This is an edited transcript of a podcast, in which Anna talks about being groomed into prostitution as a teenager in 1989 and pimped on the streets of Leeds over the next 11 years.
She explains the insidious nature of the grooming process and how pimps use violence to maintain their control. She talks about the punters who paid for sex, the women she was prostituted with, the local strip club, and the long-term effects ‘the life’ has had on herself and her children.
Anna’s story is harrowing and contains descriptions of violence and abuse you may find disturbing.
I was born in Cyprus because my mum and dad were in the RAF. We lived in Cyprus until I was four and then moved from one RAF camp to another every three years – which meant I had to make new friends and adapt to new areas. I never got too comfortable anywhere, but liked the sense of belonging you get on a military base. My parents stayed in the RAF until I was 16 and we went into civvy street and that’s when things changed.
When you were 16?
And where was civvy street?
That’s what we call civilian life. So when you leave the RAF, you say you’re going into civvy street.
Civilian life is a big change because on the RAF base discipline is high and you’ve got to do right because otherwise it reflects badly on your parents and you get into double trouble.
I came to Leeds in 1989 to do a contemporary dancing course. I got a grant for it and stayed in Chapeltown. Everything was really relaxed there. We’d all sit in the park and listen to the sound systems and chill. I felt the same sense of belonging I’d had on the RAF base. I didn’t realise a lot of the closeness I was feeling was because the poverty brought people together – that because everyone was struggling they had a common cause, a bit like how people had a common cause in the RAF.
I found Chapeltown exciting and being 18, size 8 waist, 44 EE chest, long blonde hair – it was like I was a new me. I got a lot of attention which, at that point in life, I needed, and it gave me a sense of assurance and acceptance.
I didn’t have a definite place to live at first and went from one house to another, which I suppose made me vulnerable. In an area like that, when a new girl comes from out of town, you quickly get sucked in.
That’s how I met the guy who put me on the street. We were in the park at one of the sound systems and a girl said to me that a lad over there liked me. And I looked over but didn’t think he was that good looking. But later on that night, we went to Blues (a Blues club) and he came in smiling and I was instantly attracted. And he said, You didn’t want to talk to me earlier. And it was like, Yeah, but I didn’t see you smile. We ended up talking from about midnight until 8 in the morning, when Blues closed. And from that day onwards, we were never apart.
I went to stay with him – he was living with his friend – and he got me into his social circle. We’d be hanging around in pubs. There were a lot of girls and their boyfriends – and they all seemed really loved up, with good relationships.
The girls all disappeared at about 6.30 pm and I’d be left with the lads, which made me feel a bit awkward. But I didn’t ask questions. I was naïve and didn’t figure out what was happening or where the girls were going. They’d come back at maybe 2 or 3 am, by which time we’d be in Blues, and I’d see them giving their partners money.
One girl kept giving money to the lad I’d got with. When I asked him why, he explained they go out and work. And I said, Work? What do they do? And he told me they worked the streets.
I didn’t really give it much thought. I felt sorry for them and was glad that at least I didn’t have to do that to keep my boyfriend. But gradually when the girls went off to work and I was the only one left, the lads would make me feel awkward for being there. That pushed me to want to be involved in what the girls were doing.
It was difficult because I was a threat to some of those girls. They were going out all night to work and I’m sat with their chaps. So they were a bit funny with me. But one girl took me under her wing at the request of my boyfriend.
How old was he?
He’s three years older than me, so he would have been 21.
Now I’m older and I look back, I don’t really blame him because he’s a product of his environment – and Chapeltown’s been known for prostitution for so many years. It was rife; very much a trend. Now it’s Spice or knife crime, but back then, prostitution was an accepted way of life.
People sometimes ask whether I’m mad at him. I am mad at some of the things he did during the time we were together, but how can you blame someone for pimping when they grow up walking to nursery past girls on the street. It makes them think it’s normal.
That girl said she’d help me go with them. I didn’t even know how to do makeup – I’d never been a makeup kind of person. I didn’t have the right clothes. But she said don’t worry, she’d help me. And it felt so good getting ready with them all, and how they helped me put on these different clothes.
When my first punter pulled up in his car, I was really scared. I didn’t know what to do. But when I spoke to him, he was more nervous than me. That made me feel like I was in control. I got in the car. I’d been told what you had to say and what you had to get. It wasn’t easy having sex with a punter, but after I’d done it with that first one, I realised I was still here and there was no danger, no harm. I was able to not think about it. And I’d got money in my hand.
Before that, I was young and couldn’t get benefits and I’d spent my grant enjoying the summer in Leeds, so £25 would have had to last me a week. But now I had that £25 in my hand. It was almost like a power thing.
I think I did two more punters that night. Then we met a rich American guy. Someone had dared him to come to the UK and spend £150,000 in two days. When he pulled up and said he wanted two girls to go with him to his hotel, the girl I was working with wasn’t there and I was too scared to go. But as he turned round in his taxi, she came back. So we went to his hotel with him.
He was very heavily into coke. He went into a shop to buy tinfoil and gave the lady a £50 note and told her to keep the change. He was throwing thousands at us. We ended up spending about eight or nine hours with him. He wouldn’t let us go – he withheld some of our stuff because he didn’t want us to leave him. I think he was frightened we’d rob him or something. By the time we finished with him, I think I had about £3,500 in my pocket.
So that was my first night. And obviously you’re on this kind of high. I felt in control. I felt rich. I was getting a lot a praise from the others, who were saying, Look what Anna’s made! So I felt on top of the world in some ways – but completely in denial about what was going on or what we had to do or witness for that money.
So basically that’s how it started. I’m not going to say I was beaten up and forced into it. But it was very clever grooming: putting you in the right social circle and making it become like a natural progression. So I felt like I was making my own choices and I couldn’t be angry at anybody.
A lot of grooming is done that way. It’s not a case of I’m going to beat you up unless you go out there and do something, because it doesn’t work like that. You make a girl feel loved. You put her in a circle with people she thinks are friends and it just naturally follows from there.
So that’s where I came from and that’s how it ended up going the way it did.
And how long did you end up in it?
Altogether about 11 years – during which time I had three kids. Looking back now, that was the hardest thing. I didn’t plan any of my kids – I didn’t set out thinking I’d have three children to this guy. It was just, Oh gosh, I’m pregnant.
From the guy you met in the Blues club?
Yes. But saying that, when we used to sit in the pub, I had a feeling I was pregnant very early on with him. And when it was confirmed I was pregnant, it made it even easier to enter into it because you think, where am I going to get the things I need for the baby? You start to panic.
The worst thing was working through the pregnancies. I didn’t take care of myself. I was literally working at this stage from about midday to 4 pm. Then I’d go and have something to eat, and then we’d go to Lumb Lane in Bradford from about 10 pm till 4 am.
So you travelled from Leeds to Bradford for the night shift?
Yes. One of the guys would take us over. We’d have to pay them petrol, despite that they’re your partner. They’d get money out of you any way they could.
I didn’t have many bad experiences on the street. Most of the bad experiences came from having the kids. I worked up until two weeks before I was due with my eldest and then I went to my mum’s to have her because I’d never had a baby before and you want your mum.
How old were you?
I was nearly 20 at that point. I went to my mum’s, had my daughter and then came back to Leeds. We had a new flat, and I’d got everything in it ready. I was planning to come back and focus on being a mum, and tell him I didn’t want to do it anymore.
I had to come back for a court case. You’d get arrested a lot and fined or charged and you’d have to go to court. I remember sitting in the court and this girl said, Oh, Anna, thanks for letting me stay at your flat when you was away. And I’m like, What do you mean? This girl was my partner’s ex, the one who I first saw giving him money.
It turned out that the whole time I was away, he’d had her working. I remember her saying to me, The only problem is you don’t have no towels, so I had to use your dressing gowns to get dry.
And it was like, wait a minute. I’ve got this brand new flat set up. I’ve got my baby’s cot. The bed’s in the room. And you were in there sleeping with my partner and using my dressing gowns to dry yourself? Because I’d got his and hers matching dressing gowns.
And from there, everything just went downhill. I felt very deceived, very cheated. I didn’t want to do anything for him. I didn’t want to be around all that. Now I’d say I had a mental breakdown. I didn’t want to clean the flat. I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t want to sleep in the bed. I felt violated.
The flat got really bad. I wasn’t throwing rubbish out. It was inundated with mice, rats, the lot. He was quite happy to let me just rot in there.
He was always out and I couldn’t figure out why. He said he was just going to be at Blues, or wherever. I found out years later that he was giving the money I was making to a girl he’d been in a relationship with for a long time, who wasn’t involved in prostitution.
By this time I was pregnant with my second child – there are only 11 months between them. And it just hit a point where I realised I couldn’t come back here because I can’t have a midwife seeing me live like this with all these mice. Straight away I would have lost my kids.
By this time there was a lot of violence – because obviously my head’s messy. I feel violated. I’ve got this child and I haven’t even got any time to bond with her. We had a regular baby sitter – who used to charge us something stupid like £60 a night – but she was a family woman, she had six kids of her own. She was a lovely woman. So I used to pay her, because I knew my daughter was safe with her.
The night I had my son, I’d come in off the street at about 2 am. He brought me this shish kebab and I sat on the bed and ate it. It was about 4 am by this time, and my waters just went – but he wasn’t there. So I had to go to the phone box and call him.
I went into the hospital on my own. Prior to this, I’d saved about £200, because when I’d had my daughter I didn’t have any money put away. He wasn’t there when I had my son, but he got to the hospital pretty soon after, and I’m like, Where were you? And he said he had to take another girl to Bradford and she’d messed him about, so he’d been chasing her around all night in a taxi and now he hadn’t got any money.
And I said, But I gave you £200. And he said he’d spent that on the taxis.
I needed sanitary towels and nappies. I’d nothing at all. So I asked him what I was going to do. And he said, Don’t worry, I’ve brought you some clothes. This was at 8.30 am. I’d given birth only a few hours earlier. So he gave me this bag of clothes and said, Anna, there’s no choice. You’ve got nothing. We need things and we need money for the electric. You’ve got no choice.
I literally borrowed one sanitary towel from the hospital. I was too embarrassed to go and get a nappy because if they’d seen me, they would have known I was up to something. So we ended up sneaking out of the hospital with my son and he dropped me from the hospital onto the street corner.
That was another pivotal moment when things just went downhill. It’s quite crude – I was bleeding right down my legs because the pad wasn’t very good. He was in a flat across the road, watching me, and I knew my son was laid on someone’s bed on a towel because there was no nappy. A punter picked me up and I just burst out. It was like I’d hit that point of everything being too much. The punter gave me £500 and said, Look, just get yourself off and look after your child.
But he still took that money and went to the bookies [betting shop] and again I was out working the next day. And to him, it was like, now I was out of hospital, everything was back to normal and we didn’t have to save anything. So even with my son, I didn’t get any time at home to do that parenting thing.
Then with the third pregnancy, again I worked the night before. I had her at 4 pm and came straight out of hospital – because it was my third and we lived really close – so I was home after three hours. Next day, I was back working. Again for the same reasons.
When that baby was two weeks old, a really dodgy punter left me for dead at the back of a health centre. I can’t remember what happened, but I blame myself. By this time, I don’t want to be nice and just have sex with you. I’m going to try and rob you. I’m going to tell you that if you don’t give me your money, you’re going to be robbed. Anything to get money, without having to be physically touched.
So I worked through all three of them. Everyone at the nursery knew me and loved and respected me. They knew what I was doing but I wasn’t a bad parent. My kids were always fed and well-behaved. There was no untoward behaviour. But looking back now, that three years of having kids and being forced to be detached from them has done a lot of damage. This is one of the long-term effects.
By this time, his violence was pretty bad – any time you’d say anything or speak up. It was abuse. If there was no money, he’d get angry. If he’d see me talking on a street corner instead of working, he’d get angry.
There were some really bad pimps, who were very controlling. And then there were others, who were soft. And they’d mock them for being soft with their women. I didn’t realise he was getting pressure from guys to put on that whole hard front.
So it escalated, his control?
Yes. But at the same time, I was more numb and it became a normal way of life for me. It was just what it was, how it was. I wasn’t drinking, but I used to smoke a lot of weed to blank things out.
A typical day at this stage would be… I’d get up in the morning… They let my kids go to nursery from a very young age, because they knew I needed that space. That nursery helped me a lot; they offered me a lot of support. I had a double pram and a baby sling, because by now I had a two year old, a one year old and a new-born. And I’d have a bag full of washing – because we didn’t have a washing machine in our house, despite how much money I made. My kids were more or less living in disposable clothes. I’d hold back some money and run to town the next morning and buy them some clothes.
Anyway I’d leave the nursery once the washing was done at about 10.30 and carry the wet washing back up the road to dry at home. Then I’d get a bath to wash away the kids and the mum side, and get dressed to go and do the afternoon. There was a strip club, the Gaiety, on Spencer Place and there was always money to be made round there at lunch time. I’d leave there before the older kids came out of school and go home and have another bath to wash away the work and put on my mum clothes.
Then I’d pick the kids up from nursery, go up to Kwik Save with some money I’d made in the afternoon. We lived daily. There was no weekly shopping. So I’d buy the stuff they needed, bring them home, feed them, bath them, put them in their pyjamas and take them back to the baby sitter.
And then I’d work from about 8 pm to about 4 am. When I’d come back from that, he’d just disappear. I’d think he was in Blues with his friends. But he wasn’t. He was with that other woman.
So the whole circle was like, prostitution twice a day, parenting twice a day, and me very very numb.
And then we had a massive argument. I’d been out and a guy had locked me and this other girl in his place – we were being a bit cheeky with him, trying to take advantage of him. But it backfired and he locked us in his premises for about 12 hours. He didn’t take our money or anything – we had all the money we’d taken the night before. But obviously my partner was stressed because he couldn’t find me and he had to pick up the kids, and everyone was worried about where I was.
When I came in, he says to me, Where the fuck have you been? And I say, Don’t ask me that. And I threw the money at him and said, That’s all you care about. And that got me a serious beating. Probably one of the worst beatings I ever had from him.
He hit me across the back with a snow chain we used on the car tyres. I never knew a beating across the back could make you pass out cold, but I did. When I woke up, my face was in a rubbish bag in the corner. My eldest child, who was only about two and a half, was in the kitchen and saw it all. And to this day she’s troubled, she’s struggling with some of the stuff she’s seen.
It was hard. There was a lot of crap. It was very dysfunctional. It was all about money. It wasn’t about thinking long term about the effects or about building a family. After that time he beat me, he chopped me in the shoulder with an axe. That was the first time I had to call my mum. I was really scared. My face was a mess. I’ve got a scar here where he actually hit me in my nose and it split open. My jaw was fractured in three places. The hospital said they’d never seen a fracture like that, even from a boxer. So I had to have my mouth wired and then he gave me this big chop on my shoulder.
He could have killed you.
Mmm. You don’t think about it at the time. But I went to my mum’s and my mum was like, Right, you’re not going back. But I still didn’t tell her what I was involved in. I never told her until it was over.
She got me into a hostel. And the day I was due to move into it, he was already calling me back, saying, Oh, I really love you. I should never have done it. Come back – I’ve got us a new house and we’ll get married. Blah, blah, blah. And I fell for it.
And I remember my mum crying on the doorstep saying to me, Look, I don’t want you to go. But if you go, know you can always come back. My dad threatened him.
And then as we drove off, he and his friend who came to pick me up, were just laughing at my parents. And I then thought, What are you doing? What are you going back for?
And then I just lived that cycle again for maybe another seven or eight years.
What was the connection between the strip club and the prostitution?
Gaiety was a strip club and it was completely separate from what we did. But it brought all the business men in over lunch time. They all slagged Chapeltown off, but they knew exactly what to go there for. The club was really busy in the afternoons and when they came out, they would drive round the corner and pick someone up – so there was a lot of money to be made.
So there were girls working on the street, on the corner, just round from the strip club?
So there’s definitely a connection there between the strip club and prostitution?
Yeah. It’s like them girls turn them on and then they come to us and relieve themselves before going back to work – or wherever the hell they slide back to.
Because some people make the argument that strip clubs have nothing to do with prostitution.
Yeah. Whatever. That’s not true. And if they’re really honest, there’s a lot of the selling that goes on within that environment. You don’t even have to come outside to get that, nowadays.
How did you eventually get away from him?
There was a kerb crawler initiative that Julie Bindel started.
When was this?
It would have been in 1999, I think.
The idea was that instead of sending men to court, they could go to a ‘johns school,’ where ex-prostituted women would tell their stories. It’s supposed to make the johns feel really rubbish about what they’re hearing so they don’t go back out there.
They asked me if I’d be part of the johns school. I was one of the few people who didn’t agree with it. In my point of view, you have two kinds of punters – there’s the lonely man who’s got no bad intentions but he can’t get sex from his wife or whatever rubbish excuse they use. But then you get abusive punters.
As far as I’m concerned, if you’re running that kind of initiative, it’s going to have the impact you want it to have on a normal, softish guy. But an abusive man, who gets off on abuse, is going to get off on seeing these girls crying and hearing what they’re saying. So I didn’t really want to be part of it. I’m not taking anything away from those who thought it was a good idea. But my perception was different.
During this time, we went to meet a woman called Irene Iverson. She’s dead now, God bless her. But she had a daughter called Fiona. She kept calling social services saying her daughter’s going down the wrong path and she needed their help. They didn’t help and Fiona got groomed into prostitution and was murdered two days before Christmas in, I think, Doncaster. Hearing Irene talk totally finished me – hearing from a mum’s point of view about how she would stand on street corners and beg people not to pay for her daughter.
So that’s how I got out of it. I then went on to do support work with women who were still in it. I started a drop-in where they could come in and get food, wash their clothes, have a shower.
You started that?
Yes. I started it through another organisation that asked what it could do to help. So I said we needed to offer them something. Women in the position I’d been in were not going to come in if they weren’t going to get anything from it, whether that be a free condom, a chance to wash, a chance to wash her clothes, or a bit of support for court.
But nobody in the area would give us a place to use. In the end I did manage to get somewhere to agree to let us use their premises. But there were very strict rules, like the women weren’t allowed to use any of the kitchen utensils. We had to find a way to stop them doing that. We’d say, you guys sit down and let us make you something. And I’d be responsible for bleaching out the cups. Obviously there are risks from diseases. And they’d let them use the washing machine, but I had to make sure I bleached it out afterwards.
Things like that make you feel rubbish – like people really do think we’re dirty. But then you’d have to put it in perspective. By this time a lot of the girls were injecting and had thromboses. A lot of them would come in and I’d change their dressings, which was an awful job.
By 2003 there were three of us working there. I started to put together a prevention programme around grooming. We got to do it in two schools. In one of the exercises, we’d draw two outlines – almost like gingerbread people – and ask them to fill one in as a prostitute and the other as a teenager, with whatever clothes they thought they’d be wearing.
The young people mostly put fishnet tights, short skirts, injection holes, heavy makeup, and big lipstick on the prostitute and tracksuit and trainers on the teenager. And I had to break it to them that that was the TV version of a prostitute, but in reality, this teenaged girl is more like what’s out there now.
We did a brainstorm where we put ‘prostitute’ in the middle and asked them what slang words they knew. And they said, slag, whore, slut, and that sort of thing. And then we asked them where they thought they were most likely to get groomed – was it at the library or nightclubs or wherever. And obviously they were going for the nightclub and we had to explain the truth that you could get groomed anywhere.
At the end of the talk I said, you know that whore, slag, bitch, prostitute we talked about? That used to be me. And they were like, wow, because I’d come across as so normal. And they said they were sorry and that they hadn’t meant to call me that. And I was like, it’s alright. But there were about two in each group who would come forward and express concerns about someone in their circle.
There was a girl at the drop-in I’d known all my life in prostitution. I called her the godmother to my oldest child, although it wasn’t official because we didn’t do christenings. By that time, I’d moved into a big house with my kids because I’d split up from my partner. He had the old house, which I’d loved. Around then my mum got terminal cancer and it wasn’t long from when I found out until she died.
I was at the drop-in and said I needed to go over and be with my mum but I was a bit scared of leaving my house because the back door was dodgy. That girl, who was my good friend and was very bad on crack, coke and heroin, heard this. And when I was away, she broke into my place and used it to take her punters and have a crack house there. She left the door open, so the local kids robbed anything I had that was worth any money.
My mum died on the 26 July at 1.25am. She’d made me promise that when she went, I’d get straight back to the kids. By now she knew what my life was like and she didn’t want me leaving the kids too long. So I left at 9.20 the morning she died to get the train back to Leeds. When I was five minutes outside Leeds, I got a phone call saying my house was on fire.
That girl had been in the attic room doing heroin, lit a candle and fell asleep – although she managed to get out. So I lost my house and my mum within 24 hours. Then I lost my job because she was using the drop-in and although I was a worker there they were too scared to let me back, in case I did something to her.
And I thought, wow! I’m an ex-prostitute and I still need support. I’d lost my mum, my job and my house. Where do you go from there? It was a tough time. No matter what I’d gone through before, to lose everything like that was hard.
Do you know the stories of the other girls you were with when you started getting into prostitution? What happened to them?
I know a few. There’s a few that have just gone missing and nobody seems to know where they are.
Things changed around when coke came in. And coke is a rich man’s drug. Around then, just before I left, it was easier to get out, provided you didn’t have a drug addiction, because you weren’t making so much money. Imagine I’m working and I’ve not got an addiction and you’re next to me and you have one. When a punter pulls up, I want the normal £15. But you’re next to me and you’ve got £20 in your pocket and your next fix is £25, so you’re going to offer yourself for £5. So it became really pointless and the girls weren’t looking out for each other anymore. There was a lot of internal politics.
There was no money in pimping then. There was more money in being a crack dealer – because if I’m a pimp, the girl I’ve got working is going to go to the crack dealer to buy coke, rather than bring money home to me. So that’s when the pimps started being dealers. They’d give you some and let you owe them for it. They had a load of girls that owed them money like that. Then the girls stopped looking out for each other. Probably dog eat dog is not the right expression. But they had their own agenda and were often poorly and drinking a lot to bear the pain.
But you didn’t get into drugs?
No. I was a heavy weed smoker – but never anything stronger than that. I could see what it was doing, but I’ve got kids so I couldn’t take that kind of risk. And that’s probably the only reason I’m still alive and as strong as I am today – because I didn’t go down that route.
I lost so many friends to the streets – whether it be murder, or a drug overdose, or something like that.
So it came to a kind of natural end. But that’s only the end of the lifestyle – and the start of realising the damage that’s been done.
While you’re in it, you feel in control. You always tell yourself, I know what I’m doing. And when people ask how you do it, I’d say, I just do it, it’s fine. You’re in denial.
Do you think there’s a bravado among the women? It’s almost macho in a way – the bravery of it.
You do feel like you’re in control, you’re hard, you’re invincible. The other girls would be scared of me. They’d see me coming and get off my corner. But no, it wasn’t my corner. Just because I’ve had a fight with someone, it doesn’t mean anything. They used to call me the queen bee. But I’m not that girl. Although it does make you hard. You’ve taken that many beatings you think, not another one and you do tend to lash out.
I’d probably fight with punters more than anyone else. I’d go out of my way to give them a hard time. And when I was left for dead, that’s why I thought I’d done something. I’d rather believe that I did something to get it than to believe that someone could just do that to me. You blame yourself for everything.
What were the punters like? What kind of men are we talking about here? What was your typical client?
They come in three categories. You’ve got your businessman, in his suit, who should be at work. Between midday and 6 pm, it’s pure businessmen. When it gets dark, between 6 and 10 pm, it’s more Asian men. From 10 pm onwards, it’s a totally different class – lads out in groups. You’d get ridiculed a lot, you’d get wee thrown at you, snowballs thrown at you. Just for the fun of it – because they think it’s funny to do that. And then you’ve got really twisted ones that just want to abuse or be abused.
I’d say that 60% of the punters were white middle class business men. 20% local Asian men. And whatever’s left, was just weird people.
It kind of takes all sorts, but most of the time they’re pretty normal.
And what about when the punter left you for dead? Did that not make you feel you weren’t in control anymore?
It did. An old black lady saw me. She must have said to one of the girls, one of your kind needs some help round there. I’ll never forget that. They found me and called my partner. He slapped me across my face to bring me round. You could hear the sirens going. He didn’t want me to get picked up by the ambulance because then he wouldn’t be able to come to the hospital because it was obvious I was a prostitute and there would be police involved.
So he put me in his car and took me home. I had a young baby sitter at the time. She was 19 and when he took me in and put me on the sofa and she saw the state of me, she attacked him, because she thought he’d done it to me. I don’t remember much more. He said I slept then for 24 hours.
I woke up the next day and he ran me a bath. I used to always wear a swimming costume, because I figured if I’m going to get raped it would be easier than pulling anything up. So I always wore trousers and this all-in-one swimming costume – I’d just pull it to the side. I felt that kind of kept me safe. And it had all these rips. And again, I had a damaged jaw.
In fact I got toxaemia – the man burnt me with cigarettes. But prior to the toxaemia – because that takes a few days to come on, he ran me a bath and said, You know, babes, you need to get straight back out. Don’t let one man put you off everything you can earn. That’s only one bad man after so many years. So he convinced me and I went straight back out.
The guy did it to somebody else as well, so it wasn’t just me – so I don’t think I did provoke him. All I could remember was his aftershave. Not long ago I sat next to someone on the tube and it was like this man’s aftershave smell was trying to bring something back. Because I have no memory – they said that sometimes with the shock and trauma your mind can completely switch off. His smell was one of those triggers.
The guy had burnt me with something and three days later I got toxaemia. I didn’t realise until I pushed on my legs and they stayed in – they were swollen and yellow. So I went to hospital and they gave me an intravenous drip. And after two days, he came, because he couldn’t cope with the kids. And he said, Your legs have gone down now, here are some clothes and you can go back out.
I never had time to be a mum. I never had time to be ill. It was constant. I thought I was such a warrior. But I never had time to think or reflect. And I do think that’s where the damage is these days – because you put things quickly to the back of your mind.
And what do you think about the term ‘sex work’? I noticed you’ve been using the term prostitution to describe what you did.
‘Sex work’ sounds like shop work. It sounds like taxi work or bar work. But is it work?
What do you think about the argument that it’s just a job like any other?
I don’t agree with that. A job is not supposed to psychologically damage you in any serious way and if it did, you’d leave it. So I think it’s very much a way of life and although you may know what damage you’re doing to yourself, it becomes your way of life. I think denial is what gets us through it.
Then you hear that women who work as escorts in clubs think they’re doing something different to what we’re doing out on the street. But at the end of the day, we’ve all got that one thing in common – we’re selling our bodies.
And what I didn’t realise when I was doing it was that not only was I selling my body, but now looking back on it, I see I was selling a piece of my soul – every time I lay down with someone I didn’t know. And it’s only later on in life that you realise that you’re quite empty. I’ll never fit into a normal relationship or way of life.
My relationship with my children can’t just suddenly be fixed. It’s a long form of damage and you often don’t realise how big it is until it’s too late. But there’s no support to help women who’ve come through that. And I say women, but when you’re doing it from the age of 16, 17, 18, you’re actually growing up in that lifestyle. So you’re damaging yourself as a child and it’s very difficult to find a place where you can flip that back and undo what’s been done. It’s very scarring. No matter what anyone says.
You might think you’re in control because you’re in an escort company or whatever, but you are selling a piece of yourself. It’s not just a vagina, it’s a piece of your heart and a piece of your soul that’s going every time you get paid for something.
Was it worth it? No.
I had some counselling and the counselor told me to try and work out how much money I gave away over those years. I said, maybe £8,000. And she said, let’s work it out properly. I worked every single day, including Christmas day, for more than ten years – apart from when I was giving birth. And the least I would make would be £120, £130, because there was a set amount before you could go and anything over that was a bonus.
And when she worked it out, the figure was something like £750,000. And I just thought, my god. That’s three quarters of a million pounds over 10 years that I’ve given somebody. And all he used to do was to put it in the bookies. If I wasn’t taking for the food or whatever, anything that was left went to William Hill [betting shop].
Three quarters of a million pounds just gone in harming yourself. And what have you got to show for it? Nothing – but internal, external, physical, and mental damage. Is it ever worth it?
There was an incident not long ago where I was called in for a meeting at work by someone I knew I wasn’t getting on with. They said to meet with them the next day at 2 pm. So I asked what it was about and they said they’d tell me when we met. It was 4 pm, so I had to wait just under 24 hours. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I felt like I was waiting to be beaten or that something really bad was going to happen to me. And that’s part of the long term damage. You know, that fear of being locked in a room or going back to your pimp and telling him you’ve got no money. A really horrible kind of dread. And rejection. I’m terrified of rejection.
I feel dirty. I’m always going to feel dirty. I’ve got some serious body loathing. I don’t allow myself to be where I know I could be in life. I always hold myself back. When I did start to progress in the community, there were people who said, Who does she think she is? She’s just a street girl. And instead of seeing they were trying to hold me back because I was doing well, I’d go, yeah I know my place.
So I spend my time cleaning. I work in a hotel making turn down beds. When I was doing it the other day, I thought I’ve had business in so many hotel rooms and here I am turning down the beds. And I saw a girl come out of a room with a guy and I knew straight away what she was there for. So there’s always a trigger somewhere.
But also the three eldest children that grew up in that life, their lives are really difficult. And obviously I’m a big part to blame for that. Their dad, the pimp, is now a learning mentor in a school and works in a bookies, and is doing really well. He’s got two jobs, a new relationship, still got our old house. And I’ve had to constantly move because of the trouble my kids have got into. And because also in a community if there’s an argument, oh your mum this, your mum that.
My son really struggled. He told me that when Grand Theft Auto came out he was playing it with some lads and they would make him find the prostitute and beat her up. He didn’t tell me until he was about 19. He said he had to do it because if he didn’t it would look like he were some kind of idiot. He said it had upset him and what hurt him most was that they made him do it because they knew what I used to do. So he’s grown up with that kind of thing and so have my daughters.
My family is so fractured.
So even though you got out of the game nearly 20 years ago, it’s still…
Yes, the damage is done. It’s irreversible. I don’t think our family will ever get back to where it should be. I’ve got six grandkids. It’s all totally divided. But their dad doesn’t get any noise. When they’re mad or upset, it comes to me. People say that’s because they’re closest to you. Great. But why don’t they give him some of the noise? But he just tells them to shut up, that he’s not interested – whereas with me, I can’t just shut them off like that. I have to let them vent back at me.
But I’ve hit a point now where I don’t think I can take it any more. It’s like, don’t keep punishing me for something I did 19 years ago – when for 19 years, I’ve been trying to be the best I can.
So the long term effects… The truth of the matter is it’s something I’m never going to forget. I’m never going to be able to really like the skin I’m in, really like myself. I’m very lonely. I’m quite isolated. I find it so hard to get into a relationship. And if I do, I’m going to have to explain all that.
Do you think it’s changed your attitude to men in general?
Yes. After their dad, I was single for a long time. Then I started to see this guy. But he got engaged to someone else while I thought I had a relationship with him. And when I questioned it, he said, How am I supposed to have a relationship with you when everyone knows what you did? And I thought, so you don’t mind sleeping with me but you can’t handle people knowing you’re with me because of my past. And that probably did as much damage as anything. That was five years ago and I’ve never entertained the idea since.
I think I probably need to learn to love myself, or even to like myself, before I can even think about it. I’m quite happy on my own, although I do sometimes crave having someone, especially now my youngest is due to leave home soon. But then I think, no. The thought of having sex after so long… And people ask whether it bothers me. And I say, not at all. I couldn’t imagine sharing everything now. I’m too stuck in my ways.
Could you talk a bit more about grooming, and what it is and how you define it?
There are various ways of grooming. Like I was just put in the right social circle but there are other forms. Some of the worst grooming back then would be a woman who’s maybe a bit older whose done that kind of lifestyle and they’d see a girl that’s run away from a home. She’d take them in, offer them her sofa to sleep on and give them food. Then before you know it, they’re telling the girl she owes them money for the electric or whatever. And the girl goes, How do I get money? I don’t have any money. And the woman tells her what she can do.
So it’s very clear that giving stuff is key to grooming – like what they do now in the chicken shops with the young lads. The minute you put 50 quid in a young boy’s hand, that’s another way of grooming.
What bothers me now is my youngest going on Instagram and Snapchat. And it’s not people targeting her, it’s them needing to be ‘Liked,’ needing to be popular, needing to be accepted.
So I think grooming comes in many ways, shapes and forms. And it’s not just about prostitution. I think a lot of it is mental. You set your sights on somebody who is weak, needy, lacking confidence, vulnerable, homeless. You become their best friend. They become reliant on you. You can either get them to do it through love, or you can give them stuff so they owe you. It takes many forms.
There’s something you said earlier that I thought was interesting: that part of the grooming process is that the person being groomed doesn’t see it like that – they think they are making a conscious choice out of their own free will.
I think that goes on a lot, because if you were to speak to them, they wouldn’t say for one minute that they’ve been battered into this or they’ve been pushed into it or anything like that.
They make the whole thing somehow look attractive or beneficial. I always thought I was in control. Always. Until the first time I got left for dead by that guy.
So I think they just give you the tools. They’re quick to give you a condom or a lift to where you see your punters. I remember being brought up to London once. You know, he’d say, you can make so much more money in London, and you’re stunning. There was a lot of that – you’re stunning and people will pay loads for you. So they kind of boost your confidence, wind you up and watch you go.
So yeah, I’d definitely say grooming takes many forms.
I don’t even know how I feel about him now. I’m envious he’s doing so well. But his body language whenever I’m around is very sheepish. When I’m near him, I get this real… It’s horrible really.
Page published: 6 January 2019.