Poor People series 2 – children who sell themselves

The Guardian, August 29 1994

West Yorkshire. September 1992. Police report that a quarter of the prostitutes who are arrested in their vice areas are aged 16 or under. They say the figures have soared in the previous 12 months. During 1991, less than four per cent of prostitutes they dealt with were under age.

Cardiff. November 1993. Venita Bailey, aged 25, is jailed for eight years along with two other women for using homeless children as prostitutes. The court heard that the women were earning more than £1,000 a week from the children and that they used crossbows and a Samurai sword to frighten those who tried to disobey. Police said the child prostitutes were “the ultimate victims”.

March 1993. The Childrens Society report that girls as young as ten are selling themselves for sex in Britain’s cities, and police in Birmingham confirm that the prostitutes they are dealing with are younger and younger.

Nottingham. October 1993. Natalie Meadows, aged 19, known as “Fat Natalie”, is convicted of procuring two girls, aged 14 and 15, as prostitutes. The court heard that she had sold them separately to a car salesman, John House, who drove them into the countryside, tied them to a fence and beat them with his belt before having sex with them. The two girls were said to have been working regularly as prostitutes in Nottingham where the Anti Vice Squad say they have dealt with girls as young as 12 and boys as young as 10.

It is happening. Any pimp or prostitute, any policeman or social worker who deals with the sex industry will tell you that on most nights in most of our cities now it is a simple matter to buy a girl or a boy to have sex with, and it did not used to be like that. Nobody in government is concerned with it. The police arrest a few children and send a few others home, but they have no idea how many child prostitutes are really out there, and no one in the Home Office is trying to find out. Social workers deal with a lot of them, but no one in the Department of Health is collating their reports. But it is happening.

If you talk to the children who are doing it, you hear the kind of experiences which beggar the imagination, but they give you a clue to something which is even worse and which is even less acknowledged by Government – the profound destruction of their personalities by a childhood spent in poverty. This is not a simple equation. It is not that they are poor and, therefore, sell themselves for money. It is far more complicated and miserable than that.

These are children who have grown up in Britain in the last 16 years on run-down, ground-down estates where the unnatural weight of everyday life has crushed the heart of numerous families, breaking up marriages, inciting violence, provoking crime, flooding their streets with smack and crack, and producing children who can’t tell love from hate, or pain from pleasure, or children from adults, or people from things. Most of them have come to a point of such total confusion that their behaviour has erupted, their schools have rejected them, and they have been taken into care, confirming all their worst fears about themselves. They have had their childhoods stolen. They are perfect victims.

The great clue to all this is the eerie frequency with which these children explain that they want to be prostitutes. It is true that there are pimps and procurers out there, and some of the children will tell you about being kidnapped and imprisoned (stories which the police can often confirm) but for the most part they are frantic to sell themselves. Everything in their education – all that they have learned about themselves and about the world – has prepared them for this career.

They don’t necessarily understand it that way themselves. Shelly, for example, who is 15 and who has been selling herself routinely round Leicester, Nottingham and Derby for the last three years, says she doesn’t remember her childhood. She reckons she doesn’t even remember what her parents look like. But she does, and while she fidgets with the ash on the table in the pub, she talks about the council house where she grew up until she was ten, with her two brothers and her dad who didn’t work much and started to drink, and her mother who started to drink, too.

“I don’t remember any good times. It was bad for a long time. My mother was always sleeping with different men after she had been out drinking at the pub. My father, he was drinking as well. I used to come downstairs and see my mum sleeping with different men. I did go to school most days but I’d get up and there’d be no breakfast. I used to get my own if there was any.

“He did try and hit her sometimes. She used to cut herself up, try to commit suicide. I used to phone the ambulance for her. I was about eight or nine, I don’t know, but she took an overdose with loads of tablets and cut herself with razors on her arms. She couldn’t stand up and she couldn’t walk, she just dropped on the floor. She was bleeding from everywhere, she’d cut her breasts. I had to call the ambulance.

“After they split up, they went and lived in different places. My mum found a new boyfriend and she stuck us all in care. That’s when I was ten. I was in foster care for two years, in three different places. I have blocked it out, really. I haven’t thought about it.”

She shrugs and swallows some brandy. Across the other side of the pub, the guy who looks after her is playing on a pinball machine. Everyone knows he is a crack dealer, but she says she doesn’t do any crack, just smokes weed. She says she doesn’t work for him either, that she’s been working on the streets so long now that she knows how to get rid of pimps who try and take her money.

She started when she was 12, when she was sent back to her mother and she went to a school where some of the other girls talked about being prostitutes. She wasn’t that interested but it may have been one of them who pointed her out to a white adult prostitute called Wanda. Shelly doesn’t know how it happened. All she knows is that when she walked out of school one dinner time to go to the chip shop, a car pulled up alongside her with this Wanda and two black girls in the back. They pulled her in, told her to shut up and drove her to a block of flats.

“I was still in my school uniform, but they got me changed and took me to a couple of clients’ houses. I didn’t have sex the first time, I gave hand relief. I was just scared. I couldn’t even talk. I knew what to do but I had never had full sex before. The first client was an old man, really dirty and smelly. He was disgusting. It made me feel horrible. They took me to another punter and I had sex. That happened on the first night.

“After that, they put me on the streets and she stayed with me and came in the car, took the money off the punter and she was there so I couldn’t get away. They kept me for a week in her house. I couldn’t get away. I tried one time. She told me to go to someone’s house and I tried to pretend that I didn’t know which house it was and I walked by it, but she was watching and she came after me and slapped me.”

Now she comes to the point which she understands the least. When the police discovered what Wanda was doing, they arrested her and took her to court, allowing Shelly to return to her life. But it was too late. Something inside her had collapsed, maybe her self-respect. “After I had been kidnapped, I started to not want to be with my mum. I was a bit more grown-up or something. She had straightened herself out and she had a nice house and everything, so I went in a children’s home and I started to work on the streets for myself.”

She can’t explain it. She keeps shrugging and glancing up with her grey blue eyes and a big soft smile. She rubs the ash into the grain of the table and says she’s done everything the punters have asked: she’s beaten them, been beaten by them, played around with urine. Once she was half-strangled by an elderly man who suddenly went wild with her and told her he was going to tie her up. The social workers told her to stop, but she ignored them.

“I didn’t want to be stopped. Even when I was 12, I was saying ‘You can’t tell me I can’t have that client just because of how old I am’. I get punters now asking for young ones. One of them wanted a ten-year-old, and I wouldn’t do it. Maybe if she was 13 and she was already working, I’d take a punter to her, if he paid me. I don’t think about what I do. It may sound funny to people that I don’t feel sad. It’s just the way I am. I can’t change anything.”

Out in the city streets, the children are easy to find: the 14-year-old with the blonde bob parading under a railway bridge in Leicester with her skirt so short that her stockings and suspenders hang out underneath; the 15-year-old in dirty jeans outside Kings Cross station begging to sell a blow job, at 10.30 in the morning; the schoolgirls on Ber Street in Norwich; the boys in the bus station in the middle of Nottingham. All of them asking for business, not just for sale, but actively selling themselves, like meat crying out for the knife. They are the perfect commodities.

In London, there’s a skinny blonde prostitute, who is known as Twiggy, who has three young daughters working the pavements between Stamford Hill and Kings Cross. There’s Trudy. She says she’s 15; her friends say she’s 13. Whatever the truth about her age, she is supposed to be living in a children’s home, but she has been selling herself on the streets and sleeping at night with a small-time crack dealer who makes porn videos in his house. He says he doesn’t screw her, he’s just trying to keep her off the streets for her own good.

There’s Ann, who’s 20 now, but she’s been working since she was 12. She robs her clients. She’s never been able to shrug off the pimps and even when she was doing six or seven men a night a few years ago, she was giving all the money to her man, who gave her back just £2 a day to live on. He also gave her a broken nose and a broken arm. She went to the police eventually and they put the pimp away, Now, she’s got another one, and the police say she’s HIV positive.

Jamie looks different. He is eleven years old, he has blonde hair and blue eyes and a face like an angel. He bounces wherever he goes, skipping along the pavements, peeking and poking at everything he sees, jabbering non-stop about the things he wants to do – “Let’s get some sweets… How about the movies? Let’s got to the movies!… Eat! We’ll eat. Let’s get a burger. What do you think? … Or we could get some sweets.” Just a boy with a baseball cap – but the police and the social workers in Nottingham know him better as a prolific prostitute.

Behind his cheeky grin and his snub nose, his personality is scrambled. He is cynical, street-wise, world-weary and bent. He steals, he burgles, he cheats and, most of all, he goes with men. Sometimes he takes them out to Colwick Park by the banks of the River Trent and lets them do what they’ve paid for. “I do tossing for ten or twenty. I let them screw me between the legs for a hundred.” Other times, he’ll go round the back of the bus station with them, or drive off to a quiet back street and mess around in their car. Sometimes, they go further than he wants. He was due to give evidence against a man last month, but he failed to turn up in court, so the judge threw out the case.

He talks about a childhood of chaos. He had three fathers: his own natural one who left when Jamie was tiny (though he claims to remember him hitting his mother); another, called Nigel, who came and stayed and went; and then the final one, who moved in permanently. “He’s the one that got rid of me and my brother and sister. I think he planned it.” It is true that all three children were taken into care when he was nine, but it obviously wasn’t as simple as that.

He talks in a jumble of fragments. “I didn’t like Nigel. I don’t like my mum either… There was a belt and a slipper, you know… The bedroom door didn’t have a handle. The window didn’t have no curtains… Once, I was watching TV and I shouted at my mother Yikes and this mouse ran out and into the kitchen… I just mostly swear by accident and she said ‘Right, that’s it.’… I was sitting on the stairs and I swore, and she hit me with a slipper and I fell down the step and I felt something dripping. And I said ‘Mum, I’m bleeding’. Then – after hitting me with a slipper – they all felt sorry for me.”

There are certain incidents that he recalls obsessively. He paints vivid pictures of his mother forcing vinegar and washing-up liquid down his throat to punish him for swearing, and he circles round and round the day when he and his brother were caught in bed with his little sister. Sometimes he says they were just sleeping, sometimes it is his brother who was abusing his sister, sometimes it is him, too, but always he explains that this was the last time he saw his mother. He says he has tried to phone her, but she will not take the calls. In the children’s homes, he says he was raped (an incident which is confirmed by other children) and then he joined the other boys on the game, at the age of ten.

But in all this jumble of talk, the one subject to which he returns most often and with most passion is his dream of belonging to a family that has not been destroyed by force of poverty. “I want a foster mother. And I would definitely be good. I would. If I had a foster mother, it would be a woman with no husband and no children. And if I was behaving, I would get a bike or something. I wouldn’t run off, I wouldn’t do anything bad, if I had a foster mother. Can you get me a foster mother?”

You might say these children are delinquent individuals and that their behaviour says nothing about the state of their world. But when the Police Foundation and the National Childrens Home studied street children two years ago, they found a clear trend in their origins in deprivation, and, over and over again, the child prostitutes tell the same story. It always begins with the poverty of their origins, it moves on through the bleak housing estate, the single parent, the whole family trapped by income support. It usually includes abuse – sometimes physical, sometimes sexual, always psychological. It invariably involves playing truant from school and being taken into care and it always end in tears.

For every child standing out on the pavement cocking its tiny chin at the passing cars, there are scores more back on the housing estates that huddle round our inner cities. Fifteen years ago, there were just over a million children in families eligible for income support, the poorest of the poor. Now there are three million – just about a quarter of all the children in Britain. Lots of them survive unscathed, their families withstanding the strain. Some of them are damaged in different ways: they become depressed, they do badly at school, they are bored and listless and drip-fed junk TV, they may become violent. Those who have arrived on the pavements of the inner cities have crossed a bridge which was constructed by government.

All through the 1980s, as the poorest ten per cent of the population became more poor, the prostitution industry boomed: the number of women prosecuted quadrupled between 1981 and 1991. In the late 1980s, these adults were joined by adolescents, aged 16 to 18, who had been pushed out of their homes by the poll tax and then stripped of their benefits. Prostitution was far more lucrative than begging, far less trouble with the law than thieving. Once that age group was established on the pavements, their younger brothers and sisters soon followed.

Chantaille was out there when she was 13, pregnant by the time she was 14. Stella is 13 and says she’s just had gonorrhoea; a condom split. Nina has been working since she was 14. She says she had to run half naked down the road one night because a punter took a hammer to her. There’s the boy who had his scrotum split with a razor, the boy who was raped on video, Lisa who was tied up and assaulted with a broken chair leg. Pimps now hang around some children’s homes like rats on a rubbish dump.

The price of children on the streets of Britain is falling, a sure sign in any market that the supply has increased. A lot of the older prostitutes feel threatened. The young ones will do it for a tenner a time, often without condoms, and the older ones can see their trade being stolen. Some of them drive the children off their beats, but they are fighting a losing battle. So are the social workers.

The law doesn’t allow them physically to restrain children unless they are at immediate risk of serious harm. Last year social workers in one of the homes in Nottingham were so desperate to stop three girls selling themselves that they confiscated all their tiny skirts and stockings and hid them in an attic room. But the girls, aged between 12 and 15, persuaded some of the boys to shin up the outside of the building and retrieve the clothes in exchange for sexual favours. Now, Nottingham social services are starting a new programme to monitor the spread of AIDS among their children. Yet, if the government ever admits what is happening, the tabloids will attack the social workers, like blaming the firemen for the fire.

The miserable truth is that the pavement gives the children everything that has been denied them. They were poor and now they have money in their pockets. They were bored and this is a buzz. They were victims but now they have power. They were worthless but now there are queues of adults who will pay handfuls of cash for their company. They grew up in a world which made it painfully clear that it did not want them, but these punters love them. It is a caricature of the life they were promised, a grotesque parody. It is child abuse, blessed by the authority of a commercial contract. But why should the children care? In a poor country, this life is perfect.

* Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect those involved against recrimination.