The dangers of pushing street prostitutes into the gutter

The Guardian newspaper on Friday 28th May reported the reality of the extreme danger experienced by women involved in the street sex trade in Bradford, Yorkshire , England. It is true that in that working class city with huge social problems, the pressure to feed addictions to drugs forces many women into selling sex as the easiest way to get money for drugs.

Others do prostitution to keed their kids and give them holidays and school outlings. Others do it to give money to their controlling boyfriends. All of this also happens in Dublin to my certain knowledge. But this is by no means the whole story of commercial sex. I am nnot naive to think that decriminalisation would take these women off the streets but it would certainly reduce the danger to their lives and physical welfare very greatly. I am into harm reduction, not the imposition of moral principles which are great in theory but impossible in practice.

Guardian Front page

Bradford residents describe fatal addiction of city’s sex workers

‘They charge £20 or £30, enough for two hits of heroin,’ says friend of murdered woman.

It has become something of a cliche for residents near a crime scene to shake their heads and say: “You’d never expect something like that to happen around here.” No one around Thornton Road in Bradford said that today.

The junk-filled dead-ends, abandoned factories and boarded-up flats where the city’s sex workers plied their trade were exactly the sort of place a killer would do their work. One already had. In 2001, the beaten, naked body of 19-year-old street worker Becky Hall was found behind a car park on Thornton Road.

In a pub up the street from the home of Stephen Griffiths, charged today with the murder of three women, the landlady was furious. A close friend of Suzanne Blamires, whose remains were found in a river on Tuesday, she said police must take some responsibility for her death.

They forced her to work in such a dangerous location, she said. Until 15 years ago, prostitution in Bradford was concentrated on Lumb Lane, the mainly Asian street immortalised as “The Lane” in the 90s drama Band of Gold. But police drove the women south to the industrial area around Thornton Road where fewer residents would complain, said the publican. If they’d intervened earlier, Suzanne would be alive, she said.

She saw her for the final time last week when the 36-year-old popped in between clients. “I’m not allowed to serve the working girls drinks, but they come in to use the toilet,” she said, refusing to be named for fear of upsetting Suzanne’s family. The two had been friends since childhood.
Suzanne hadn’t grown up in poverty. “Her family was the envy of the street, as they went on safari in Africa when everybody else was going on holiday to Blackpool.” By the time Suzanne reached adulthood, her life was unravelling. “She was on heroin in her early 20s,” said the publican.

Most of the women were on drugs. “We never see police around here until this,” she added. “They drive past in vans or send PCSOs who don’t even have the power of arrest.

“These women don’t deserve to die. They’re all somebody’s daughter, yet they’re described as prostitutes in the media and it makes it so sleazy.
She had the loveliest childhood and home; she and her sister had everything going for them.” Tonight Nicky Blamires, Suzanne’s mother, spoke of her life. “Suzanne was a bright, articulate girl who went to college and was training to be a nurse. Even though she ended up on the wrong path, she tried to protect her family and kept herself to herself, so people knew very little about her. She always knew she could come home and the door was always open.”

In Chain Street in the red light district, a friend of Shelley Armitage watched as police searched derelict council houses. The woman, a heroin addict, said the street workers would charge clients “around £20 or £30” – enough to provide two hits of heroin, she said. “All the women who work the beat are ill,” she said. “It’s either heroin, crack, alcohol or methadone, or a combination. They don’t deserve this to happen to them.”

On City Road, on the edge of the red light district, a Christian charity, Teen Challenge, had a caravan last night. Every Thursday, outreach staff invite sex workers for tea and biscuits. All three murdered women were regulars, said Brian Hendlesby, the charity’s chief.

Armitage was the most frequent. “She was very bubbly – you heard her before you saw her. She’d signed up for our residential rehab course in Wales before Christmas, but never went through with it. We often find the women themselves are motivated, but their partners are also drug users and drag them down. It was that way with Shelley.”

Outside Griffiths’s flat in Thornton Road, Charlie Daniels, a former sex worker, waved a book she had written about her experiences in prostitution.
This was a disaster waiting to happen, she said. “Bradford should have been prepared. We haven’t learned any lessons from Ipswich. We need to deal with alcohol and substance addiction.” She was referring to “Suffolk strangler”
Steve Wright. “We need to deal with homelessness and poverty, why women still go on the streets, and why they’re not getting the support they should.”

Outside the police station, the press conference which revealed Griffiths was to be charged was watched by Sharon Norman, 36, forced into prostitution by a relative at 17 and since working in Bradford’s shifting red light area. She had called to report an alleged violent attack by her partner. Violence was an almost everyday part of her work, currently on hold because she is five months pregnant with her third child.

“I’ve been raped frequently and had knives at my throat. I admit, I’ve robbed some of them and they’ve come back looking for me. But a lot of them are seriously disturbed,” she said. “They like thinking they’re in control when you’re with them in the car.”
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A Practical article by Brian Tobin the Director of Iceni Project which supports sex workers and those affected by the misuse of drugs.

A safe exit for sex workers

In Bradford, as we saw in Ipswich, addiction and poverty have led women to pay with their lives
o Brian Tobin
o Guardian Friday 28th May 2010 page 38.

The murder of three women working as prostitutes in Bradford has reminded us of the terror that gripped the streets of Ipswich four years ago. During Steve Wright’s killing spree in the winter of 2006, many of the women I work with became acutely aware of their vulnerability and wanted to get out, there and then.

But sex workers tend to have multiple problems, including addictions, poverty, poor physical and mental health, and childcare responsibilities – and since they are often victims of domestic violence and rape, their feelings of shame and self-blame can often be a barrier to summoning up the necessary willpower to exit the trade. And even when they begin a more structured phase of drug treatment with groups such as our Iceni Project, they suffer anxiety and trauma when coming into contact with people who may recognise them from their time in the sex industry.

Some people I’ve talked to believe that if these women wanted to get out of the industry they could just walk away. They simply don’t appreciate how hard it is. These women live in a climate where extortion, blackmail and fear of physical abuse from former or current partners are an everyday reality; they are often socially isolated, and are terrified that family members will learn of their involvement in prostitution; on top of this, their mental health issues include depression, anxiety and self-harm.

In Ipswich, assisting women out of street sex work was a steep learning curve for all of us. We learned that no single organisation could respond to meet such needs, and that collaborative working arrangements were crucial.

Prior to the events of 2006, services in Ipswich were aimed at minimising the harm and risk associated with street prostitution and drug use. These were vital in reducing the harm that the majority of women were exposed to; however, such services can never eliminate the inherent danger attached to such a risky activity.

All the women Iceni has worked with were drug users, the vast majority being addicted to heroin and/or crack cocaine. Drug addiction is the consistent thread, and remains the driving force behind why so many women resort to prostitution. We can introduce new legal measures, and various groups can keep spitting vitriol about decriminalisation, legalisation or whatever their preferred option is; but unless we as a society learn to deal with drugs more effectively, we will never see an end to what is a desperate and dangerous activity that destroys lives.

Without exception, all the women I have worked with expressed an intense hatred for what they did; many disliked the men they did it with; and most had a deep sense of self-loathing. I cannot recall one woman ever stating that she would be involved in prostitution if it wasn’t for her addiction.

I have been fortunate to witness many women exit street prostitution over the last three years, to live more healthy and fulfilling lives – but each time it was a gradual and long-term process, with high levels of support required. While it has taken much effort, not least from the women themselves, I would say these outcomes have come about because their drug addictions and other associated issues were being properly addressed.

And for that reason, I would urge any individual who is working in the street sex industry to get in touch with their local drug treatment agencies, and even if they have tried in the past and perhaps fallen out with local services, they should still give it another go. If not, as the Bradford and Ipswich tragedies show, they could end up paying with their lives.