Some facts about prostitution
Amid the salacious detail in the red tops about the Suffolk “Ripper” are a few facts about prostitution rarely – if ever – reflected in mainstream publishers’ contribution to the debate about women selling sex. Whereas the Ipswich sex workers murdered or living in fear talk about heroin addiction and kids in care, the happy hookers presented by book publishers are “empowered” post-feminists: less street walkers, more street cred.
Belle du Jour and Brazilian Bruna Surfistinha, to name but two, write about the high end of hooker life. They visit good hotels in exotic locations, do it with millionaires and are chick lit city (call) girls from nice, middle class families, who chose to do what they do – in return for a nice lifestyle.
The 17-year old Surfistinha writes in her blog: “If I’m going to be a prostitute, I don’t just want to be a run-of-the-mill one.” While Belle emphasises her choice in selling sex. They are, for the middle-class male journalists getting hot under the collar about whores, proof that “nice girls do” and a reason for punters not to feel guilt.
These woman are a male fantasy. What Surfistinha calls “run-of-the-mill” prostitutes are women more often than not living in horrible and degraded circumstances, whose choice was taken away with their passports or the first time they smoked crack. There is nothing glamorous about the world they inhabit.
Prostitution and paedophilia have an uncomfortably close relationship. It is one publishers would do well to remember next time they publish a book glamorising the business. Belle and Bruna may be above the age of consent, but according to the Home Office (Paying the Price. 2004) the average age women become involved in prostitution is 12 – one out of every two prostitutes become involved in the trade before they are 18.
Particularly heart-breaking about the women in Ipswich is their youth – Tania Nicol was 19, Anneli Alderton 24 and Gemma Adams 25. The two women feared missing, Paula Clennell and Annette Nicholls are 24 and 29.
The myth of choice peddled in happy hooker lit is made more insidious when one talks to agencies working with sex workers, who report increasing numbers of trafficked women working in brothels. In its 2003 report, Sex In The City, the POPPY Project, which works with trafficked women, reported a rapid rise in the number of women forced into prostitution.
Though data is difficult to collate, it found that in every borough there were trafficked women. POPPY also found that 25 per cent of the London sex workers mapped in its research were from Eastern Europe, 13 per cent from South East Asia, 12 per cent from western Europe and 2 per cent from Africa. It also quoted PunterNet, the website for “Johns”, who frequently refer to buying sex from women who are reluctant, unhappy and in pain. “Some of these women will have been trafficked,” the report states flatly.
No wonder these women feel “reluctant” to service their punters: the Metropolitan Police estimates that trafficked women forced into prostitution see between 20 and 30 men per day (source: Amnesty International UK).
Even if they are not trafficked, the statistics for UK sex workers do not paint a picture of a happiness. The Home Office’s Paying the Price found that 85 per cent of sex workers reported physical abuse within their families, and 45 per cent reported familial sexual abuse. This reflects my own anecdotal evidence from working with street sex workers in Holland. One woman I knew who had become a prostitute at 14, was raped twice, when she was seven and when she was 13. She ran away from home and was forced to live on the streets. Prostitution was not her “choice”, it was her means of survival.
Time and again the reports about the women in Ipswich mention drugs. The website End Violence Against Women quotes another Home Office report from 2004, Tackling Street Prostitution: Towards an Holistic Approach, which found that 87 per cent of women in street-based prostitution use heroin.
I write this, not because I think that prostitution is wrong, but because I believe it is time we legalised this work and offered protection – and a way out – to the women and men caught up in the trade against their will. It’s time we in publishing stopped peddling myths about sex workers that pander to those who exploit women, men and children.
If you think these women do not deserve protection, here’s another harsh statistic: Paying the Price found that two thirds of the women involved in prostitution had been violently assaulted by their clients, but only 32.4 per cent reported attacks.
The attacks in Ipswich are being taken seriously by the papers now, but they are not always, as Maggie O’Kane revealed in her 2002 Channel 4 documentary Sex on the Streets. She found that in the 10 years to 2002 60 prostitutes were murdered, more were missing, but the violence these young, vulnerable women faced was rarely reported on.
* Eaves, the charity behind the POPPY project, which works with vulnerable women, has launched a Christmas appeal. You can donate to it by clicking on the following link: Eaves Christmas Appeal.