As told to Roseanne Downton. Identifying details have been changed to preserve privacy.
“I was born in the 1950s into an ordinary working class family in a city in Yorkshire. I left school with a couple of O levels, landed a pleasant job in a nice little chocolate factory. I didn’t get on with my parents, left home, and rented a little flat. […]
Life was fabulous and carefree. I went out most nights with my girl workmates or on dates.
I flitted from job to job to increase my wages so I’d have more to spend on enjoying life to the full and making my flat into a lovely home. All that changed when I tripped and tore the tendons in my ankle. I didn’t qualify for sick pay and had no savings, so could not even pay my rent, let alone feed the meters, buy food or make the weekly payments on the furniture, TV and record player that I’d bought on credit.
In those days landlords used to collect rents in person. Mine was in his forties; friendly and personable, even fairly handsome. When he visited I explained why I could not pay that week.
He furrowed his brow for a moment as though wondering how to help, then took my hand and said: “We-e-e-ll, Cath, if you are, let’s say, nice to me, then I could just sign your rent book as paid.”
I knew from his sleazy tone that he meant sex. I had already been persuaded to “give” sex (that is how we viewed it in those days) to my boyfriends and so, to be honest, it didn’t seem like a big deal to do the same for him, especially if it meant being let off a whole week’s rent. Ironically, because he was older and more experienced, the sex was less of an ordeal than it had been with the clumsy teenagers I’d done it with for free. Afterwards he said he’d be happy to repeat this arrangement until I went back to work.
After he left I reflected upon how easy it had been. My rent usually cost me three days’ wages: in other words, it took nearly 30 hours of my time to earn my rent money. Now all it cost me was half an hour, of which less than ten minutes consisted of sexual intercourse with a nice man in the comfort of my own home.
The injury turned out to be more serious than I first thought and complete rest was needed for several weeks. I’d only just started a new job and when they found out I was going to be off sick for ages they dismissed me. I was in serious financial trouble: sickness benefit was very slow to process and would barely cover my rent, let alone my expenses. I confided in my landlord, and he introduced me to a friend, suggesting that we come to a similar arrangement. He, too, seemed a nice enough chap and so I agreed willingly. The friend gave me cash: the equivalent of half a week’s rent, and this enabled me to pay my utilities and feed myself. All I needed was just a couple more such “friends” and I’d be making as much in under two hours as I’d previously worked 45 hours for. And so I entered the clichéd world of putting up cards in telephone boxes and newsagents’ windows. To make the cards I had to think of something suitably sleazy to write, and to devise a price list. I finally had to admit to myself that I was a prostitute.
At the same time I became a habitual liar. When former workmates called round I told them that my family was sending money to support me. When my family wrote I told them I was back at work. When I introduced myself to new people I lied about my occupation. The problem was, if they later became friends, it became too difficult to maintain the lie. I’d tell neighbours that I was at home during the day because my folks were rich and gave me an allowance. I wasn’t accustomed to lying and so I struggled to keep track of which tale I had told to whom, feared that my inconsistent lies would be exposed, and found the whole thing very stressful. It made me shy away from pursuing new friendships and so I started to give people the cold shoulder.
My new status also ruined my romantic life. Each time I met a new, potential boyfriend, I’d start off by lying to him about my occupation and have to compound and embroider the lie as we grew closer. No man wanted a girlfriend who was on the game, so it was better for me not to get emotionally involved, because he was bound to find out the truth and leave me. And so I acted cold and detached. I gradually changed from seeing men as objects of love to viewing them as walking wallets. I became averse to having sex unless I was paid in some way, and began to insist on being treated to expensive meals and drinks, the best theatre tickets and luxury gifts.
One boyfriend, whilst browsing prostitutes’ cards, recognised my phone number. He stormed round to my flat and punched me repeatedly, calling me a “dirty whore” before dumping me. He felt no shame at using prostitutes but was disgusted at me for being one. I began to resent men for their double sexual standards and also for earning more money than women, which gave them the power to get us to have sex with them. Despite all that, I still preferred prostitution to factory or shop work, because it paid more for fewer hours.
As far as the actual sex goes, once I started advertising, everything changed. Whilst going to bed with my attractive landlord and his pal was just like boyfriend sex, being available to strangers was not. It was gruelling for me to learn to constantly act falsely, to button my lip rather than speak what I felt. I had to teach myself acting skills in order to pretend to like all my punters and admire their bodies; to pretend to enjoy what they did to me. Strange men would phone and I’d invite them to my flat. Of course, I still had the option to reject them on my doorstep, but that was not something I did lightly. To make a living I had to lower my standards; I could not restrict myself to handsome, attractive men.
Rejecting a man on the doorstep risked him making a noisy scene which would attract the attention of neighbours (who might report me to the landlord, who would evict me.) So, unless the man was really drunk or filthy, I’d get him swiftly into the flat.
I had to tolerate sex with men who had foul breath, body odour, rotted teeth, scars, beer guts, bald heads, acne, eczema, and (frequently) vile attitudes to women — some of them got off by repeatedly calling me a filthy whore or a dirty slag. Most were at least double my age and many were my granddad’s generation. In the early days it would turn my stomach to have them pawing at me and trying to stick their tongues in my mouth. At times I would almost retch. However, dealing with this kind of thing on a daily basis I soon got used to it and used drink and drugs to cope. Some days I could not even face a client till I’d had a couple of whiskeys.
During my time off, I found I was “treating” and indulging myself extravagantly in the good things in life. It was like a voice in my head repeatedly saying, “Have it — you’ve bloody well earned it, putting up with those dirty old men!” I habitually ate out instead of cooking, smoked expensive cigarettes, drank the best whiskey. I’d buy anything I wanted for my flat, or any item of clothing, shoes or jewellery that I fancied, regardless of price. This increased expenditure meant I had to find even more clients, and so my standards had to drop further as I could not afford to be choosy.
After a few years I decided to move to London, where (I had heard) I could charge more. But I hadn’t realised that rents, restaurants and cab fares would be much higher as well!
Research led me to learn that there was a certain area of London that operated as a known but unofficial Red Light district. Police turned a blind eye, there was a constant supply of punters, and all a woman had to do was to dress up in sexy clothing and stand on the pavement, and wait till one of the many kerb-crawlers took a fancy to her. This seemed a better way of working: no more having to advertise on cards and run the risk of someone recognising my phone number; no more assessing punters quickly on my own doorstep. It meant being able to reject a punter without loss of earnings, because there was another and another and another crawling along right behind him.
There were other working girls standing on the street around me, which gave a feeling of safety and I soon made friends with a few. When anyone got into a car one of the others would jot down the registration number, just in case. It also gave anonymity: the punter never knew my home address. We’d go to his place, or to a park, an alley, some waste ground, behind the bushes, or, most often, we’d do it in his car.
There were some drawbacks, though: it was rather like a meat-market, the outdoor locations made the transactions feel even more sordid, and all the girls being on display in the same street caused us to compete with one another for kerb-crawlers’ attention. The tartiest-dressed got the most punters, and the older or less attractive had to think of another way to get their share of customers.
All this was good news for the punter: it was a buyer’s market and there was something to suit every pocket, from high-priced young, fresh teenage flesh at one end of the scale to hardened, down-at-heel, battle-weary mums at the other, the latter prepared to do just about anything with anyone, and at bargain basement prices. This caused a few cat-fights with the others, and accusations of stealing trade and driving down overall prices were thrown about.
A couple of things became clear to me within hours of my arrival on the street: that the majority were using alcohol and illegal drugs to numb their senses so they could endure being on the game, and that all of them had a pimp. Men controlled the street trade and, soon, I was told, one would muscle in on me. When I announced that I would refuse, the street women laughed at my naivety and told me we had no choice. They even recommended applying to be taken on by a particular pimp, who was less brutal than the others, whilst I was still in a position to choose.
Whichever pimp a girl was controlled by, the deal was the same: he took 50% of everything she earned; if she used drugs (and most did) she was to buy them exclusively from him; he was entitled to any kind of sex he wanted, whenever he wanted it, free of charge. Most times this amounted to a free blowjob when he visited daily for his share of the takings; sometimes a pimp would take a girl to a house-party and she’d have to service every man present whilst the others watched. She was not permitted to refuse anything, no matter how humiliating, unpleasant or dangerous, on pain of a beating for getting “uppity”. In return, the pimp offered “protection”; but this amounted to protection from being recruited by another pimp.
Occasionally if a girl was hit or robbed by a punter the pimp might give the man a beating, but this was to protect his income. Most of the girls bonded with their pimps and some even called them their “boyfriend” and some even lived with them and had kids by them.
As a tough Northern lass I was adamant that no pimp was going to help himself to half of my earnings. After a while, one tried to “recruit” me. My refusal was met with a punch in the face so brutal it knocked me to the ground. He gave me 24 hours to either leave the street or become one of his girls, or there would be “more of the same”. Approaching the police was not an option: they refused ever to intervene in “domestics” between toms and pimps. I moved to another Red Light district, however, after a few weeks the pimps starting closing in on me again. I tried another two areas with the same outcome.
I was obliged to return to working from home, advertising in phone boxes and shop windows. I had less choice over my punters, and again worried about neighbours and acquaintances finding out how I earned my bread. I missed the camaraderie of the street women I’d met and worried about their welfare.
After a few months of working from home a punter said he understood that I had no pimp, so he was claiming me as his. I refused, of course, and he threatened me with violence. He was a big bloke and I was petrified he’d beat me to a pulp. He said he’d give me time to “consider my position” and he’d be back. I was furious that these parasites would not leave us working girls alone. I confided in one of my regulars who owned a night club and hired beefy doormen. He said that, when the pimp returned, I must threaten him with being beaten to death from a bouncer who the police could not trace. To my surprise, words were all it took for the man to back off — doubtless to pick on a more defenceless working girl.
Most punters weren’t brutes. They were a mixture of shy Catholic boys whose girlfriends refused intimacy before marriage; husbands whose wives went off sex after childbirth; old, ugly, bald, fat or disabled men who simply “could not get laid unless they paid”, and a few creepy, pervy types. Many were underdogs: downtrodden, lonely, widowed, loveless and lost in the big city. For these, a chat and some (feigned) affection was as important as the sex. I actually felt sorry for one or two, as they were life’s losers. Some did not want sex at all, just dirty chat. (I suspect they were impotent.) One wanted me to describe my bowel movements day by day over the week since he’d last visited: the shape, size, consistency and smell, and how all these attributes were affected by what I’d eaten. I’d make it all up and sound as convincing as I could. It seems a bit revolting, but my body welcomed the break from being pounded again and again.
I accidentally got pregnant a few times, had a few abortions; I also picked up a few infections and more than my share of colds. To get by I continued to drink a lot of alcohol, but in London I added cannabis to this “self-medication”. Being high made it all bearable.
People who say prostitution is just a job are failing to realise the physical toll that repeated passionless intercourse has on a woman’s body. Because you are not attracted to the client you are not aroused, and so you get sore, chafed, even bruised. Being groped in ones most sensitive areas by a never ending succession of masculine hands with hangnails, cracked, rough skin, even eczema or scars, was horrible, even painful. I didn’t allow French kissing but they’d often dry-kiss me quite forcefully, scratching their coarse beards and prickly moustaches on my soft facial skin and stabbing at my closed lips with their slimy old tongues. Some men would chew on or even bite my nipples, and after one bout of such treatment I could not tolerate it again for days, causing punters to get all whiney or even annoyed at being denied what they wanted, which ruined the fake-pleasant atmosphere that I’d taken the trouble to create.
The illusion had to be maintained at all cost: reality must never allowed to intrude. Real things like diseases, infections, pregnancy, abortion or menstruation must never be mentioned and, above all else, every man wanted the illusion that he was my only punter. Totally unrealistic, of course, but that was the fantasy world a prostitute had to create and maintain to be successful. The whole thing was one big charade from start to finish. When my doorbell rang I’d mentally flick a switch so that I’d always greet them bearing a huge, fake smile. I’d tell them what a pleasure it was to see them again (it wasn’t) and how much I always enjoyed having “fun” with them (I didn’t).
During the actual sex I had to try my best never to say no unless I had to, never be negative about anything, never to show revulsion or disapproval, never to sound critical, harsh or restrictive, and to be warm, affectionate, welcoming, approving and encouraging, regardless of my true feelings. I’d praise their sexual prowess because anything that made a man feel good helped him to finish soon, which was my main aim. When all else failed I had certain physical techniques to get him off quickly.
When he was leaving I’d smile and say how much I looked forward to him visiting me again. That was the only thing that was true: repeat business was far safer than meeting stranger after stranger, and my goal was to retain enough regulars to stop advertising.
Ironically, I’d been raised never to lie, and yet here I was lying to everyone: punters, neighbours, boyfriends, acquaintances, family. I had to keep people at arm’s length in order to conceal my secret. Inevitably, now and again people worked out what I was doing, and on occasion I did confide in other women. I met their shocked expressions with a feisty defence of my chosen “profession”. I’d brazenly tell them that I loved it — I was getting paid for having fun, what could be better than that? Another lie. But I was not only too ashamed to reveal the sordid reality of it, I knew that if I did they’d nag me to give it up. The truth was, I was so spoilt by the money I was making that I wasn’t going to swap that for a 50+ hours a week slog in a proper job. I enjoyed going to the best restaurants and clubs — by taxi, of course, never bus — and having the best seats at London’s theatres.
My view of men didn’t match that of other women. They weren’t romantic heroes anymore; they were all either punters or pimps. I could not contemplate having sex with a man without being paid. What would be the point?
Every so often a pimp would try to get me into his fold but I always somehow managed to evade their clasp. However, one proved to be particularly demanding, persistent and vicious, and he was instrumental in my leaving the job. To get him off my back I again asked one of my trusted regulars for help. He offered to get me a gun, to scare the pimp next time he threatened me. I accepted his offer and he brought it and taught me how to load it and hold it and, in case of dire emergency, to fire it into the air “just to show I meant business”. The plan was to use it merely to frighten the parasite into leaving me be.
However, the plan went wrong and to cut a long story short I ended up shooting him in the leg, for which I stood trial for attempted murder. Luckily I was acquitted, but I was horrified to think I nearly ended up with a long stretch in prison. He was still on the loose and threatened to kill me in revenge. Terrified, I left my flat with just two suitcases, fled to the other side of London, changed my name, and took stock of my life so far and my options for the future.
Prostitution is a job that goes nowhere. It’s the only “profession” in which the longer you do it the less value you are deemed to have; the more experience you have, the less respect and pay you get. Had I put the same eight years of effort, dedication, tolerance, bravery and hard work into a real profession, I’d have earned the admiration and respect of all. Instead, in the eyes of the world I was nothing but a dirty whore; a well-used, past-her-best, sleazy old tart.
That pimp unintentionally did me a huge favour. When I told my regulars that I was shutting up shop, one suggested I apply for a job at his workplace. Before long I found myself helping my less literate colleagues to write replies to warning letters from managers who were reprimanding them for some petty infringement of the rules, or threatening them with punishment or even dismissal. This led to my being elected union shop steward and then branch secretary.
Soon the job I was employed to do faded into insignificance, as half the week I was granted time off to do union work. I dedicated a decade of my life to serving and protecting my colleagues, many of whom were browbeaten, victimised, harassed and intimidated by managers over the slightest thing, just to keep them in line. I represented them on disciplinary charges and appeals, tribunals and hearings. I discovered that I had not only a passion but an enormous natural talent for the work. The right words to win a case, or to persuade a tribunal to find in favour of the worker, just seemed to pour out of me effortlessly. I remained in the industry until my retirement.
If I had to sum up in one sentence what it was really like to be a prostitute for eight years I would say this: it was a shocking waste of my young life. I didn’t enjoy it and didn’t make any career progress doing it. And I didn’t gain financially, either, despite the high earnings. Most of what I’d earned was blown on renting a better flat than I’d have needed if I did a regular job; non-stop luxury treats, booze and cannabis to compensate myself, and comfort myself emotionally, for having to constantly suppress my true feelings about punters and the reality of prostitution, and for having to lie to everyone, all the time, as a matter of course. Whilst most women my age had a home, a husband and children, I emerged from prostitution homeless, loveless and with no man in my life. Nothing, in fact, but two suitcases of clothes. My attitude towards men had become so cynical and contemptuous that I didn’t want a boyfriend, and indeed I never did marry.
So, who did gain from it? Only the punters, for they enjoyed sexual use of an attractive young woman. So, all in all, I sacrificed eight years of my life just to sexually please a long line of anonymous men who meant absolutely nothing to me. What a waste.”
First published: 11 May 2016.