My interview (Mean Streets, 13 January 07) on what forces women into prostitution, takes what I said about pimps and Black men out of context.
The interviewer asked if there were pimps and drug suppliers, and if they were mostly Black men. I said I didn’t know any drug dealers or pimps and that the women I know are, like me, working to support themselves and their children. I explained that the racist stereotype that all drug dealers and pimps are Black is widespread, but that I believed it to be wrong. I try to avoid labelling people. Prejudices are used against prostitute women too and I know the harm they cause – we are assumed to be ignorant criminals and hopeless drug-addicts, unable to do anything else, and our lives are devalued as a result.
I know that any man can be violent. I explained that when you are on the streets in fear of being arrested, you are forced to make quick decisions – so you fall back on the ingrained prejudices you’ve been brought up with. You go for clients of a certain age, or driving certain cars, though you know that this is not necessarily safe, as the Ipswich murders show.
We can only get rid of stereotypes and prejudices if prostitution is decriminalised, so that people’s perceptions of the women and men in it can be based on who we are rather then how we are portrayed.
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Like so many women, Jenny Green was driven to prostitution by desperate need. She tells Steve Boggan why her trade should be decriminalised
Jenny Green can still remember the first time she got into a stranger’s car and had sex, but the details are a little hazy. “I’m not sure exactly what we did,” she says. “Perhaps I blocked it out a little.”Since that night in 1989, there have been hundreds of strangers and hundreds of cars and, to a certain extent, the emotional blocking is still going on. Jenny – not her real name – is one of Britain’s tens of thousands of sex workers; no one knows for sure how many there are. Now 54, she would probably admit she is past her best, but there is still plenty of work out there on the streets of Manchester on the nights she chooses to take it.Despite the murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich in November and December, women like Jenny are still walking the streets, still getting in strangers’ cars, still wondering if they will ever get out again. But what makes them do it? Drugs? Coercion? Money? Or, is it more complicated than that?I meet Jenny at a community centre in Manchester where, in her very limited spare time, she works as a volunteer. She has auburn hair below the collar and is wearing a crisp white blouse and grey skirt. She has the face of one who has suffered and she smokes heavily as we chat.
“I left school at 16 and, until 1989, I worked at a security printing firm in Manchester,” she says. “I was married and in 1983 I had a daughter [“Julie”] but she was terribly disabled. She has Prader-Willi syndrome, which affects brain function and mobility and which leaves an individual constantly hungry – there is no switch to tell you you’re full after you’ve eaten.
“If a normal child is hungry, you can feed it and it will stop crying. In my daughter’s case, she just cried all the time. It caused stresses on my relationship, because my husband wanted her to be put into care and I didn’t.
“When she was six, I took her for a week’s holiday in Wales. When I came home, the house had been completely stripped and everything was gone. It turned out my husband hadn’t been paying the mortgage and it was being repossessed. All I had in the world was what I had in my suitcase.”
Jenny was put in homeless accommodation for nine months until being given a council house. But because of Julie’s need for constant attention, she couldn’t get a regular job. “My husband had left me with debts and we had no money and not enough help from social services,” she says. “Eventually, I was left with a choice: give up Julie or go on the street. I couldn’t get a normal job, but I could do two hours here and there as a working girl to get the money we needed.”
Leaving Julie with a babysitter, Jenny went to the Chorlton Street bus station, a well-known haunt for street prostitutes, and simply asked for advice. “The girls were very kind to me,” she recalls. “I asked them what you do and how much you should charge. They told me how they all watched each others’ backs, taking the registration numbers of customers’ cars and letting the customers know.
“I was about 39 and I assumed I would be a bit old. But no, the customers came to me, too. One came along and I thought: ‘This is it’. I got in and somehow switched off. Afterwards, I remember thinking ‘That wasn’t so bad’. And it wasn’t. To my mind, it was nowhere near as bad as losing my daughter.”
But what about the risks? Isn’t she afraid? “Well, yes but you develop a kind of sense about people and you make up your own rules,” says Jenny. “For example, I will only get in a nice car. I look in the back to see if it is clean and tidy. I check out the customer to see he’s not dirty and that he’s quite well-dressed. And I will listen to the way he speaks, to see if there is respect in his voice.
“It’s like being in a bar. There are certain people who talk to me in a bar and straight away I decide whether to talk to them. It’s the same kind of feeling. Much of it is based on stereotyping and I’m sorry for that, but it’s just the way I feel. I never go with black men because I see them as the drug dealer, the pimp. I know that’s wrong, but I have to rely on my instincts.”
And those instincts, it seems, have kept Jenny safe. “I only go out a couple of nights a week – I don’t do drugs and I don’t work for any more money than Julie and I need,” she says. “If a bill comes in, I will go out and get enough money to pay it. No more than that. Over the years, that’s a lot of nights, but I’ve never had a moment’s trouble.”
Really? No trouble at all? “None. I think I can honestly say that all the men I’ve gone with have been perfect gentlemen. Perhaps it’s because I’m older than the other girls and I don’t tend to dress in short skirts and so on, but the men I get treat me with respect.”
Jenny says prices have changed over the years, but in the micro-economy of the bus station, full sex is £25 to £30, sex “with oral” is £10 extra, and just oral is £20 to £25.
But how does she cope emotionally? “It’s like putting on a uniform and going to work,” she says. “I go and do my work, but when I come home, that person has been left out there on the street. Even the first time it happened, yes I felt a bit numb, but it was as if it was someone else.
“No one knows what I do. I have never confided in anyone. I keep the real me distanced from the whole thing and nobody has ever found out,” Jenny says.
She has five convictions for soliciting and feels the way the police deal with prostitution simply makes the problem worse. “They know where you take the customers and they’re fully aware of what goes on.
“But every so often they’ll have a clampdown and come and try to move you from an area. They did that with the Commonwealth Games, and we were all forced to the edge of the city, into far more dangerous areas.
“Then you go and get fined – my last one was £250 – so you have to go back out on the street to pay the fine. You have to go and do exactly the thing the police were trying to stop you doing in the first place.
“They are also using Asbos against us now, which I think is unfair. Prostitution is not illegal – soliciting is – but they give you an Asbo for prostitution and then when you breach that, you can be arrested for it. I think only decriminalisation would work.
“At the moment, there are lots of working girls who can’t get a normal job because they have convictions for soliciting. If they apply for certain jobs, criminal record checks could be done, the social services alerted and they could lose their kids. So, they keep on working on the street. It’s a vicious circle.”
Jenny says life is slowly growing better for her after a hard couple of decades. New benefit payments for carers will make life easier for her and her daughter.
And she has built up several regular clients who have become friends and a source of income away from the streets. “I have a magistrate, a financial adviser and a chap who supplies paper to the newspaper industry, and they are all gentlemen,” she says with a smile. “It’s a bit like going on a date. We go out like friends and have a lovely evening and then we have sex. The only difference is that they pay for it.”
Perhaps the easiest money, however, comes from another regular, an airline pilot.
“Yes,” Jenny chuckles. “He asks me to give him a bath, cover him in talcum powder, tuck him in bed and read him a bedtime story – Goldilocks and the Three Bears – and, er, that’s it! And he pays me around £50 for that.”
That’s how Jenny sees the future – off the street and perhaps with one or two regulars. “I would love to stop,” she says, “but I still have Julie and we still need to live. She couldn’t make sense of what I do even if I tried to explain; but if she could, I hope she’d understand that I did it for her.”