Boyfriends and Beatings: the grim world of sexual exploitation in the UK

An award-winning article from May 2004, sadly as relevant today as it was then….

A year ago this month, The Sexual Offences Act came into force, strengthening legislation on crimes such as pimping, grooming and buying sex. With new measures to protect vulnerable young people from sexual exploitation, has this made any difference to the thousands of children in the UK abused through prostitution?

In a toilet block in Thornaby, Teesside, someone has drawn a chart on the wall.

“Stockton Road”, the first column reads. “Rent Boys and OAPs. 8/10.” Underneath is the warning: “CCTV in doorway- be careful.”

Other people have scrawled personal advertisements: “School boys wanted aged 12-16 for sex fun”, or “If you want sex with a sexy boy called Mark call…”

These messages, a practice known as ‘gridding’, tell punters what’s available, when and where: “Lads here weekdays or on Preston Park toilets Saturday 11am-1.30pm. Take your pick.”

This is the grim underworld of child prostitution, where girls as young as eight and boys as young as six are being abused through sexual exploitation.

John, 16, from Teesside, has been in care since he was three months old and has never had a positive relationship with a carer. He started experimenting with alcohol and solvents at a young age, and by 15 he was addicted to crack cocaine. John began selling sex as a way of supporting his habit. “I was always on my own out there. I had to look after myself,” he says.

He began attracting punters who had sex with him for money, crack or presents. “There were perverts who asked me to do things I wasn’t into,” John says. He was often taken to hotels where men would “look after me for a couple of days”. He then met his older boyfriend and his “mates”.

“One of them was really scary. It wasn’t just about sex. We did loads of drugs together, and sometime they would shave me and photograph me.”

But John is one of the lucky few that found help. He started working with Barnardo’s Young Men’s Project in London and he’s no longer selling sex in the park. He has begun work training, his crack use has decreased and his ‘boyfriend’ has disappeared.

Home Office statistics suggest as many as 5,000 young people are sexually exploited in the UK in any one year, although other estimates are as high as 10,000. In 2002, Barnardo’s projects nationwide worked with nearly 800 girls and 200 boys selling sex. These statistics are all the more alarming when you take into account the fact that most child prostitution goes undiscovered.

As Sara Swann MBE, a former social worker and Barnardo’s project director explains, “Most young people are not visible on the streets but kept in flats or houses, or sold over the internet and moved from town to town.”

David Blunkett acknowledged this when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force last May, stating, “Mass communications can make it easier for offenders to contact the young, [but] new laws offer increased protection. We are getting tough by clamping down on those who destroy the lives of others.”

“Until now our sex offences laws were based in the Victorian era- their values and the world they lived in,” Blunkett said. “Change was needed to reflect the values of today’s society and offer protection against crimes which did not exist generations ago.”

One of these crimes is ‘grooming’, the targeting of young people with a view to selling them for sex. The issue was brought into the public domain by a Channel 4 documentary in 2004, and has since been used as propaganda by the British National Party.

Boys like John are often groomed by sophisticated paedophiles when still at home or in care. According to a Barnardo’s spokesperson, “Boys as young as six are lured to addresses set up with attractions of computers, televisions, video games, slot machines, drugs and alcohol. The enticing males initially use the boys for their own sexual purposes, and gradually take on a pimping role.”

Mark Lee, a Barnardo’s project worker, explains how predatory males seek out younger boys. “One of my workers reported a middle-aged guy going around the older boys, offering them £100 if they could get him a kid under 13,” he says. “It’s stories like that that keep you going.”

According to Swann, grooming tends to be far more difficult to identify with girls, who often begin a relationship with a pimp believing him to be her boyfriend. “There is no 12, 13, 14 year- old girl who makes her own decision to go and sell sex. In our experience she is always shown a way into the process and that is most often by her so- called boyfriend,” she explains.

“He tends to be more than five years older than her and he woos her. She falls head over heels in love. He needs to make her very dependent on him, so very gradually he starts destroying her ties to others. He will then begin to control absolutely every aspect of her life.”

Charlotte, now 25, from Bradford, was manipulated into prostitution by her first boyfriend. “I was only 13 and he treated me like a queen,” she says. “He told me he loved me, made me depend on him. He made me believe that if he wanted to he could turn the sky black or make the sun shine, he could do anything for me at all.”

“I made the mistake of telling him that I’d been abused, and that things were bad at home. He reached into that and drew it out of me and like pulled on strings.”
According to Swann: “What this man has done is created a willing victim. The result of these processes is total dominance. The boyfriend then begin to control absolutely every aspect of her life, from what she wears who she sees where she goes, what she eats and when she eats. In the extreme cases we’ve had three examples of 14 year- old children being locked in rooms without any toilet facilities and being forced to use a cardboard box. These girls have absolutely no choice within this process.”

Sexually exploited children tend to resist the idea that they are being abused. Girls, in particular, are likely to defend their ‘boyfriends’ and insist they love them.

“Some of the experiences they had seemed to be half fear, half love,” Swann explains. “But the love overrides the fear.” She points out: “It takes up to eight years for an adult woman to leave an abusive partner, and we’re talking about 13 and 14 year-old girls here. The intensity of the relationship seems to take on a specialness.”

Although there is no official research, studies suggest the ‘boyfriends’ are usually aged between 18 and 25. One outreach worker, explaining how the “‘bling-bling’ image of pimps is a fallacy”, described them as “dirty little scratters on bikes.”

“They’re prolific drug users,” she says. “But [the girls] have never loved anyone as much a they love him and he’s the best thing since sliced bread.”

The coalition for the removal of pimping (CROP), a voluntary organisation made up largely of parents of these children, encountered two girls in one year who had been subjected to forced abortions. “These [were] carried out by medically unqualified associates of the pimp, resulting in horrific physical injuries,” says a spokesperson.

“It’s a very difficult issue to police,” Swann admits. “It relies on one person’s word against another’s, and getting evidence is very hard. But we do at least need to begin by needing and willing and wanting to look at this differently. And then we can look at the actual offences that are being committed. And those include serious criminal offences of assault, rape, unlawful sexual intercourse, kidnap, unlawful imprisonment, all sorts of extremely serious offences.”

Sinead, now 21, from Bradford, explains how she was too scared of her boyfriend to say no when he forced her into prostitution at 15. “I didn’t get to keep any of the money, he used to just give me a little bit of crack. He used to put me back on the beat at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning after he’d spent all that money. But I was too scared to say no to him, he would’ve killed me. There were lots of knives involved so I just kept doing it and doing it.”

Sinead’s story is by no means the exception. Most of the girls that Barnardo’s have worked with have been subjected to violent attacks from their boyfriends.

“The harm inflicted on young people involved in prostitution is truly shocking,” says Swann. “I’m not wanting to be outrageous or alarmist, I’m wanting to tell people that this is actually happening, and we’re talking burns and bruises and broken bones, all the physical abuse. We’re talking emotional abuse that ends up with girls self-harming, overdosing. They feel worthless, they feel useless. And that’s got serious long- term health consequences. To be sexually active from such a young age means they’ve got 80% more chance of getting things like cervical cancer in their 20s.”

Giving typical examples of the kind of abuse girls suffer, Swann tells me: “A young person I worked with had her head pulled back with a kettle of boiling water held above her throat, and another had her tongue nailed to the table. Once young people have been involved it can take years to recover and repair the damage that has been inflicted upon them.”

In 1994, Swann helped to set up Streets and Lanes, a Barnardo’s project in Bradford dedicated to helping girls exit prostitution. She said that one of the worst cases she’d seen was that of a 14 year- old girl, whose breasts had been burned with cigarettes after she tried to keep some money she’d earned working on the street.

“She’d been raped by her so-called boyfriend and two other men, all because she’d hidden £10 in her shoe. This was in 1995. The police got involved but there was no corroborating evidence, and they said she could’ve burned herself,” Swann says. “If any other 14 year- old girl had have walked into the station, arrests would have been made first and evidence looked for later. It’s all about labelling.”

This issue is one that has been successfully addressed, however. According to Chief Inspector Tom Duffin of West Midlands Police, perception is key. “The right response to an offending adult is firstly to recognise that we’re talking about a child sex offender, and that just puts the whole problem into context. I think once you describe the problem like that, people respond appropriately. We’re not talking about prostitutes, we’re talking about children who are being abused.”

The recognition of the UK’s exploitation problem began at a meeting of World Congress in Stockholm in 1996. Britain had signed up to end child prostitution through trafficking, but according to Swann, didn’t realise the extent of the problem in its own backyard. “I said to the conference, ‘you don’t have to go to Thailand to see young people selling sex, just go to Bradford, Bristol or Birmingham’,” she tells me.

Swann’s insistence and determination led to guidance being drawn up for nationwide police forces in May 2000. It advised police officers to treat child prostitutes as victims and encouraged them to prosecute the abusers wherever possible.

This shift in attitudes was further developed in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which included new laws against buying sex with a child, inciting a child into prostitution, and controlling or arranging child prostitution. There is also clarification on the definition of rape, and the new grooming law, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Prior to the act, sex with a child under 13 was unlawful sexual intercourse, but it was possible a judge may decide it was consensual. The act has introduced the rule of no consent; the principle that sex with a child 12 or under is always rape. This carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment; 14 years for a child aged 13-15.

According to a Home Office spokesperson, these offences focus on those buying sex rather than those selling it. “For the first time [the laws] criminalize the buyer in an attempt to tackle demand,” she says.

But while the Sexual Offences Act has been welcomed as a step in the right direction, some say it does not go far enough.

“The act introduced a range of new offences of buying and selling children for sex and is beginning to redress the balance by focusing on the perpetrators,” Swann says.

“However, the current law labels children who are soliciting or loitering as ‘common’ prostitutes, which confirms that they are making informed decisions and choosing this lifestyle. A child cannot consent to its own abuse. Consent does not make an illegal act lawful.”

The no consent rule has attracted criticism because it applies only to children under 13; a defendant can walk free if he proves that he believed an older child to be 18.

“Either a child can or cannot consent to sex,” Swann argues. “The new law says that children cannot, but they apparently can consent to being a prostitute, which implies providing sexual services by choice. How can we suggest that a 10 year-old can agree to providing sex for adults? Sadly, they are either coerced or utterly desperate.”

The criminalization of prostitution and use of ASBOs is also controversial, making it more difficult for young people to find work in future. On this, the UK falls short of meeting standards in the United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child (UNCRC).

In February 2005, the five largest children’s charities launched a manifesto called Room for Improvement, outlining key issues the government need to address in order to meet UN standards. One recommendation was to end the prosecution of child prostitutes.

Charlotte, who wanted to use her past experience to help others in her situation, says criminalization is unfair. “I’ve been convicted for prostitution,” she says. “I can never be a social worker and I can’t work with children under five.”

She adds: ” The [police] just left me there to suffer that fate. They [should have] supported me rather than making me out to be a criminal and locking me up for something I didn’t want to do anyway.”

The English Collective of Prostitutes is a grassroots campaigning organisation made up of sex workers from across the country. It is pushing for a complete decriminalization of prostitution, pimping and the purchasing of sex.

One member, Sarah Walker, 37, is critical of the act. She claims the government are simply “fiddling with laws instead of dealing with the crucial issue, which is that you are criminalized.”

Walker, who began selling sex at 16, claims Britain is almost on a par with Sweden, where the government have made it offence to purchase sex. She calls this policy “a disaster”.

“When you arrest men, women are driven underground,” she says. “The nicer men go because they’re scared of being arrested, and then you’re left with the hardcore.”

Walker claims (through links to the International Collective of Prostitutes) that as a result of the crackdown on punters, prostitutes are leaving Sweden to work in Norway.

Walker argues the core issue underlying prostitution is poverty. “Very often prostitution is lifted out as a problem in itself. We have to get to the bottom of it,” she says. “We think poverty should be abolished, and disability allowance should go up. We want housing benefit for 16 year-olds so they can leave home if they need to. Students are turning to sex work, women’s wages are very low.”

Walker claims that prostitution has real benefits, regardless of age. “You earn more and you earn it in less time. You control the hours,” she says.

Denying that statistically, most prostitutes (young and old) are pimped by men, she argues: “There are downsides in every job. Prostitution’s not easy, but not for the reasons people think. People are doing the most horrendous jobs. Prostitution can be a way of cutting down your workload.”

The Collective’s message is one of empowerment and independence, although Walker denies it has a feminist agenda. “The way we see it, it’s sometimes the best of many bad choices,” she says, adding: “It’s just sex. It’s exchanging sex for money.”

So does this simplistic summary extend to children selling sex? “Some of the same things apply,” Walker says. “They want to be able to treat [prostitutes] as victims, but they may be suffering rape or escaping from violent homes, and turn to the streets to survive. It’s a survival strategy.”

Refusing to see young prostitutes as abused children, arguing “everyone has a reason,” Walker maintains that spending a childhood selling sex is a decision the individual must take. “Sometimes it may be one of few choices the child has,” she argues. “Who’s to tell them not to if they try to make a life on the streets? What are you offering instead?”

An alternative chosen by hundreds of sexually exploited children every year is to find help through many of the nationwide drop-in centres such as those Barnardo’s run. Walker, however, is critical of these.

“The projects work hand-in-glove with the police. It’s problematic,” she argues. “Many of these people are well-intentioned but the problem is, they’re working so closely with the police, and the funding is tied so closely to the Home Office, that they have no independent voice. So what’s the point?”

Swann admits that at the time of setting up Streets and Lanes in 1994, “It was almost politically correct to say that these girls were making choices, choosing to sell their bodies. It was the feminist viewpoint.”

However, she has always disagreed, and calls the English Collective’s attitude “appalling”. “If you’re not old enough to vote or buy alcohol, how can you be old enough to decide to sell your body?” she challenges.

Swann claims Walker is “kidding herself”. “But I can understand it. You’ve got to make excuses because if you stop to think it gets too much,” Swann says. “I’ve yet to meet an adult woman who does appear to be okay and hasn’t got some man behind her taking the money.”

Nikki, 32, has now exited prostitution, but was involved for nine years from the age of 14. Her experiences mirror Swann’s feelings. “There’s nothing empowering, nothing glamorous about prostitution,” she says. “It destroys you, it destroys your soul. It’s a very sad and lonely world. Never once have I met a happy, contented hooker, I’ve just met devastated and damaged people; drug addicted people.”

Drug use is a pre-disposing factor affecting those involved in prostitution. Addictions can lead young people into prostitution, or they are often introduced to the child by their abuser as a means of control.

According to Lynn Cardwell, team leader at SECOS, a Barnardo’s project in Middlesbrough, sexual exploitation affects “predominantly those from poorer areas and difficult backgrounds.”

Caroline, now 21, from Wolverhampton, was involved in prostitution at 17. “I had a baby at 15 and Social Services took her off me because my mum uses heroin,” she says. “I asked to be put in foster care with my daughter but they didn’t think I was fit to look after her. So I don’t get on with my mum and I don’t see my dad.”

86% of children selling sex have suffered physical violence in the home, and 77% have been sexually abused. Cardwell says previous sexual abuse can leave young people sexually promiscuous. “They’re only feeling like they’re being loved when someone’s on top of them shagging them. It’s non-ownership of the body”. She adds: “One [15 year-old] girl said, ‘I’m doing it anyway, I might as well get paid for it’.”

According to Cardwell: “The family are often coercers. If mum, sister, auntie’s done it then it’s inevitable. They’ll say, ‘Come on, it’s easy, I’ll show you’. They minimise the traumas.” She mentions a 12 year-old girl whose elder sister attempted to pimp her. “Luckily she was strong enough to say fuck off,” Cardwell says.

Despite this, girls are far more likely to end up selling sex through exploitation by an older male. One study found that 40 out of 43 child prostitutes were being pimped by a man they considered to be their boyfriend.

For boys, survival is the main reason for selling sex. Tom, now 17, from Newcastle, started selling sex at 14. “Do you think I just woke up one day and thought, ‘I’ll be a rent boy today’?” he asks. “Thousands of things happened to get me here. Mum leaving, no-one at home, hanging around the pub waiting for dad, blokes trying to touch us up.”

Over two- thirds of the boys Barnardo’s work with are in care, and 97% of children are either homeless, estranged from their family, or run away regularly. They might begin swapping sex for money, drugs, or somewhere to stay.

But Swann dismisses these factors, claiming they detract from the real issue. “I’ve always tried to steer away from looking at what’s wrong with the [young people] by examining their childhoods,” she says. “I always think, what’s wrong with these man who want to do this to them?”

Research suggests that punters buying sex from young boys include doctors, policemen, vicars and teachers.

Unlike female child prostitution, of which 66% goes on behind closed doors, these men are likely to meet boys in amusement arcades or public toilets; places where children look inconspicuous.

One senior practitioner working with these children suggested the policing of male sexual exploitation is being held back by the culture of ‘cottaging’ (sex in public places) within the gay community. “There needs to be a challenge made to [gay men] about the acceptance of it,” they argue.

However, Barnardo’s is quick to explain sexual exploitation is not an issue of sexuality. According to a spokesperson, boys are “particularly vulnerable to sexual contacts with predatory males, which have nothing to do with love and caring between two consenting homosexual men.”

“You have to be careful,” admits Sergeant Paul Higgins of Cleveland police. “There is a policy for how we deal with men engaged in sexual activity with other men.”

He claims a “heavy-handed” approach would offend normal homosexual men engaged in consensual sex. “Going for a covert operation would be a last resort,” he says. “But if the young person is under 18, we see them as at risk and it’s our priority to get them out of it.”

The majority of men buying sex with young girls are married, aged between 20 and 25. “The young people we see report contacts with men from all walks of life,” says Swann, “including teachers, social workers, health and legal professionals”.

“We have examples of men winding down their windows and shouting out in areas, ‘where are the 11 and 12 year-olds?'” says Swann. “One customer said, ‘I like them young, I’m forty now, I just like them younger and younger.'”

Serena, now 19, from London, was involved in prostitution at 14. She is often approached by men looking for younger girls. “They’ll say ‘and how old are you?'” she says. “I say like, ’16’, ‘oh I want a 13-year old or a 12-year old’ and they’ll go get them, and the girls will be on the street crying. I mean some of them are really disgusting, they make me feel sick.”

Like many other sexually exploited girls, Charlotte was attacked by a punter. “He raped me, he buggered me. Every pain that any man had ever done to me all my life had been done to me in one night by him. He took away every little confidence that I could have. He gave me a disease, he ruined me, he poisoned my insides, he almost prevented me having children.” Charlotte’s ordeal enabled her to exit prostitution, but others are not so lucky.

“I am aware of three deaths of children aged 13 and 14 this year, but it is unlikely there will be any statistic to link their deaths to prostitution,” says Swann, claiming violence on this scale is commonplace. “Two took their own lives and one was murdered, but none of it happened in any red light area.”

Cardwell says girls are often pushed out of cars by punters and pimps, calling the violence they suffer “horrendous”. One girl she was working with was murdered by a punter. “It knocked the wind out of my sails,” she says.

The girl’s pimp found another victim almost immediately. “A girl got on the bus all excited a few weeks after the funeral and she said ‘Guess what? I’m working for Paul’,” Cardwell says. “It’s so frustrating. We need to target the pimps and get the message out there that it’s not all right.”

Swann suggests one measure would be a publicity campaign reminding pimps and punters of the consequences should they buy sex from a child. “We need to target these abusing adults, because I don’t think they realise they’re facing up to 14 years in prison,” she says.

Generally though, prevention needs to begin with education. A recent survey in Bradford showed that 85% of all adult prostitutes started selling sex under the age of 17.

“That’s interesting, because if we can get it right when they’re young we can make a difference,” Swann says. “Sex education at school, targeting girls who are running away and also children coming from the [care] system.”

Fiona Mazek, a senior primary mental health worker for Calderdale social services claims vital research is needed into the men who exploit young girls.

“With pimps, the big issue is control, power, manipulation,” she says. “They’re very clever at targeting these girls, but there’s little if any research. We’ve only tried to attack it from one area (getting the girls to stop) but we haven’t paid enough attention to the other side. Maybe if we knew why we have perpetrators we could understand it and prevent it.”

One leading figure in child protection claimed that one study shows a correlation between ethnic minority groups and the pimping of young girls.

“It’s hard to ignore this issue,” they argue. “There is a definite need to research minority groups, control and power.”

Another practitioner agreed there seems to be a link, suggesting it might be due to a clash of cultural norms. “It’s very controversial,” they admit. “A lot of asylum seekers for example are coming from cultures where it’s okay to approach 12 and 13 year-old girls. But abuse is abuse whatever your culture.”

The race card is one that the British National Party saw the opportunity to play as part of their election campaign, following the Channel 4 documentary ‘Edge of the City’ in 2004. The programme highlighted the sexual exploitation of girls by predominantly British-Asian men in West Yorkshire.

“Asian men in Keighley were after young white girls, which we think is bloody disgusting,” says BNP national press officer Phil Edwards. He blamed Keighley Labour MP Ann Cryer for “pandering to immigrants”, but despite the publicity the BNP have given child prostitution in recent months, they knew surprisingly little about it.

“They don’t know anything about it,” says a spokesperson for Mrs Cryer, calling the BNP campaign “utter nonsense”.

“They saw a headline and it happened to be an Asian man, so they decided to use their racist bile to take advantage of people, but British public aren’t that stupid,” he says.

Nick Griffin stood against Cryer in last month’s general election. “Mrs Cryer beat him,” her spokesperson tells me. “He came last. I don’t suppose they mentioned that, did they?”

Cryer, who won the multicultural Keighley seat by a majority of 5000, has been working alongside West Yorkshire police for three years to end child prostitution in the town.

“The big obstacle in 2002 when Mrs Cryer was first told about [grooming] was that girls were reluctant to complain, either because they thought they were in love or they were in fear of their lives,” says her spokesperson.

“Because of this, they weren’t prepared to give evidence. Since the Sexual Offences Act 2003, hear say evidence is now admissible. The girl herself does not have to make a complaint; it can come from the Crown Prosecution Service, social services, the police, or her parents.”

Chief Inspector Duffin says this is a major breakthrough. Before the act, he says, “There was never any information to say that the child wasn’t willing. We didn’t come across children running into the police station to say ‘help me, a man’s forcing me into prostitution’.”

Mazek says allowing third parties to press charges on a victim’s behalf is empowering for those working with vulnerable children. “People have welcomed the act,” she says. “For a long time people felt powerless and frustrated. We wanted to protect these kids but to no avail. The perpetrators were evasive; they had all the power and control. Now, we’re not dependent on the young person to make a complaint so the police can approach it differently. They can be pro-active.”

However, evidence is still needed to secure a conviction and this is often an impossible task. Before the 2003 act, fewer than one in 50 sexual crimes ended in prosecution. Four years on, this statistic has not changed.

Swann is concerned sexual exploitation is not a police target and resources are not being put into problems such as grooming and pimping.

“I have worked with half a dozen forces including the Metropolitan police, and there have been no charges brought under the act after a year, which is very disappointing,” she says, speaking in 2005.

Following Paying the Price, the government’s review on prostitution published in November 2004, children’s groups are now concentrating on lobbying the government for decriminalisation for under 18s, increased education and funding for further research.

“The sexual exploitation of children must be prioritised by the police,” says Barnardo’s principal policy officer, Ginny Wilkinson. “Children under 18 should be treated as children in need.”

Natalie, now 16, from Glasgow, started selling sex at 12. She says, “Being involved in prostitution has made me go downhill rapidly. Since I’ve been on the street I’ve been in and out of hospital, had infections, nearly lost my leg, I’ve lost fingers. It’s just basically got out of control, and I’m sat here today, a real mess.”

When asked about her aspirations, Natalie’s dream is modest by anyone’s standards. “I’d just like a key to my own front door, just normal things,” she says. “Like going to jumble sales, perhaps some little part time job you know. It’s all I ever dream of at times. The key to the front door so I can go in, chuck myself on the settee, put the telly on, just close out the world outside.”

“We’ve all got to change in terms of attitudes and perception,” Swann argues. “Prostitution is the oldest profession and it is acceptable in our society to buy sex, which justifies the abuse of children. But we will never prevent this happening until people understand that it is happening, and then say this mustn’t happen.”


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