We had a fairly big red light district in the town. Estimates varied on the total number of working girls but the best educated guess usually came in at around 300 at any one time. They used our service mainly for needles and condoms and were a famously difficult drug using demographic to get onto treatment. I remember reading a study on the economic power of UK sex workers with crack habits which showed an “average” female sex worker would generate around £90,000 a year, of which 90% would go on crack and heroin. If this was true it meant the local red light area generated in the region of 27 million pounds a year. Huge money. Complete insanity. But if you can generate that level of income and are able to afford your habit without having to rob banks, it meant the girls were hardly ever rattling and the thought of getting on a methadone script was usually far, far, away.
Anecdotally, the girls I knew would have widely differing levels of income – some would say they could earn £400 in a couple of hours, others would admit to earning £20 in an entire night. And, yes, most of it went on heroin and crack.
I met Julie when she was forced to enter treatment to avoid going to jail for a petty theft. She was 24, about 5’5”, mousey brown straight hair and probably could have been very pretty if ten years of sex work hadn’t left her emaciated and sick. Yeah, you read that last sentence right, Julie had first started working in the sex trade aged just 13. “The younger girls get plenty of punters”, she said. I’d never met a punter, but I couldn’t see it going well if I did.
Within the Drug Team, Julie was notoriously hard work, aggressive, and a serial non-attender of appointments. Some colleagues had patted me on the back and wished me luck when they read her name on my caseload list. That was the problem of the place; they just saw people as “problems”, trouble, too much effort.
But she turned up for our first meet and greet on time. She was looking at her watch when I called her name out. “Bout fucking time you cunt” she said. I laughed. She liked my response, because she burst out laughing too. The receptionist sneered as she walked past, so Julie flicked her a v without breaking stride and slammed the door behind her as she left the waiting room.
Julie lived in a squat not far from my office, which she shared with about 6 other people, all of them crammed in one room upstairs. The house was owned or rented or overseen by some half-crazed amphetamine user in his 40s with no teeth who had collected so much rubbish downstairs that you walked in unsteadily with your head near the ceiling. She was earning in the region of £500 a night and seemed to be supporting her own drug habit while heavily subsidising the habits of her friends in the house. They were grateful. Julie’s 18 year old sister – Emma – had moved in and was starting work on the streets even though she didn’t use heroin. “The money’s too fucking good Ben. Where else can you earn £400 in an hour? Bet you can’t.” She’d be making money at that rate until she got a bit older or lost her looks, or got sick. Punters were critics, and they voted with their wallets.
In ten weeks Emma had a £50 a day heroin habit and was spending whatever she had left on crack. She wept as I got her a methadone script. “I didn’t mean to get like this.” In the end, she was right, I couldn’t see anyone actually meaning to get strung out on heroin or crack intentionally – despite what the Daily Mail would have you believe. Every single working girl I ever met had been raped, beaten, and robbed multiple times. It’s the side of prostitution the normal folks never get to see. It’s a dirty business in more ways than the lascivious press would want you to know.
After a while I had gotten to know quite a few of the girls, as they’d started to trickle into treatment and I was overseeing their medication. It had it’s downside. I had an open top car, and one summer evening I was driving home through the town when I had to stop at some lights in heavy traffic. From out of nowhere came “Cheryl” – a working girl on my caseload. Her left ear was mangled from where a rapist had pulled out her earrings and now her ear lobe hung shredded like three pink droplets of water. She also had a voice like a foghorn. Cheryl wandered up to my car and leaned over “Business love?” She looked in the car “oh, fucking hell! Sorry Ben! I didn’t know it was you. I’ll see you tomorrow love.” She blew me a kiss and waved as she walked backwards away from the passenger door. I drove away with Cheryl shouting “Byeee darling” after me, and looking in the rear view mirror at the middle aged man in the car behind shaking his head.
Emma ended up moving away after a few months, and Julie went to prison. I never saw Emma again, but I did see Julie – I was her keyworker when she was released. She’d got her shit together and had eventually moved to the next town, away from the red light district here and all the familiar problems. She turned up one day with her boyfriend. She’d stuck to her methadone and had got herself a little part-time job. Julie asked to see me. I was chuffed to bits to see her looking so healthy and she jumped up in the waiting room and hugged me right in front of the disapproving receptionist. “Thanks for everything Ben” she said, “we’re getting married. Can you give me away?”
I didn’t – because I wouldn’t have been allowed to, even though I kind of wanted to – but I was so proud that she’d managed to leave sex work behind and had gotten off the smack. The last I knew of her, she’d had a baby and was still clean. I got more joy from that knowledge than looking at my pay slip. But, in sex work – like in drug dealing – one leaves and another fills their place, younger, more at stake. HIV will still thrive, and the importers of heroin and cocaine will still get rich. Inadequate men up and down the land will thrust small folds of money into eager hands then cum, leaving the girl and heading home feeling sick with regret…until next time. Prostitution is the oldest profession in human history, maybe, but it’s the worst.