A Route From the Streets

The Magdalene Group helps women working as prostitutes to change their lives

Gender Social Affairs

Mair Talbot, a former vicar, spends her evenings driving around Norwich’s red light district. When she sees a woman who looks as if she might be a prostitute she stops, rolls down the car window and offers them a cup of hot chocolate. “That usually goes down quite well.”

She is the head of the Magdalene Group, a charity set up in 1992 to help the increasing number of women in Norwich who had been drawn into prostitution. Once Magdalene have made contact with a woman, they invite her to come to their afternoon drop-in sessions, where she can talk through her situation with a trained counsellor or just have something to eat and somewhere safe to rest. “We try to find out what they are looking for, whether they want to change their lives,” says Talbot. She stresses that they do not try to persuade anyone to change. “You can’t change someone’s life for them, you can only help them do it once they have decided to.”

What the group can do is help a woman build the motivation to change. They ask how she would like her life to be a year hence, and at every meeting she is set a small goal that works towards this. They are in regular contact with about 50 women.

Once a woman has decided she wants to change, the two main issues Magdalene offers help with are housing and drugs. Almost without exception, street prostitutes are addicted to drugs and a large number are homeless. The group gives women a sponsored referral to a local housing association, puts them in touch with drug treatment programmes, and offers them support throughout the process.

Talbot is unenthusiastic about the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s proposed crackdown on prostitution. She thinks that the proposed legislation, which would make men criminally liable if they use women who have been coerced into prostitution, is right in principle but problematic in practice. It is often difficult for her organisation to work out to what extent someone is being coerced, and the situation is usually not clear-cut. She is more positive about the Swedish system, which criminalises all men who use prostitutes but decriminalises those who sell sex. “That would send the right message – that people are far more than sex objects.” The number of prostitutes in Sweden has fallen by 40 per cent in the decade since the legislation was brought in. Talbot argues that simply legalising prostitution does not get rid of the more dangerous and unpleasant side of it, which remains underground.

The Magdalene Group has only two paid members of staff, and is privately funded by donations. This gives it the freedom, not possible for a government-funded organisation, to be experimental in how it responds to individuals’ needs – it recently paid, for example, for one woman to join a gym. The group is founded on Christian principles, but Talbot is keen to point out that they are not in the business of pushing faith upon people. “Our mission is to offer care and opportunities for change, based on the belief that each individual is infinitely precious and infinitely redeemable.”