We look at the harsh life faced by female sex workers and ask "What's the way out?"
SALLY EVANS grew up in the red light area in Northampton, Spring Boroughs and was 17 when she first “did a client” of her own.
“I was abused as a child and started gas sniffing – things got progressively worse. I was drunk one night and I did a client.”
Sent to prison for a month for shoplifting, Sally “started working the streets properly” when she came out. Sadly, Sally’s story was not unusual for Spring Boroughs:
“Four or five of us girls who were brought up in that area all ended up street sex workers and drug addicts.”
Street prostitution almost always goes hand in hand with addiction.
“I started taking heroin when I was 18,” says Sally. “It helped me to do what I was doing.”
“98 per cent of the sex workers we had contact with were crack addicts,” Police Sergeant Mark McDonnell told Jesus Life. “The ones that weren’t were alcoholics. There wasn’t one prostitute that I came across who wanted to be on the streets as a sex worker.”
Sergeant McDonnell headed up a series of projects in Northampton called CASPAR (Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour Partnership), including a highly successful project in Spring Boroughs. He saw the traditional police way of dealing with street prostitution – arresting and fining prostitutes – as faulty. It targeted the wrong people: the victims, the sex workers themselves.
“There was no point in prosecuting the people who had no choice,” he explains. “But there was a crucial weak link in the ‘industry’: the clients. They were incredibly vulnerable to being put off. Crudely put, we aimed to destroy customer confidence.”
A “toleration zone” was established in a small industrial estate, and a “toleration time” within it: 7pm till 7am. Sex workers knew they wouldn’t be prosecuted there; a ‘no toleration’ policy was stepped up elsewhere. Subtle use of bollards and fencing meant unmarked police cars spotted drivers circuiting the zone. “If a vehicle went round three times, we’d record the registration number and send a letter to the registered car owner.”
“A third were business cars, so the letters would be opened by secretaries,” says Sergeant McDonnell with a suggestion of a smile. “I had some very interesting replies. And you cannot imagine how many men drive cars registered to their wives! One man was driving his girlfriend’s mother’s car...” Court hearings were arranged to occur on the same day as each other, with newspaper reporters present for maximum publicity.
“It was very effective, as you can imagine,” says Sergeant McDonnell. “To an extent, we formed a partnership with the sex workers. This was also where the SWAN project came in (Sex Workers Around Northampton), which offered support for women seeking to exit prostitution.”
The SWAN project gave many women vital support in finding new ways forward in their lives.
There were many layers to CASPASR – like community punishments given to drug dealers to clean up the toleration zone (“having to pick up the condoms and needles”). Over a decade or so street prostitution in Spring Boroughs was eradicated; many women were helped to exit sex work.
Spiritual renewal, too, can play a vital part in lifestyle change. “The spiritual void inside is one of the key things that make women able to sell themselves sexually,” says Ann Hawker, whose team has, for a number of years, been bringing ‘church’ to sex workers in Coventry from a minibus, parked in the red light district.
“Most of the women really hate what they’re doing, but don’t feel enough sense of self-worth to change. The knowledge that God really loves them as a person is such a vital step out.”
Sally Evans told Jesus Life the moving story of how she left behind sex work and addiction when she found Christian faith. After the heartbreaking experience of having her children removed by social services, Sally went to a Christian-run rehab in Luton. It was there she found her turning point. Though she is at pains to stress that it hasn’t all been plain sailing since then, she has left sex work and drug addiction behind. “Without Jesus I know I couldn’t do it,” she says, “no two ways about that.”
Ann Hawker says, “Providing a mobile base for women to come and experience God’s love is just the beginning. Obviously it’s also an opportunity, if they want, to give them advice, help, and a stepping-stone into something more. We can encourage them to get involved with appropriate agencies including Coventry Jesus Centre.”
One of Coventry Jesus Centre’s biggest successes in helping the vulnerable, including sex workers, is their Bond Scheme, which helps people into housing. Centre manager, Piers Young, told Jesus Life, “The Jesus Centre has housed quite a few sex workers on the Bond Scheme, helped others at a basic level through the drop in, meeting basic needs and friendship.”
“One sex worker who was helped to get her a new flat was supported by the church while she detoxed from heroin,” says Ann Hawker. “Eventually she moved back to her family in Birmingham, clean and completely transformed.”
Sergeant McDonnell agreed that housing is a key aspect of getting women out of the dreadful vulnerability of street prostitution: “Helping women out of prostitution is a housing issue because most of the women don’t have any lawful housing and are therefore trapped in a vicious cycle.”
Dangers faced by women working the streets are manifold. They are at risk of violence, rape, even murder. One sex worker, known by the Coventry Jesus Fellowship team, was “attacked and stabbed in the groin repeatedly, bled a great deal and nearly died in hospital with multiple internal stitching,” said Piers Young. “Sadly, a year later we saw her on the beat again.”
Ann Hawker, like Sally Evans, is sure that being able to find friendship and support in a “church without prejudice” can be vitally important for women seeking to leave behind sex work.
“Treating these women as ‘prostitutes’ is really degrading,” she says; “treating them as a person and providing the same services, the same hope, the same family as you would for any other person” – that is vital. Sex workers are “ordinary people – though incredibly resilient – and often very caring”.
Sally Evans put it powerfully: “Jesus told us not to cast stones, didn’t He? We’re all God’s children – no matter what we’ve done.”