Prostitution is a £5 billion business in the UK, with official estimates claiming that more money changes hands as a result of sex work than in the entire farming industry. It thrives in massage parlours, brothels and on street corners all over the country, and Huddersfield is no exception. This issue, T’Hud investigates the stories behind the statistics.
Two women chat calmly on a street corner, surrounded by a halo of light from the street-lamp beside them. By summer standards it’s a cold night, but the women, one wearing a short party dress and the other in skinny jeans and a flimsy vest, show no sign of discomfort. Their conversation trails off as a car crawls by, stopping at the corner. A window whirrs open and the closest girl leans inside. A few seconds later she lets out a high pitched giggle and climbs in. The car drives away and Abigail, 19, is left behind.
“Just like high school,” she says. “I’m always the last to get picked.”
Students arriving in Huddersfield from big cities might be surprised to find that the cosy Yorkshire town has a seedy underside. Most students don’t have much reason to venture too far from the town centre, but a ten minute walk from the bright white bricks of campus will take you to the heart of Huddersfield’s red light district, Great Northern Street.
It is here that Huddersfield’s share of the 80,000 street-prostitutes in the UK earn their living. Amongst them is Abigail, who has worked Great Northern Street for over a year and usually services four to five punters each working night. Originally from Leeds, Abigail made her way to Huddersfield after escaping a bad home life and an abusive relationship.
“I’ve been doing this for about 3 years,” she says. “When I was 16 my dad kicked me out of the house and I moved into my boyfriend’s place. He was a lot older, and he was the one who first got me into drugs. We were all high one night and his mates started joking around that they should hire me for the night. He convinced me to go along with it, and after that he started sending me out to find punters. He was my first pimp.”
“This went on for nearly a year and a half. He took all the money I made and gave me some back as an allowance. It sounds stupid but I was constantly out of my head – a lot of pimps control their girls like that, getting them hooked on crack or something. I know a few girls whose pimps and dealers are the same guy.”
As one might assume, drug use is not uncommon amongst prostitutes. A 2004 report by the Home Office suggested that up to 95% of prostitutes are problematic drug users, 78% of whom have used heroin. High levels of drug use severely increases the risk of an already dangerous profession; the Home Office report also found that three quarters of prostitutes had been physically assaulted and that the mortality rate for a prostitute in London is 12 times higher than the national average for women.
Abigail can relate. “I used to go out completely fucked up,” she says. “Drunk or high or whatever, because it makes it feel easier at first. But it also makes it so much more dangerous. One time I got picked up by this really creepy guy; he pulled a knife on me and I was so out of it I couldn’t unlock the door to get out. Luckily, there were people nearby who could see everything going on. I’ve got a little scar on my hip from where he sliced me, but if I’d let him take me somewhere secluded I probably would have been killed.”
“That was the turning point. I started to wean myself off the drugs and my boyfriend started to have less control over me. He became violent and I knew I had to get away.”
With a clear head and some money she’d stashed away, Abigail left Leeds and drifted around Yorkshire before settling in Huddersfield, where she now has her own flat. Free of a pimp’s control and proudly drug-free for a whole year, Abigail believes she has taken control of her work as a prostitute.
“Obviously I don’t plan on doing this forever. Counsellors always say the money can become an addiction, but the work is dangerous and exhausting and I won’t always have the looks or the energy I’d need to keep at it. My plan is to work out here for a few more years and save enough money to support myself while I train to be a counsellor or care worker.”
Fellow prostitute Melody, 24, doesn’t have any plans to leave the streets. Though she is proud that she has never had a pimp, Melody has had to deal with several run-ins with the police and an often crippling drug addiction. “I don’t have any plans for the future,” she says. “Right now, I’m not sure I even have a future.”
Melody has struggled to kick her drug addictions for six years. After her mother died when she was just 11, she was bumped around foster homes until finally settling down with a new family. What she thought was a godsend soon turned sour, with her drug use and the abuse suffered there resulting in her eventual turn to prostitution to support herself.
“I’ve been using drugs since I was 14,” she explains. “I’d got settled with a foster family and they didn’t have a problem with weed. They smoked it, their kids smoked it, I smoked it. I only started on harder drugs after I ran away [her younger foster brother sexually assaulted her and her foster parents refused to believe her] and I was sleeping on streets and in squats. I got my drugs from the guys I stayed with, usually in exchange for sex.”
“Crack, cocaine, heroin, mescaline, meth, acid… I’ve had everything and my teeth can prove it. When I turned 18 I worked as a stripper for a while but got fired when they found out about my habits.”
“I’ve been trying to get clean for years, on and off,” she says. “The longest time I ever went without any drugs was when I found out I was pregnant.” Melody conceived a child when she was 21, shortly before moving to Huddersfield. She knows the father was a customer but has no idea which one exactly. “I didn’t touch a fucking thing from the second I knew right up until she was born. I knew I had to give her up [for adoption] but it left such a hole in me.”
The revelation of a child prompts questions of safety. “I always use condoms,” Melody confirms. “I caught a few STIs when I was younger, but they were all treatable. Nowadays I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. A lot of johns [customers, or ‘punters’] say they prefer sex without condoms or that they have latex allergies. Some even offer to pay more to go without. There are some girls desperate enough to take the extra cash, but I’m terrified of catching something or getting pregnant again.”
Melody may live in fear of the emotional trauma another pregnancy would bring, but according to Abigail, many of the women working as prostitutes in Huddersfield are committed mothers. Despite disputes over territory, the women often talk to one another and learn of each other’s backgrounds.
“From what I know, I’d say around a quarter of the girls out here have kids,” says Abagail. “I know one Romanian girl who works out here all night, then goes home in the morning to get her kids ready for school. There’s a lot of reasons women get into prostitution and one of them is to support their families.”
This is just one aspect of prostitution that the human rights organisation, OBJECT , considers in their campaign Demand Change! which aims to see an end to the exploitation of women through prostitution.
Citing a 2002 study that claimed that 74% of women pointed to poverty and a need to support their children as their reason for entering prostitution, OBJECT seeks the decriminalisation of selling sex, following the example of Sweden and other Nordic nations.
“The ‘Nordic model’ completely decriminalises those who sell sex acts whilst offering support services to exit prostitution,” states an OBJECT factsheet. “It further criminalises the purchase of sex acts to tackle the demand which expands prostitution and fuels trafficking for sexual exploitation.”
“In this way, the ‘Nordic model’ shifts criminal liability away from those who are exploited through prostitution and towards those who contribute to this exploitation by choosing to buy sex acts.”
There are enough arguments for and against this model of punishing the punters for a whole other article, but for now, Abigail is happy to describe the average customer she encounters. “They’re almost always older men and the majority of them are married.”
“They say that their wives don’t want to have sex anymore, or are unwilling to try things they’re interested in. There’s a very fine line between kinky and creepy. The guys who ask for anal or dirty talk aren’t so bad, but more than a few have asked to buy my underwear. It gets really disturbing when you see guys who have kids who are around my age. One guy even said I looked like his daughter. What do you say to that? I thought, ‘Fuck this,’ and got out the car.”
“It’s hard to say what you can charge the punters on average. I usually get around £50 for straight sex, with other acts or kinky stuff added on to the price. But some girls, the girls who are strung out and addicted, might only charge £20 for anything and everything, just to make sure they can get what they need at the end of the night. That kind of thing can drive down prices for everyone.”
“I can make around £300 on a good night,” she says. “I’m young, don’t do drugs and I’m not too horrible to look at, so I can afford to charge a bit more than some of the other girls. And because I’m experienced and not desperate, I always come out of negotiations well. And without a pimp I keep everything I earn and can choose when I’ve had enough for one night.”
Keeping out of a pimp’s clutches hasn’t been easy. Abigail tells of multiple occasions where men have tried to enlist her. Sometimes it’s as simple as the man giving her his number, offering protection and management services. More often the offers come in the form of harassment, and Abigail has been threatened with violence on several occasions. “In January this year a guy tried to stab me when I said I wouldn’t work for him. He chased me for three streets and I was terrified of coming back out here for weeks. One of the other girls said he was arrested not long after, but it still makes me panic sometimes.”
It’s not long before the car returns with Abigail’s partner. With the sale made, there’s no need for coquettish laughter and she quietly takes up her vigil beneath the streetlamp, speaking only to ask for a cigarette and inquire about the kid with the notebook.
Before moving to another spot, Abigail tries to sum up her experience being a prostitute. “For now, it’s a living,” she says.
“But it will never be a life.”
If you require any advice or help please visit the advice centre in the Students’ Union. Advisers are on hand 10am to 4:30pm and offer free, impartial and most of all confidential advice. You can email them on email@example.com, or call at 01484 473446.
There are many charities and associations set up to help people who are affected by prostitution. The Joanna Project work with vulnerable, hard to reach, women who are trapped by life controlling addictions and who are often involved in street prostitution with all the exploitation and danger that involves. You can call on 0113 350 8071, or visit their website on Joannaproject.co.uk