“Hello, my name is Maria and I am from the English Collective of Prostitutes”. That certainly stops police in their tracks. It’s a line I use a lot nowadays.
I started working in the streets in Birmingham about a year ago. At first the police left us alone.
I lived in a house with three other women. At about 10pm at night we would all put on our jackets, go down to the red-light area, work for a few hours and come home.
‘The First Time I Went Out On The Streets, I Was Scared’
Image Credit: Tom Senior
All of us were working to send money to family back home. For me, my mum is looking after my little boy. My husband went off with another woman and we had nothing to live on. I had to leave to find a way of earning a living.
I came to the UK not expecting that I would be a sex worker. I thought maybe I would get a job in a café. But no-one would even give me a second look. One man started asking me questions to test my English and then laughed at how I spoke.
Every time I got into a man’s car I thought to myself he could be the last person to see me alive. But I got used to it.
The first time I went out on the streets I was scared. Every time I got into a man’s car I thought to myself he could be the last person to see me alive. But I got used to it. And the money was good. I could earn at least £70 a night. That meant I could cover my rent and food, send enough back home to support my son and even help keep my younger sister in school.
I got to know most of the women working the same streets as me. We even were able to stand around chatting between jobs. We took down the registration number of cars as women got into them — women from different countries looking out for each other.
‘I Became An Information Point For The Romanian Women’
Image Credit: Tom Senior.
I found that I had a lot in common with the English girls. All of us were mums. It was so sad hearing them speak because some had lost their children.
I became an information point for the Romanian women who had just arrived in the UK. I found out about how to apply for a national insurance number, how to pay council tax, all kinds of useful things. And when I spoke to women in their own language, you could see their relief.
I think that this may be the reason that the police started picking on me. Maybe because other women were looking to me for help and the police didn’t like that.
One night they jumped on me before I could get away and took me to court for soliciting. I was so upset because the next day I was supposed to fly home for the holidays.
How did they think I was going to get the money to pay that fine? I’d have to give at least 10 blow jobs before I could cover that amount.
I was scared that I would miss my flight so when I stood up in court I told the judge that I wanted to plead guilty. I thought that would get it over and done with.
I was fined £250. How did they think I was going to get the money to pay that fine? I’d have to give at least 10 blow jobs before I could cover that amount.
‘The Atmosphere On The Street Had Changed’
Image Credit: Tom Senior.
I caught my flight and spent a few happy weeks with my son. When I came back the atmosphere on the street had changed. The first night I went out I was at the bus stop going to work and was arrested.
This time I was determined not to plead guilty. I asked the health workers that give us condoms and they told me about the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). The ECP found me a lawyer. We fought the case in court and won. But then the police were really furious.
For three weeks every time I left the house they would arrest me. The ECP complained to my MP who spoke to the police and things calmed down a little.
‘Since When Was It The Police’s Job To Give Out Career Advice?’
Image Credit: Tom Senior.
By then though, women were coming to me with all kinds of problems. The most serious was that one woman was being threatened by violent men and told that she had to pay to work on a particular street corner.
She had tried to report it to the police but they did nothing. They said they had no proof. Those same police were out on the streets every night.
If we could see the men that made the threats just sitting in their car, why couldn’t the police?
That woman got so scared she moved to London. Other women would tell me about the police harassing them, telling them to “go home” and that “what you are doing is not a proper job – go and get a job in Tescos”. Since when was it the police’s job to give out career advice?
Six of us went to meet women in the ECP. They provided US with letters right there and then that we could give to the police to tell them that we knew our rights.
‘I’m Like A Mobile Law Centre And Counselling Service’
Credit: Tom Senior.
So now, between clients, I’m giving out the ECP’s rights sheets. I’m like a mobile law centre and counselling service. It’s a lot of work but it makes me happy to help women stand up for themselves.
I am one of thousands of women in the UK who have been hit by poverty here and at home and who have found a way of feeding our families. Why should we be punished for that?
I have become a campaigner too. I pull out my blonde wig to disguise myself and speak at public meetings. I have met politicians and speak to journalists.
I am one of thousands of women in the UK who have been hit by poverty here and at home and who have found a way of feeding our families. Why should we be punished for that? If they want to get us out of prostitution then tell us how else we are supposed to survive.
I want to see the law changed. It isn’t illegal to be a prostitute but it is illegal for us to work together which of course is much safer. If the law were changed some of us would work inside with our friends. We could report violence without being frightened the police would arrest us.
We could go to the doctor and not have to pretend we live a different life. Women could demand that their criminal record was removed so they could apply for other jobs. As women from other countries, if sex work was counted as work, the police wouldn’t be able to harass us so easily and illegally deport us.
My son is soon coming to live with me here. I miss him too much to be separated. But I’m scared too. I work to make sure that my son has a good life. But if I’m caught working now I could be labelled a bad mother and my son could be taken from me.
No police, no punters, no gangsters — nothing is as terrifying as that.
Maria’s story was supplied by the English Collective of Prostitutes.
RightsInfo is devoting its coverage to the issue of sex workers rights and safety all this week (30 July). We are publishing a series of stories from a range of experts including sex workers themselves, whose voices will be central – as they should be.