“At 15 years old I met a pimp. Two weeks later, I was thrown into the violent and abusive world of prostitution,” feminist gender rights campaigner and organiser Fiona Broadfoot tells me. “I was in a very vulnerable place and he quickly had a hold on me. “I was trafficked down to London where he stood me outside the Hilton Hotel dressed like a doll for people to buy me,” she plainly catalogues. “From then on it was downhill. Rape became an occupational hazard, and because I was working on the street, I was arrested and criminalised for loitering under the purposes of being a common prostitute. I’m 49 and I still have an eight-page criminal record from those offences that I’ve had to carry around with me my whole life.”
22 years after exiting prostitution, Broadfoot is seeking justice and is fighting to have her criminal record eradicated by launching the first ever legal challenge of prostitution-specific criminal records. Broadfoot is arguing that the government policy on the disclosure of prostitution-specific convictions are uniquely discriminatory to women: “a lot of these criminal records are from charges women got when they were underage… What’s more, women with difficult backgrounds are likely to go into prostitution and be charged for it more than men.” Four other women, who choose not to be identified, are also bringing their cases. All the claimants were pimped into prostitution when they were children and between them they have 100 criminal records. The case went to court on 26 July, where the defence’s request for a stay was refused but their request for a six week delay was agreed, which means the Home Office has to come back to them with a response.
“We’re optimistic about what will happen next,” says Heather Harvey, project manager at nia, the feminist domestic violence women and children’s charity which is supporting Broadfoot’s case and has just launched a major new research project, I’m No Criminal, to coincide with it, looking into the impact of prostitution-specific criminal records on women. One of the report’s major findings is that a lifelong criminal record is one of the key reasons women don’t exist prostitution. These discoveries add to writer and co-founder of Justice for Women Julie Bindel’s 2009 research report Breaking Down The Barriers, where she found that 49% of the 104 female sex workers she spoke to cited a criminal record as their reason for not attempting to exit.
“It’s unthinkable that you should have to disclose what is essentially a history of underage abuse,” Harvey says of the claimants. One of the women nia spoke to for their report was 62 and still working as a prostitute because “she couldn’t exit due to the multiple criminal records she had,” Harvey says. “She had given up hope of anyone ever taking her seriously”.
For former [prostitute] Charlotte* this was also the case. “I want to work in a caring profession and help other women like myself, but I know they always check your [criminal] record, so I don’t bother, I’m not going to stand a chance.”
Broadfoot was once fired from a role when her criminal record was discovered. “Once, not long after I left prostitution, still at the stage of scrubbing myself with Dettol to make myself clean, I was living in a refuge in Halifax where I hadn’t told anyone that I used to be a prostitute as I didn’t want to be judged.
“I thought: I’ll work with children because I don’t want to be near adults, I don’t trust them. I started the course and was the happiest I’d been in a long time. It made my life worth living,” she explains.
“Then a Disclosure and Barring Service check was carried out as I had to do a placement in a school, and when they found out about my record of prostitution, I had to leave the course.
“I was basically frog-marched off the premises.”
Like many women who are trying to exit, Broadfoot’s record only forced her back into prostitution. “I went back and conned myself with that classic lie that I’d rather be working as a prostitute earning more money than I would be working in a shop.”
Along with nia, a number of charities want the removal of these criminal records, including Manchester-based women’s charity MASH and Beyond The Streets, a charity campaigning to end sexual exploitation.