Last year, a schizophrenic man attacked three sex workers in Manchester. In the space of an hour, Thomas Hall raped three women and sexually assaulted another, before bragging to a friend that he'd had "the best night of his life".
Hall's case was splashed across the tabloids – but for many sex workers, violence isn't headline-worthy, it's a grim everyday occurrence. The prospect of being beaten, raped or kidnapped is something they face every time they go to work. At least 75 percent of sex workers have been assaulted; more than half have been raped.
Right now people working in prostitution have two, often inadequate, options. Go to the police, where they run the risk of being ignored, blamed or even threatened with arrest (selling and buying sex is legal in Britain – brothels, pimps and solicitation aren't). Alternatively, they can report the crime using Ugly Mugs. Run by the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, this is a national scheme where sex workers can make anonymous online reports about an incident or the "ugly mug" perpetrating an alleged crime. It's a really valuable resource, but for those trying to stay safe on the streets, the information often gets out too late.
This is about to change, thanks to a new mobile app. The free app means sex workers can raise the alarm about violent punters by broadcasting a short message describing the client and the incident privately to other sex workers nearby: anything from refusing to wear condoms, to rape or assault. They can also opt to pass the info to the police. Nicknamed Safety Nets, the app uses similar geolocation technology as Tinder and Grindr but is completely anonymous.
It's the brainchild of Manchester social enterprise Reason Digital, which has collaborated with Ugly Mugs, and is funded by the Nominet Trust. "This perfectly encapsulates what we're about," says Reason Digital co-founder Matt Haworth. "We're interested in how you can use technology to make people happier, healthier, safer – especially those who often get left behind. Tech is about so much more than just buying more crap off Amazon."
The starting point was Reason Digital's work with Manchester Action on Street Health, which supports female sex workers. MASH has a "dodgy punters" noticeboard, which is essentially a localised, paper version of Ugly Mugs. "There are some quite shocking stories," says Haworth. "It made us think that a technological version would be quicker and more effective."
Reason Digital developed the app with input from male and female sex workers, going to meet people working on Manchester's streets and saunas. They also went to drop-in sessions at MASH and The Men's Room. Some suggested making the app background black, so it doesn't light up your face, and including positive alerts about support services.
Ugly Mugs estimates that 10,000 sex workers have used their scheme since its online launch in 2012, with 1,250 incidents reported. So there's clearly a need to both report crimes anonymously and to access warnings that indicate where and who to avoid – surely tech to make that process instant is a good thing?
"I think it could really catapult what we do to another level," says Ugly Mugs director Alex Feis-Bryce. "We found that 16 percent of sex workers using our scheme had avoided an individual as a direct result of our alerts. That demonstrates that instant alerts and making them more widespread could save more lives."
But what do sex workers think? With violence so insidiously commonplace, could an app really be the answer?
One woman I spoke to, who wanted to remain anonymous, wasn't sure whether the app would make her profession safer. "There will always be dodgy punters," she told me. "But it would make me feel safer, to know who's out there and what you're dealing with. I work on the streets but I usually stick to guys I know so I don't feel threatened. But there are girls who get into [random] cars, they're not as clued up. If I had the app I could share information with them."
Jo Dunning, Reason Digital's project manager for Safety Nets, encountered some reluctance from girls who work in saunas. "They were really resistant; some of the saunas have security guards so they felt that they were protected enough. On the whole though, everyone was positive about using the app, especially female street workers."
Male sex workers also thought it was a good idea. "Some mentioned it would be useful as a backchannel way to report things to the police," says Haworth.
The team still had some pretty big hurdles to overcome, however. "The side effect of using technology like Tinder would be inadvertently ending up with a database of where every sex worker in Britain is," says Haworth. "That's not a piece of data we want to be responsible for. No matter how much you try and secure something, if the data exists, there's always a risk it can be compromised." So they came up with a new mechanism to ensure the locations don't feed back into a database.
Dunning adds that anonymity is crucial (this is why we can't report the app's official name). "A lot of sex workers aren't actually out as sex workers. Having an app that's [obviously] to do with sex work could potentially harm them so a lot of thought has been put into making it anonymous."
Feis-Bryce's main concern is that the app alerts are descriptive enough to accurately warn sex workers of dangerous punters, but not so descriptive that there would be legal ramifications, like defamation or affecting the outcome of a court case.
"There is difficulty there, definitely," says Haworth. "It's a trade-off. We're moving from a situation where agencies like MASH and Ugly Mugs listen to someone describe what happened, type it up, ensure legal issues are dealt with, then send it out. We can short circuit that process and allow them to send something out instantly. That presents certain risks, but saving those days or weeks could literally be life-saving. It's worth that risk."
Recently technology has been credited with transforming the sex industry, making it easier for seller and buyer to connect. But Safety Nets is the only app of its kind, created to protect. It remains to be seen what impact it will have on sex workers' safety – it's currently being piloted in Manchester before a nationwide roll-out – but it's surely a good thing that some of society's most at-risk people now have a way to look out for one another.
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