For regular readers, this month’s guest columnist needs no introduction; Laura Lee is a sex worker and activist who lives in Scotland, but is active in the fight against criminalization both in the UK and in her native Ireland. You can find many stories about her (and videos in which she appears) in the subject index, most of them under the subtitle “The Public Eye“. I admire Laura for her incredible courage in coming out as a sex worker and facing down politicians both in committee rooms and on television, but for this essay she preferred to speak of the courage of others; I’d say she’s well qualified to judge that particular quality.
In the current debate raging about further criminalization versus decriminalization, sometimes it’s very easy to lose sight of the real people behind the statistics, those sex workers on the front lines. This week in Perth, Scotland, some of the bravest women I have ever encountered took the stand to give evidence against a vicious rapist; their courage took my breath away.
I could summarize the circumstances surrounding the case, but I think the voices of the sex workers concerned are far more powerful. With their kind permission, I will replicate some of the email correspondence I’ve had below, changing some personal details to maintain their privacy and right to anonymity.
Myself and a few other girls travel from Edinburgh/Glasgow up to a flat in Perth for shifts, one of girls phoned in a state. She had let a punter in, he demanded money from her, when she said she didn’t have any, he raped her and punched her in the face very violently. She cried through the whole attack, that was around November last year. We begged her to report the attack to the police which she was adamant she was not going to do fearing her family would find out what she did for a living.
Early February I was working in the flat, and although there had been reports of a guy hanging around the flat all week, I’d calmed down by then and thought I was out of danger. A punter called, he knew where the flat was and I assumed he was a regular. He came into the flat, told me I could do things the easy way or hard way. He had to say it twice as I couldn’t believe what I was hearing but knew I was in big trouble.
I told him I had no money (understand the other girls he raped were tiny, I body build, plus I’ve got teenagers and don’t appreciate cheek). There was obviously a “don’t mess with me” stance which had taken over in me without my knowledge. He threw me on the bed and spread my legs apart. I knew he was going to rape me. I screamed at the top of my lungs, he jumped off me and made a run for the front door, curling his fist into a ball as I ran after him to get the door shut, that was his warning to stay away as he fled.
Within 15 minutes I’d phoned the police and reported the crime. Laura, I know what I work as makes people disgusted and they think I’m a lesser person because of that but I’m not, I’m proud, this job has supported me and my kids and given me a support system financially that a lot of single mums can only dream about. I refuse to go to work to be abused, battered or raped. I never signed up for that, I am proud of who I am and what I’ve achieved!!!!!
The police were lovely and very supportive, they had no clue that sex workers were even in Perth, my friend was asked by the police if she would approach other flats in Perth with the promise there would be no charges for the other girls, they were not interested in what they were doing as they wanted this lowlife caught. After a bit of persuasion it turned out that another two girls had been attacked, anally raped and battered by the same guy which they identified.
I can’t forget what he said to me – “You can’t phone the police, you’re just a prostitute!!!!”
That will haunt me for the rest of my life.
So that’s their story. One by one those women took the stand against the man who thought “you’re only a prostitute”. Isn’t it time that we acknowledged that they are far from “just prostitutes”? They are women, they are mothers, working to support their children and they deserve the full protection of the law. The police in this case have been wonderful and very supportive of the women, and have now appointed a liaison officer so that they can report their worries in private. He was found guilty last Tuesday, and will be sentenced on the 30th; let’s hope it’s a long, long one.
Too little, too late. The time has come to acknowledge that whatever your moral judgment on sex work, those who work within the industry deserve to do so in safety. Had these women not had such immense courage to go forward and report these crimes, who’s to know where it would have stopped? We need to decriminalize sex work right now, so that every sex worker can work with others for safety, and so that the stigma and vulnerability attached to sex work can begin to be peeled away. When this lady told me the rapist’s words will haunt her for the rest of her life, I resolved to fight for decriminalization with a ferocity rarely tested. That, at least, I can promise them.