After growing up in care, Anna’s* life spiralled into prostitution, drug abuse and running brothels, before she finally found the courage to walk away
As told to Danielle Aumord
I would love to say that I felt guilty about the damage I caused to myself and the countless women who I sold for sex. But at the time, I was so preoccupied about where my next high was coming from and so driven by making money to feed my crack cocaine habit I didn’t care. I was making £9,000 a week from running brothels and living what I called a ‘Champagne lifestyle’. But in truth, I was desperately trying to silence the trauma I’d spent my life burying, attempting to numb the pain I felt at being abandoned by my mother as a child.
I was 13 and living in a small coastal town in Devon with my Gran when I was taken into care. The other children my age were already doing burglaries. I began being exploited early on. I was small so they used to put me through the windows to gain access. I was strong willed and keen to impress – the approval of the other children made me feel important, perhaps for the first time ever. My mum was an alcoholic who had left me in the hospital the day I was born, before fleeing to Australia. It made me totally incapable of loving anybody. Perhaps looking back that’s why I felt I had to rely on myself without thinking about the feelings of others.
You couldn’t say that my life spiralled out of control during my teenage years, because I never had any control in the first place. Social workers made their decisions about my life based on policy, rather than me as an individual child. From the beginning, we were the forgotten children – the care home kids nobody wanted. I was sexually abused by both staff and other kids over a two-year period. One boy used to pin me against the wall and put his hand inside my knickers and then one night, a male staff member came into my bedroom and touched my breasts whilst I was asleep. Within a few months, he started to rape me. But I became adept as shutting myself down and distancing myself from the pain. By the age of 15, I couldn’t take anymore and I ran away from my care home to London. I started hanging around with a group of people I met on a street corner in Bayswater as teenagers do. I was naïve when one of the girls told me she knew how I could make a lot of money and that she’d show me how. One evening, I stood and watched her lure in a client on the street, making it look so easy. I didn’t even know what a sex worker was and I told myself I’d never do it. But I was cold, hungry and sleeping on a dirty mattress that I’d found on the street and managed to wedge into a shop doorway. When you reach that point, you’ll do almost anything.
I discovered the numbing power of drugs when I was 14 and tried them for the first time with a 17-year-old male friend. I loved the way crack made me feel – as though I could float away from everything, forgetting who I was or where I came from and just losing myself to the moment. In short, it helped me to shut down my feelings, and I was grateful for the respite.
But it was my gradual addiction that would trap me in the life I’d found myself in. As an addict, I would be in and out of the cells at Paddington Green often up to three times a night. To some degree, being arrested provided relief. It was warm in the cells and gave me a moment to pause and think about what I was doing, but that never lasted. The police got to know me – one minute they’d be putting me in cuffs, the next they’d be advising me that a rapist was on the loose and another working girl had been found dead warning me to be safe and look after myself.
I hadn’t set out to make it happen but within 9 years, I had seven women working for me – including selling sex myself – and I was running a brothel in Bayswater from a flat that belonged to a member of the aristocracy (who was also a punter of mine). Interestingly, he didn’t want any money out of it – he just enjoyed the thrill. By the time I was 32, I had moved my brothels out of London and into the Home Counties because the money was better. The clients in Hampshire were from upper middle class backgrounds – bankers, barristers, even doctors – and it felt like an upgrade.
Ironically, running the business, despite the fact I was exploiting other vulnerable women like myself, gave me a sense of purpose. I used local press to list ads under the massage section and it was unspoken that the clients knew what they’d be getting. As the online sex industry grew, we began advertising services on an international site called Adult Work. Customers could scroll through the women’s pictures and read their reviews, or they’d call us up and ask for a brief description of the women before deciding who to have sex with. It was like a sex workers’ version of Air B&B and my business quickly grew through word of mouth. By now, I had stopped selling sex myself, having slept with up to 10,000 men. You’d think it might have felt like a relief but in truth I had numbed myself to the idea of having sex with strange men a long time ago. It was like playing a role and I became expert at switching off my already largely absent emotions, with the help of booze and drugs.
I was addicted to making money though, and at my best I was making £9000 a week from running brothels. I felt more in control of my life than I had before. I could do things to temporarily fix my feelings of fear and self-sabotage, taking expensive holidays, driving a sports car, using a crooked mortgage dealer and accountant to enable me to launder drug money into a car business and buy a mansion in Surrey.
I identified with the women working for me and I made it my responsibility to make sure they were looked after and paid on time. I also made a point of not employing anyone under the age of 20. On the surface, many of my employees presented themselves as strong women but, like me, they all had a back-story. A lot of women I encountered had been sexually abused in care or by a family member. But this industry eats people up quickly, myself included.
The turning point for me came when a friend of mine was shot dead in front of me one night. Her story was almost a mirror image of my own – brought up in care, abused by a family member and turned to drugs as a fruitless way out. She was also a sex worker and she owed money to a drugs dealer. The scene was pretty typical – a filthy squat in Shepherd’s Bush where we would go to buy drugs and use them, with a fresh batch always being cooked up in the kitchen. There’s a reason why the crack den cliché exists – it really looks like it does in the movies. After this man shot my friend, he looked me in the eye and said if I told anyone, he would come for me too. I knew that if I didn’t leave then, I would end up as a news story, my body found in a trunk or at the bottom of a canal.
It was around this time that I rediscovered my faith (I’d discovered Christianity in my teens). Perhaps it was desperation originally – going to church gave me somewhere to escape to and gradually, it became my refuge, my comfort and a place where I felt I could be someone else, someone better. When I walked out of my house for the last time, I remember looking in the mirror unable to recognise the face staring back – it was as though the life had been sucked out of me. I left behind £680,000 in assets – mainly in property and cars. I left with only £72,000 in cash that I’d managed to stash away in various places. Much of this has now been spent on relocating to the outskirts of London and setting up a new life; £20,00 of this I donated to a charity that works with trafficked women in Europe. I paid them anonymously in cash.
I don’t think about my mother now – she never figured in my life so we have nothing to go back to and work on in terms of a relationship. Instead, I focus on my own children and rebuilding our fractured relationship. I live in a small flat with my 14-year-old son (from a relationship with an ex boyfriend, who he lived with during my darkest times) and a friend I met through the church. It is a far cry from the mansion I used to live in, but I feel at peace here. Since leaving crime, I started a creative writing course and I have regained contact with my two daughters (from another ex boyfriend), who are now 19 and 21, with my eldest at university. It’s taken a long while to rebuild trust with my daughters because they felt abandoned by me in the same way I did by my own mother. I regret putting them in a situation of danger that meant they were shipped off to a foster family. But I’m determined to break the cycle of destruction to avoid any more pain. We’re taking it step by step and we meet for dinner or coffee regularly. That’s worth more than any sum of dirty money. I no longer look over my shoulder.
* Some of the details have been changed to protect the anonymity of persons affected