Prostitutes and the charities working to help them leave the streets

“There’s a knock at the door of the project. A young girl is standing there. Her pimp has cut off the tops of her fingers. We take her to hospital.”

This is one vivid memory of Theresa Cumbers, who retired earlier this year from the Magdalene Group charity that helps prostitutes get out of the profession.

The idea of the “happy hooker” and of prostitution being lucrative, glamorous and sexy persist in our society, such as Channel Five’s Respectable, a “comedy” set in a brothel featuring champagne-quaffing prostitutes that has just finished its run.

But for most of the estimated 80,000 people involved in prostitution in the UK, the reality could not be more different.

Home Office figures show that up to 70 per cent of prostitutes spent time in care, 45 per cent report sexual abuse and 85 per cent physical abuse within their families.(1)
Many are homeless and up to 95 per cent of street prostitutes are on heroin or crack. Over the past 10 years, 48 women
working as prostitutes have been murdered in the UK, according to figures from the Women’s Library in London.

Liz Kelly, professor of sexualised violence and director of the child and woman abuse studies unit at London Metropolitan
University, describes prostitutes as “really troubled and struggling women who do not control their own lives”.

Tracy Kennett was one of them until she got out, with the help of the Magdalene Group in Norwich, cited by the Home Office
as an example of good practice (see Prostitution: What is it really like).

“Anyone who wants to know what prostitution is really like should go out on the streets and see for themselves,” says Kennett, who sold sex to buy drugs and support her family. Kennett says she “cried all the way through” her first session with a punter and felt “disgusted”.

One young woman trafficked into prostitution and supported by the Poppy Project, says in a new short film created with Poppy service users: “You totally forget what happiness is like. All you can wish for is death.”

Women involved in prostitution tend to have complex and multiple needs, including addictions, poverty, poor health, domestic
violence, child care, sexual abuse, rape, mental illness, and persistent offending. “No single agency is able to respond to all the relevant issues when working with women in prostitution,” says a recent report by the Poppy Project.(2)

Gaps in provision identified by the Poppy report include: dedicated exiting services, outreach, accommodation, single sex rehabilitation, counselling, mental health services, education programmes, peer support and community safety strategies.

Louise Matts is co-ordinator at the Streetlife project in Cardiff. With volunteers she goes out on the streets at night to meet the city’s sex workers and helps them leave prostitution by helping them get support. Streetlife is managed by the voluntary sector umbrella body Safer Cardiff, in partnership with the council’s city centre team from adult services, and the local NHS addictions unit.

Matts is seconded to Cardiff Council’s adult services department. She says interagency working and a multi-disciplinary approach is vital to handle her clients’ many needs.
Eighty per cent of the prostitutes Matts encounters are on drugs.

Cumbers, who continues to work as a trustee of the Magdalene Group, estimates that 98 per cent of the street prostitutes she worked with had drug or alcohol addiction. More than half had mental health problems, and all – bar one – wanted to escape prostitution.

Her project has helped at least 34 women, probably more, to leave prostitution since it was set up in 1992. The government’s strategy on prostitution was published in January. It aims to prevent people entering prostitution, and to help those already involved to leave helped by drug treatment programmes and other support. But the government is not offering any new money and it is up to councils to set up and run projects.

Government guidance for local agencies on developing routes out of prostitution, including access to drug treatment, accommodation and a range of health services, and advice on education, training and employment is expected but no publication
date is set yet.

Mark Wakeling, director of the National Christian Alliance on Prostitution, an umbrella group for projects, is concerned that “there has been no additional funding announced to ensure these services are adequately developed”. He says that implementation is expected to happen locally but “there are questions over whether there will be enough commitment to the strategy”.

Meanwhile in Scotland, executive guidance out last month urges councils to focus on the risk of care leavers going into prostitution.

A bill proposing to criminalise people seeking to buy sex on the streets was also published last month.

Back in Westminster, the government’s strategy document represented the biggest review of prostitution in 50 years. It was
welcomed for challenging the long-held view that prostitution is inevitable and acceptable. But the provision of services
– often by small charities – to help clients deal with complex problems and escape prostitution is patchy. Former prostitute
Tracy Kennett found help in time, but many like her will not.

(1) Figures from Paying the Price: a Consultation Paper on Prostitution, Home Office, 2004
2 Julie Bindel, No Escape? An Investigation into London’s Service Provision for Women Involved in the Commercial Sex Industry, Poppy Project, 2006

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This article appeared in the 5th October issue, pages 28 & 29, under the headline ‘As a prostitute you don’t exist’…


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