and dark places


This set of circumstances magnifies the imbalances between north and south, enshrining the differences between third world poverty and first world power. The disposable wealth of developed consumer economies pursuing the ‘hot-wet-pussies’ of a culture barely developed beyond peasantry. Wealth and poverty meet in the red light zones of Pattaya. Phuket and Bangkok. where sex prostrates itself in every conceivable form smiles and sweet-talk. heavy petting and full entry. one-on-one and group sex. burlesque and freak shows. brutality and bestiality. And when love sets in there’s always the matrimonial traffic of Thai brides.

Power and wealth impregnate the day-to-day life in the world’s red light zones. It is stating the obvious to say they could not exist without the subjugation of women and the mechanical presence of male power. but in many European countries, power in red light zone culture is also a delicate equilibrium. in which women also . exert power. not simply as the stereotypical madame, but as working women who have made conscious. controlled decisions to enter the sex industries as bar girls. strippers, hookers and high-class call girls.

Unlike South East Asia, where the divisions of

wealth are real and relentless. several European red light zones have transformed into something like landmarks. The Pigalle in Paris has entered the must-see pages of international guide books. It isjust another attraction on the map, alongside the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Pompidou

e centre at Glasgow’s red llght zone. Photograph by Chris Blott

Centre. In this version of sex-for-sale, women can frequently invert power, calculating their own kind ofcareer, staying for a few years, then blending back into more conventional lives as models. medical students or married women.

One of the most traumatic moments in the history and development of red light districts is when power decides to leave. This is most dramatically played out when an army or military settlement is decommissioned or withdrawn. Scotland’s west coast suffered in the late 80s when the US nuclear submarine base at Holy Loch was closed. The nearby town of Dunoon a red light zone with tea and scones —- suffered serious economic decline, and the generations ofgood time girls who had made the nightly journey by ferry to meet American soldiers. had nothing much to imagine except the bleak future ofa sex life in Greenock.

The decline of red light zones has been played out before. One of the most significant landmarks in sexual and sub-cultural history has been the traditional ports. usually thriving dock towns which attract itinerant sailors from round the world. many of them looking for quick. casual and inconsequential sex.

Edinburgh’s Leith is a significant case in point. At its height, as Scotland’s main east coast dock, it became the magnet for Edinburgh’s prostitutes. squabbling with the dark closes of Rose Street, as one ofEurope’s most thriving red light areas. But as the docks gave ground to air, rail and road, so the area fell into disrepair.

hanging round for the regeneration of the 805 and the influx of the new media graphic studios. television companies and ad agencies. The hookers are still there but the real action has moved elsewhere. drawn inevitably by the opiate of the drug trade.

Drugs and the HIV virus are by far the biggest factor in the cultural changes that have beset today’s red light zone. The epidemic of highly addictive drugs like heroin and crack-cocaine has created a climate of dependency and danger which goes way beyond the gin shops of Edwardian Soho.

At its height, as Scotland’s main east coast dock, [Leith] became the magnet for Edinburgh’s prostitutes, squabbling with the dark closes at Rose Street, as one of Europe’s most thriving red light areas.

The consequence of intravenous drug abuse, viral infection and psychological dependency has shifted prostitution into the realm of desperation. Glasgow’s red light zone never a particularly theatrical place has simply divested itself of the need to entertain. There are no lights. no strip joints, no peep shows, no Runyonesque rogues selling cheap shit on the corners. It has eliminated pleasure and dispensed with burlesque. Just street after street of girls skulking in doorways from the Clyde to Anderston bus station and up the hill to Blythswood Square. By day the streets play home to offices; by night they are swamped by young women. mostly drug addicts, who have made their way from the margins to the centre. Against a backdrop of more than 200 drug deaths in a couple of years, the city’s sex trade is intricately linked to a desperate cycle of self- abuse. a world way beyond decadence, closer to death.

Red light zones are an inevitable by-product of change itself. Although sex-for—sale is a subject morality would rather deny, it is in fact a metaphor for the significant and seismic changes in society. Trade and industry, the movement of labour, military strategy, war and peace, wealth and power, travel and tourism, drugs and disease: one by one they have shaped the way sex is sold.

Red light zones are not simply the dark heart of the city they are a fascinating barometer for change. Despite the protestations of the moral minority, these hidden parts of the city need to be watched in intimate detail. They are the most reliable monitor of what society is doing to itself. They are the stuff of television. D Stuart Cosgrove is commissioning editor at Channel 4's Independent Film and Video Department. The Red Light Zone will be broadcast on Saturdays at 11pm, beginning I I March.

The List 24 Feb-9 Mar I995 7