, X:talk feels its classes are more crucial than ever. ‘We’ve seen a massive increase in people involved in this work,’ says Caradonna. ‘Our classes are not just about learning English. They are also about addressing how these workers are exploited.’ The oldest profession is unlikely to disappear from our streets any time soon. Maybe we should ensure that those who work in it are protected rather than persecuted. Some names have been changed.
For more info, see xtalkproject.net.