“Colin was a rent boy for more than five years – trawling the sleazy areas of Birmingham and London in search of punters.
“It was disgusting,” he recalls with a shudder of revulsion. “At times I felt suicidal. I felt so humiliated and degraded. There are some nasty people around; they treat you like dirt.”
When his “work” became unbearable, as it often did, Colin would demand payment up-front and then flee into the night.
“You know the types you can hit psychologically – the ones who are going to part with their money. It seems a cruel thing to do, but they know what they’re letting themselves in for, so it’s their own fault.”
Colin often feared for his safety and although he practised safe sex, the spectre of Aids loomed large.
“Not a day went by when I wasn’t scared,” he says. “Lots of people get attacked. And I did think about Aids. I always thought that if I caught it I’d do myself in.”
Now aged 26, Colin has started to get his life back on track. Things aren’t perfect by any means – he’s thousands of pounds in debt and finds it impossible to hold down a job – but he’s more settled than he’s ever been.
“I live in a shared house in Erdington with my fiancee, Susan, who I’ve been with for four-and-a-half years,” he says. “We’re hoping to get married in the summer.
“I’ve spoken to her about my past and she’s been OK about it. It was a phase I went through and I just want to forget about it. I’ll never go back on the game.”
Colin’s problems began when he was six. “I was uncontrollable as a kid,” he recalls. “I was being battered by my dad, so I started running away from home.
“Basically I was the black sheep of the family. I kept on running away until they slapped a care order on me when I was nine.”
By the time he was 13, he had resumed his old ways. “Towards the end of my time in care I hated it and I started running away again – locally at first, but then I’d jump on trains and go to London.
“They kept on bringing me back and threatening to put me into a secure unit. Eventually I couldn’t stand it and I told my social worker to find me somewhere else.”
But even after Colin moved into a hostel, his life continued to spiral out of control.
“Whatever money I got I just blew it. I was gambling on fruit machines and I sometimes sniffed gas with other people in the hostel. I was just going downhill.”
Ironically, his descent into prostitution began after he found himself a job.
“I was working in a bakery in the city centre, but the hours were really long: I’d start at 2am and wouldn’t finish until 4pm. It was a YTS job, so I was only earning pounds 30 a week.”
Rather than going home when he finished work, Colin would spend evenings in the pub “shooting pool”. He’d then move on to a late-night cafe which, unknown to him, was a gay haunt.
“I didn’t realise it was a pick-up joint,” he says. “I was young and stupid at the time. I was gullible and naive. I was looking for friendship: I was a lost sheep following the shepherds.”
Colin began mixing with rent boys and, before long, he was selling his body.
“At first I got a buzz out of it because of the money, but then I started hating it. I realised the life wasn’t for me.”
During his darkest days, Colin would make his way to Birmingham’s Youth Link project in Digbeth, which is run by the Children’s Society. Over a cup of tea, he would confide his problems to members of staff.
“Youth Link was somewhere nice to go – away from the c*** outside. I think if it hadn’t been for the centre I would have cracked up. The staff are people you can turn to and trust.”
In a bid to break out of prostitution, Colin moved to London – but found himself “drawn like a magnet” to the capital’s gay scene.
“I would even go to gay bars,” he recalls. “At one point I wondered if I might be gay myself – or at least bisexual – but deep down I knew I wasn’t.
The rent boy scene is a lot tougher in London, but you can make more money down there. I sometimes earned 60 pound a night.”
Sometimes Colin stayed in a hostel; as often as not he would doss down on the pavements with other homeless people.
“It’s tough living on the streets; you really have to fend for yourself.”
But it was while he was in London that Colin began the slow climb out of the abyss. He started selling the Big Issue magazine outside Piccadilly tube station – just yards from where he sold his body at night.
“I’ve never made so much money,” he says. “I must have made pounds 60 to pounds 70 a day selling the Big Issue. But I was stupid with it – I’d go drinking and clubbing. Sometimes I’d beg outside Stringfellows.
Elton John gave me a fiver once.
I’d stand and watch all the babes go into the club and see the Lamborghinis drawing up outside.”
Colin finally left London and moved around the country before settling back in Birmingham six months ago. He met his fiancee in a hostel in Cardiff.
“Like me, she’s had problems, but we’ve been together since the day we met more than four years ago. We’ve been through thick and thin together. I’ve done the dirty on her a few times, but you learn from your mistakes.”
Colin looks back on the past few years with shame and regret. He wants to work, he insists, and is determined to carve out a respectable future for himself and his wife-to-be.
“I think being put into care was the cause of what happened to me; I wasn’t taught right from wrong. As soon as I’d worked out right from wrong in my own heart I did something about it.
People look down on people like me, but they don’t realise how hard it is.”