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The Disturbing Trend of Vigilante Attacks on Sex Workers

Though seriously under-reported, violence and violent rhetoric against sex workers must be addressed.

"Dirty whores." "You should be put on fire." So shouted the 100-strong mob as it surrounded the house of a group of women, thought to be sex workers, in Belfast on Friday 29th July. Vigilante attacks of this type aren't new but this one was filmed and, if you have the stomach, you can watch it again in all its horror.

What can be gleaned from this particular shit show? That this was a community desperately opposed to having prostitution in its midst; that the mob was made up of men, women and children; that some were laughing, some spitting in anger; that the police showed up and took the women away (not to be arrested, according to the PSNI, but for their own safety). What else: that people's reaction to sex workers is violent enough for them to suggest that women should be burned.

Since the video went online, sex workers have come out of the woodwork sharing similar stories says Lucy Smith, who run National Ugly Mugs Ireland (NUM). The service collects reports of bad or dangerous clients from sex workers across and shares warnings via email and text.

"Another woman came forward last week and talked about how she'd been beaten up in the street by a gang," Smith says. "She was accosted by a crowd of 50. She just ran out of area and never went back."

Carmen is an independent sex worker from south-eastern Europe who last year worked briefly in Belfast last year. She was there for a week without incident but on the Sunday evening found her flat surrounded by a mob of 30 or 40 people.

"They were drunk with their children in their hands," Carmen told me. "They broke the glass of our window with eggs. They were shouting things like '£10 prostitute' and telling us to go home. It was really frightening. I stayed in the flat, hiding in the bathroom – under the sink to be honest with you."

Carmen called the police. "They stayed the whole night in front of our house so we can go in the morning. The next day we packed and went."

Attacks of this kind happen across the UK and Ireland, with variations in tone. Many go unreported so it's hard to build up a clear picture of the violence. Some snapshots: in Limerick, a church group surrounded a brothel and threw holy water; funny on the face of it, until you think of the implications of being outed. In east London, sex workers frequently report having objects and insults hurled at them from cars. In Edinburgh, sex workers have been surrounded and followed. In Birmingham, since the beginning of this month, sex workers have twice reported having bottles and urine thrown at them from a car. In some cases, sex workers have had bones broken before the police arrive.

Outreach services I spoke to, including the English Collective of Prostitutes and Open Doors in Hackney, confirmed that these attacks are frequent. Basis in Yorkshire agreed and told me that some guys in Leeds were recently driving around throwing flour on outdoor workers.

The Crown Prosecution Service defines hate crime as "any incident which the victim, or anyone else, thinks is based on someone's prejudice towards them because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or because they are transgender." Nowhere in the UK does sex work fall into this legal definition. That is, apart from Merseyside where in 2006, violence against sex workers was declared a hate crime, leading to a dramatic increase in conviction rate for crimes against sex workers.

Coupled with the fact that most sex workers are women, and many are migrants, people of colour, queer or trans, their chances of being subject to attack based on identity are high. Abusers know that sex workers, particularly the undocumented, are unlikely to go to the police.

The closest we have to a record of these crimes is a sub-section of the National Ugly Mugs (NUM) database. Year to year, the number of incidents that sex workers chose to self-report as hate crimes are as follows: 101 in 2013; 133 in 2014; 90 in 2015; 43 so far in 2016. This makes up a relatively small proportion of the 2000 plus incidents reported to NUM in the same time, though with definitions of "hate crime" so unclear, there may be some under-reporting going on.

While these statistics have to be treated cautiously, the picture does appear to be worse in Northern Ireland. The proportion of crimes reported as hate crimes is high, with 32 of the 75 incidents reported in the last 12 months mentioning the use of hate language. It's also worth noting that Belfast has a history of vigilante action. In the recent past, both loyalist and republican groups have drawn up lists of alleged drug dealers and shared them publicly, calling for "community justice".

A pro-choice poster is defaced with the words "Satanic whores" in Belfast, 2016

In 2014 there was a similar protest against a brothel in Donegall Pass in Belfast. A Facebook thread about the protest turned pretty dark. "A night of the long knives is what's needed" was the first comment. "Disgusting," said another. "Going to be a serious case of ethnic cleansing if they don't do something," said another, referring to the fact that the sex workers were migrants.

I spoke to Terry Watson, who began the thread. He told me that this sort of "community action" – apparently led by women, Watson calls it "woman power" – began when a suspected rapist moved into the area, some years before. According to Watson, local women took matters into their own hands to drive him from their community.

Action against the sex workers, Watson says, came after watching the apartment and noting the "comings and goings". Watson cites fears of exploitation and – another deep social fear of our age – paedophilia.

"If people want to sell their bodies legally I don't have an issue with it," he said. "The only issues we have is where they do it. In this particular case, they were doing it 25 yards from a children's playground. The brothel was illegal, the women were being exploited.

"It wasn't a legal trade and even if it had been we wouldn't have wanted it. If it's a business, run it as a business, have it in a business area. Don't be running it in the middle of a community where the clients coming to it have access to young children and members of the community and put people in fear." I asked if he would distance himself from some of the threats made on the thread and he said, "I would, yes."

A negative view of sex workers isn't shared by every community. A recent study of brothels in Blackpool, carried out by researchers at the University of Lancashire, suggested that sex work isn't the neighbourhood blight often claimed. Writing about the reactions to local sex workers by residents in both an inner city area and a leafy suburb, Kate Williams concludes: "Community responses to sex work can certainly be extremely varied, ranging from people who are oblivious or passive to those who take direct and sometimes violent action."

There is no legal system that will dispel hatred for sex workers with one swoop of legislation, but criminalisation – and its founding assumption that all sex work constitutes violence – reinforces the idea that sex work is intrinsically wrong.

"Rather than wasting police and social welfare resources trying to impose a state-sanctioned sexual ideology, I believe social policy should focus on the violence that sex workers themselves perceive as unacceptable, and on the people who commit that violence," says criminologist Rosie Campbell, University of Leicester.

"Reports of sex workers being harassed or having things thrown at them because of what they do is a regular occurrence," says NUM chief executive Alex Feis-Bryce. "But often the incidents are other offences too. For instance, a rape which the victim felt was motivated by hate of sex workers or particular language that was used. Undoubtedly, enforcement operations or media hostility fuel this kind of behaviour."

Politics can give legitimacy to violence (see the post-Brexit surge in hate crimes). Although the new law in NI criminalised sex buyers under the auspices of "protecting sex workers", not a single member of the Legislative Assembly has spoken out about the recent vigilante attack. I contacted the office of Lord Morrow, who led the bill, for a comment but received no response.

Academics have pointed to the link between the language of abolitionism and hate crimes against sex workers.

"Those who attack sex workers may also share common social attitudes that sex workers are worthless human beings, degraded women, who deserve punishment," writes Hilary Kinnel in R. Campbell and M. O'Neill's 2006, Sex Work Now. "It is difficult to see how such attitudes could be altered, as long as policies and public statements about sex work reinforce a rhetoric of abhorrence."

The failure to acknowledge all violence – and violent rhetoric – against sex workers as hate crime, needs to be addressed. Until then, sex workers remain a socially sanctioned target.

@frankiemullin

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