Vice UK: Britain's booming prostitution industry

It's the oldest profession but also the most clouded in fantasy, secrecy and lies. Robert Verkaik gets to grips with the vice industry by talking to some of those who work in it and to some who use it

Thursday 25 September 2008 00:00 BST

Charlie Daniels remembers her first experience of working as a prostitute as clearly as if it were yesterday. "As he pulled up to the kerb, I could see it was a posh car. My friend opened the front door and sat up front, while I plonked myself in the back. She negotiated a price for a BJ and afterwards he turned to me and said he'd give me 10 for a grope. I was scared and I think he could see I was shaking like a shitting dog."

She was just 17 then. But those tentative first steps on the streets of Sheffield led to almost 20 years in the vice business during which she "graduated" from street hooker to madam and eventually to high-class escort, charging 1,000 a night.

Her story is an unusual one, but the circumstances that led her into prostitution are not. "I was brought up in care," she explains, in an open, friendly manner, "and had my first sexual experience when I was 12 or 13. I eventually ended up pregnant, living alone in council accommodation with not enough money to buy my baby's nappies. When my friend suggested we went on the street because the money was good I really didn't need any persuading." She ended up working a beat close to Sheffield maternity department, where her daughter had been born. "Make no mistake, the streets are nasty," she continues, in her straight-talking Yorkshire way. "I was mugged, raped and beaten. And that was just the clients. I was also assaulted by the other girls and their pimps. Still, the money was better than benefits, and you do get used to the money."

But it wasn't long before she realised what many street prostitutes understand there is a much safer and much more profitable way to sell sex.

She got off the street and began working in one of the thousands of sauna parlours that operate behind the tightly drawn net curtains of suburban Britain. Exuding a no-nonsense self-confidence that belies her occasional moments of self-doubt and self-pity, she says: "I remember thinking it doesn't have to be like this. So I went for an interview at a sauna parlour and was given a job straight away. The clientele were businessmen and professional people. But behind the scenes there were organised crime gangs who were using it for their drugs and guns operations."

In the 1990s, Charlie decided to break out on her own and run her own brothel, a decision which brought her to the attention of the police and the pimps. She had a number of altercations with both, but it was a vicious fight with one of the girls that brought matters to a crisis. Charlie stabbed her in the eye, which landed her a two-year jail term.

Now 38 and speaking with the trademark sexy huskiness of the madam, she says of her time in jail: "This was an important moment for me, because I discovered that I could do other things and that in fact I had more to offer in my head than I had to offer between my legs."

After prison, Charlie Daniels went on to write a best-selling book called Priceless: My Journey Through a Life of Vice. She is now a motivational speaker, devoting herself to helping people turn their lives around through her life reclamation work.

The redemption of Charlie Daniels is the kind of positive story that the government would like to replicate across the country. Her experience is strong evidence that public intervention can help women to escape a life of prostitution. But how positive is the broader picture?

Some Labour ministers, notably Harriet Harman and Vera Baird, the Solicitor General, would like to go even further and impose a zero tolerance policy to prostitution by making purchasing sex a criminal offence. Later this year, the Home Office will publish the conclusions of its long-awaited review on tackling the burgeoning sex industry.

But despite pressure from Harman & Co, Vernon Coaker, the minister in charge of the review, is extremely unlikely to follow it through with a new law outlawing the trade in sex. The sad truth is that prostitution is a booming business in Britain and there is precious little the government can do about it. Even by its own figures it is estimated that 80,000 prostitutes are earning as much as 770m a year.

In the face of a credit crunch and creeping inflation, men are still managing to find spare cash to pay for sexual pleasure. This month, a report by the government-funded Poppy Project found that prostitutes were now offering inflation-busting prices for full sex at 15 a session.

Teela Sanders, an expert on the sociology of crime and author of Sex Work: a Risky Business, says that the true number of sex workers could easily be two or three times the government estimate. "The sex industry tends to work behind closed doors these days. What we see on the street is only the tip of the iceberg," she says. "Government efforts to clear prostitution off the streets do not appear to be making much of an impression."

Sanders suggests that it is the middle classes who are driving the current boom in sexual services. "It could be argued that the middle classes are monopolising the customer base of the sex industry as business entrepreneurs, property owners, conglomerates and legitimate multinationals form a lasting landmark on the high street to specifically target men with disposable income."

She adds: "Middle class venues squelch in fake elegance and expectations to attract regular high-paying customers who will treat saunas, brothels and lap-dancing clubs in the same way they would their favourite restaurant or local pub."

The kind of person she has in mind is probably someone like Ian, 48, a married insurance broker from Kent, who has been paying prostitutes for sex for six years. "I tend to go to brothels out of town and especially when I am on business trips abroad," he explains. "I'm usually pretty drunk by the time I get to the brothel and I'm past the point of caring how much it's going to cost. I'm not surprised if I shell out over 300 a go. The best ones I've been to are in the Baltic state capitals, especially Tallinn and Riga, but Spain is good and so is Moscow. I have full sex but sometimes I'm too pissed to perform I still don't mind paying what the girl quoted me."

In his grey suit and blue shirt, Ian looks and sounds like a typical City businessman. He is courteous but also strangely unembarrassed by his sexual exploits which suggests that such stories are often shared among his working peer group.

Speaking in direct, upbeat tones, sometimes in mock cockney to hide his middle class roots, he says he started to frequent sex parlours after graduating from lap dancing clubs in London. "I think I asked one of the girls if I could pay to have sex with her. She gave me a card and it got me thinking. I thought about escort girls but that seemed too cold and calculating. In the end I went out drinking in Manchester one night and was taken to a place by some local business clients I had been messing around with. I don't remember much about it, except that afterwards I was convinced she had given me the clap or something. I was so worried that I booked into 24-hour sex clinic. When the doctor finally saw me she gave me all the all clear and asked me if I was married. She said the symptoms I had were psychosomatic, brought on by a sense of guilt about what I had done. Apparently it's quite a common thing."

Ms Sanders says that as more and more middle class men are paying for sex, there is a contingent trend among the numbers of middle class women who regard selling their bodies as a justifiable means of generating high income. She cites the example of a Jewish university-educated girl, calling herself Belle de Jour, who found fame after using a blog diary to record her secret life as a high class escort. "Although women have always used the sex industry to support their educational endeavours," says Ms Sanders, "increasingly female students faced with mounting debts and university fees are opting to work in the sex markets."

But perhaps the most significant change in prostitution in recent years has been the arrival of the internet, which has brought the sex industry off the street and into the home. Thousands of sites advertise escorts, sauna parlours, sex clubs and online brothels. Men who have been too scared to try these services before can now search out a prostitute or escort from the safety of their own computer terminal.

In the face of such a pervasive and organised (and unionised) sex industry, it is difficult to see how any government will be able to control or regulate prostitution properly. For every woman who is successfully led out of a life of vice, there are many more prepared to take her place.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that all prostitutes are like Billie Piper in her screen portrayal of Belle de Jour or Julia Roberts in the film Pretty Woman. Street prostitutes lead very different lives from those of high-class escorts or sauna parlour workers. Few can be characterised as happy hookers. For example: 21-year-old Joanne Blair (her street name) says she has been selling her body for sex since she was 11. In her handbag she carries a large knife. "I tell every punter the same: I'll slash them if they get rough."

Wearing a tight pair of blue Adidas tracksuit bottoms and a close fitting red woollen jumper, Joanne looks skinny around the face. She says she uses the money for clothes and food. "I'm not on drugs. You can see, look, I haven't got any marks."

In the hierarchy of the street prostitute, the drug addicts are at the bottom of the heap. But pimps and traffickers know that getting girls hooked on hard drugs such as heroin is the best way of bonding them. The combination of addiction and financial dependency makes it easier to keep these women working in the sex industry against their will.

Despite being "clean" Joanne Blair takes no pride in her work. "I hate it every time I do it, but I keep thinking this will be the last time."

Recently she has found alternative employment in Burger King, and in a Liverpool strip club but she is now back on the the streets.

"I'm waiting to hear whether I've got this other job now working as a telesales girl."

Without such hopes, the sex workers of Britain's oldest profession might die of despair.

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