The Violent Reality Of Life On The Streets For British Sex Workers

Photo: Erik Witsoe/EyeEm
The following is an extract from Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers' Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith
In the weeks leading up to Christmas 2006, sex workers in the small British town of Ipswich feared for their lives. The bodies of two sex working women had been found in the previous week, and the killer was still at large. Out in the quiet streets, a local news film crew approached a young woman named Paula Clennell, one of the few who remained waiting for clients in the usual spot. When asked why she was risking her life out on the streets when a murderer was on the loose, she explained, "I have to work. I need the money."
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Paula, a mother of three in her twenties, had been selling sex for some time. After her children were taken away from her, she became depressed and began using heroin. By the winter of 2006, her dependency on drugs had reached a stage where she needed an income of around five hundred pounds a day to support herself. For Paula, as for so many people in similar situations, selling sex was the only viable way to obtain this kind of money. A friend encouraged her to try indoor escorting in the hope it would be safer – as well as legal under British law – but in her situation, that level of organisation and financial overhead was unrealistic. Street work, though criminalised, meant she could sell sex whenever she wanted and return home with instant cash. She had no partner and no manager to split her money with.

A few days after her appearance on the news, Paula vanished. By Christmas, her body had been found, along with those of four other women.

A few days after her appearance on the news, Paula vanished. By Christmas, her body had been found, along with those of four other women. Steve Wright, a local man, was later found guilty of all five murders.
Nine years later, Daria Pionko’s smiling face jumped out of news reports. Daria was just twenty-one and had moved from Poland to Britain ten months before. Daria’s mother, Lydia, described her as a kind-hearted and joyful girl who was always eager to help others. A few days before Christmas 2015, a young man named Lewis Pierre kicked Daria to death in Holbeck, Leeds, in order to steal eighty pounds from her. Daria’s body was discovered by her housemate and friend Karolina, who was also a street-based sex worker.
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Daria had been working in the Holbeck 'managed area'. This is a place where street-based sex workers and clients can meet without fear of arrest, an arrangement the only one of its kind in Britain. (In most of Britain, sex workers who wait for clients in public places may be charged with 'soliciting' or 'loitering with intent to commit prostitution'. Their clients may also be charged with 'kerb crawling'.)
Daria had left the managed area with Pierre, as was compulsory: although sex workers can meet clients without fear of arrest in the Holbeck zone, sex there is not permitted – they are forced to leave the managed area and find a dark alley or patch of woodland where they can conduct business in secrecy. In doing so, sex workers risk arrest. They also, of course, are at risk of attack in these hidden spaces. When Lewis Pierre reappeared in the lens of the same CCTV camera that caught him walking away from the managed area with Daria, he had blood on his steel-capped shoes.
In responding to such horrific stories, it is easy to make them purely about male brutality and the disposability of prostitutes. These themes have resonance for us, too, as they surely do for any sex worker who has stepped into a car or a hotel room with a stranger. The emphasis on male violence as the conceptual framework through which to understand these murders allows non-prostitute women – who may themselves be survivors of male violence – to empathetically and discursively 'enter into' the experience of the prostitute.
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While this empathy is welcome, there is a danger that this sands away the specifics of Paula and Daria’s lives and the lives and experiences of prostitutes as a whole, which then become draped around the figure of the 'everywoman'. As Beth Richie argues, the 'everywoman' victim/survivor concept was created in the 1970s as a strategic rhetorical move on the part of the nascent feminist movement to demand attention for the epidemic of male violence. But this has transmuted over time into something closer to a focus on the 'default woman' – and the 'default woman' is certainly not a drug user or a sex worker. Nor is she a survivor of state violence. Daria and Paula’s lives were shaped by specific realities, including the ever-present threat of criminalisation. These young women were acting rationally in a system designed to harm them at every turn.
Instead of asking questions about how the state makes women like Daria and Paula unsafe, media coverage tends to channel the worldview of their aggrieved neighbours. The fact that selling sex is technically not a crime in Britain does little to render sex workers as relatable – or grievable – in the eyes of police, residents or journalists. Sympathetic perceptions of sex workers are readily tossed aside for something more callous. Mike Veale, chief of the Wiltshire police, indicated that when a prostitute reports a crime, he takes her less seriously than other victims: "If you have a six-year-old girl who has trauma in her vagina or anus you would expect me to believe her. If you have a drunken prostitute, making allegations regarding a bad debt, you have to make more of a judgement."
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Judgements of this type are not in short supply. A few years after the Ipswich killings, one journalist wrote, "The girls killed in Ipswich were not working in the stupidly PC term 'sex industry'; they were junkies ... Can we afford rehab for the girls in Ipswich – and everywhere else? Speaking as a taxpayer, I’d say: erm, well, um. Good question." Indeed, it seems the Ipswich killings, and the questions they raise, drew a particularly vicious strain of rhetorical cruelty into the public arena, suggesting that hatred of sex workers and collective guilt about social neglect are closely bound together. Another journalist called the five Ipswich women "disgusting, drug-addled street whores" and bridled at what he considered excessive mourning, writing, "We do not share in the responsibility for either their grubby little existences or their murders. Society isn’t to blame ... death by strangulation is an occupational hazard."
Who, then – or what – is to blame? Why didn’t Paula and her friends have access to a flat that they could have taken turns using with clients instead of being driven away, alone, in a car? Why was she paying five hundred pounds a day for opiates that the National Health Service could have provided in a safe version for a fraction of the cost? Why was she stuck trying to manage her trauma through street heroin instead of through more sustainable support services? Instead of being supported to be the loving parent she desperately wanted to be, Paula was left depressed and in profound poverty. For Daria, too, these questions bubble up painfully. An evaluation of the Holbeck managed area had already noted, months before Daria’s murder, that the "most notable time of risk for sex workers is away from the Managed Area". Women like Daria and Paula need so little – some basic safety and resources — that it is easy to imagine society meeting those needs. Yet, at the same time, they needed so much – in that to imagine a society that takes their safety seriously is to imagine a society profoundly transformed.
Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers' Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith, £11.34, published by Verso Books.
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