Sex in the City: Vice girl reveals why she still walks the streets

DRESSED in black netted tights, her flimsy coat pulled tightly around her face, a frail-looking woman steps gingerly over patches of ice in a towering pair of leopard-print high heels.

To the unaccustomed eye, the woman could be heading to the pub. But her wary sideways glances and the street she walks up and down give the real clue as to why she is hanging out in the bitter cold at 9pm on a Sunday night.

The woman, who calls herself Karen, is standing on Salamander Street, Edinburgh's unofficial red light district.

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She is one of a dozen or so streetworkers who trawl the area, moving as far as Leith Docks and Commercial Street, in search of customers willing to pay 20 to 50 for her services.

• Should the existing laws on prostitution be toughened up? Vote here

When approached by the Evening News, Karen looks emotionless. Eyes watering from tiredness and the sharp wind, she says: "You don't have much to hide when you're me, you know?

"I've been doing this for years. The police know who I am, the people who drive past honk their horns, the locals hate me."

"You get a lot of residents shouting at you. One woman opens her window when I go past and screams 'Dirty little hoor'. I try to stay away from the houses and I don't do any harm, so I don't know why they're so insulting. It's like they spot the heels and tights and see it as a license to abuse us.

"Young lads and lassies throw eggs and juice cartons when they drive past. One group freeze the eggs in the freezer before they go out so they'll hurt more. One hit me under my eye once and it was so painful I was greeting. A mum once came past in a people carrier with her kids and they chucked their McDonald's milkshakes out the window."

Shaking her head, Karen says she has no choice but to resign herself to the treatment.

Her dark hair tied back in a bun, at 45 she is still attractive, but her experiences show in the lines of her face.

With no qualifications, her only other employment in the past has been as a cleaner, and her husband is unemployed. Karen says she used to be a heroin addict, but is now on a methadone programme. The reason she needs the money, she says, is for Christmas and to do the house up.

"I'm going to quit after that, I mean it. Although I have said that before," she sighs. "I'm getting old now, I want to settle down with my family.

"I'll walk the streets from about 9pm until pub closing time every night. I don't like to stand around because it's cold and boring." She recalls: "I've been badly attacked four times. I remember one time I was working on Salamander Street. One man paid me, there was no problem, but then suddenly he grabbed my throat and tried to strangle me. Eventually I got away, but he dropped his wallet with his ID in it. I took it to police and told them what he'd done."

Her attacker was caught when he visited the police a few days later to report that he had lost his wallet. "They nicked him, and he pleaded guilty in court. He could have killed me and what did he get? A 300 quid fine," she spits.

Shrugging, she says: "The police around here are OK. They stopped me tonight and told me to keep away from the residential areas. If I do that they'll more or less turn a blind eye to what I'm doing."

Karen relies on gut instinct to judge each job. "After all these years I've become pretty good at reading people. If I'm sure they're OK, I'll get in their car or go to their flat. It's not all bad. There are regular clients that phone me. I go through to a guy in Glasgow who pays me 550 for a night. He'll take me out for a meal, clubbing and to the casino."

Talking about how she got into prostitution is something Karen struggles with. Choking up, she reveals that she lived in Paisley until she was 29 with a violent husband and three children. He beat her so badly that social workers got involved and the kids were taken into care. They were later adopted.

To get away from her now ex-husband, a terrified Karen one day jumped on a bus heading to Edinburgh wearing only the clothes on her back. Rubbing her eyes, she recalls: "I found somewhere to stay, and got some cleaning jobs. I was devastated to lose the kids, but the woman who took them in has been brilliant. They've had a good upbringing. They needed to be taken in.

"A bit later I started baby-sitting for this lass while she went to the bingo, but I then found out that she was really streetworking. After I found out I started taking registration numbers for her, for her safety.

"Then one weekend a truck driver asked me to have sex with him. I said I wasn't involved in stuff like that, but he offered me 70 and didn't even want full sex. When you have no money, and somebody offers you that amount of cash, you take it. Less than 20 minutes later I had a bundle of money in my hand. I felt dirty, I felt sad at what I'd done, and I still have flashes of that now. But as time goes on you put your guard up. I'm numb to it.

"I'm married again now. My husband knows about what I do, but we leave it at the door each night. We've been married 14 years, so it's difficult. We try not to talk about it."

Karen says there aren't enough prostitutes in Edinburgh to get territorial as more and more girls have gone underground or are controlled by pimps since Leith's tolerance zone was scrapped in 2001.

"You don't see many lasses working around here now," she says. "People like me that take our chances. We don't have much choice.

"But I'll stop. I want to stop," she says, appearing to try to reassure herself. "After Christmas, I'll give it up."

MSP in bid to make paying for sex illegal

Ian Swanson

LABOUR MSP Trish Godman wants to outlaw the purchase of sex in a bid to cut prostitution.

She is currently carrying out a consultation before presenting a member's bill to the Scottish Parliament which would ask MSPs to make it a criminal offence to pay for sexual services.

The law currently outlaws kerb crawling and other offences related to soliciting sexual services and living off immoral earnings. Ms Godman, MSP for West Renfrewshire, says she wants to challenge the acceptance of men buying sex.

She says: "For too long most people in society have viewed prostitution and the role of male clients with tolerance, complacency and even indifference."

She argues prostitution should be seen as an abuse and exploitation that will not be tolerated.

But Independent Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald is against the proposed bill. She said: "The people who are talking about banning such sexual activity are just being unrealistic. It is likely there is always going to be prostitution of some description in any society."

Ms Godman's consultation is open for comment until February 18.

ATTACKS SOAR ON STREETS

The dangers faced by sex workers on the streets of the Capital are highlighted by the case of Siadaire Robinson, who was raped and kept prisoner in a car boot during an eight-hour ordeal.

The 28-year-old was hit over the head with a hammer, repeatedly raped and throttled until she passed out. Her attacker, IT worker Ewan Mackay, 30, now faces a life sentence following the attack on December 6 last year as she worked in Leith. She escaped by jumping from his moving vehicle.

The number of attacks on street workers in Edinburgh reported to the charity Scotpep soared to more than 100 last year, compared with just 11 in 2001, before the city scrapped its tolerance zone.