Evidence from Jenny Pearl, sex worker and mother of a disabled child

Evidence from a woman who works on the streets
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Memorandum submitted by Jenny Pearl

Written evidence to the Public Bill Committee of the Policing and Crime Bill

I attended the Committee of the Policing and Crime Bill on 27 January hoping to give evidence in person. But I was not allowed, and was told to put my evidence in writing instead.

I want to tell you about the realities of working on the street as a part-time prostitute. There is constant danger because of the restrictions placed upon us by the laws and the constant harassment by the police. Because of fear of being arrested we don’t have the time to make informed decisions about the cars we get into and are forced to make instant decisions which endanger our lives. When we get arrested, we go to court and get fined, which means another night we have to work to pay that fine. So sometimes it is the police and the courts that force me back onto the streets.

Twenty three years ago I escaped a violent relationship and eventually ended up in the homeless families unit. That’s when I started to work as a part-time prostitute: my daughter is severely disabled and this was the only way to rebuild my life and hers. “Legal” work was not possible because of the time commitment needed to care for my child.

I got arrested and got a criminal record shortly after I first started working on the street. Since then I have had to refuse well-paid “legal” occupations because of the police checks that would be done. I have been asked if I would do emergency respite, which I am qualified for because of the care work I have done with my own child. They offered to put me in a bigger house so I would have a spare room available to have at least two children or adults with special needs. I would like to take this job but I can’t because I fear that if my police record came to light it would endanger my whole life. They may try to take my child into care as she may be considered a vulnerable adult. She would not be allowed to live with me because I have a police record for so-called sexual offences.

I go out to work now because of economic pressures. Benefits don’t cover the cost of gas, electric, water rates, replacing household equipment. I can’t live on benefits long term. When I have to buy coats or shoes I can’t afford them.

Most of the other girls or women that I meet on the street are there for very similar reasons, purely to keep their families together, their children out of care. It gives them a little bit of control about when to have the heating on or not, instead of having to stay in bed with the covers on to stay warm. They go out for an hour and make enough money to pay a bill.

Sometimes that is the only control, the only choice we have in our lives. We can stay in bed, live in squalor, survive on bread and jam, but personally I feel I deserve more and so does my daughter. So I choose to go on the street and earn some money because I want a better life. What I do is not dishonest. It is hard work. I wouldn’t do it if I had a choice. But now that I have a criminal record for soliciting, it is the only job I can do that enables me to earn some money without neglecting my daughter. Because of my daughter’s disability, when I go out I have to earn £60 just to cover sitting costs even though she is 25, before I get the money to pay the bills.

This legislation will make it more and more difficult for women to earn the money they need to keep their heads above water and their families afloat. I could take the easy route and so could other women and put our children into care. What would that cost the government? All we are asking is a little recognition. I don’t want the £1000 they pay a stranger to do my job as a mother. Just a little of that money would have made my life much easier. It would have stopped me getting a criminal record and enabled me to get a “legal” job. Every opportunity to get out of prostitution has now been taken away.

The only violence I have suffered has been at the hands of my ex-partner. This is one of the reasons I ended up on the street trying to rebuild my daughter’s and my life. I can honestly say that most of the people I have met when I have been working have been gentlemen. The only violence, verbal or physical, has been at the hands of other people and at the hands of the police.

The police treat us badly. They seem to think that because we are on the street we deserve all that we get. If we report anything they say: “if you don’t like it go home, you don’t have to be here.” That seems to be their attitude. They don’t understand that one way or another we have to earn the money to pay that bill or buy that pair of shoes; that one way or another we are out there to keep our families together. That is the only way we can do it.

Decriminalising prostitution may be too late for me – although I heard that in New Zealand they got rid of the criminal records women had for prostitution. But it will give other women the chance not to be persecuted and to get out when they want to. The fact that they worked on the street will not hinder them in getting a well-paid job, which the majority are well and truly qualified for. It would open up so many opportunities for us all.

February 2009