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England, September 25, 2000

London's Callbox Eye Candy

try not to be obviously excited when you use a London call box

Yes, I'd like a good spanking
Now who are you talking to?
Now that is Sweet Jap Pie
Much better than Pokemon!
She would dominate all right!
'Very Superior Bitch'
I don't think you could expect this girl to be answering the phone
Will she wash my clothes too?
Girl About Town Magazine, September 25, 2000

Going Bonkers

By Jill Eckersley

Do you find all those sex ads cluttering the phone boxes a giggle or an embarrassment? When Saucy Samantha turns out to be a 13-year-old waif from a King's Cross crack den the picture doesn't seem so funny.

JILL ECKERSLEY looks at the pros and cons of London's commercial sex industry -and how the police, the councils and we the public view the way it advertises itself.

Pop in to any one of about a thousand Central London call boxes and, while you wait to be connected, you can while away the time choosing between French maids, 18-year-old 44DD models, a spot of bondage or watersports. As fast as BT and local councils send their service teams round to peel them off the glass walls, teams of 'carders' arrive to put them back again - or to tear down rivals' cards and put their own up. According to a weary-sounding BT spokesman, it's an effective and relatively cheap way for London's call girls to advertise their services.

Carding is a relatively new phenomenon and one that until very recently was restricted to London and the South-East. Apparently, it all started in the mid-1980s when British Telecom came into existence, controlled by the British Telecommunications Act, 1984. A loophole in the law meant that carding isn't, strictly speaking, illegal. When it began, stickers were used and the advertisers could be prosecuted for criminal damage, but the arrival of specially printed cards and Blu-Tak meant that the girls and their paid carders were always one step ahead of the law.

Whether you find prostitutes' cards tacky and offensive or just a bit of a laugh and a hazard of London life tends to depend on the way you feel about the commercial sex industry. BT and local councils like Camden and Westminster, where most of the problems occur, have been pressing the Government for ten years to change the law, on the grounds that the cards are offensive and present a tacky and unpleasant image of London. However, it now looks as though legislation will be put on the backburner until after the General Election.

'We feel that the cards are a stain on London and that residents and visitors shouldn't be exposed to increasingly lurid images,' says Councilor Kit Malthouse of Westminster Council. 'We have to think of the welfare of all Londoners and their families, as well as tourists, for whom phone boxes are particularly important.'

Residents' associations in Fitzrovia and King's Cross told me that it is a subject that comes up at meetings and that locals feel that it adds to the seediness of the area. Most recently, Westminster Council has discovered cards being traded in school playgrounds as a rival to Pokemon. If you see the sex industry as a bunch of people getting their jollies in unconventional ways, full of horny young studs and tarts-with-hearts, it would be easy to see the anti-carding campaigners as spoilsports. However, the smiling glamour-girls portrayed on the cards bear little real resemblance to the grubby waifs who hang round the back streets of King's Cross. The world of paid sex is a tacky, exploitative business, with a small number of cold-blooded and astute businesspersons (male and female) at the top, and a much larger number of desperate, and desperately exploited, working-class women, often in thrall to pimps and drug dealers, at the bottom of the heap.

Not long ago a prostitute was found dead in a King's Cross crack house, after disappearing from Local Authority care in outer London. She was 13. Not much evidence there of saucy Samantha who will give you a good time if you pay. Most experts agree that current laws on prostitution are a mess but what they don't agree on is how best to regulate the business, including how the girls can advertise their services without offending the rest of us. The Home Office is currently consulting local Councils and OFTEL, the telecommunications regulator, about a possible change in the law. At the moment, carders who are prosecuted are usually only fined about £200, which they regard as an occupational hazard and a risk worth taking.

There have been crackdowns. In May there was a joint operation by the Met and Westminster City Council resulting in 12 carders being reported for prosecution and a significant drop in the numbers of cards seen in the Victoda and Edgware Road areas. In just one day, up to 280,000 cards have been removed from central London call boxes.

'The bottom line is these cards should not be on our streets,' says Councillor Malthouse. 'The City Council has been calling for the Government to remove this scourge by criminalising carding and enforcing call-barring on prostitutes' numbers.' Westminster say that the crackdown will continue especially as cards seem to be becoming increasingly detailed and pornographic. The scale of the problem is staggering. BT remove about 13 million cards a year from London call boxes, and another million from Brighton and Hove. They estimate that there are about 24 carders operating in Soho and Bayswater and about 150 in Westminster. Carders are paid about £30 for every 100 cards placed and some phone boxes have up to 80 cards in them. During 1998-99, 150 cases were passed to the City Solicitor for prosecution. Injunctions against persistent offenders have been sought and six have been granted since last October.

But, as everyone concerned agrees, the faster the cleaners remove the cards, the faster the carders replace them. Only a change in the law will make a real difference. A spokesman for BT pointed out that since 1996, they have been stopping calls to the numbers advertised on cards and that fewer than 5% of the numbers now advertised are BT lines.

'The girls have switched to other telecom companies or to mobiles, ' he said. 'We believe that the end of carding could be in sight if other telecommunications companies took the same action as us. Cards put people off using payphones. They aren't like top-shelf publications, which you can avoid, they're there in your face and we don't believe it's fair to inflict them on our customers. People do complain about them - to us, to the police, to local councils and to MPs.'

Actually removing the cards and cleaning up the phone boxes can be a hazardous job. Cleaners have been threatened and BT now uses a security company to go round collecting the cards. Clearing up costs them around £250,000 a year. There have also been occasional cases of actresses and models complaining that their photographs were used without permission to illustrate the cards, and at least one incident in which an anti-carding campaigner had her own photograph used on cards. Neither BT nor the Councils believe that a crackdown on carding would force more women to work the streets, exposing themselves to more danger. Discreet advertising in local papers, contact magazines and on the internet is available. Campaigners hope that Home Office consultations will result in carding being made a criminal offence with a realistic level of fines, and that OFTEL can persuade all telecoms companies to bar calls to the numbers which appear on cards.

What do prostitutes themselves think? Not all use cards anyway; some work the streets and others work through massage parlours, saunas and escort agencies. 'Our main point is that preventing women who work at premises from advertising forces them out onto the street where the work is ten times more dangerous,' says a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP).

'The results of crackdowns by BT and the Councils are that women are put under more pressure. It's less easy for them to earn money and so they are likely to take more risks. BT now accept adverts from companies like Nestile in call boxes, which shows that their main objection to carding is that they don't make any profit from it. As for the Councils, they have to recognise that there are few viable alternatives to prostitution if women want to earn enough money to support their families.'

The ECP doesn't believe that local residents object to cards. 'Cards in phone boxes have never been shown to be obscene,' it says. 'What BT customers object to are high bills and massive profits. Surveys of children show that what they worry about is violence in the home, bullying and racism, not prostitutes' cards in phone boxes.' They also feel that alternative methods of advertising are often not easily available to sex workers.

'The police go round warning newsagents and printers that they may be prosecuted for taking ads or printing cards. Kall Kwick have refused to print cards because of this, and contact publications charge the girls very high rates. Sex workers should be able to advertise like any other business. The real issue is for the Government to address womens' poverty so that they don't need to go on the game.'

Not everyone would agree with the ECP's view of the employment situation. After all most London women, whatever their commitments, manage to scrape a living without resorting to prostitution. Councillor Malthouse admits that in cracking down on carding he is trying to discourage the sex trade.

'It's not just small businesswomen plying a trade like any other, ' he points out. 'Many prostitutes are working to support their own and their pimps' drug habits and many are dragged or intimidated into the business by male partners.'

Before the carders took over, discreet ad for 'French lessons' or ' Large Chest for Sale' seemed to pull in the punters quite satisfactorily. Subtlety had its disadvantages though, as a friend of mine found when she tried to sell a double bed via her local corner shop...

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