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Sheffield's Sex Workers Are at War with the City's New Yuppies

Kelham Island, in the English town of Sheffield, is home to craft beer, upmarket flats and an uneasy tension between rich residents and downtrodden sex workers.
November 28, 2014, 2:20pm
Photos: Chris Bethell

A few months ago, Kelham Island, Sheffield was toasting its best summer since the booming industrial days of the 1800s. Back then, this area produced the steel that now forms New York City's Brooklyn Bridge. Perhaps to return a favour, the New York Times Magazine unapologetically ​gushed about Kelham Island, placing it at No22 within the publication's Top 50 Places to Visit in 2014. "Spend an evening crawling through the Fat Cat, the Kelham Island Tavern and other award-winning pubs in Sheffield – recently called Britain's best beer city," it read.

But what the New York Times neglected to mention, and what many lettings agencies advertising new high-class and high-price apartments in the area avoid, is that the reinvigorated area is home to a less prosperous side of Sheffield: prostitution. When the Arctic Monkeys sang, "...they say it changes when the sun goes down, around here" they were talking about Kelham Island. And with this part of the city "on the up", there's an uneasy tension between the yuppie residents and the sex workers who were here before the craft beer.

I went for a walk around the area on hot summer night. The pubs were bustling, the beer was decent and the architecture has stood the test of time. There are artisan coffee shops, Michelin-starred restaurants and boutique clothing markets at weekends. A level of gentrification this high would grate, but there's a sense of relief that the beautiful red-bricked, once booming, then bedraggled, area is back on its feet, even if those feet are stumbling about after too many pints. Unfortunately, not everyone is feeling the benefit.

I spoke to 25-year-old Cassie on quiet, deserted Doncaster Street. We were two minutes from the Fat Cat pub and Little Kelham, a new housing project that will provide 153 eco-friendly homes within spitting distance of the city centre for middle-class families. Cassie stands on this street, and the surrounding streets, almost every night of the week. "They [the new residents of the area] haven't got a clue," she told me. "They've no idea what we have to put up with. Some of 'em are worse than the punters, I had hot coffee thrown at me one morning. We get 'slag' shouted at us from cars every five minutes."

This abuse is the tip of a grim iceberg for vulnerable workers with little protection. In 1994, 19-year-old Dawn Shields vanished from the same area in which Cassie works. Her body was found stripped and strangled in a shallow grave at Mam Tor in the Peak District. Seven years later, in 2001, 25-year-old Michaela Hague was stabbed 19 times in the neck in a car park just half a mile away from the Kelham island area. Both murders remain unsolved.

Cassie and I agreed to meet for coffee in town the next day. In the meantime she added me on Facebook. Pictures from nights out with friends, "mirror selfies", status updates detailing the level of her hangovers and bemoaning public transport started to filter into my feed – Cassie is just like any other person of her age, but she's had a tough life. When we sat down in the cafe, she opened up. "I did it for my ex at the start," she said. "I was only 17, he was 25. He was an addict [heroin, Cassie later told me] and needed the money. I was young and didn't want to lose him so I went out.

"The first night was horrible. I didn't know what to do. I spent most of the night hiding behind walls when cars came past. I only dared see one man, he drove ages away from where he picked me up. We had sex and he came on the back of my jeans. I told him £50 for everything but he wouldn't pay that much. He gave me £25 and made me get out of the car miles away. I had to pay £10 for a taxi back to my ex's."

"I can still smell him, like a wet dog. I got home, sat down on the settee and just sat there. It must have been all night. There was nobody home, my ex had gone missing and he didn't come back for three days. He'd been telling me to work on the streets for months but didn't know I'd done it. He'd say things like, 'When you off out up Sheff then?' When he got home from wherever he'd been I gave him 10 quid from the money I made. He didn't ask where I'd got it from and that's what got to me. He didn't care. I cried all the time."

After that night Cassie vowed never to go back out on the street again. Both of her parents abandoned her during childhood. At that time, she hadn't seen her mother for four years, her father since she was nine. With no immediate family to turn to, she instead moved back in with her uncle and went back to college and studied health and social care for two years. When she realised that despite her studies, her career options within healthcare were bleak, she worked in numerous factories packing food products and cosmetics.

Two years ago things took a turn for worse. "I was desperate. I was on a temporary contract at a factory but they didn't want me when it ran out. So I claimed benefits instead. I know it's bad and felt bad for doing it. Then I started hanging around with people in town, drinking and smoking," Cassie said. "Then one day I met Diane. She was working [as a sex worker] in Shalesmoor [just south of Kelham Island] and for herself so she got all the money – she convinced me to go out with her.

"After a few weeks it was going OK. I hadn't had any bad customers and it wasn't cold at night. But by winter I'd made friends with a few of the girls and started taking heroin with them. Since then I've been working most nights of the week. I was making money but spent most of it on scoring."

At night time in Kelham, the streets are alive with activity. It's an unsettling juxtaposition: you can be on a well-developed, lively street thronged with locals and beer-tourists one moment; and the next moment, after just one wrong turn, find yourself on a dark street alive with a different kind of activity. A constant stream of cars creep the streets, slowly hugging their curbs. Many women who live in the swish new apartment complexes complain of being harassed and mistaken for being sex-workers after sundown.

According to a recent​ report in the Sheffield Star newspaper, the number of men cautioned or taken to court for kerb crawling, is at a record high. Seventy-five men – including a professional footballer and a special constable – have been caught trying to pick up girls for sex in the city centre in the last 15 months.

There are said to be at least 240 sex workers working regularly on the streets of Sheffield, mainly within Kelham Island and its surrounding areas.

Cat, 26, is among them. As the rain fell, she and two other women on Scotland Street stayed put regardless. "I'd rather not be here, obviously," she said. "Not much I can do though, what else could I do?"

As we talked a police car on patrol passed by without stopping. "Those wankers [she points to the patrol car] know it, too. I've been cautioned but they don't bother with me any more. They know that if they pick me up I go home with no money, and they know that's bad for me," she said. I asked her what she meant by that and she replied, "Well everybody knows, you know, that when people don't get paid they get angry."

Another of the women, with long red hair and smoking a cigarette, overheard our conversation. "I don't mind it me, when they pick you up," she chipped in. "Somewhere warm to sleep innit... then get back out here when they release you."

For all the hardship they have to endure, the workers don't get much sympathy from the public. Rose, 42, who has worked as a sex worker almost all of her life, in many different cities across the UK, told me, "We see it all – just the other week a bloke wouldn't even let me in to his shop for a drink. I snuck in when he wasn't looking but when I went to pay he just threw my money on the floor." I told her that the area is seen to be up and coming and that many new residents are expected over the next few years. "Fucking brilliant. That's all we need," she replied.

The feeling is mutual. One resident who lives in rented accommodation in an apartment complex just off Shalesmoor roundabout told me, "I wish they'd move on somewhere else, they're not wanted here. They're outside my window every night – coughing, smoking, talking."

Before Cassie finished her coffee and headed home to get ready for work later that night, she showed me a bruise on her leg. The deep black stain runs right up the side of it, from ankle to knee cap. "A punter kicked and pushed me as I got out the car. He was nice before that, even paid me a bit extra, but soon as I opened the door he went crazy. Now I have this all over my leg."

For sex workers on the streets of Sheffield, the attitudes of the public are the least dangerous in a long line of hazards they face on a daily basis. Nevertheless, sex workers were in the area long before it became a haven for the type of entertainment that gets an area plaudits from glossy magazines. These vulnerable workers are deserving of respect from new punters and residents who are enjoying a local boom that's leaving them behind.

Sex workers seeking help can contact the Sheffield Working Women__'__s Opportunity Project on 0114 275 2040.


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