Because She Was a Prostitute

by Frith Taylor

In 1992 two women approached the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and Women Against Rape (WAR). Patricia Whitfield and Elizabeth Harris worked for a massage agency that also provided escort services. They had been raped at knifepoint by the same man on separate occasions, and reported their attacks to the police. Harris had initially been told by the police that because she was ‘a prostitute’ the case would never reach court, but she insisted they take her details. When Whitfield contacted the police a detective connected the two cases and a file was submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Despite statements and medical evidence, however, the case was dropped by the CPS due to 'insufficient evidence'. Harris soon had death threats to herself and her young children from the attacker, and desperately asked the ECP to help.

Taking their cue from the parents of Stephen Lawrence (who launched a private prosecution for their son's murder in 1994) the ECP found lawyers to represent Whitfield and Harris on a pro bono basis. The resulting trial in 1995 — the first ever successful private prosecution for rape in England and Wales — is the subject of a new play written and directed by Lesley Delmenico, who adapted the script from the trial transcript.. No Bad Women takes its title from the ECP chant, 'No Bad Women; Just Bad Laws’. A mainstay of sex work activism, the slogan neatly encapsulates both the heavy-handed moralising narratives that surround sex work, (some women are innately 'bad') and a justice system which is at best indifferent to sex workers' needs, and at worst implicated in the violence they experience.

No Bad Women is essentially a courtroom drama. We know what to expect from the genre: there are crescendos and dead ends, pacing and rhetorical flourishes from the prosecution which culminates in a dramatic denouement. The trial unfolds in what feels like real time; witnesses are examined and cross-examined, and we wait for the final verdict. Courtroom dramas are meant to be pacey and exciting, and resolve in a satisfying distribution of justice. But this play does things differently. We watch Patricia Whitfield and Elizabeth Harris in the stand answering questions, sometimes nervously, sometimes fiercely, trying to get the details right. When they are asked to describe the assault itself, the attacks are enacted as flashbacks. This interruption in generic convention results in scenes of almost unbearable tension.

These parts are intensified by the play's immersive staging. The Clean Break theatre is intimate; the first row of the audience is on the stage, at the same level as the cast. At the beginning, the audience is asked to stand as the judge enters, and so are cast as the jury – the jury foreman among them in the first row. For much of the play there is little movement. By stripping the production back, No Bad Women focuses instead on voice; the stage becomes a battlefield of competing narratives. As immersive theatre becomes more commonplace, pared back plays like this feel novel. Rather than a theme-park set in which minute details are carefully curated, No Bad Women’s staging is simple, and props are minimal. This is storytelling at its most raw: we are made to witness detailed accounts of sexual violence, all the while given the unnerving feeling that we will have to decide the trial's outcome.

No Bad Women brings the policing of morality into sharp relief, as well as the intersection of sex work, disability and economic precarity. Patricia Whitfield's husband was a wheelchair user, and her work was their primary source of income. She and her husband wrote pornography so that Whitfield could move away from sex work. Their writing was in the form of a memoir, which becomes a kind of metatext in the play. Extracts are read out and scrutinised in the trial; the defence lawyer suggests that Whitfield's embellishments in the memoir show that she is dishonest, while the explicit sexual content is used to cast doubt on her character. This problem of narrative and ownership is central to current discourse surrounding sex work. A woman's pornography can be used against her, while her testimony detailing her sexual assault is questioned. The message is clear: only 'good' victims deserve justice.

The play exposes the murky business of character assassination of victims in court. The way that rape trials are managed legitimises the weaponisation of personal details. All too often, survivors of sexual assault find themselves interrogated and cross-examined, made to relive their attacks in excruciating detail. This is partly to do with the logic of 'crafting' a defence: when someone pursues justice for sexual assault in the courts, the defence team are asked to imagine a reality in which the events were different to those alleged. More often than not, this means suggesting that the woman fabricated the entire incident and her words cannot be trusted. In No Bad Women we see a desperate Harris trying to explain that she destroyed explicit photographs taken by her rapist because she found them disturbing and demeaning. This is presented by the defence as dishonesty — the wilful destruction of evidence — and used to discredit her.

The trope of the unreliable sex worker is an enduring fantasy. She occupies a paradoxical space in the public imagination, at once titillating and appalling, perversely knowledgeable, while somehow impulsive and childlike. Sex work is seen as a symptom of her own sexual excess and lack of self-respect, and wholly unrelated to material conditions. This entrenched paternalism has a very real impact on the lives of sex workers today. Sex work is hotly debated, but rarely are sex workers themselves invited to speak. They still struggle to be heard in debates about the sex industry and are not consulted about what they need; laws are made for sex workers, and not by them.

Even in feminist circles, being sex worker-positive is not a given. Unlike other groups, the ECP and WAR are grass roots organisations rather than following a top-down, advocacy model. The ECP's Niki Adams explains that a nuanced approach is required in order to respect the worker, but remain critical of the work. Years of austerity and economic precarity mean that sex work is the only option for many women. In a recent interview Adams said, ‘We never glamorise [sex work] and say it's a great job, sometimes it's a survival strategy. These are the realities of women's lives, when people are living below the poverty line, women and especially mothers do what they have to to make sure their children are fed.’ The ECP help sex workers defend themselves against criminal charges and against police harassment, bullying, raids, arrests and deportations. Decriminalisation would address the situation in the play where the women are forced to work alone. ‘Even though sex work is legal, the law makes it illegal for women to work together with a friend,’ says Adams. ‘Women have to choose between possible arrest and keeping ourselves safe, or avoiding a criminal record and putting ourselves in danger. No woman should have to make that choice.’

Austerity measures have also had a dramatic effect on the ways rape cases are handled. While reports of rape increase, prosecutions are at their lowest for ten years. WAR's Lisa Longstaff said that 'Society has changed but the CPS is even more likely to judge women's behaviour and whether they are going to be reliable witness.' At the time of the trial in 1995, WAR published a dossier of 15 other women’s rape cases that had been dropped, and found startling evidence of discrimination. None were sex workers. As Longstaff explains, 'all the women could be described as low social status; [the rapist] was a family member, [the victims] were poor, single mothers, lesbian or sex workers, or children — the men had more social power than them.'

Once a week I volunteer at WAR. The Crossroads Women's Centre is down a little side street in Kentish Town. It’s home to a number of women’s groups and the base of the renowned Selma James. James's biography reads like a potted history of progressive activism: a vocal Marxist feminist since the early 1950s, she is the founder of the international Wages for Housework Campaign (1972), and a former spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes.

Since its inception in 1976, WAR has grown, and thanks to the tireless work of its many members, has had a number of major legal victories, including the outlawing of marital rape in 1991 following a 15-year campaign. Today WAR works closely with a range of other groups at the Centre: Black Women’s Rape Action Project, the All African Women's Group, Legal Action for Women, Single Mothers’ Self-Defence and WinVisible – women with visible and invisible disabilities.

The rhythm of the day is ordered by care. There are meetings with people who need advice on rape or immigration cases – or both. There are the daily cleaning and cooking tasks. Banners are painted or stitched for the monthly picket of family court. Selma's dog Nye races around (Nye can be for Julius Nyerere or Nye Bevan, Selma says either namesake fits). Babies are breastfed. The bookshelf is reorganised and restocked. A call comes over the intercom to say that lunch is ready, and we all meet in the main room to chat and exchange news over a hot meal cooked by a rota of volunteers.

After seeing the play I bought a t-shirt from Crossroads, it has WAR emblazoned in huge letters. It can feel like that sometimes — that we are going to war. We see the effects of gender-based violence every day, as well as dealing with what feels like an indifferent criminal justice system. As WAR and the ECP continue to take on the injustices of 'bad' women there will be more campaigns, maybe even more plays, and new work which has to go on.