LONDON (TrustLaw) - The thought of being reunited with her children inspired Rachel, a 39-year-old woman from the northern England town of Leeds, to decide on the biggest change of her life – to leave prostitution for good.
Groomed for sex at the age of nine, introduced to heroin at 11 by those who pushed her into prostitution, Rachel said one of the lowest points in her life was when she put her children into care.
"I could not protect them and give them what they needed, which was a stable, loving home which was free of drugs, free of violence and prostitution," said Rachel, who declined to give her full name. She was one of 114 women interviewed in a British study of the difficulties facing women who want to quit prostitution.
"I lost my family. I lost everything that was important to me. I didn't have no life, I was existing from day to day, from hour to hour, from second to second, and I knew if I didn't do something I would end up 6 feet under (dead)."
Despite her determination, it took Rachel several years to leave prostitution and her past created problems she has yet to overcome.
Because she had convictions for soliciting for the purpose of prostitution, Rachel has a criminal record. In Britain, that crime is classified as a sexual offence.
"You are automatically put in the same category as someone with a conviction for paedophilia. You never get the chance to explain, 'it was me who was the victim'," Rachel said.
Because she has a criminal record, she is not allowed to travel beyond the European Union, she added. "This continues to be a huge barrier to moving on and it feels like I'm being punished for being exploited."
'NOT A CAREER CHOICE'
Rachel is one of 114 women who took part in research into the obstacles facing women wishing to leave prostitution. Around two-thirds of the women interviewed had been involved in street prostitution, while the others had sold sex in brothels, massage parlours and saunas. The sample included seven women who had been trafficked into prostitution.
The report published after a joint study by the women's charity Eaves and London South Bank University identified nine barriers to quitting prostitution - including drug dependency, a lack of housing, physical and mental health problems and criminalisation.
Ninety-five women, 83 percent of the interviewees, had, like Rachel, battled drug or alcohol problems. Often drugs and alcohol were used to cope with the reality of prostitution.
The report shows that problems with housing meant many women felt compelled to seek accommodation with pimps or abusive partners to avoid homelessness. Others had had to continue to sell sex to pay the rent or mortgage. Sometimes women lost their housing because they spent time in prison.
Seventy-two percent of the women had experienced some form of emotional, physical, verbal or sexual violence as children. Some women linked those experiences to their involvement in prostitution.
Half the women were coerced by a partner, pimp, relative or another person to enter or remain in prostitution.
"Ultimately if you want to stop the abuse, if you want to stop the exploitation, if you want to stop the suffering, the best thing is to get the women out," said Roger Matthews, a professor in criminology and one of the authors of the report.
"Women do not drift into prostitution. This is a myth," he said, noting that 35 of the women interviewed had entered prostitution before the age of 18.
"This is not women making strategic career choices about work and their careers. This is about women who are basically at some point or another coerced in some form - whether it's physical, emotional, economic - there's a coercive element."
The report released a range of recommendations including wiping women's convictions for prostitution from their criminal record to make it easier for them to get a job and move on with their lives. It also called for the focus to shift to those who coerce others to sell sex or who buy sex.
For Rachel, another key issue that would help prevent girls from being dragged into prostitution was to get young people to talk about healthy relationships.
"We did not wake up one morning and say we want to be a prostitute for our career. There is beatings in there, there is force in there. Nobody wants to have the life that we've had," she said.