Danger: women at work

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The Independent Culture
"I've been raped twice,'' says Sally, a neatly dressed woman in her early twenties with permed blonde hair. She has two young children and works as a prostitute.

The rapes are mentioned almost as an afterthought. The first time she was exposed to violence on the streets of Birmingham was when she was working with a friend: "A car pulled up with two clients. We got in and drove to a car-park. They pulled out knives and made us do oral sex, took our money and just threw us out.''

Sergeant Phil Adcock of Leicester regional vice squad points out that clients are not the only danger for prostitutes. A young woman recently complained to them that her pimp forced her to have anal and vaginal sex whenever he demanded it. She accused him of hanging her out of a tower-block window as part of a campaign of intimidation. However she was threatened, and the case never came to court.

Last year's survey by the Birmingham Safe Project of 110 prostitutes in the Midlands found that more than half had been raped and most had been threatened with a weapon. Last year two prostitutes were murdered in Leicestershire.

Prostitutes, however, are refusing to play the role of defenceless victims. In Midlands cities such as Coventry, Northampton and Stoke, descriptions of violent men are being collected and distributed among prostitutes and passed on to the police.

In Leicester, the Women's Health in Prostitution (Whip) project produces "Dodgy Punters'' leaflets, with descriptions like these: "1. White male, blond, spikey short hair, bottle-bottom glasses probably bifocals, long blue car. Pulled knife when asked for money.

"2. Asian male, wears a hat, drives a black BMW, personalised number plates. Drives women to his flat and rapes them.''

In Birmingham the "Ugly Mugs'' lists often have an artist's impression of the assailant alongside stark accounts of brutal attacks: "He pulled the girl's arms behind her back and taped them, and also taped her legs together. He raped the girl, she struggled but he smashed her head on the floor of the car.''

Such information has helped the police to gain convictions but Maz Soar, co-ordinator of Whip, points out that the risks for prostitutes remain high. "I can't think of a more dangerous occupation. You're subject to violence on all sides and prostitutes are vulnerable and visible. They bring out people's fear of their own sexuality. There are a lot of men who like to abuse women, there really are.''

Sally continues to work as a prostitute, but now operates from a house, with a friend close at hand. She says she could not go out on to the streets any more. She doesn't want to fear for her life again.

Francis Mead