Twenty-two-year-old Barnsley-born photographer Lily Miles became interested in the subject of sex work after watching a documentary on Channel 4 called A Very British Brothel. Taking viewers inside City Sauna in Sheffield, close to where Miles grew up, the documentary was raucous, all about hamming up the 'sexual antics' that take place there during working hours. What interested Miles, though, was creating an altogether quieter, more reflective engagement. "Watching that, I realised sex work is another subject that seems to be hidden in our culture and this made me curious and want to find out more. In particular, City Sauna fascinated me because it is run by women and, perhaps even more interestingly, it is run by a mother and daughter," she explains. "There are a lot of family-run businesses but people maybe wouldn’t expect that would apply to brothels, and I wondered if this would help to add another facet to the understanding of sex work."
Armed with curiosity, she phoned up the sauna, spoke to the manager, Jenny, and arranged to drop by to explain more about the project she had in mind. A few weeks later, she went along for the first time and spent the next six months making regular visits to the parlour. Her new photo series, and forthcoming photobook, Pink to Make the Boys Wink, is the tender and compelling result.
"There are over 70,000 people performing sexual services in the UK, with 88% of that figure being women," Miles says. She goes on to explain that it is currently still a crime to solicit sex work here and so joints like City Sauna operate in a legal grey area. In other words, it’s advertised as a massage parlour with a fee upon entry, and a blind eye is turned to what employees and their clients do behind closed doors. This means there were a lot of ethical implications of carrying out work of this nature, of which Miles strove to remain mindful from the beginning. "The project taught me a lot about ethical integrity and how important it is in photography," she says. "As photographers, we are often reliant on our subjects and there has to be reciprocal trust and respect." In the time Miles spent at City Sauna, she really got to know the women, built a rapport with them and only photographed when it felt right for everyone.
In Miles’ pictures, the women of City Sauna relax during their down time between clients, put their feet up on the sofa, paint their nails, hang out washing, laugh together and mess about on skateboards. They wear fishnets and fluffy dressing gowns, floral corsets and high heels dusted with glitter. The men who turn up intermittently and agree to be photographed are seen taking five to have a smoke, idly tapping cigarette packets on the counter, or sitting down in the shade out front, waiting, looking straight into Miles’ lens. The place itself has a softness to it, tempered with the shabbiness of a run-down, well-used interior. Gauzy pink curtains line the windows, roses bloom across the wallpaper behind the reception desk and holes in candy-pink leather stools reveal the foam stuffing inside. Miles explains that the building used to be a pub before it became a massage parlour. It appears rough around the edges, she says, but its chatty, feminine atmosphere makes it feel welcoming and alive with activity.
One of the images shows a local newspaper, its headline reading "'HATERS DROVE ME FROM MY HOME' – SEX WORKER". It’s dated Monday 18th March 2019. "That article is about 'Lillie Lovesitt'," Miles says, "one of the previous sex workers at the sauna. She kept this newspaper in her car; she had moved away due to the difficulty she had faced as she had been outed in her local area as being a sex worker, however she would occasionally come back and work on weekends at City Sauna." Pictures like this serve as reminders of the stigma – real and damaging – that the women face in their daily lives, away from the relative safe space of the sauna. "I think that’s why the women liked working there because they’re all able to work under the same roof and can be protected by each other, and they have measures in place to protect themselves," Miles says. There were some difficulties, she adds – like if a client would turn up and choose a woman who didn’t want to be picked – but it could be sorted more easily with a united front. Later, Lillie is photographed outside the sauna, standing defiant, black robe cinched at the waist.
Sex work is often still the intersection at which feminism fractures. Many of us would say that sex work is work and that a woman’s choices should be respected no matter what; others say that a sex worker is collateral in a broken system – that they do this work only because their circumstances have left them without real option or choice. In a 2018 article entitled "Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?" in the London Review of Books, author Amia Srinivasan wrote: "Third and fourth-wave feminists are right to say … that sex work is work … And they are right to say that what sex workers need are legal and material protections, safety and security, not rescue or rehabilitation. But to understand what sort of work sex work is – just what physical and psychical acts are being bought and sold, and why it is overwhelmingly women who do it, and overwhelmingly men who pay for it – surely we have to say something about the political formation of male desire … To say that sex work is 'just work' is to forget that all work – men’s work, women’s work – is never just work: it is also sexed."
Echoing this sentiment in remarkably personal and poignant terms, Fiona, one of the women Miles spent time with at City Sauna, opens up in an interview published alongside Miles’ pictures. "People say it's an easy job, [and] it’s easy in the fact you’re lying down and somebody’s going ba bom bom bom and gets off ya, great and you can just put it to the back of your mind and think whatever," but then, she adds, "it’s putting it to the back of your mind that’s the difficult part." Fiona isn’t seen in the pictures – her family doesn’t know what she does to earn a living and her privacy has to be respected – but her words resonate through the series, punctuating the moments of laughter and silliness and intimacy among the women and between clients with something deeper and more searching.
Miles adds that while this project shows only one example of sex work – "where the women involved are choosing to turn up every day," she says, which is an important distinction – there were still instances in which the nuances of choice were picked apart in the conversations she had. "Some of the women I met at City Sauna told me they were just in it for the money and would prefer to do a different job if they could get the same pay," she says. "In this context the people who work at City Sauna are selling ‘a service’ to clients." She recalls a conversation she had with City Sauna’s owner, Kath, when she began hanging out there. When she asked Kath her opinion on sex work, Kath’s response was: "Every woman’s sat on a goldmine."
For Miles, the safety of women, however they choose to make money, is at the heart of the issue. "We live in a system of patriarchy and in all, it is a broken system, but the women I’ve met while working on this project are using this misogynist system to pay themselves and they feel empowered to do this," Miles says. "My work at City Sauna has made me question whether it is right to criminalise sex workers who work together but allow people to work alone; it feels that the safety of the women has not been considered. The laws are not on the side of the sex worker, and in the case of a place like City Sauna, they cannot reach out to the police if they are in any form of difficulty, because it’s not technically legal. Therefore sex work needs to be decriminalised for sex workers to work safely together and support each other," she says. "People need to view sex work in a way that keeps the sex worker safe and doesn’t work against them." For her, this project was an important way of giving voice to these women, normalising their lived experiences and allowing a space for the conversation to unfold on their terms.