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Investigation shows 'hidden' prostitution in Cheltenham

By Chris Brierley
BBC Gloucestershire reporter

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'Anya' was trafficked from Eastern Europe to work as a prostitute in Cheltenham

It shocked some people a few years ago when Cheltenham was named in a national report with regards to prostitution.

Yes, Regency Cheltenham has working girls!

But unlike some cities and towns which have a "red light" district, Cheltenham's industry is behind closed doors. Whether that is in brothels or in individual working girls homes or rented rooms.

My research into the issue saw me looking at advertisements in the local papers for "massages" or "escorts", but it also saw me trawling the web.

One website had links to over 60 women offering a variety of services in the county.

I've talked to people in Gloucestershire who've all had some experience of the industry. Their names and identities have been changed to protect them.

Anya's story

Anya came to Gloucestershire from Eastern Europe. She came here expecting to work in the legal profession, but ended up being forced into the sex trade.

I had to see at least ten people a day. I didn't want to do it but I couldn't say no.
Anya

She was trapped working as a sex slave in Cheltenham for three years before she managed to escape.

Anya went to Gloucestershire Police, but there was not enough evidence to prosecute the man who controlled her. She has now moved away from the county.

Anya told me: "I had to get up at any time of the day, whether it was midnight, morning or the middle of the day. I had to serve his customers.

"I had to see at least 10 people a day. I didn't want to do it but I couldn't say no."

As part of my investigation I have found out that every single year Gloucestershire Police deal with a handful of human trafficking cases in the county. This involves under cover operations.

Sarah's story

Sarah, whose website says she's in her late-20s/early-30s, told me she sees herself as a "prostitute" who simply sells sex for cash.

She's a single mum who does it to make ends meet.

She said: "It's purely for financial gain.

"I'd be in a dead-end job earning basic wages otherwise, maybe not being able to afford to drive a car.

"Certainly not being able to afford to take holidays and things that better paid jobs provide."

Sarah told me that the National Hunt Festival is a big week for the sex industry in the town.

She estimates the number of woman working in Cheltenham double in that week alone, with 50 or more woman being bussed into town from across the country.

The town also sees a number of pubs and bars offer adult entertainment during the four days of the meet.

She also says there needs to be greater support for women working in the profession in the town.

Paul's story

Paul is an ordinary man. Much like any man you would meet in the pub.

He was happy to tell me about why in the past he used "escorts" or "working girls" because they were "non-judgemental and listened".

He told me that a number of the women he met over the years became his friends and it wasn't just about sex: "I suppose it was sex initially but she actually became a very good friend," he said.

"Even though I was married at the time I wanted something outside of marriage that was lacking."

Paul no longer sees prostitutes because he's in a happy relationship, but he has no regrets.

What the police say

The former Chief Constable of Gloucestershire Police, Tim Brain, who retired in December 2009, led a national effort to change the way the police deal with vice and prostitution.

He wanted a more "victim-centred" approach led a national crackdown on sex trafficking with Operation Pentameter.

He told me that a few years ago there were about ten brothels operating in Cheltenham, but that number has now been reduced.

Since 2006 Gloucestershire Police have been actively monitoring the sex industry in the town and have clamped down on operating brothels.

Speaking on the breakfast show, Detective Superintendent Roger Clayton, the head of the Public Protection Bureau at Gloucestershire Police, said over the last four years properties in the town have been raided and a number of people prosecuted.

Is prostitution illegal?

The law is complicated. The act of one consenting adult paying another for sex is NOT actually illegal. So, a woman who works on her own, in her own house and charges people for sex is NOT breaking the law.

But the laws that exist around it make it almost impossible to carry out prostitution legally.

To put it as simply as possible...

Brothels are illegal - that's a room where more than one woman works - even if they work on different days or at different times. A massage parlour is normally a classier name for a brothel.

It's also illegal to benefit from controlling or coercing others into the sex industry - that could include pimps, massage parlour managers, and receptionists.

It's illegal to advertise for sexual services - though not to advertise massage or escort services like those in the papers and on the internet.

It's also quite likely that people renting a house and using it as a brothel are committing planning and tenancy offences.

At a street level it's illegal to solicit for trade, and kerb-crawling is illegal.

New laws

From the 1st of April 2010 it will become an offence to pay for sex with someone who has been forced, threatened or exploited or otherwise coerced or deceived into providing the sexual services by someone else who has engaged in such conduct for gain.

If convicted of the offence you could face a fine of up to £1,000, a court summons and a criminal record and risk having your name mentioned in newspapers.

It will be no defence for a person to say that they did not know the prostitute was being forced or threatened.

Support in the county

Unlike some areas, there is no dedicated project dealing with sex workers in Gloucestershire.

But recently a multi-agency forum was set up to co-ordinate what support is around for working girls and their clients.

Rachel McKenna, who is a Sexual Health Nurse and a member of the Gloucestershire multi agency forum, told me what support is available and what work is going on to support sex workers in Gloucestershire.

For more information on sexual health support available in the county visit the Sexual Health in Gloucestershire website

Find out more on BBC Radio Gloucestershire

Nationally the Government quote figures of around 80,000 people being involved in the sex trade in this country.

In Cheltenham the full extent of just how many people are working in the industry is unknown because it's operated behind closed doors.

All this week (15-19 March 2010) on BBC Radio Gloucestershire , starting on Breakfast with Mark Cummings, you can find out more about the so called "oldest profession in the world."




SEE ALSO
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Prostitute users face clampdown
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Drugs and Prostitution
28 Feb 07 |  HARDtalk


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