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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
Bigger than the movies
By Nick Triggle and Megan Lane
BBC News Online

Britons spend more on the sex industry than on cinema tickets. Now the law is set for a shake-up, with a possibility that "green light districts" where selling sex is tolerated could be introduced. What do those affected - including a working girl - think?

It's all change in the red light district. Prostitution - an industry said to be worth more than £770m a year in the UK - is set for a Home Office review next month. It is expected to herald the first comprehensive overhaul of the sex industry in 50 years, and will focus on the links between organised crime, drugs, public nuisance and the sale of sex.

Some campaigners advocate the Dutch model of legalising brothels and zones for street prostitution; others demand a crack down. The Home Office is expected to adopt elements of both approaches.

There could be the prospect of managed zones where women will be offered advice on drug addiction and sexual health, financial matters, and how to get off the game. But on the other hand, the review could introduce jail terms for men who pay for sex.

What say those involved in the trade?

Jane (not her real name), 45, has been working as a prostitute in Manchester for the past 18 years

My feeling is that I don't think the tolerance zones are a good idea. Women who work as prostitutes don't want to be labelled and that happens with the zone. As soon as you go in people know you are a prostitute.

In an ideal world we'd do something else but sometimes it is just not possible
And the most vulnerable people, the young girls, can't even get into them because they are too young and so they work outside. It is no help to them. During the Commonwealth Games the police tried to get us to work in a gas works but that was no good. It was dangerous. It just made us targets for people who wanted to rob us. Not necessarily the punters, but drug addicts who wanted the money.

As for helping us out of prostitution, it all sounds good. In an ideal world we would do something else but sometimes it is just not possible. The women are only working because they have to. They have children to feed and debts to pay.

I got into prostitution because of a bad relationship. My son, now 22, is disabled, he has severe learning and speech difficulties, and my partner got into drugs after he was born because he couldn't handle it.


Eventually he left and died of a drug overdose. That was 18 years ago. I had to sell the house because of the debts he had and ended up in a hostel for homeless families. It got so desperate that I thought I was going to lose my son.

In the end prostitution seemed the only solution. My son needs full-time care and there just aren't the jobs out there. I only work once or twice a month. When there is a bill to pay. Basically, I go out with a figure in mind, say I have a £150 bill, and work until I make that.

I leave my son with a babysitter. I do it to survive. I just see it as a job. Tell me, what else could I do? I used to have a proper job, I worked in print.

Client handing over money to a prostitute
"Say I have a £150 bill - I work until I make it"
The only thing I can see would help us is if prostitution was decriminalised. But people don't see it like that. They don't understand prostitutes, they think we're on drugs. I don't touch them and most of the women I know don't. The ones that do drugs quite often only do because they need it for courage to work. It is a vicious circle.

The police just pester us, arrest us - they don't protect us. But the women still return to the streets. In the end, it's the girls that look after each other; if we see someone dodgy, we take their number plate and let the others know. That's how it is.

A senior policeman in one force which has responsibility of policing prostitution in a major city says:

It is a hard problem to police. We don't just want to keep arresting the women and seeing them back on the streets a few days later. That does not achieve much. But at the same time we have to make sure it is not affecting local residents, we have plain-clothed police officers working on the streets to keep an eye on the situation.

We don't operate a tolerance zone as such. If women are found working as prostitutes, they are cautioned and told if they are caught again within 12 months they are liable for arrest. But we don't see the women as criminals, we see them as victims. If they are arrested during that 12-month period, they are given a bail term and we encourage them to use a scheme to help them out of prostitution.

It's operated in partnership with the courts and local council. The idea is to help them find jobs and deal with their problems. Many have drug addictions so we try to address that. We have a prostitution liaison officer who co-ordinates this.

One residents' activist from Birmingham:

We applied strike tactics to the problem in our neighbourhood. We stood outside our houses, noting down car numbers and holding placards warning 'Your wife will get to hear of this.'

It worked. With clients put off coming here, the girls moved out, which meant the pimps, dealers and muggers went too. The area has become much more desirable, and house prices have skyrocketed.

I don't think a tolerance zone will work; it was tried here and failed. It's not the girls I object to - it's the people who trade on their misery, and the fact that it was on my doorstep.

Alastair Alexander, from the International Union of Sex Workers:

We are not starry-eyed about the profession, it can often be violent and dangerous and having organised areas for people to work can reduce that threat.

What's more, zones can also benefit the community. If an area is suitably chosen, prostitution can be moved away from residential areas.

But the law as a whole is not working. The union supports the decriminalisation of the whole industry.

It would make prostitution safer and less exploitative by opening it up just as other industries are.

Theresa Cumbers, from a support centre in Norwich:

The Home Office review is welcome. But tolerance zones would give a false sense of security. Prostitutes will think they will be safe and will be drawn into using them.

The number of youngster in the sex industry will go up and that will mean more business for pimps.

Prostitution has changed dramatically in the past eight years. The majority of youngsters we see have some form of drug addiction and that is what we need to concentrate on.

Cari Mitchell, from the English Collective of Prostitutes:

Tolerance zones are about getting women into light industrial areas where they will be even more vulnerable. Tolerance zones will not be friendly areas - women will still be attacked, raped and murdered by men who are violent.

Talk of career help is meaningless. Women are forced into prostitution to earn money and there are very few other options. A lot of work for women is poorly paid, so for many this is all they can do to pay off their debts.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Your comments:

All you achieve by making Drugs & Prostitution illegal is a booming Black Market controlled by Organised Crime Gangs, it's inevitable that there will always be trading in illicit sex & drugs, isn¿t it about time we acknowledged this and try to make it safer for those people that are either taking hard drugs or involved in prostitution.
Simon Rerrie, Birmingham, UK

Anyone with an iota of common sense knows that some kind of structure to the industry has to be an improvement. It's not called the 'oldest profession' for nothing, it's never going to go away, and all you can do is try to make it safer.
Paul, Wales

We educate young offenders and teach them skills in the hope that they will not reoffend and earn their money honestly. Why do we not conduct a similar policy towards these women. Opening centres and giving them assistance while learning a new skill would definitely deter them from degrading themselves. No matter what they say, they are always aware what they do is demeaning. As a woman who has experienced problems throughout my life, I know instantly that education is the key to tolerance, ignorance and self management. These women will definitely get a much better sense of satisfaction working using their newly acquired skills than what they are practising at present.
Mrs Evans, England

So Cari Mitchell says "a lot of work for women is poorly paid", hence they become prostitutes to pay off their debts. The last time I looked poor pay wasn't exclusive to women. Many people have no choice but to take poorly paid jobs, but they don't become prostitutes or rent boys. In British society we are in the fortunate position where many opportunities to improve one's lot are free if one is on a low income, evening classes and the Open University to name just a couple. Prostitution may be one solution, but let's not pretend it's ever the only solution.
Simon Thompson, UK

At least legalising it would make the proceeds taxable. I have no problem with these women making their living in this way, what I do have a problem with however, is that, proportionately speaking, they will use public services much more than me, particularly the NHS, and do not contribute to it in any meaningful way.
Leah, UK

I live in an area which was recently a pilot tolerance zone in Edinburgh. Although the program came to an end, the area continued to be used frequently by prostitutes. Unfortunately it's also near a school and the play areas were getting littered with condoms. Instead of protesting to police for increased patrols, the community asked the women directly to not use the school area and explained the reasons. The women responded and the problem stopped immediately. If we all treat each other with this kind of respect we'll come closer to a better solution.
Janet, Scotland

It is all very well saying that you will help these poeple find work, but I am job hunting and i have found nothing suitable for nearly 6 months and i have good references a clean record and a complete work history. Career help is a nice idea but it is no quick fix, what are we expecting them to do in the mean time? I belive decriminalising it and regulating it is the way forward, let the Goverment tax it and put the money towards drug rehab.
James, UK

I have lived in Devon for the last 10 years but am originally from Liverpool. Whenever I visit relatives 'back home' I am amazed at the number of 'escort agencies'and massage services etc that advertise (for clients AND staff)in the local papers. There never used to be ads like that 10 years ago. Maybe I am being naive (having never used thier services) but surely there is very little need for prostitutes to 'walk the streets' in this day and age.
Dave, England

I'm all for a legalised sex industry in the interests of protecting the people involved. But the most vulnerable - the children, especially - won't benefit from that. I'm not sure it's possible to protect those at most risk, which is dreadfully depressing.
Kaz, Briton in NJ, US

It sounds to me as if no one really understands the problem. The police officer thinks most prostitutes are on drugs but the prostitute says that most girls won't touch drugs. So which one knows the truth? Is anyone going to find out? The girls claim there are no jobs out there but let's be honest - there are jobs, only you can't earn hundreds of untaxed pounds in a couple of nights doing them. Jane says she can earn £150 to pay bills and that she only works a couple of times a month. You can see why it's hard for them to leave the profession. Prostitution is the oldest profession and it will always go on - legal or not. It's not safe for the girls to be on the streets. They're not criminals but the pimps and drug dealers are. Legalising & licensing brothels would help. I don't have much sympathy for those that would feel shame at working in a brothel - after all, there are other jobs but like I said they don't pay as well and you'll have to pay tax.
Nia , UK

Jane is fortunate in that she can leave her son with a babysitter (and so is he). if the Home Office is considering decriminalising prostitution, perhaps they should also consider the childcare needs of those women who sell sex, regardless of the reason. Prostitution cannot be eradicated whilst there is a need for it, and rather than simply tolerating it, and moving it to areas where we don't have to see it, public sector organisations should be encouraged to work productively with this group of women to meet the needs of their families and themselves. We all have a right to access these services, regardless of whether our behaviour is seen as deviant. If a woman is a prostitute, a drug user, a mother, an asylum seeker, or not white, she really doesn't stand a chance, does she?
Lindsey, England

Regulation of prostitution should be based on health and safety, not dogma and misguided false morality. All the problems with the profession stem from the influence of dogma and false morality on the law, it is time for society to grow out of this and introduce a proper legal framework that will protect both prostitutes and punters.
David R, Plymouth UK

The tolerance zone idea seems to be similar to the approach that was taken to re-classifying cannibis a while back; if you can't effectively police it, make it legal so you don't have to bother trying.

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