The government claims it needs to make cuts but squanders huge amounts of money prosecuting women like me.
This week charges of brothel-keeping against me were dropped. It’s enough for two prostitutes to live or work together for us to be illegal. To be within the law we must work alone. After 18 months of campaigning to stop my prosecution, it was suddenly claimed there was not enough evidence to proceed. I think this is because I was on the verge of opening a can of worms and the authorities wanted me to go away.
I didn’t plan on becoming a prostitute. I had an abusive and violent childhood leaving me with night terrors and a stammer. As the eldest child I looked after my mother and younger siblings and I learned to be strong. From the age of 11 I worked in a burger bar to pay for bus fares to school, dinner money and school uniform. Like most victims of domestic violence, we had no help to escape.
I became pregnant at 21 and a single parent at 23. I trained to become a computer programmer. This meant leaving the house with my three-year-old at 6.45am arriving home at 7pm and doing three hours’ nightly study. It was very hard but it paid off: I got a good job, bought a house, learned to drive and took my son out of poverty.
All this changed when I lost my eyesight in 1992 and developed a brain tumour as a result of childhood diabetes. I rented a flat to work as a prostitute so I could pay my debts. My son became my carer. After surgery I regained some sight in my right eye.
I worked alone. Within months, I was attacked, raped repeatedly, tied up, held hostage, and nearly strangled. I gave evidence against my attacker but he got off. I suffered years of nightmares and panic attacks and decided never to work alone again.
Using my prostitution earnings I trained for five years to become a counsellor, only to have my chances of getting a job scuppered by a CRB check exposing my prostitution.
By this time I was working with friends because it was safer. We kept our own money but jointly paid towards the rent, bills and advertising. We only found out later that it was illegal to work together.
That’s when I suffered my second major attack. We were robbed at gunpoint by a gang who had targeted hundreds of flats in the south of England. Most victims would not go to the police for fear of being prosecuted. Despite threats to my life and my flat being petrol bombed, I gave evidence and was commended by the judge for my bravery.
We moved to another flat and within a few months were raided. I was arrested and charged with brothel-keeping. My friend, who is Albanian and was worried about being deported, was pressured into signing a statement.
I decided to fight the case as my tumour is now malignant and my time is running out. Who has a right to judge me? People have sex for all kinds of reasons. My reason was to escape the poverty trap. I’ve been told that prostitution is degrading and self-abuse, but how many other people feel abused by their jobs?
The English Collective of Prostitutes worked with me on my defence and spearheaded a support campaign. More than 1,000 people wrote to my MP to protest. I spoke at SlutWalk in Trafalgar Square to the cheers of 5,000 people; I spoke at Occupy LSX and on their live stream. I tell my story hoping that other women and men will recognise some of their life in it and support our fight against criminalisation.
The police use trafficking as an excuse to hound prostitutes. But in my experience, victims of trafficking are rare and don’t get the support they need. Most working women are like you and me, trying to earn a living. Since the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act, which allows police to seize our money and our goods, arrests have skyrocketed. The police are just pimping.
I’m relieved not to face trial but angry that I was prosecuted. The government claims it needs to make cuts but squanders huge amounts of money prosecuting women like me.
Duwayne Brooks, Stephen Lawrence’s friend, said that the police who were first on the scene treated them as if they were guilty of something. When sex workers report attacks, we face prejudice too. Police may arrest us rather than our attackers. Violent criminals know they can get away with it and attack others, prostitute or not. Don’t the police know this, or don’t they care?
I should be able to work in the job I choose without being victimised – life is hard enough. Prostitution has been decriminalised in New Zealand: sex workers can go to the police and insist on their right to safety. If such changes were made here it could save many lives. And it could make it easier to leave prostitution if we wanted to.