I was 15 when I began street sex-working.
I came to Bristol with a bloke – but on my own, really. Yeah, I thought I was grown up but I didn’t know what I was getting into. Well I kind of did but I was 15 and I think to make those choices at that age things haven’t gone right.
I didn’t get up one day and think “I’m gonna be a prostitute”. I didn’t say that to a careers adviser when I was 8. Even if you’re out there for drugs you’re not out there from choice. If that’s your only choice then something is quite wrong.
But I always remember when I got arrested and they said it would come off your record in eight years. The first time I understood the reality was when I went for a job and they said no.
My DBS [Disclosure and Barring Service report] had come back and I realised I still had a criminal record.
When I first got clean, a One25 worker put my name down for a life skills course: communication, budgeting, motivation and helping people with substance misuse issues. I went through training and then I was running groups at Bristol Drugs Project and elsewhere. But I couldn’t get a paid job doing it.
I’ve had loads of job interviews. But then the criminal record comes up and they come up with excuses. I’d have all the right skills and experience but no… I knew I had more to offer and it annoyed me that people were saying it’s okay for me to volunteer but that I couldn’t get a paid role.
I went to this company which was working with young women who would be leaving care, a lot of whom had also been street sex-working. I got through the interview, got asked to come in to do a shadow shift and I was like “I’ve got a job!” And then the interviewer said ”Oh, we forgot…”
As soon as she said it my stomach went.
There were just three women in the room, I felt like we’d got on well so I just told them. I explained my convictions were from back in the nineties. But as soon as they saw what they were…
I stormed home because I knew how it was going to go. The next day they told me “We’ve spoken to our human resources department. There’s going to be a problem with you working with girls in Bristol because of your conviction”. And I thought – does that matter? I don’t understand how that could stop me from working. And I knew I would be really good at this job. I could relate to those young women!
Do you know what I think it is? It’s a moral judgement people make. They see that conviction on a bit of paper and it’s their own thoughts that come into it rather than who I am. Did they think I was going to pimp girls? Or think that I’m a sex addict and I’m going jump on them!?
I know people have a picture of those girls: they think you’re this or you’re that and think it doesn’t bother them. I tell you, none of the girls out there enjoy sex-working.
But to have to sit there and go over it with people you don’t know, who are writing it down… and you don’t know where that’s going to go, they’ve got that information and you don’t know what they’re going to do with it.
One of my family members was on the sex offenders register for I don’t know how long. They didn’t have to go and sit down and explain to people why they ended up abusing a child. But me, because I’ve got prostitution on there, I have to go back over it all, how I came to be in that situation.
I just didn’t know what to do, where to go, who to ask.
So I went to a charity which works with ex-offenders. They explained that if it’s on your record there’s nothing you can do other than tell people all about it. And I thought “Why? No one can tell me how I am actually a danger so why should it be there?” It’s like the system’s saying “well you can come away but we will only let you come so far”.
My friend’s a trained practitioner in complementary therapy now and she has had the same past as me. Since then she’s been to uni, she’s got her own life, her own business but it’s still there. She never had a drug problem and she’s been away from sex work for 20 years. All she wanted was to go and work with younger kids and do sport but she won’t – she knows she’ll have to sit down and say
“I’ve got this on my record”
It’s like another one of my friends whose used One25: she’d love to be a dinner lady because it fits around her kids but she won’t go for it because of her criminal record. It’s things like that.
And like with my son: I haven’t been on any school trips with him because you have to be DBS checked and people in schools could see and say ”guess what she used to do” and the next minute…
So it’s not just jobs.
And I’m not saying everyone who sees will judge. But the feeling you have when you know you’ve got to go through it all again.
I ended up thinking ”I’m just not going to another interview because I’ll never get the job”.
I was fuming at the world and everyone. I thought there had to be someone out there that would fight. I googled ‘solicitors that help prostitutes’ – as random as that! That’s how I found out about the charity Beyond the Streets. Having got in touch with them they told me about Harriet Wistrich, that she was looking for more women to help with a case.
When I looked up Harriet I thought ‘yes!’ She’s been involved in cases with a lot of women and injustices. So I spoke to her and gave her my statement and my story, basically from when I was a child. You know when you meet someone and they’re not judgemental, and you’re with people who you can say anything to and they won’t be shocked because they’ve heard everything? Harriet’s amazing.
I’ve never thought about the term trafficking before. I’d always thought of that as something that happens overseas. Then I understood differently what had happened to me – being coerced, being underage… When you think of trafficking you think it’s against someone’s will, so people look at that differently from prostitution.
From there I went to London to meet Harriet and the other women. And from there we went to the House of Commons. I felt like I was Prime Minister or something.
That’s how I knew it was getting real!
We had one of the chambers with green chairs and some MPs were there. They got up and just spoke and that was just the launch of the campaign – all different organisations, some from men’s organisations who were doing similar for men… We each had to stand up and say our little bit. So it was intense. But I did it. I needed to see it through to the end, no matter what the outcome.
In January they took it to the judges – I wanted to go but I was warned there’d be lots of press and I don’t want my kids to be affected. So only Fiona [Broadfoot, one of the campaigners who waived her anonymity] went with Harriet. They went in at 10 o’clock in the morning.
All day I was waiting for them to come out and by 3 o’clock I thought it must have gone badly. Later, I got a call from Harriet to say the judges were taking it away because it needed more time. I didn’t think that was a good sign.
Then the judges came back just the other day [on 2 March].
I didn’t think it would go in our favour or change my criminal record. I just thought at the end of the day if something’s not right…
And it wasn’t about ‘poor me’, it was just when you see something that’s affecting so many people and it’s not right and it doesn’t make sense.
I thought maybe it would change for people coming after me, you know? I thought that even if it wouldn’t change my own record, if it could change someone else’s, for them to not have to go through that whole thing and feel crap about themselves.
When I met the other five women involved – yeah, they’re awesome women, the most amazing women I’ve ever met! Especially Fiona – she has fought for 20 years but there have been no women to stand up and put their names to it. I can totally see why:
You don’t think it’s going to go anywhere, no-one cares about it.
For so long they said “shut up, you’re just moaning, you chose to do it”. Yeah, after a point you could say I chose to do it, but initially I never chose that life. Without Harriet I could have been shouting from the rooftops and no one would have listened. For so long I never had a voice and I didn’t ever think I would have.
I fought the law and I won! There’s lots of stuff you can change. It might be a slog and you might need a load of people and it takes years but I didn’t think this would happen.
Well, it’s just the first phase of the legal case and we don’t know how long it’ll take. But I think it opens a gate for different kinds of laws to be changed. At the minute it is just the prostitution conviction that could be wiped – and that’s all I’ve got.
But some of the other girls have got other kinds of convictions that are all tied in around that time when you’re just doing what you’ve got to do to survive. I’m not saying legalise prostitution – just that people should look at the complex issues around sex work instead of criminalising women. So I hope this will start the ball rolling.
That show Three Girls – I couldn’t watch when it was first on TV, but when eventually I did I realised this had been going on for years.
But it’s positive that the conversation is much more open now.
You know what I want to do? I want to work with girls around their wellbeing. When you get out of sex work, you can get clean but you have a lot in your head and a lot of ways you look at yourself and view yourself and relationships. That can stop you. You’ve got all these people think you were this and that. And we do feel bad, we feel guilt and remorse and shame.
I want to work for women who have exited sex work. I’ve done a lot of work with chaotic people and it’s tiring, it can be demoralising. I think sometimes a lot of the funding is aimed at the chaotic side which is understandable but there isn’t so much there for you once you’re out of it.
It’s not gonna be “let us hold your hand”. It’s about empowering people and making them more resilient and making them able to stand up and have a voice.
I know Harriet’s going to take it further. She argued that this was affecting women more than men, that it’s a gender issue. She still wants to go to the Supreme Court and go all the way with it. The climate at the minute for women’s issues is right, with the Rotherham thing and other women’s rights issues.
I’ve found my voice now and I’m not going shut up!
I don’t know what my voice is going to be saying, probably winding a lot of people up, but the world needs it! And the world needs more people who have empathy and aren’t judgemental. We judge people too much – I do it all the time. Looking at girls and thinking it’s their character fault, that they’re mouthy or whatever – but that’s what they’ve had to become because of what they’ve gone through.
Find out who they really are. Maybe even they don’t know. Because it started so young, you don’t even know who you were meant to be.
Mic drop and walk out?! I don’t know, I’ve just got a fire in my belly!
These girls, they get into it because that’s all they think they’re worth.
I thought all I had to offer was my body – for years I thought that. I used to walk down the street and I knew people would see me and know what I was and what I did.
Now I think
”Yeah I was…
…but this is me now.
That’s not all I was
not all I am
not all I’m going to be”