Societies are made up of layers that can be seen all around us, all of the time, and of layers that we choose not to see. It is possible that even here on Jersey, just under the surface of our everyday lives, there is prostitution of all kinds going on. And though we may squint to render ourselves blind to it, still it exists, waiting for the moment when we opt to dip our toes into the forbidden and taste the flesh of its fruit.
Jersey has a very rich history of prostitution. Although it was in the 1600s that acts pertaining to loose living and ungodliness are first mentioned in the law, it is the nineteenth century that provides the most compelling evidence of the island’s twilight hours being alive with the colours of vice. Ladies of dubious morals made their way over from France to take advantage of the prosperity the island was enjoying, often covering their true reasons for being here by claiming to be ‘milliners’ by profession. And it makes sense, I suppose, that where there are barracks and ports, soldiers and sailors, there are also going to be on the road between them, which happened to be Pier Road, ladies that walk the night, houses of ill repute and rent boys, all vying for the coins in the purses of men away from home.
As integral as prostitution was to the life of the island in the mid-nineteenth century there was a man, George Le Cronier, the then Centenier of Saint Helier, who decided to take it upon himself to clean up all of this iniquity. On Sunday the 19th February 1846 he had been to a very smart house, Mulberry Cottage, well known for its disrepute, and had arrested eleven of the young ladies who resided there. The following Sunday he intended to arrest the master and mistress of the house. On that fateful night, on entering the well-kept establishment on Patriotic Street, he was stabbed by a carving knife in the stomach by the Madame of the house, Marie Le Gendre. Centenier Le Cronier died the next day of internal injuries, and Marie was transported for life to New South Wales, Australia.
In contrast to this incident, around fifty years later a protection racket being run by the police was uncovered, where officers would escort gentlemen to the many houses of ill fame and would provide security from the penalties of the law in return for sums of money.
By 1910 prostitutes could be found waiting in anticipation of customers in many of the island’s hotels and small restaurants. And if you were on the lookout for a rent boy you could head towards Westmount and La Collette and find there exactly what you were looking for.
Over the years those dark places of anonymous meetings change as the urban environment evolves, but if you were that man in the mid-1930s then you might have ventured to the vicinity of Sand Street and have found yourself a very accommodating lady companion standing out taking in the night air. Or for something possibly more sophisticated, or at least indoors, you could have become a guest of the ‘Striped Monkey’ on Cross Street.
Things were to change somewhat though when the German army of the Nazi machine invaded and occupied our island on the 2nd July 1940. All those bright-eyed blond boys full of excitement and close to exploding with pent up sexual frustration would be giving all kinds of things away to their captives for a taste of genuine Jersey hospitality; and they weren’t interested in cream teas and black butter. As a result this ‘horizontal trade’ involving the frightened, hungry, curious island girls and these handsome, powerful and homesick boys were banned. Sexually transmitted diseases running rampant through the barracks could, if not kept to a minimum, lose the invading force their hold on power. Any soldier needing to be treated for having acquired a ‘dose’ would have allowances cut, and yet these young men, afraid of what their symptoms would lead to, flocked to be treated.
The answer was to stop all of the illegal prostitution on the island by opening up their own brothels, just as had they had in Paris and the rest of occupied Europe. They brought over their own ‘professional ladies’ from France and set them up in the quaint hotel ‘Le Maison Victor Hugo’ under the medical supervision of the German hierarchy. Still syphilis ran wild and specialist clinics had to be set up, including one at the Merton Hotel.
On signing the surrender to the British, the German command on Jersey pledged in the articles of surrender to provide information on the whereabouts of all the brothels on the island and details of all cases of venereal disease.
Unlike its big sister the United Kingdom, the laws in Jersey regarding issues of sex and indecency have until relatively recently only been regarded in common law. The charge of keeping the island clean of these dark sins have been that of the Jurats, and is included in their oath. It wasn’t until the 1970s that an amendment to statute law made criminal acts of the procurement of workers for female prostitution. Laws pertaining to the living from immoral earnings do not seem to be included in the law here as they are in the UK. It is interesting to find that acts of indecency between men in public, which would cover rent boys plying their trade out in the open, as well as incest and bestiality are still not provided for in statute law but are made illegal through custom within the bounds of common law.
And how about now; today? Surely it is all gone now; all fallen into the sea and swept out like a faded embarrassment of what once was.
It is true there is no obvious and documented organised sex trade here, and with the laws here being quite vague in this area, other than odd isolated individual cases there haven’t been any prosecutions, no red light zones cleaned up and no brothels closed down.
It is true also though that Jersey has a very real, and miserably hidden heroin problem. Heroin addiction makes it very difficult to hold a ‘proper’ job, and as state benefits are not high enough in value to afford a comfortable existence, a way to supplement income must be found. This hunting for extra cash almost always means criminal pursuits of some kind, generally various forms of theft. Everywhere else in the world prostitution would also be an attractive option, so there is no reason to think that it is not the case here as well.
In 2006 the states police were issued with investigating rumours, which have still never been corroborated, that men frequenting a certain bar in the centre of St Helier were being propositioned by some very friendly young ladies of eastern European origin. The unverified stories continue with the new friends leaving the pub with some night-time naughtiness in mind, only for the male to find himself the subject of another proposition, and this time by some rather large and frightening men intent on extorting the money from his wallet in payment for ‘services rendered’.
I believe the police looked for evidence in the stories by sensitively questioning known consumers of ‘personal services’, but as yet have been unable to make these tales into anything stronger than gossip.
Such is the phantom-like existence of prostitution on the island. Nothing is concrete, all is conjecture. Rumours and hearsay murmur scandal, but only those in the know hold the keys to the secrets they guard, and they are reluctant to give them up.
If I were to want to indulge myself in a rendezvous with a young woman or a young man, and had it in my mind to offer a little monetary remuneration for my gratification, how could I find out where I should hang about to satisfy my needs?
I don’t know. It is well hidden here, so well in fact that at first thought it seems difficult to imagine anyone being able to make a living from it.
I could wander where the whispers draw me of course. I could take a walk around the area of Minden Place and hope to find the brothel there that I have heard mention of, but whether I would find the portal into this wonderland without a guide is questionable.
Or I could promenade the coastal road at Havre Des Pas in search of rent boys; but would they be there to receive me on cold and windy nights in February or are they only a seasonal attraction? Are they really rent boys at all, or are they just innocent young men also out for a stroll by the sea?
We all feel better choosing not to see the symptoms of degeneracy in society, viewing only a portion of the world we live in. Untroubled. Unaffected. Disconnected. However, if we were to give up this pretence and accept the reality of the human condition we could have a small sex industry that is regulated, free from disease, and kept safe from violence and drug abuse and alcohol misuse. Sex workers could possess rights in their employment as in all other professions, and they too could pay income tax and social security, making them useful and respected members of our society.
Prostitution is an ever perpetuating cycle of supply and demand; while ever there are citizens who want to pay for sex, there will be prostitutes; and while there are men and women willing to sell sexual services, there will be clients eagerly queuing up, cash in hand, to buy a piece of the thrill.