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Prostitution has been been much discussed recently, in both the media and Parliament. However, there is far more to the industry than street-walking and drug addiction, as Heidi Blake finds out.
When I asked Corinne, an escort working in Yorkshire, which image she thought was most commonly brought to mind by the term 'prostitute', her answer was unequivocal. "People think of a mucky young girl, on drugs, standing on a street corner in a dirty area", she said. "But that's a misconception." The issue of prostitution has been brought to the forefront of the public consciousness in recent months, not least by the lurid media coverage of the murders of five women working in the industry in Ipswich in December of last year. The Home Office consultation paper 'Paying the Price', published in 2006, pointed to "organised criminality, including trafficking and substantial drug-misuse, and sexually transmitted infection" as being central problems associated with prostitution. In the then Home Secretary David Blunkett's foreword to the paper, he claimed that it is "vulnerability and need for affection" which leads women to becoming "trapped in a web of fear and deceit in which drug addiction, prostitution and responding to the demands of pimps becomes a way of life".
My rationale for doing this tells you it's been calculated. I've found myself in a situation and made it something positive.The attention of the government, lobby-groups and the media is almost exclusively preoccupied with street-prostitution. Those who oppose the legalisation of the industry largely do so on the basis that it is inextricably linked with crime, exploitation and social nuisance. However, in the course of the debate, little attention is paid to the sort of prostitution carried out by well-resourced, educated women behind the closed doors of private residences and hotels.
One needs only to scratch the surface of the industry to discover that the sex trade in Britain today is not all about the drugs, desperation and exploitation which has become synonymous with the highly-visible street-based brand of prostitution. Hidden away behind carefully worded, chic websites and glossy advertisements exists a world of "high-class" prostitution, beyond the range of vision of campaigning groups and government consultations.
I spoke to four women working as what they called "high-class escorts"; all of whom had turned away from mainstream careers in favour of prostitution, three of whom had a degree. Each was adamant that she had never taken drugs, and had not been driven into prostitution by external pressure or financial necessity. So, if not desperation or deprivation, what was it that led these four educated, well-resourced and intelligent women to choose to sell their bodies as a profession? The concept might seem anathema to many, but is it possible they might have made a positive, informed choice?
Adeline was bright, articulate and disarmingly frank throughout our conversation. She told me she had first started working as an escort while studying for a degree in Business Management at Leeds Metropolitan University several years ago. "As with most students, I was skint," she said. "I thought about getting a part time job and having to work 10-15 hours a week and still fitting in all my uni. work as well, but when I weighed that up against only having to do one or two hours escort work and getting as much money, if not more, it just made more financial sense. It's not that I love sex or anything, but you'd be surprised how many students do this when they've got debts to pay."
She told me that she always intended to use her degree to get a job in management, so I asked her why it is that she is still working as an escort some years after graduating. "When I graduated, I got a job working part-time in management, so I was able to gain that extra experience while doing my escort work as well, which I've added to my previous experience and my degree to improve my prospects. I was also able to use the money from my escort work to pay off my student loans, because I didn't want to start my working life again saddled with debt. It was never a career path for me, but I have made quite a lot of money from it: I own my own home and I've been able to have it all refurbished. I've also bought an apartment to let and I'm in the process of signing a contract to do some virtual PA work which fits in with my part-time work. Eventually that will be enough to sustain me, and I'll be able to slowly pack up the escort work and stop doing it altogether. My rationale for doing it tells you that it is not about some pimp pushing me, it's been quite calculated. Not in a devious way, but I've found myself in a situation and I've made something positive out of that."
Adeline told me that the thing she finds most difficult about her work is the secrecy it requires: "The thing I really don't like about it is that my family and friends don't know what I do. You have to have a cover story, and I don't like that because I wasn't brought up to lie to anybody, let alone my family."
Denise told me that she made the decision to launch a career as an escort late in life, having first secured the agreement and support of her husband. "I was well over 40 and I just thought 'if I don't do it now, I never will'. I'd never had the nerve or the confidence till I got over 40. Earlier in life it would have been very difficult if my family had found out. I had trained as a professional, I had a degree and I had a very nice career, thank you very much, so it was just something I never thought about. But when I got over 40, both my parents had died and I came to the opinion that if anybody did find out then I wouldn't really be bothered.
Prostitution is prostitution, whether you're on the street corner or you're an escort. You're still being paid for sex.There are two completely different types of prostitutes as far as I'm concerned. I personally don't feel associated at all with the poor girls walking the streets of Ipswich. I've never taken a drug in my life, I don't even smoke cigarettes and I drink very little alcohol, so I don't do it to feed any kind of habit. I just do it because I like sex, and I like pleasing men, and I know there are a lot of men out there whose wives or partners don't provide what they want, so I just think I'm providing a nice service for gentlemen who can't get it anywhere else."
Melissa started working as a prostitute after giving up a career in nursing. "It was the 13 hour shifts that did it. I wanted to have a few more experiences in my life, and I absolutely love it. I built a basic website and took it from there. I never really expected the phone to ring, but it did. I've never, ever, ever had a bad experience. Everyone is obviously a different personality, but I've never come across someone nasty or arrogant, everyone's been a true gent."
On her website, Melissa describes herself as a "dominatrix" and promises she will "use your dreams and fantasies to enter with you into a world of sexual exploration, domination and fantasy", claiming, rather surprisingly for a former-nurse, "I like to humiliate, watch you crawl and grovel, I like to push you to your limits, to see how far you will go for me." However, she insists that she is not selling sex. "I never ever, ever get paid for having sex. If, as two consenting adults, that is something that happens during that time together then fine, but I have to be in agreement as much as the other person, and I always make that clear to every and every client."
Corinne became an escort shortly after she began to appear in adult films and photographs. Before that, she had owned her own business for 20 years. She told me "I'd done some modelling before when I was younger, but films weren't something I was interested in, although I'd had a lot of offers. But I was having a set of raunchy photographs taken for my partner's personal use and mine a couple of years ago, and the guy taking the photos suggested that it was a really good shoot and asked me if I'd consider doing DVD work, so that's how I got into the industry. Once I was working in adult modelling, I started being inundated with emails and phone calls from people who'd seen my pictures on the website and wanted me to provide an escort service for them. A bit of extra pocket money is always useful, so I started doing it. I still run my own business now. The films and the escort work are only a sideline."
Corinne is not so unequivocally positive about the work as Denise and Melissa. "At the end of the day, a lot of the time you're an actress. With many of the people that you see, you like spending time with them, but you may not like doing what you're doing with them, because you may want to spend a bit more time getting to know them first. Some of the time you really don't want to be with the people you're with, but that's what you do. But the majority of time you're enjoying it. If somebody comes to see me that I really don't like the look of or feel uneasy about, I just won't let him through the door. I'm not in a position where I have to do it for the money."
I was interested to know how the women I spoke to felt about the way prostitutes are perceived in society and the media, and how the reality of their own work differs from this perception. All agreed that women working as prostitutes are stereotyped negatively, though there was a difference of opinion about the degree to which the stereotype is accurate. According to Denise, "The media and public opinion is that somebody who does this sort of work is the scrapings off your boots, although in reality the people I've met who do this are usually very, very nice people. Articulate, honest, kind, intelligent, law-abiding people. What the media portrays is a terrible thing."
Melissa insisted that "being a prostitute and being an escort are a million miles apart. I've never taken drugs in my life; that wasn't the pull for me. I don't meet someone and have sex in a car. That would never enter my head. There are a lot of gentlemen out there who just want a lady to take for dinner, have a chat or a kiss and cuddle with. Sex isn't a foregone conclusion. That's how it differs. I don't feel associated at all with the poor girls who walk the streets in Ipswich."
However, Adeline does not perceive such a world of difference. "Prostitution is prostitution, whether you stand on the street corner or you're what's deemed to be a 'high-class escort'. But clearly women standing on the street are open to a whole lot of abuses. They're quite vulnerable and they're exploited.
She tells me that she was shocked and dismayed by the media coverage of the Ipswich murders. "Every time it was reported, one of the first things that came out of their mouths was that the women who had been murdered were 'five prostitutes'. It shouldn't matter that those women had sex for money: they're still human beings; they're still somebody's daughter, and somebody's mother; they're still somebody's partner and somebody's friend. Their being prostitutes doesn't give someone the right to murder them, it doesn't give the media the right to report them in a less positive light, and it didn't give the police the right to take it less seriously when they disappeared from the street. It was not taken as seriously or reported as seriously as it seriously as it would have been if they'd been five middle class women, and that is really quite dangerous, because I suspect that if it had been, not as many of them would have died. It's almost as though those women's lives were not worth anything because they did that for money, but the harsh cold reality is that all kinds of women, from all kinds of backgrounds, do this sort of work. It's not just 'crack-whores' as people call them."
Adeline is right about at least one aspect of the way in which the Ipswich murders were reported. Trawling through the archives of four national newspapers, including two tabloids and two broad-sheets, I found that the vast majority of the articles pertaining to the murders contained the word "prostitutes", or in some cases even "whores" or "hookers" in the first sentence. Tony Parson's 18 December column in the Mirror refers repeatedly to the five victims in these terms, at one point even describing them as "poor little cows whoring themselves on the backstreets."
Adeline told me that she feels "choked" by this sort of prejudice. "I live an ordinary life; none of my family or my friends know what I do. As far as most people are concerned, I'm just an ordinary, law-abiding citizen. They'll pass me in Tesco's, or I'll sit on the bus next to them, and they'll have no idea. I don't shout about it; I hide my face on my website and I'm discrete about what I do. At the end of the day, people can make all kinds of judgments about the person that you are, but they don't know you. Actually, I did have a good upbringing, and even though I do have sex for money it doesn't make me a bad or an immoral person. I know that deep down I'm a decent person, and I know that a lot of those preconceived ideas are just prejudice really, so I just have to try and accept it."
Corinne, like Melissa, told me she feels little affinity with women working as prostitutes on the street. "I don't agree with girls working on the street; I think that's the wrong way of operating altogether. I don't agree with the pimping side of things where girls are having to work to fulfil their partner's monetary requirements, I don't think that sort of thing's right. But in my situation I'm lucky, because I don't have to do it for money, I do it because I enjoy meeting people. I enjoy sex: it's a laugh, it's a business transaction, it's a contract between two consenting adults, and that's as far as it goes."
Despite the difference the women I spoke to perceived between their own work and that of street-based prostitutes, all four expressed grave concerns about the safety and welfare of such women. However, none were clear that the legalisation of the industry would prevent women from taking to the street and entering into unsafe and exploitative situations.
According to Denise, "It wouldn't make much difference at all to the sort of thing I do. And the poor girls who do it at 16 to feed a drug habit would still continue to street-walk and pick up nasty people, whether it was legalised or not. They're desperate girls, because they're drug addicts, and that's not going to change. So I don't think it would make any difference to them to legalise it, but it certainly wouldn't make a difference to me. And I don't think it would have saved those poor girls in Ipswich."
Although Adeline is adamant that prostitution should be legalised, she does not feel it would remove all the dangers entailed in street prostitution. "You could argue that some of the pimping that goes on might stop, but personally I expect women would still be at risk of exploitation, and that's my major concern about this industry. Particularly for the girls working on the street or in parlours, many of the reasons why they do that will remain. Either they're addicted to crack, or they've got a pimp pushing them. Well, just because he can now legitimately send them out to work and take all their money doesn't mean he's not exploiting them. I think the dynamic of that industry doesn't lend itself too well to legitimising it and making it more safe and secure. It would take a long time for people to get out of the mindset of "I'm standing on a street corner because I can't afford to feed my children". If you can't afford to feed your children, you can't afford to feed your children. That doesn't change."
One of the key issues highlighted by both "Paying the Price" and the resulting "Coordinated Prostitution Strategy" was the need to extirpate the demand for prostitution before the industry itself could be properly tackled, so I asked the women what they thought were the main reasons men came to them. The issues of loneliness, sexual-deviance and commitment-phobia all came up, but the consensus was that by far and away the most significant reason men visit prostitutes was to supplement what they perceive to be inadequate sexual relationships with their wives or girlfriends.
Perhaps the last accusation of social nuisance which could be levelled at women working as prostitutes in a way which is invisible to the surrounding community is that it encourages deviation from functional, loving partnerships within society, by creating the possibility of sex in the form of what Corinne describes as "a business transaction; a contract between two people."
This is certainly not the way Denise perceives her work. "A lot of men who come to see me are in happy marriages. They've got kids, they love their wives, and they don't want anything to spoil it. They don't want to have an affair; they don't want to get emotionally involved in anyone else, but they can come and see me, and I don't put any pressure on them. They can see me every week or every month if they want; they can see me once and then not see me again for six months if they don't want; it's an easy way of going about things for them. They know I'm not going to ring them at home or contact their wives, and I think from a health point of view they think it's safer to come to somebody like me who has regular health checks and HIV tests. They know I'm going to use a condom all the time, so they've got safe sex, but they've got the sex that they want. I think I'm actually helping to preserve marriages through providing that service."
As far as most are concerned, I'm just an ordinary citizen. They sit next to me on the bus and have no idea what I do.Adeline, however, told me she struggles with the knowledge that many of the men she sees are married or in relationships. "I try not to think too deeply about the clients, because obviously many of them have wives or girlfriends. I know this may seem like a bit of a paradox, but in my personal life I believe in monogamy and when I'm in a relationship then I'm in a relationship with that one person. I certainly wouldn't expect infidelity from my partner, especially if I did ever get married, which is why I've steered clear of being in a relationship while I've had this job. So ordinarily I don't look too kindly on men who think it's all right to play away from home. But I have to remember that this is a separate part of my life and I'm not really here to judge them. I just need to let that go and see it for what it is: it's a very brief encounter and, yes, he's cheating on his wife, but quite honestly that's not really my concern. I mean, I don't want to sound like some kind of hard-faced bitch, but it's his relationship with his wife or his girlfriend and he's responsible for that, I'm not. It's purely about business, really. So you have to be able to compartmentalise your life, though it takes a while to get used to it."
By and large, the women I spoke to were positive about their experiences of working as escorts, but I was interested to know what they felt were the major pitfalls of the industry. Some were more forthcoming that others. Melissa flatly denied that there were any pitfalls at all, while Denise said it was the best job she'd ever had. Of the four only Melissa, however, said she would unreservedly recommend escorting as a career, and that she would be perfectly happy for her daughter to do it.
Adeline, ever frank, told me "If you're not in a good place in yourself, doing this can really mess your head up because it's not always the nicest job to have to do. I've seen that happen to some girls, many of whom were quite vulnerable already, with low self-esteem or abandonment issues. You've got to be quite tough, take your money and use it constructively. The money itself can be damaging, because you can try to self-medicate by drinking yourself into a stupor or taking lots of coke, and you'll still be able to pay all your bills. But at the end of the day, you can't make yourself feel better, because you're doing something that you're not au fait with."
It is unsurprising that the weight of research and consultation is heavily focused on street-based prostitution. Here the uglier side of the industry rears its head; here aid and attention is most sorely needed. However, beneath such benign intentions, there is a degree of hypocrisy in this single-minded approach. For those who believe that the act of selling sex is fundamentally immoral, it is convenient to conceive of prostitution as being synonymous with crime, addiction and abuse.
All the while middle class society convinces itself that prostitution occurs exclusively in the distant echelons of an anonymous social underclass, it is easy to perceive a comfortable degree of difference between 'us' and 'them'. No doubt the sex trade is a hazardous industry; no doubt there are moral and societal concerns to be discussed. But if those engaged in the discussion first allowed ourselves to conceive that some women choose to sell sex from a position of financial strength and intellectual empowerement; if we were willing to hear their voices, the whole debate would surely be blown wide open.
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