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Hot Stew & Literary Gentrification: Sex Workers Respond
Victoria Holt , March 25th, 2021 09:12

Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew has been praised for its exploration of a changing Soho , but Victoria Holt argues that the novel erases the reality of sex worker life, becoming a form of the gentrification it seeks to condemn. Photos thanks to Juno Mac

I often marvel at the strength and resilience of the sex worker community. I’m not going to patronise them by using words like defiance or empowering, but I am in awe of their sheer will to relentlessly survive in a world which seems to prey on them. In 2013 and 2016 (and countless other times) sex workers have survived their workplaces and homes being raided by the police. These raids involve women having their doors kicked in in the middle of the night, and being dragged out onto the streets in their underwear with the invited press taking pictures. Sex workers have survived social stigma, police brutality, and being forced to continue working in unknown, potentially unsafe locations. Sex workers have survived a legal system which criminalises their livelihood, and from this precarious legal position has grown a movement against both a criminal apparatus and social zeitgeist bent on extracting from, then snuffing out, their existence.

Whilst these survival stories may not have been the focus of Fiona Mozley’s latest novel, Hot Stew, they were clearly a source of inspiration. Hot Stew is set in Soho and tells the story of a cast of characters living atop each other in a historical townhouse at risk of demolition in favour of new, more expensive apartments: a novel based very much on the ongoing issues caused by Soho’s changing face. Hot Stew can be read as a call to arms to society’s marginalised against the homogenisation of London’s most colourful neighbourhoods, a washing out of its messy character in place of sanitised comfort.

In Mozley’s Soho, low level criminals occupy the basement of the home at risk of being torn down. A French restaurant is on the ground floor, and up top is a velveteen brothel, occupied by a sex worker and her maid who live and work there. Unfortunately, as well as being home to Soho’s eclectic bohemia, the building is a prime piece of real estate. Threaded through the plot, Hot Stew attempts to raise questions of wealth, entitlement, gentrification, and class, but it does more than this. Mozley brings to light the depth and character of Soho’s history, holding it next to its potential future of being washed of all personality in favour of expensive housing and upscale restaurants. Precious, a migrant sex worker, becomes the reluctant lead on these protests against the move to gentrify as she dons a mask and placard to rally the others. “People will be lined up to dismiss us because of who we are" she tells her friends, “We don’t want to give them any more reason to think we’re thick."

Gentrification is not only the literal act of displacing and replacing physical entities. Sarah Schulman writes that the key to gentrification mentality is the replacement of complex realities with simplistic ones, a rewriting of history which ‘dumbs down and smooths over’. When sex workers are forcibly evicted to make way of developments and new flats, the pastiche of sex work allows for a sex work type theme park to add character to a newly sanitised area; the workers are displaced but Soho cashes in on the perceived edginess of sexual entertainment. The same phenomenon is, of course, also to be found in contemporary cinema and pop. Hot Stew follows a similar pattern: the excitement and seediness of sex work make for a telling and titillating story, and by washing out the politics and leaving only the feather boas and Venetian masks with no mention of sex workers’ organising against criminalisation, Mozley is able to gentrify the mentality of sex work. Her book criticises gentrifying class wars within Soho, but Mozley’s own part in these phenomena cannot go uncritiqued. Her dumbing down and smoothing over of sex worker history is part of the gentrification process. She takes the story of sex worker survival, removes its messy history and real lived experiences, and makes it palatable for a fresher, cleaner audience. She highlights and critiques the gentrification process, and she then reinforces it.

The partial criminalisation of sex work in the UK creates a point of leverage which can be exploited to justify forcibly removing sex workers from their tenancy. “’I’m not saying it’s the perfect job’" says one of the sex workers inhabiting Mozley’s townhouse at a protest against being evicted, “I’m just fed up with the hypocrisy." Hypocrisy from characters like Agatha, the novel’s property developer who feigns ‘concern about the safety of other women’ to justify evicting such them out of their own homes. In real life Soho the brothels are gone, and the people who worked in them pushed to more dangerous, more precarious, more hidden work and, in their place, come restaurants posing as strip clubs and private members clubs posing as peep shows. Yet, in Mozley’s three hundred page novel, there is not a single sentence about the state apparatus that facilitates these evictions: criminalisation. None of the characters mention it, even though the book brings to light structural factors of displacement. It is the criminalised nature of the sex industry that allows both police and wealthy landlords to forcibly remove sex workers from their workplace. Mozley must know about the English Collective of Prostitute’s history of organising protests against the Soho raids, as she describes the “carnival masks" and placards documented in the ECP’s press and archives. Yet Mozley does not interrogate the fight for legal change and she erases the groups behind the sex worker movement while keeping their images for her book.

Mozley is aware of the politics and history yet chooses to look away. If literary gentrification is not already a term, it should be: Mozley has actively displaced the characters who made this story, to move into the area and retell the story herself. The suffering and trauma that sex workers fight against has, in her writing, become what Sarah Schulman describe as a vague unknowable. “Theirs is a difficult job," Mozley writes. But never once says why. A couple of my friends read this book at the same time as I did – between us we have over 50 years in sex work and activism – and it made for uncomfortable seeing our efforts reduced to a messy, and inaccurate, storyline. Mozley’s representations depoliticise a deeply political action.

To Mozley, her creation of a room where characters socialise and organise show how difficult it is for her to see sex workers as anything other than performing sexually at all times, on and off the job. In Hot Stew, sex workers and their community, insufficiently fleshed out, and lacking idiosyncrasy and humanity, become photocopies of photocopies: tired tropes we encounter time and again in the media. They use language which real sex workers retreat from. “Mine is a classy website" one sex worker says to her colleague, “not like your cum-shot extravaganza." “What would you have to offer Tesco?" another sex worker asks her friend, “A blow job counter?". Her characters ‘look the other way’ entirely on the issue of sex trafficking as “neither of them like to talk about it". Mozley finds these conversations uncomfortable, but it is insulting to the hard work done by activists to imply that sex workers do as well. As Mozley herself points out, stop giving people reason to think sex workers are thick.

So, what do real sex workers talk about when their workplaces are being mowed down and destroyed? (Other than how they’re too stupid to work in Tesco’s, of course). They talk about mobilising action. They talk about political protest. They talk about their rights, the law relating to sex work, human trafficking, and how best to support each other in a world which criminalises their livelihood and profits from their imagery.

Jason Rosenberg, in his critique of It’s A Sin, writes that history gets erased and communities get neglected when stories are told but removed from their political context. Likewise, protests such as the one Mozley depicts happened because of sex workers' determined organising – they didn’t just magically happen. Disclosure, the 2020 documentary about trans representation on film, showed the destructive and dangerous consequences of appropriated storytelling about marginalised communities. Sex workers deserve better than being used as props in a story about gentrification, with their truth removed to make it more enjoyable for unfamiliar audiences. While I defend a writer’s right to tell any story they want, including about marginalised communities, I do think an element of research and accountability is needed for a finished book to be authentic. Sex workers are a secretive and intruigng subject matter, but tropes and mimic representations of them are more welcome than the people themselves. In Hot Stew Fiona Mozley has packaged up sex work into a prurient story about Soho, stripping it of all history and politics, and in doing so become every bit the gentrifier her book critiques.

Victoria Holt was a sex worker for ten years before retiring and beginning a PhD in social sciences. She advocates for sex worker rights with SWARM and The English Collective of Prostitutes. Her fee for this article was donated to the ECP, find out more and donate via their website