Liverpool rethinks prostitution


Britain: As this once gritty city thrives, officials hope a legal red-light district will curb crime.

February 20, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LIVERPOOL, England - The prostitute is known on the streets as Mercedes, this drug-addicted woman with the hands that tremble.

Her real name is Virginia Thompson and she is 31. She wears a split-legged skirt with a leopard-skin pattern and a dirty white coat with a furry hood. When the coat is open at the collar it is easy to see the cigarette burn on her neck. She also has been arrested at least 20 times for selling sex and as a result of her addiction to drugs, which for most women here go hand-in-hand.

Officials in Liverpool are willing to put up with her, even to help her. The city finally has money, the political will and the reasons beyond morality to help.

This city on England's west coast, on the edge of the Irish Sea, is being rejuvenated against the odds set by history. It is bucking a trend of fallen port cities in Europe and the United States that are drowning in problems they cannot seem to overcome.

Now prepared to tackle another barrier to the city's more complete restoration, Liverpool officials voted last month to create Britain's first legally sanctioned red-light district.

If the national government agrees, the lights could come on sometime this year.

"I reckon it'll be better for us - less girls getting done in," said Thompson, who has worked her area of Liverpool's Center City for 12 years, all of them hooked on drugs, currently crack cocaine. "I still got all me teeth, and I'd like to get out before I look like them."

"Them" are the city's other street walkers, 95 percent of them, according to the city's health department, addicted to crack, heroin or both. By various estimates, 500 to 1,000 women work Liverpool's streets, a disproportionately high number for a city with a population of 442,000.

The reasons for the high number of women selling sex are a combination of the drugs that make their way to this town and the open prostitution during Liverpool's swashbuckling days as Britain's most active commercial port at a time of the empire's greatest global importance.

By design, the new district will provide a safer place for women like Thompson, whose name and circumstances were confirmed by Liverpool police. Ultimately, city leaders hope that the district will make it easier to treat the women for the drug addiction that has either lured them into the sex trade in the first place or that has trapped them in it with little hope of escape.

Liverpool is probably best known as birthplace of the Beatles, a claim to fame that is hard to escape in the city, with its Magical Mystery Tours, its bus trips to Penny Lane, its museum on the Mersey that includes a full-size replica of the famous Abbey Road studio and a walk-through yellow submarine.

What made Liverpool far more than the Beatles, though, is its much darker past.

Liverpool was a late participant in the slave trade. In the 17th century, the Royal African Company maintained a monopoly operated exclusively from London. Bristol, taking advantage of its deep inlet and western-facing ports in south-central England, ended the monopoly in 1698 and within two decades surpassed London in the trade.

And then it was Liverpool's turn: By the latter half of the 18th century, Liverpool overtook both London and Bristol in the trade. Ships ran the triangle, sailing for Africa with pots and pans, alcohol and tobacco, firearms and the gunpowder to go with them.

The cargo was swapped for human beings, captured by African dealers and shackled through the middle passage across the Atlantic.

"Sadly, much of Liverpool's wealth was created through unimaginable suffering," said Mike Storey, a Liverpool councilor who strongly backs the red-light district. "Happily, we've moved on from that, into the 21st century. The district for sex workers, to use a crude term, is an acknowledgment of today's reality."

The reality of Liverpool is that from its dark days of economic woes and reduced in status to a national punch line, it has risen to become one of Great Britain's most successful cities.

Last year, it had the highest number of business startups of any major city in Britain. Its unemployment rate is 4.8 percent, the lowest since current assessment methods began in the 1980s, below London's 7.5 percent and the national average of 5.3.

"We had a terrible decline," Storey said. "I think what we discovered is that if you're trying to attract businesses, quality of life issues have to be taken care of. For example, we're a city that thrived on music, and we didn't even have a concert hall suitable for decent-sized shows."

So the city is building one. It has fixed many of its roads, is fixing others, has heavily subsidized its bus system, to keep fares and waiting time low. It is building a port for cruise liners, and it will most likely become the first city in England to ban cigarettes in work places.

One of its greatest successes has been to show that urban cities can improve their students by improving their schools.

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