Prostitutes – A woman writers balance

May 30, 2010

We only care about hookers when a monster strike

India Knight

Every time a television news channel uses the phrase “worked as a prostitute” in its grim reports about murdered women who’d had desperate lives, a vocal sliver of the population goes up in arms, gets online and has a rant about “political correctness gone mad” (such a Nineties phrase).

“These women were prostitutes,” they say, puffed up with their own rectitude, rather than any sense of pity or compassion or — call me sentimental — any expression of horror at the brutal finale to these women’s lives. No: “Call a spade a spade,” they huff.

The funny thing about this — in the entirely unfunny context of the killing of three prostitutes in Bradford — is that most people wouldn’t know a prostitute if she bit them on the bottom.

Prostitutes often don’t look like prostitutes. When I interviewed Belle de Jour, the famous prostitute-blogger, last year only one of us was showing too much cleavage (me) and only one of us had a demure little cardigan on (not me). When I interviewed her again at a literary festival, only one of us was comprehensively lipsticked and only one of us looked as though she shopped at Laura Ashley.

Years ago my mother was having tea at a famous London hotel and the person she was with pointed out that many of the glamorous women with the expensive highlights and Chanel handbags were hookers. When my mother expressed disbelief, he sent a note over to the most butter-wouldn’t-melt, exquisitely dressed woman in the room. And lo, he was right. And so it goes on. The girl I was at school with who turned tricks for a bit in her mid-twenties didn’t look like a prostitute either.

Equally, lots of women who aren’t prostitutes like to dress as though they are, especially in city centres on Friday and Saturday nights. This they are perfectly entitled to do and good luck to them (although I always worry about the coatlessness, it gets so cold at night).

My point is, nobody can tell who’s who and who does stuff for free and who does stuff for money. Nobody can tell who likes sex and gives it away, gratis, and who makes you pay for it. So sitting in indignant moral judgment about how people are entirely defined by how they earn a living is not only offensive, but also wrong.

The women who were killed in Bradford — Suzanne Blamires, 36, Susan Rushworth, 43, and Shelley Armitage, 31 — all worked as streetwalkers. They did not take tea in expensive London hotels and wait for men in bespoke suits to send notes over. They sold sex at bargain-basement prices because they had heroin habits and a heroin habit isn’t something you’d wish on your worst enemy.

In the prostitution hierarchy, streetwalkers are the lowest of the low — working alone, unprotected, in the dark and the rain and the cold, for very little money and at the mercy of any nutter that comes along. They are out of it half the time, too. They are a million miles away from Billie Piper, all glossy lips, blow-dry and fabulous wardrobe playing Belle de Jour on television.

They are somebody’s daughter, mother, sister, and somebody somewhere loves them, despite their life choices. They were once innocent little children, even if their innocence was fleeting, often through no fault of their own.
They haven’t had lovely lives and now here they are. And some of them have been killed. And the first reaction of some people is to put pen to paper, or finger to keypad, and berate the media for, basically, not calling them dirty whores, for dignifying their occupation with the word “worked” — as though, off-duty, prostitutes made tea in a special prostitute way, or bought baked beans in a typically prostituty fashion, or sat on a bench staring at the clouds in the way that only hookers can. And then sat in someone’s car, waiting for death by dismemberment.

Do we care, especially? Not really. We only become interested when there’s a “monster” or “Ripper” or “madman” at work and the whole thing takes on an appalling, televisual fascination.

In Ipswich in 2006 Stephen Wright was found guilty of the murder of five prostitutes. In Bradford last week Stephen Griffiths, 40, was charged with the murder of three. He is a former public-school boy with a degree in psychology and has, for the past six years, been studying for a PhD in criminology.

We’re all glued to the news now that they’re dead and he’s been charged, but what I really don’t understand — what absolutely baffles me, and always has done — is why there has never been a national outcry about these women’s working conditions. Given that prostitution exists, has always existed and will continue to exist for all eternity — and yes, it would be nice if it didn’t and if all the prostitutes could be rescued and persuaded to go to Narcotics Anonymous and retrained as something impressive, but let’s not hold our breath — why is it not seen as imperative to ensure that at least they carry out their work in a safe environment?

Why do women who bang on about supporting other women not shout from the rooftops about how outrageous it is that these most vulnerable of women, who have sunk to the bottom of the pile, should potentially fatally endanger themselves every time they go out to work?

It is simply not okay, in an otherwise civilised society, to leave these women to their fate. Murders are seldom sadder than when they are preventable. Blamires, Rushworth and Armitage might be alive today if they had worked in a big, clean, state-sanctioned brothel, with two giant bouncers on the door, panic buttons in the rooms and an in-house programme that weaned women off the class As.

A proper brothel, I mean, that said BROTHEL in big letters on the door — not some dodgy, gang-run massage parlour. And yes, I realise we live in The Age of Cuts and legislation would have to be passed and brothels would be expensive to set up and lots of people — people who are perfectly happy to look at online porn provided nobody knows about it — would wring their hands and cry “not in my street”. I suppose it all depends on how much value you put on people’s lives.

india.knight@sunday-times.co.uk