Sophie was just 24 when she travelled from Leeds to Italy to be with the man she believed was her best friend and boyfriend.
She thought she was just going on a week’s holiday. Instead, she vanished for six months.
Her boyfriend had tricked her, forcing her to begin working as a prostitute to earn money for him. He bullied her, beat her, and pressured her to have sex with strangers. Sophie, an alias, became what she never imagined she would.
After six months, Sophie managed to escape and she now runs a survivor support programme for women in England who have been identified as having been trafficked.
Sophie campaigns to raise the voices of those who have survived the sex trafficking industry, to remind those in the UK that sex trafficking isn’t just something that happens far away. It happens to British people too, and on British streets.
This is Sophie’s story.
“Caz said, there’s something you can do for me. There’s something you can do to show me that you love me. I’ve got a debt that has to be paid. You are going to repay this debt for me. I will find you a place to work, on the streets. And then it suddenly struck me, almost like a physical blow, that the work in the streets he was talking about was prostitution.
“It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be totally under someone else’s control. I didn’t even think to question Caz’s authority over me, and I believed him completely when he said, my word is law, you must do as I say. All I did think about was trying not to do anything that made him angry. Even the smallest, even the most apparently significant mistake, would send him into a rage. I was always frightened.
“[One day] without warning, he flew across the room. He grabbed my throat and started banging my head against the tiled wall of the shower. I began to gasp as I tried to catch my breath. I was still spluttering when he grabbed my throat again, slamming my head back against the wall and shouting, you f***ing try and do anything and then you’ll see what I’ll do to you. If you try to go anywhere, or tell anyone, I’ll kill you.
“Surviving meant separating my mind from my body. If I thought about anything else, I just got upset and that made it harder for me to detach myself from what used to be my reality, but was now my past. What I wanted, and what I felt, didn’t matter anymore, because my sole purpose had become to earn money for Caz.
“I worked seven nights a week, from 8 in the evening until 5 or 6 in the morning. I would have an average of about 25 customers every night, and it wasn’t long before my spirit was crushed. I was so weary that nothing seemed to matter, and I didn’t care whether I was alive or dead.
“I had customers of all ages, from early 20s to late 60s or even older. And some of them were good-looking, which I hadn’t expected. I certainly wouldn’t have imagined that some of them would be normal guys with girlfriends, or wives and children.
“I never, never got used to the fact that most of the men who picked me up didn’t appear to consider it to be a big deal, and clearly had no sense of shame about it. Sometimes, a man would ask how old I was, and when I told him he’d say, ah, you’re the same age as my daughter. Which seemed really creepy to me, but never appeared to bother the men at all. It was a bizarre and surreal world, and although nothing in it was familiar to me, nothing really surprised me either.
“My life had been reduced to a handful of basic functions. I slept, got up, ate, had sex with strangers, tried to dodge the police and avoid getting attacked by anyone, went home, gave all the money I’d earned to Caz. One day, when he was in one of his rare good moods, he told me he’d fallen in love with me the first time he saw me. How can you love me? What is there to love about me? I’m like a zombie. I don’t speak except when I’m spoken to, I only smile when you tell me to smile. How can you love someone like that? But he just laughed and said, you’re crazy woman. This is all in your head. And for a moment, I wondered if perhaps he really did love me, and I just couldn’t see it because I was so used to believing I was unloveable.
“It’s easy to dismiss girls who work on the streets as deadbeats or drug addicts, without ever thinking about why they’re working as prostitutes. And the truth is that many of them have been trafficked, and they work long, and miserable, and soul-destroying hours, for men who are cruel and violent. They’re constantly afraid, not just because of what might be done to them if they don’t do what they’re told, but also because of the very real threats that are made against their families and the people they love.
“Robin from the Vice unit asked me, do you understand what’s happened to you? That you’ve been trafficked? And strange as it may seem, that was the first time that I’d ever thought about it in those terms.
“I still think about him for some reason on most days. And I sometimes wonder if he’s doing the same thing to other poor girls, and pray that he isn’t. If I came face-to-face with Caz now, I’d still be frightened of him. But only because I’ve been conditioned to fear him. I’m stronger than I used to be, and I’m not alone anymore, so I know he can’t hurt me. And I think I’d have the strength to say, leave me alone.”
Following her experience, Sophie launched the Sophie Hayes Foundation in 2012, which provides support services to women and girls who have been trafficked.
Sophie’s testimony is taken from her book “Trafficked: My Story”, and was shared as part of an immersive audio-visual walking tour of London’s red light district in Soho, in recognition of UK Anti-Slavery Day on October 18.
The event, organised by international women’s rights organisation Equality Now, shared a collection of powerful first-hand narratives from three women, all of whom have personal experience of sex trafficking and commercial sex exploitation.
Interwoven with the women’s narratives, are real comments left by men on a UK website where men who pay for sex go online to review the women they have had sex with.
The women’s stories reveal a unique insight into the realities and emotional impact of the sex industry from a British perspective, either through being British citizens, or through being trafficked to the UK. You can listen to the women's stories in full here.
By telling their stories, Equality Now hopes to increase understanding in the UK, and enable the development of more effective policies and support services in England.
Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the Global Goals, including goal No.5 for gender equality. You can join us by taking action here, to help Saveensure equal rights for women and girls across the world.