Page last updated at 08:12 GMT, Monday, 22 December 2008

Christmas under city's red lights

By Tom Bishop
BBC News

sex worker
Christmas Eve and Boxing Day are said to be busy times for sex workers

Most of us look forward to a rest over Christmas but thousands of Londoners will work during the holiday season - including many of the city's sex workers.

In 2008 the sex worker has been portrayed as the exploited victim of trafficking and as the high class escort Belle de Jour, played by Billie Piper in ITV1's Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

But London's massage parlours, saunas, brothels and streets are the work places of a much wider range of women and men.

They include middle-aged parlour owners, men who sell sex to men and girls who work on the street with drug addiction problems.

And, like all workers, they face extra financial pressure at Christmas, says Catherine Stephens, spokeswoman for the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW).

"January is usually quiet so many sex workers will work more during November and December to get extra money for their kids' presents," she explained.

Very few women work on the street on Christmas Day as clients are unlikely to be there, Miss Stephens said.

"But massage parlours have been known to get incredibly busy on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.

"I guess some men feel they have been cooped up with their family for 36 hours and want to get out."

Billie Piper in Secret Diary of a Call Girl
Billie Piper plays Belle de Jour in ITV1 series Secret Diary of a Call Girl

It is not illegal to sell or pay for sex in England but many activities associated with prostitution - such as running a brothel, persistent kerb-crawling and advertising in phone boxes - are illegal.

Kitty, 24, works as a dominatrix in Finsbury Park, north London. She became a sex worker in her native California when she was 18.

"It was the only thing I ever really enjoyed - I just stuck with it," she says.

Kitty's clients must book her in advance, and she chooses to see no more than five men per week.

"I can afford to work less with people I feel are interesting," she says.

"I'm definitely no Belle de Jour but I make enough money to live comfortably."

Kitty will celebrate Christmas with friends on 23 December, enabling her to see clients on Christmas Day if necessary.

At Christmas I'm more likely to have clients change their minds and cancel bookings because they are too busy
Kitty, dominatrix

Regular clients sometimes buy her Christmas gifts of flowers or chocolates, but Kitty says the season also brings unique problems.

"At Christmas I'm more likely to have clients change their minds and cancel bookings because they are too busy, they are stressed and not stopping," she says. "It's very frustrating."

Kitty says men are also more likely to "go to extremes" at Christmas by taking drugs or drinking heavily at parties. She refuses to see them in such a state.

"But New Year's Eve can be a busy time as men often want to hire someone to be an escort or companion for parties," she adds. "I'm usually happy to do that."

Gay escort Luca D, 29, also assesses his clients before going to meet them across London or inviting them back to his flat.

"I talk to them online first so I can usually tell if they seem drunk or high," he says.

postcards in London phone box
It is illegal to place cards advertising prostitution in phone boxes

"I won't take it any further if they are - I've had a couple of guys being disrespectful to me in the past, so I had to throw them out.

"But most of my clients are very friendly and respectful."

Luca has been working in the city for three years after two years as an escort in his native France.

He sees up to five clients per day, but says demand is erratic and unpredictable.

"Sometimes it's really busy, sometimes you have no clients all week - that's what I don't like about it," he says.

"It is often quiet just before Christmas and New Year's Eve, then busy again straight afterwards."

When asked how much he makes as an escort, Luca says: "Enough."

"I'm not someone who is into expensive clothes, big flat screen TVs or whatever people get credit cards for," he adds. "And I can afford to take time off."

Women murdered

On 17 December dozens of sex workers sang carols in the pubs and streets of Soho, central London, to mark the annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

It marked the second anniversary of the deaths of five prostitutes in Suffolk, whose bodies were dumped around Ipswich. Steve Wright, from Ipswich, is serving a life sentence for their murder.

The IUSW's Catherine Stephens criticised government plans to outlaw all kerb-crawling and to make it illegal to buy sex from anyone who is "controlled for gain".

"It will drive sex work further underground, exposing sex workers to greater risk of exploitation and violence," she said.

"The government should completely decriminalise prostitution so they can then distinguish between good and bad practice in sex work.

"That is the only way to prevent trafficking and protect sex workers."

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