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World Perspective | Regulation

British Prostitutes See Red Over Proposed Sex Card Ban

May 22, 1999|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Red telephone boxes may be the picture of quaint England, but as far as the government is concerned, the sexually explicit pictures posted inside them every day are anything but quaint.

Home Secretary Jack Straw wants Miss Naughty Knickers and her fellow prostitutes to quit using public phone booths as bulletin boards to advertise their services.

Prostitution is legal in Britain, although solicitation is not. This week, Straw proposed making it a criminal offense to post unauthorized advertising in phone booths, with fines of up to $1,600, in line with penalties for soliciting. He opened a "consultation" on the issue, which is the first step in Britain's legislative process.

"Prostitutes' cards in telephone boxes are offensive, create a bad impression with foreign visitors and can be a bad influence on young people," said Straw's deputy, Paul Boateng.

Prostitutes say they will fight any measure to restrict their advertising.

"This is discrimination," said Louise, the receptionist for a woman whose nearly nude picture appears in London booths. "What about all of the pizza and cab companies that put cards in the phone boxes?"

Louise conceded that the sex cards may be risque for such places, but she said classified ads and subtle photographs do not get the same response.

"It's like chocolate in the supermarket. You can walk past a whole aisle of it, but when it's at the checkout counter, you buy it. It's the same with men. If your picture's in front of their face, they can't resist," Louise said. "It's a lack of willpower."

British Telecom, which owns the public phones, says it removes about 14 million sex cards from booths each year, mainly in London and Brighton. BT employees take cards down each day, six days a week, and within hours the cards are replaced, the company said.

"Our customers and local residents don't want this, and I know tourists find it strange," said Les King, spokesman for BT pay phones. "The cards are explicit in their images and words. It is difficult to explain to an 8-year-old what all these services are."

BT cuts off telephone service to numbers printed on the sex cards that are connected to BT lines. But with about 30 other telephone companies in Britain now, most of the women have switched servers.

Police have been trying to crack down on sex cards through existing litter and indecency laws with little success. The $150 to $300 fines are viewed as part of the overhead by those who distribute the prostitutes' cards.

Prostitutes also tried toning down their ads, but that only worked for a while.

"Probably like in your business, it's difficult to get everyone to agree," said Nina, a dominatrix.

The ones who did not tone down their ads got all the customers, and soon everyone was back to erotic photographs.

"We used to advertise in shop windows, but police cracked down on owners," Nina said. "Half the people who cause this fuss are our clients. There's no point in having legal prostitution if you criminalize the way we do it."

Prostitutes argue that cracking down on phone booth advertising will have serious consequences. It will force women to leave the relative safety of apartments, where they can screen their calls, and back onto the streets to seek their clients, they say.

"All the surveys show that it is 10 times more dangerous on the street, and there is already an enormous amount of violence," said Niki Adams, spokeswoman for the English Prostitutes Collective, which will oppose any laws restricting advertising.

She dismisses the idea that sex cards are offensive to Britons, whose favorite daily newspaper, the Sun, runs a picture of a topless woman on its third page each day.

"I don't know what world these people live in," Adams said of the government officials seeking to ban phone booth ads. "We're in the middle of a war and every night on TV there are pictures of dead and injured children. If they don't find that more offensive than [sex] cards in phone boxes, they're working by a different set of values than I am."

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