Pubdate: Sun, 17 Dec 2006
Source: Sunday Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: Telegraph Group Limited 2006
Author: David Harrison, Sunday Telegraph


The killings in Ipswich have shone a dismal light on the extent of 
prostitution in Britain today. The figures are horrifying: more than 
100,000 girls working in brothels, massage parlours and on the 
streets, while the number of men using their services, particularly 
in younger age groups, has doubled. As David Harrison reports, the 
stark truth behind the sex trade is abuse, violence, exploitation and addiction

The Evening Star in Ipswich summed it up succinctly: "Things like 
this are not supposed to happen in our part of the world." Serial 
killers are meant to strike in big, edgy cities, not in an unassuming 
agricultural town whose last claim to national fame was the fleeting 
success of the local football team 25 years ago.

The murders of the five prostitutes have shone a disturbing light on 
Britain's dark underbelly, a seedy world of desperate, drug-addicted 
women who sell their bodies for their, or their pimps', next fix of 
heroin or crack cocaine. And they have highlighted an explosion in 
the availability of - and demand for - "sexual services" in 
21st-century Britain.

If it goes on in Ipswich, with a population of 140,000, number 38 on 
the list of Britain's biggest urban centres, then, you might think, 
it must be happening everywhere. You would be right. There are an 
estimated 30,000 street prostitutes in Britain, and police and drugs 
charities say they can be found in every city and town. "Where there 
are hard drugs, there are pimps and street prostitutes, and there are 
hard drugs all over the country," says a senior Scotland Yard officer.

advertisementNinety-five per cent of street girls are addicted to 
drugs or alcohol or both, according to the Home Office. Most have 
been violently or sexually abused as children and groomed for 
prostitution by boyfriends, members of their own families or 
predatory pimps they meet when they run away from their miserable homes.

The drugs come early too: most are offered heroin by their abusers 
(many of whom are also addicts) in their early teens. Once hooked, 
the girls have a choice: steal, deal, or go on to the streets to make 
money to feed their habit and pay their pimps. For some, the forced 
prostitution comes first but the drugs always follow. "On the game, 
they call it," said one outreach worker. "But this is certainly no game."

The girls are usually "launched" as streetwalkers at about the age of 
14, though some are as young as 12, says Wendy Shepherd who runs a 
Barnardo's project in Middlesbrough. Some will already have been 
abused by family members and "hired out" to paedophile friends from 
the age of eight.

Street prostitution is highly dangerous. The girls have to make 
instant judgments about complete strangers before deciding whether to 
get into their cars. The craving for drugs drives them to take 
enormous risks. About 90 prostitutes are known to have been murdered 
in England and Wales in the past decade but the real figure is almost 
certainly much higher. Street girls are easy prey for violent 
psychopaths because anonymity is part of the commercial pact and the 
girls' disconnected lives mean they can go missing for days, even 
weeks, before anybody notices.

Murder is a risk prostitutes face, but violent assault is almost a 
guaranteed part of their lives. More than half of all UK prostitutes 
have been raped or seriously sexually assaulted, and three-quarters 
have been physically attacked, according to government research. The 
figures for streetwalkers are even higher. "Nearly every woman I have 
dealt with has suffered some form of abuse from punters," says Ms 
Shepherd. "I've dealt with girls who have been punched, kicked, 
raped, kidnapped and dumped on the motorway. It's a grim, seedy 
life." A study by The British Journal of Psychiatry found that nearly 
seven out of 10 prostitutes met the criteria for post-traumatic 
stress disorder, the same as victims of torture and war veterans 
undergoing treatment.

The street girls are the most desperate and vulnerable "workers" in 
Britain's expanding sex industry. In 2004 the number of prostitutes 
in the UK was officially estimated at 80,000 but the real figure has 
increased significantly since then and is now believed to be over 
100,000. The rise has been fuelled by an influx of thousands of women 
from eastern Europe, most of them trafficked into this country and 
forced into sexual slavery. Brothels, thinly disguised as "massage 
parlours" and "saunas", have sprouted up in even the smallest market 
towns, while a bewildering array of sexual services, as prostitution 
is euphemistically known, is offered on the internet.

Demand, almost entirely from men, has risen sharply too. There are 
male prostitutes and "escorts" who cater for female clients, but the 
overwhelming majority of punters are male. A typical male user of 
street girls is white, often middle class, in his 30s or 40s, 
frequently married with children, and in search of anonymous and 
untraceable encounters, according to a study by researchers at 
Sunderland university. The punters come from all walks of life. "You 
get factory workers and labourers but also doctors, judges, policemen 
- - and they can all be violent," says Ms Shepherd.

In a recent survey of 11,000 men, the British Medical Association 
found that the proportion of men who have had sex with prostitutes 
has nearly doubled in 10 years from just under one in 20 of the male 
population to one in 10, with single university graduates more likely 
to have paid for sex than married men and non-graduates.

The figures reflect a recent trend for younger men, in their late 
teens and twenties, to use prostitutes, albeit mainly those in 
massage parlours and other brothels rather than street girls. "Sex 
without strings" is seen as part of their night's entertainment. 
Diana Marshall, who runs the Poppy Project in south London, Britain's 
only government-funded refuge for trafficked women, blames society's 
"normalisation" of the sex industry.

"It used to be taboo to go with a prostitute, something to be done 
furtively, something that brought shame if you were found out," she 
said. "But now it has become something to do on a stag night or a 
night out with the boys. It's considered a bit of a laugh to go to a 
lap-dancing club or a brothel and pay for sex."

Other indicators, she says, include the rapid spread of lap-dancing 
clubs, "lads' mags", internet pornography and "punters' websites" on 
which hundreds of prostitutes are "reviewed" in graphic detail in the 
manner of a mock theatre or restaurant review. "It's disgraceful that 
this has been allowed to happen," says Ms Marshall. "This is 
basically society saying it's okay to exploit women in the 21st century."

Pole-dancing is a sensitive topic. "It is inextricably linked to 
prostitution and the exploitation of women," she says. The BBC 
scrapped plans for a programme called Strictly Come Pole-Dancing in 
July after objections from women's groups, and Ms Marshall complained 
unsuccessfully to Tesco when the supermarket chain began selling a 
"pole-dancing kit", complete with pole and fake dollars to put into 
the dancer's garter. Tesco says it is for "people who want to improve 
their fitness".

No woman chooses to be a prostitute, the charities say, least of all 
a streetwalker, and there is always coercion. The world's oldest 
profession is really the world's oldest oppression. "A job in which 
drug addiction, homelessness, rape and murder are occupational 
hazards is hardly a career choice," says a spokesman for Women for 
Justice. The reality is a brutally far cry from the romantic film 
Pretty Woman, in which Julia Roberts plays an implausibly beautiful 
street hooker "rescued" by a millionaire businessman played by Richard Gere.

Most groups say more must be done to target the men who use 
prostitutes. They want the law to be changed to make it a criminal 
offence to use a prostitute - though not to be a prostitute - a 
reform that in Sweden has helped to cut the number of street girls by 
two-thirds. British police carry out occasional undercover operations 
to arrest kerb-crawlers but admit they have limited resources and 
"competing priorities".

This situation is not helped by the UK's muddled laws. Prostitution 
is not illegal but soliciting for purposes of prostitution, keeping a 
brothel and kerb-crawling are. Prostitutes fined for soliciting 
simply return to the streets to make money to pay the fine, while 
still, of course, having to feed drug habits costing hundreds of 
pounds a week. As a result, they will take even more risks. A woman 
can "work" from home or visit a client in a hotel room, but a flat or 
house where two or more women are so working is deemed an illegal 
brothel. In a review published last January, the Government announced 
its intention to allow up to three women or men (two prostitutes and 
a "maid") to work in "mini-brothels" to give them better protection, 
though the plan has met with fierce opposition and there is no sign 
of it being implemented. Ministers are more likely to push through a 
less controversial proposal to send kerb-crawlers on "education 
courses" rather than fine them up to UKP1,000 as at present.

The search for solutions has produced bitter divisions between 
advocates of "zero-tolerance" and supporters of "tolerance zones", 
similar to those in Continental cities such as Amsterdam. 
Middlesbrough has led the way with a "zero-tolerance" approach allied 
to attempts to get prostitutes into drug rehabilitation. The scheme 
has reduced the number of girls on the streets from 250 (including 
14-year-olds) in 1999, to about 15 today, and there has not been a 
murder of a prostitute for three years.

Opponents say that zero-tolerance simply displaces women to 
neighbouring towns. Bolton has taken the opposite view and has 
created a de facto tolerance zone between 7pm and 7am, when 
prostitutes are given condoms, clean needles and advice on getting 
off drugs. Officials say the scheme has helped some women to leave 
the trade. Brian Iddon, the MP for Bolton South East and chairman of 
the parliamentary Misuse of Drugs group, said the women should be 
given free drugs to get them off the streets and, in the meantime, 
brothels should be legalised. "Criminalising these women will drive 
them underground and make them even more desperate," he says.

The Association of Chief Police Officers recognises prostitutes as 
"victims" but is opposed to "decriminalisation" and "tolerance 
zones". Ann Lucas, the chairman of the Local Government Association's 
prostitution task group, said: "We don't tolerate murder or 
paedophilia. As a local authority we don't want to manage 
prostitution. We want to eradicate it."

A growing body of doctors, drugs charities, social workers and some 
senior police officers, however, agrees with Dr Iddon and wants all 
addicts to be given hard drugs free on prescription. A "maintenance 
dose" taken under supervision, along with counselling and safe 
houses, would help addicts start to lead a normal life and, they say, 
wipe out much of the crime linked to hard drugs. Such a radical 
initiative would cost much more than the UKP597 million the 
Government has allocated for drug treatment this year but proponents 
say the extra funding would be more than recovered in savings made by 
the criminal justice system as the drug-related crime rate tumbled.

For some there is a more immediate solution: keep men off the 
streets. "It makes me furious that the police are telling women to 
stay in because of what happened in Ipswich," says Diane Marshall. 
"Women are not the problem. It's men who should be under curfew."
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