Back on the streets only half an hour after giving birth: the tragic lives of Hull’s sex workers

(Originally published at Yahoo News)

From spending a night on the streets to pay for a new washing machine, to working just 30 minutes after giving birth, Hull’s sex workers are desperate for money.

The city’s red light district, based primarily on Hessle Road, just two miles west of the centre, is the only place in the UK to have banned sex workers in 2014 – effectively making prostitution illegal.

As a result of the move – the first of its kind in the uk – not only are sex workers forced to stay below the radar, but their environment is far more dangerous, too.

PCSO Jacqui Fairbanks, who has helped women in the area for 10 years, shed some light on the tragic situation these women find themselves in.

‘Violence has been commonplace’

She explained why, despite the landmark ruling, Hull’s sex workers ‘are in a cycle they simply cannot get out of.’

She told the Hull Daily Mail: ‘Some of these women have come from backgrounds of child abuse, both physical and sexual. Violence in their lives has been commonplace and many are homeless who just sofa surf.

‘Quite a number suffer from mental health problems and there are issues of trafficking and coercion by pimps and boyfriends.

Hessle Road, Hull. (Google Maps)

‘But the biggest issue is drugs and many of these women are on the streets to pay for theirs and their next fix.

‘One woman had a baby and, within half an hour, was back out on the streets. That’s how desperate some of these women are.

‘We had one woman come out because her washing machine had broken and she needed some cash to have it fixed.’

Where did it begin?

Hull’s history of prostitution stems from the 1970s fishing industry, where the poorest workers would turn to sex work to support their income.

Almost 50 years later and the area is still one of the poorest regions in all of Northern Europe.

And now, despite celebrating its fishing heritage and rich history by becoming the UK’s City of Culture, the East Yorkshire city is the only local authority to make the act of selling sex illegal.

The Section 222 order of the Local Government Act 1972 makes it a crime to loiter, kerb-crawl or for prostitutes to have sex on the streets of the Hessle Road area.

This action, although a relief for locals, makes workers keep violent incidents to themselves for fear of criminalisation.

Women resort to hiding in unlit areas or on isolated backstreets to avoid police, which increases their risk of violence.

And the underground nature of the industry in Hull is making work more dangerous for sex workers in more ways than one.

National Ugly Mugs, a charity which warns sex workers of dangerous or violent punters, received only two reports in the year 2016/17 – incredibly low for a city of 260,000 people.

Georgina Perry, director of the service, told the BBC that Nottingham, a similar sized city, had 35 reports during the same time period.

‘What we see in every authority where there is a heavy-handed enforcement approach is that the number of reports [to Ugly Mugs] goes down and the number of women then willing to take it to the police goes down too, because they are frightened about criminalisation,’ she said.

A tough problem to solve

Local Councillor Daren Hale told VICE he can understand both the views of the workers and the views of the local residents.

‘Often the women want to ply their trade on well-lit roads or major thoroughfares, where they feel safer, and I can understand that,’ he said. ‘I do have sympathy for the women, but first and foremost I’ve got to have sympathy for those who live in my community, which is suffering because of this issue. I also accept that there’s a risk [that the sex workers will move to other deprived residential areas].’

Since the policy came into force, 29 women have been arrested, four prosecuted and two given jail sentences.

PSCO Fairbanks continued: ‘Our problem is that these women will not come and deal with us. Their self-esteem is so low that they enjoy the attention they receive and that is really sad.

‘We work very closely with other agencies, such as social services, the Together Women Project. Lighthouse, the Vineyard and Humbercare.’

In 2016, the Lighthouse Project, run by the Hull Community Church, were in contact with 113 women working on the streets of Hull, and another 15 who had (either temporarily or permanently) stopped.

In the last three months, East Yorkshire Police have engaged with 42 sex workers and handed out 33 Section 222 orders.

They’ve also given out 32 warnings and had 32 breaches of these orders – although some of which were committed by the same person multiple times.

However PCSO Fairbanks thinks the number has since dipped over time: ‘At the moment we have around 40 sex workers. Some will be out every night while others less often.

‘Most of the women are in their late 20s or early 30s but we do have a couple of women in their 60s. Thankfully, we don’t have any young girls on the streets in Hull.’

So what’s the solution?

PSCO Fairbanks believes the best option for helping sex workers off of the street is to encourage them with support services.

She said: ‘There is a perception that these women are all on benefits but that is not always the case. For many, this is their only source of income – at the end of the day these women are somebody’s daughter.

‘I try to tell them they are better than this. But all we can do is off them the help through the different agencies.

‘This isn’t Pretty Woman I’m afraid. Some rich punter isn’t going to come along and sweep these women off their feet and live happily ever after.’

One definite positive in Hull’s red light district is the reduction in violence.

She said: ‘We have managed things better now and there is less violence towards these women.

‘There will always be dodgy pimps and violent boyfriends but, otherwise, the women are quick to tell us if they have been victims of violence. We have a better rapport.

‘It has been around ten years since the last murder of a sex worker.’

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