The Madam’s Rise and Fall
Names and some details have been changed.
Laura Stedman is a 65-year-old woman of average height and build, with straight brown hair and a kind face. She is garrulous, but thoughtful and polite. She’s outlandish, but there is something very English about her eccentricity. Her personality is eclectic. She is by turns superstitious and sentimental, paying close attention to tarot cards and astrology, and doting on her pet dogs and cats, yet she has the sensible head of a professional businesswoman and a puritan drive for self-improvement. Her politics are of the right: she is a member of UKIP. In the early 1990s she ran a greengrocer’s in Lincoln, before that she owned a restaurant in Henley-on-Thames which made her £100,000, and prior to that she ran a successful transportation company in London. Above all, she is a woman of boundless optimism.
Her story started when she was 48 years old, and it started because of a supermarket. The supermarket in question was a branch of Tesco that opened in Lincoln in the early 1990s. Like many small enterprises, her greengrocer’s lost customers to the new store. She began to lose money every week and was eventually forced to close down. The situation was tough, even for a woman of her energy. She had been left with just £2000 from her endeavours. Her father had recently died, and she was looking after a teenage daughter who was suffering a number of physical and mental ailments, including learning difficulties, epilepsy and a debilitating form of psoriatic arthritis. She tried to work for her sister, an estate agent, but due to a family spat that relationship soured. Her boyfriend, a middle-aged Geordie named Tom, was looking for ways to earn money. He had a background in fitness training, and so he decided to try his hand at being a masseur. Laura paid £250 for him to go on two weekend courses.
“Of course, we’d entered a whole new world,” she laughs. “We had absolutely no idea what we were doing.” All we’d done was put an advert in a newsagent’s window, and we were getting these odd calls. Guys would phone up and ask if he did extras, if he did relief. Well, after a while, Tom says ‘I’m not doing any of that, but if they really want, they can touch me.’ And then I got involved. I didn’t see what harm it could do, and I thought, who would want me at my age?
“One of my first clients was a guy called David. This guy with a lovely accent phoned me up and said, ‘Would you be interested in spanking me?’ He liked to put on a wig and a skirt and become a woman he called ‘Jill’. He would come round, clean the place and make tea, and then he’d say, ‘Jill’s been naughty. I want you to spank her.’ He was a very kind man, an ex-public school boy who’d worked as a Samaritan. I think like a lot of public school boys he suffered from the ‘matron syndrome’ – his first sexual experience had been being spanked by a woman. It was a good initiation for me. David wrote me a letter, in which he told me what Jill wanted. He taught me about the correct apparatus and I started to read up on it – we had a paddle, a cane, a slipper, a safe word.
“I started to see more clients, and became a professional dominatrix – there was no way I wanted to be on the receiving end. I made them all write me a letter explaining what they wanted – it was a kind of vetting process. Looking back it’s strange. Tom didn’t want me to do it, but we needed the money. I used to switch off, enter a state outside myself; in my head, I used to pretend that I was making a film. I was so naive about what this world entailed, but what I knew that what I wanted to get out of it had to be my vision – this was going to be my world, something I created. It’s how I’ve always lived my life, how I’ve operated with every business. ”
Laura began to put adverts in the local papers. She had a goal, which was to raise £10,000 for a deposit for a house. The phone never stopped ringing. Tom started to overcome his reservations about the work, and one day, Laura returned home to find him sitting in the front room with a girl she did not know. She was an unassuming little thing in her early 20s. She was wearing a cagoule. Unknown to Laura, Tom had placed an advert for someone to work with her, and this girl, Christine, had responded. She had previously been doing a sex show on stage, but now she would become “Christine du Bres,” and Laura would be “Miss Sims”. Christine moved in.
“It was the happiest year of my life,” says Laura. “We’d get up, have a big salad, and the first thing we’d do would be to go to the gym. We’d work between 12 and 8pm, then go swimming at night. I felt free and empowered. We’d do threesomes and foursomes. I never once felt nervous, because I’d always had bisexual leanings – we’d go and see a couple and have a great evening, and come away with a load of money. Girls read our adverts in the local paper and began to ask for jobs. We recruited one girl who until then had been working in a nursing home, and she brought her cousin along to work with us. I’d learned so much that year, especially about how men’s sexuality works – when I started, I didn’t even know how to put a condom on.
“Soon I’d learned a lot about sex, and a lot about drugs. I was a middle-aged woman who knew nothing of these things. One of the most important experiences I had was with a girl I was introduced to called Rebecca. Tom introduced me to her: she was walking the streets at the time, and she was on heroin. She was only 20 years old, and such a sweet girl, from a good family and everything, so I said I’d help her. She was such a mess, so I took her to a clinic. They found her hair was full of lice, and they told me she’d have to go cold turkey. So I looked after her. For days I thought I was winning the battle, and then the next thing I’d know she was back on the drugs. The lowest point was when she asked me if I could help her inject herself, and I saw her body was just covered in bruises. Then I didn’t see her for months; the next thing I know, she’s in a psychiatric hospital. We went to see her, and she’d got presents for Tom and I. Like I say, she was so sweet-natured. And then the next thing I heard was that one day she’d hailed a taxi, taken it to Beachy Head, and jumped off the cliffs. I felt like I’d failed her, but I also realised that you can’t win the battle against an addiction; it was more powerful than I could cope with. I would never knowingly employ a girl who was on hard drugs, but sometimes they’d slip through the net – there are a lot of heroin addicts, especially in Boscombe, who haven’t been rehabilitated.”
By this time, Laura’s commercial instincts were beginning to take over. She was in the industry, and now she saw how she could make a business of it. She rented another flat, and over the course of the next ten years she expanded her empire. By the time she had finished, she employed 25 girls, eight maids, and four drivers for when the girls needed to do outcalls (visiting a client’s house). They operated from a large flat and a huge detached house.
It is in the flat, incidentally, that I am conducting my interview. It is situated above a shop, and as such one enters it from the rear, up a staircase set back a little from an innocuous road that is part residential, part industrial. She shows me around. The first room is the kitchen, which is unremarkable, but once one has passed through it the attention and investment that Laura put into the place is everywhere. The master bedroom (formerly the VIP Suite) is the most striking. There is a Jacuzzi bath with coloured lights and gold taps, a huge plasma screen TV on the wall, a black fireplace with gold leaf painting, a deep red carpet, pink wallpaper, satin bed sheets on the huge antique bed, and ornate furniture. The rooms are not subtly decorated, but the force of Laura’s will to do things properly shines through, and they are more tasteful than tacky. The lounge was where clients would be introduced to the girls; it is rather more homely, with a thick carpet, coral coloured walls and a large fireplace. The flat has not operated as a brothel for the last couple of years, and is now a family home. As such it has a schizophrenic, cluttered air: the Jacuzzi is filled with cuddly toys, there are two Pekinese (one of which, to Laura’s horror, has left a turd in one of the bedrooms) and several cats roaming around, while Laura, ever the hostess, insists on running to the kitchen to fetch me sandwiches and cups of tea. “I don’t want to carry on living here,” she says. “Too many memories.”
The girls that Laura employed came from a wide array of backgrounds. One had been an air hostess, another a teacher, another was studying to be a psychologist. When the latter wasn’t working for Laura, she would relocate to Nevada for a while to work in one of the bunny ranches there. Their ages ranged – some were in their early 20s, but the majority were between 30 and 40, with some between 40 and 50, and this last group were often the most popular. One of the best, she says, was a girl who had been a shoplifter but who was trying to rebuild her life. As Laura says: “She wasn’t much to look at, but often the less good-looking girls are the most successful, because they’re the ones who’ll look after their clients the best. I always told them to use this job as a stepping stone, not as a career option. I told them I’d had a lot of experience before I started this venture, but that they wouldn’t ever become world-wise by just working in a brothel. I built up a good reputation – people knew that I wouldn’t employ girls who did drugs, that I had some integrity.”
The whole operation was suffused with Laura’s values, above all her drive for self-improvement. She describes the operation as being like a boarding school. She kept fitness equipment in each of the brothels and an array of self-help books on the coffee tables. Every week there would be a meeting in one of the flats; minutes would be kept, grievances aired and advice given.
Laura’s main role, she felt, was to instil a sense of independence in some of these women: “My parents loved and looked after me. You couldn’t say the same about some of the girls. We tried to support each other. I believe in empowering women. Most households – and it was a household – have a matriarch at the top. I had one Asian woman who worked so hard. She earned £10,000 with me and gave it to her husband, who spent it all gambling – how on earth do you alter the mindset of a woman like that? A lot of the girls stayed a long time – some were there for three years. All the girls who had boyfriends kept the work a secret. It was sometimes difficult if you saw them when they were out, because you only knew them by their working name.
“One girl stayed for seven years, and ended up becoming a manager – she even had a baby and came back to work. But it was always my way or no way – obviously some of them thought I was very bossy, because I wouldn’t put up with the kind of behaviour you see in some brothels. I wouldn’t let them drink, or turn up to shifts late. Two warnings and they were out. But ultimately if they worked elsewhere they realised this was the best place: for a start, 60 per cent of the turn over went to the girls; which is a very rare set up – I was able to cover overheads and pay myself with the rest.”
The girls very rarely enjoyed the sex; Laura has no illusions about that. “Some prostitutes do enjoy it but in my experience they’re in the minority. Of course one thing you learn – and I’ve really seen it all – is that male and female sexuality varies a lot. Some girls really liked anal sex, some liked to be submissive, but the vast majority were pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. There were, however, plenty of things they did love about the life. For a start, there’s the money – all of the girls would have far rather spent half an hour with a client than work in a shop for the amount of time it would have taken them to earn a comparable amount of cash. Then there’s the social side. You’d be surprised how glad some of the girls were to see certain clients – not for the sex, just because they genuinely enjoyed their company. The truth is there was a wonderful atmosphere, the whole time. Hand on heart, I cannot remember a single truly unpleasant experience with the clients. They knew they were dealing with strong, organised, robust women. Occasionally, on a stag night, you might get some boisterousness, but that was all I can remember.
“No, the real downside, above all, is the fact that you can become very cynical about men. When you walk in a pub and see a client putting his arm around his wife – it makes you feel like they’re all hypocrites. We used to service a number of MPs whenever there was a party conference in Lincoln. They used to send scouts ahead to check the premises – the scouts would pay for a session and every so often one of them would let slip to the girls that there was another reason for their visit – to check the place out for their boss. I was getting involved in local politics at one point – I turned up at the local Conservative Club and gave a very passionate speech. One of the councillors told me he thought I’d be a great asset to the party. Then he found out what I did, and I didn’t see him for dust. But at the same time, we kept marriages together. I remember one client we had, a very hunky fireman – well he used to take his clothes off, and underneath he’d have his wife’s frilly knickers on. We’d see all sorts of perversions that our clients were ashamed of revealing to their wives.”
About six years into this period in her life, Laura heard a knock at the door. She assumed it was another client, but was greeted by a woman and a man: they were plain-clothed police officers. A harmless enough conversation ensued; Laura remembered they spoke about good spots for deep sea diving, and the officers interviewed one of the girls to make sure she was not being coerced. A year or so later, while she was on holiday, one of the houses suffered an armed robbery. A group of men came in with knives and guns and took all the money they could, though as most of the transactions took place on credit card there was very little. The police came round and took finger prints, and said they would try to catch the culprits. They said they had no problem with Laura’s business. Her relationship with the authorities seemed solid. As she says: “I’ll never forget what one of them said: ‘We’re not interested in you, Laura.’ How that would come back to haunt me.” The local Working Women’s Project came round with an ‘ugly mugs’ list of dangerous punters, with pictures of men who’d recently been let out of prison for sex offences and who might pose a threat to her girls, and supplied her with condoms.
Her businesses were robbed twice more, and each time the police said they weren’t interested in her: “They said, ’We can can tell you run a good place, and you get people off the streets.’ Time and again, they told me they weren’t bothered about me, just the robbers.” But Laura was beginning to feel worried. A rival brothel owner claimed one of her girls was being trafficked. The police said they believed she was selling condoms that were issued by the Working Women’s Project to her girls, so she bought several thousand from a wholesaler. After the third robbery, the police told her she needed to get a video camera and an early warning system. Their attitude towards her had seemed to harden. An officer told her that if one of her girls were to be killed by a robber then she could be charged with corporate manslaughter.
By 2005 Laura was getting tired of the life. She was planning to move away from the business and form a beauty salon in partnership with one of her beauticians. She had put the funds forward for premises and was soon to sign the lease. She was also planning to move to San Francisco for six months in order to write her memoirs. One evening she was sitting in a wine bar with three of her friends when a private number called her mobile. She went outside to take the call. The man on the end of the line was a Detective Sergeant Monaghan. He told her that the police had arrested Carol and Lisa, her two maids, along with several of the girls working for her. He told her to come to the police station for an interview. Laura was in a state of shock. She told him that she’d call back, and wandered back into the bar. She sat down, unable to speak, the possibilities implied by the phone call echoing around her mind. The policeman phoned back, and told her they weren’t going away – they could send a car to pick her up. She hung up. She phoned Tom, who had been arrested many times as a young man. He told her she should tell them to fuck off. She replied she couldn’t do that. “Okay, just keep your head down and say, ‘No comment’,” he suggested. She phoned both of her houses. The police answered both lines.
Laura’s phone rang again; it was her daughter, Elizabeth. She told her the police were at their house, and begged her to come home: the situation was terrifying for a woman with her mental difficulties. Laura began to cry. She phoned one of her girls on her mobile to find out what was going on. It seemed the police had swooped at about seven p.m. and were still filming in the rooms now, at 10.30. By now the shock had subsided. Laura simply felt exhausted. She caught a taxi with one of her friends to her house. As she got out, several male and female officers grabbed her and cuffed her hands behind her back. She screamed at them to let her see Elizabeth, but she was pushed into a car and taken to the station, where she was read her rights, searched, photographed and charged with running a brothel.
For some reason Laura couldn’t understand – perhaps a manifestation of the instinctive optimism that had brought her to this point – she turned to one of the policemen and told him that this could be the best thing that had ever happened to her. “I can’t quite see that Laura,” he replied. To her surprise, she realised the officer was one of many plain-clothed policemen who had visited when the business was running. The jailer took her to a cell and locked the door. Laura stared at the room’s white, tiled walls and suddenly felt a surge of rage. She hammered at the door, screaming “Why me?” again and again. Eventually, she settled onto the blue plastic mattress of the cell’s bed. She felt betrayed, and that she had been made to look a fool by the police, by their claims they weren’t interested in her and their advice to get more CCTV. Finally, she thought about her daughter.
The Lincoln Echo splashed with “BROTHEL BUST” the next day, accompanied by a huge picture of two policemen with items they had taken from Laura’s brothels. The story began: “It’s an industry generating millions of pounds a year in Lincoln. It employs hundreds of people and thousands of men use its services. But it also helps to fuel the drug trade, as well as people smuggling and organised crime.” It continued: “Operation Sail is the biggest investigation into the seedy underworld and follows an increase in brothels being run in the area and a rise in the number men using them. Intelligence gathered has revealed that there are at least 60 premises in Lincoln selling sex. Since January 27, a team of 28 officers have been carrying out surveillance and last week they carried out simultaneous raids at three premises in the town – including two brothels.”
In June 2006, Laura appeared in court. Her defence counsel explained that Laura was the sole carer for her daughter and asked what the point would be of sending a 60-year-old woman to prison. The judge threw out these objections. Laura was sentenced to eight months in prison, and spent her sixtieth birthday behind bars. Her assets were frozen, and she was ordered to pay back £80,000 in profits she had made. She is currently surviving off benefits and caring for her daughter. While in jail, she was evicted from her home, hence her living in the empty brothel now. Like a modern Miss Haversham, her memories are all around her.
She claims a friend in the police force told her the local constabulary were short of funds. The police can freeze assets of brothel owners and sell the assets for money which goes to them, the Home Office, the CPS and Courts Service. In 2004/5 £2.5 million was seized. As the academic Belinda Brooks Gordon points out: “[this] has given the police a powerful vested interest in maintaining the criminality of many sex work related activities.” “If it was their intention to clamp down on brothels,” Laura asks, “Then why is the city still full of them? What happened to the other 58? Or was I just the softest target? How was I supposed to tell nearly forty people they were out of work, just like that? I became depressed – people who I thought were my friends just disappeared out of the picture. I thought – what am I worth as a person?” Her spirit has been battered, but she is nothing if not resilient. She is already exploring other business opportunities, including a scheme to sell organic chocolate, and she is writing a book about her story.
One issue over which Laura remains bitter is the fact that while one arm of the state destroyed her, another, the taxman, was quite happy to see her business as legitimate while she was operating, claiming thousands of pounds from her. The fact that brothels are illegal but ultimately taxable is not, in fact, an unusual state of affairs. For instance, if the owner of an off-license sells alcohol to underage drinkers, he can still be taxed on the money he receives. The police and the tax man do not work hand in hand, but for St Claire, as for sex workers today, the fact they appear to be working to cross purposes only highlights the inconsistency in the way that laws on brothels is applied. A study in 2000 by criminologists Catherine Benson and Roger Matthews showed that most police vice squads did not consider brothels a priority (90 per cent of them spent less than 10 per cent of their time on them) and that the amount of time spent regulating them varied considerably. Half the squads only intervened in response to public complaints: as one senior officer saw it, their job was to ‘clean up the streets…not to police sex’. While the majority of forces wanted more measures to extend powers of arrest, a quarter of them favoured some form of legalisation.
What this means is that police forces’ actions are not based on any kind of national policy, but on ad-hoc, social arrangements. It’s not surprising the likes of Laura feel the law is arbitrary. The reasons behind why a brothel might be shut down vary wildly; at one end of the scale it might use trafficked women, at the other it might simply be for the reasons Laura alleges were behind her prosecution. The most common governmental line is that the law exists to protect the former, but as Belinda Brooks Gordon makes clear: ‘The reasoning behind the law on brothels was originally to prevent others from living off (in outmoded language) “immoral earnings”. Now that there are laws against coercion and control, there is little justification.’
There is no doubt that the Government is aware of these arguments, but its response to them over the last few years has been contradictory. In 2006 it published its white paper, ‘A Coordinated Prostitution Strategy and a Summary of Responses to Paying the Price’. One proposal was for the word ‘brothel’ to be redefined to enable two or three individuals and a maid to share premises for safety. It was the one of the few proposals in the document that was not a punitive measure (others included enforcement against kerb crawling, the rejection of safety zones for prostitutes and enforced medical treatment of street sex workers), but it was the one which created the bulk of headlines, and they were far from positive.
‘Mini-brothel plan to take sex off the streets and into suburbs’ reported The Times, while The Telegraph ran with ‘Mini-brothels get go-ahead to operate on your doorstep’. The Daily Mail leader said: ‘It has been a splendid week, first of all, for pimps and people traffickers. The Government’s plan to legalise small brothels gives the Albanian gangsters who dominate the sex trade an unprecedented opportunity to expand their operations , at no risk to themselves.’ Fiona MacTaggart, the junior Home Office minister, defended the plan: ‘We think that women who work in pairs are safer than those who work alone,’ she told the Guardian.
However, this resistance did not last long. The idea was quietly dropped. Instead, a new set of proposals were made in November 2008, which included a move to create a civil order that would let the police close brothels that were ‘linked to exploitation’. It received a great deal of criticism. Campaigners asked what ‘linked to exploitation’ actually meant, and as the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) pointed out – a ‘brothel’ can be anything from two women working as equals to a huge sauna. Since these definitions were so vague, the IUSW feared it could open the door for a wholesale clamping down on brothels, rather than targeted actions against establishments involved in trafficking and the use of children. The argument was that this could, in theory, force the whole indoor industry further underground, making it even more difficult for sex work projects to identify, gain trust and deliver outreach and support services to workers – whether they were forced or controlled, or working voluntarily and with choice over their working conditions. Campaigners said that if powers were to be used against responsibly managed premises that did not tolerate exploitative practices then workers would only move to less salubrious workplaces. They argued it was better to encourage a responsible attitude to brothel management so that workers would better protected and that projects could work with those in the industry to gather intelligence that would be of help to the police in targeting practices which are already against the law.
The UK Network of Sex Workers’ Projects (UKNSWP), an umbrella organisation which brings together projects that offer frontline support services to people involved in sex work, raised a number of issues from its among its ranks which gave credence to the concerns. It claimed projects were reporting women leaving established brothels and instead going to work in hidden flats as a result of the withdrawal of massage parlour licences to the saunas. It added: ‘Some member projects are already reporting that they are seeing a new way of organizing female sex work evolving where women are not based in any particular premises but are moving frequently from one hotel to another or via mini cabs as agents to avoid discovery.”
These were strong and passionate arguments. Ultimately, there seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason to the proposal. Brothels had been illegal since 1885 and there were already a huge number of laws to cover them. This final statement by the IUSW is vital: what makes prostitution different to any other industry? Are there as many well-run brothels as claimed? The question is central to all debates on the matter: therein lies the rub.