London’s Callbox Eye Candy

2000 > England

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

‘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

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…