'I didn't even know what a condom was for'

Forced on to the streets at 15, 'Emma' tells Ros Wynne-Jones that teenage prostitutes are victims, not criminals
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When Emma was 15, she had a row with her parents. Her dad told her to get out of the house. He didn't mean it, but Emma went anyway. She was wandering the streets of Leeds in the early hours of the morning, when she met a 25-year-old called Jimmy, who invited her back to his house. He said he would look after her.

Emma lived with Jimmy for two weeks. He gave her clothes and food, bought her expensive jewellery, drove her around in his sports car. She lost her virginity to him because she felt it was part of the deal.

Then he suggested they take a trip to London. He pulled up outside the Mayfair Hotel in Park Lane and Emma's life changed for ever.

"It was like he had a sudden personality change," says Emma, matter-of- factly. "He flipped. He gave me 50 condoms and threw me out of the car. He said if I hadn't made pounds 100 by the time he came back he would kill me and my family ... I didn't even know what a bloody condom was for."

It is not known how many children in Britain are selling sex. National statistics are unavailable because child prostitution is a hidden problem, like youth homelessness. Home Office figures show that between 1989 and 1993 there were nearly 1,500 convictions and 1,800 cautions for prostitution- related offences against young people under 18, but this, say children's agencies, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Earlier this year, the Children's Society launched a campaign for the justice system to view child prostitutes as the victims of child abuse rather than as criminals. Yesterday, the Magistrates Association, in one of the most controversial annual general meetings in its history, voted to support the campaign.

To Emma, there is no debate. She has worked with many young women like herself. "They are not criminals," she says. "They are just surviving."

That first night, her only client was a man who gave her pounds 50 and told her to get herself home, but she was too afraid. When Jimmy came back he punched her, ran her over in his car and shaved her head.

The next day she was out on Long Lane in Bradford, the street made famous in the drama serial about prostitution, Band of Gold, wearing a wig and a fur coat. The first time she had sex for money she cried the whole way through. It was 1987 and the going rate was pounds 15 for full sex.

It took Emma eight years and the death of a friend, strangled with her own tights at the age of 17 by a punter, to get out of prostitution. Today, she lives in an immaculately kept house in Leeds, its shiny surfaces the legacy of all those years when scrubbing her home and her body were part of the ritual of cleansing that followed a night's work. "I felt so dirty all the time," she says.

Now 25, although she looks anywhere between 19 and 35, depending on the light, she works with women and children involved in prostitution. Sometimes, she says, she finds it almost impossible to bear seeing the young ones, aged 13, 14, working the Lane, with their eyes empty of everything but fear.

Emma is a natural raconteur, her tales of life on the game sometimes painfully hilarious, of eccentric madams and punters with courgette fetishes. Occasionally, there were almost good times. One man who used to pay Emma to babysit him while he "freebased" cocaine once offered her 24 hours of doing whatever she liked. "We had breakfast at Simpsons, lunch at the Ritz and dinner at the Savoy," she says. "It was a fantastic day." Drugs and alcohol frightened her, so she never used them as an escape.

She stayed with Jimmy until she was 16, too afraid to leave, too ashamed to go home. Then she met another pimp.

Emma's life became a numb hell. "I was like his slave," she says. "I never spoke unless he told me to, I ate and slept when he said. I cooked and cleaned for him. I was terrified of him." She laughs, painfully. "Sex with punters became like having a cup of tea." Sex with her pimp was worse. "He was a sick bastard," she says, shuddering. "He tortured and degraded me until it was like life before had never existed."

In 1989, she was arrested near her home in Leeds. The same police had picked her up twice before and cautioned her. Under British law this meant she could now be charged as a "common prostitute".

Court was the first time Emma had seen her parents since the night she left home. Her dad, a traditional man who had served in the Royal Navy, cried as he heard his daughter plead guilty to soliciting. Her family wanted her to come home, but Emma refused. "I didn't feel I deserved their love." She was sent to a residential home where she says "most of the girls were on the game anyway". Within weeks she was back with her pimp.

She nearly got out so many times. One time she was hospitalised after a pimp had beaten her up and left her for dead, but she found herself unable to speak about what had happened. Another time she went to college and trained to be a nursery nurse. She loved working with children and she had found something she was good at. But on her first placement, she was vetted by the police. Her criminal record said she was a sex offender, which is how the law defines prostitutes. She ran from the nursery back to the street.

Then a 17-year-old family friend, who worked the Lane, was murdered. "Every time I even thought of working all I could see was her face as he strangled her. I almost felt like I was becoming her," Emma says. "If I'd worked again I might have killed a punter. I hadn't even known she was working." The tragedy reunited Emma with her family, who realised how easily it could have been their daughter. A local project, Exit, offered her the chance to support other sex workers and help them off the streets.

That was two years ago. Emma has since had a baby daughter who she and her parents worship. She is independent and slowly recovering her self- esteem. She knows her work with women on the streets makes a difference. "Every day there is another child starting out on the same route I did," she says. "That keeps me going."

"Emma" asked for her name and some details to be changed, to protect her from her former pimps.

Beaten and sold, page 18