The UK city where sex work is banned, but hasn’t stopped – BBC News

Prostitute and client near Hessle Road, HullImage copyright
Hull News & Pictures

Hull is the UK’s only city to have banned sex workers from its red light district, effectively making prostitution illegal. The council says the policy is working, but Millie, who once worked on the streets herself, says it increases the danger for the women involved.

Sex work “slithered” into Millie’s life when she was in her twenties. “It happens quite slowly at first and then all of a sudden you’re in this mad cyclone and you can’t find your feet, you get lost,” she says.

The cocky bravado of the women in Hull’s red light district made it seem like an easy way of funding her drug addiction. But now, with more than five years on the streets behind her, she knows all that banter is just body armour against the violence and vileness that comes with the job.

“Oh, you must love sex,” punters would say with a smirk. “No. I love heroin,” was Millie’s sharp retort. “There is no love of sex, working on the streets – it’s always a last resort.”

Millie’s drug addiction began as a teenager, when she would steal her mum’s sleeping pills and Valium. When her mum’s mental illness was at its height, she would whisper menacing things through Millie’s bedroom door at night: “There’s evil inside you, I can see it. You are a demon, spawned from demon seed.” The pills helped to block it all out. From there she graduated to ecstasy, opioids – and eventually, heroin.

“Then you get trapped in addiction because you end up needing the drugs to get through it, to block out the things you’ve had to do,” says Millie.

She remembers how women would steel themselves for a night on Hessle Road – Hull’s red light district – telling themselves that they wouldn’t do anything for less than £60. But their resolve would weaken as soon as withdrawal symptoms set in. “When you’re rattling you’ll get in that car for less than £20 – you’d do it for a fiver, simple as that,” says Millie.

When we meet, Millie has just finished reading a book about the Victorian serial killer, Jack the Ripper, and can relate to his victims. “Back then we were referred to as ‘unfortunates’,” she says. “We have different names now but still the same social problems: the poverty, the addiction, the violence.”

Fish being unloaded on the quayside at Hull (1932)Image copyright
Getty Images

In Hull, the fishing industry and the sex trade have always been intertwined, she says, the poorest women in the fishing community always at risk of sliding into prostitution. Millie knows lots of sex workers today whose fathers were trawlermen in the 1970s, when the industry went into steep decline.

“Generation after generation of women from these fishing families are working the streets – it is a terrifying prospect.”

But while Hull has celebrated its fishing heritage with statues and murals as UK City of Culture this year, it takes a hard line on the sex trade. Three years ago – not long after its status as 2017’s city of culture had been confirmed – it became the only local authority in the UK to effectively make prostitution illegal.

Mural of fisherman, Hessle RoadImage copyright
Chris Pepper

Image caption

An end-of-terrace mural on Hessle Road, created for Hull’s year as UK City of Culture

It did this by obtaining powers from the county court to issue injunctions under Section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972, to people found loitering, soliciting or having sex in the Hessle Road area. If they continue their anti-social behaviour they have broken the injunction, and can be arrested, prosecuted, and even jailed.

The policy currently affects more than 100 women. Last year the Lighthouse Project, a charity, had contact with 113 women working on the streets of Hull, and another 15 who had stopped – either temporarily or permanently. Women who break free may be back in a few years, charity workers say.

The UK city where sex work is banned, but hasn’t stopped – BBC News

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