Maria* was working as a prostitute on the street in east London when a pimp threatened to abduct her. "He told me he would kidnap me," she says. "He said he would put me to work for him if I didn't give him money." Maria is from Romania, where she got her degree and learned English. She could not find work that paid her enough, so she moved to London. Now working on the street, she is the one that other sex workers turn to when they need help. Maria always knows what to do. This time, though, she didn't. She did not have the money to pay the pimp off. She was scared. Once he had left, she went to report it. But when she got to the police station, the officers did not react the way Maria expected. "They told me: 'You came here to tell us you're a prostitute? If you don't go we'll arrest you,'" she claims. She left without reporting what happened.
So she hid. She moved to unfamiliar places to work, hoping the pimp would not find her. It meant she earned less. Maria, who is in her 20s with long dark brown hair and olive skin, also works as a cleaner. It doesn't pay her enough to cover her rent and take care of her four-year-old son, so she relies on the money she gets from sex work.
Eventually, the pimp moved on, and Maria went back to the streets she knows. But after her alleged treatment by the police, the last thing she and her friends do is call an officer when they get into trouble. "When something goes wrong, we never call [them]," Maria insists, "we know they will arrest us."
Instead, she says forcefully: "We have to protect each other."
Between 2010 and 2014, the number of young women the police arrested in London for prostitution-related crime nearly trebled. This includes all offences to do with selling sex, from soliciting on the street to keeping a brothel—crimes that can be punished by up to seven years in prison. Data, obtained by Broadly from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) under freedom of information laws, shows that between 2010 and 2014 the arrests of women aged 18 to 25 rose by 191 percent, although that figure did drop to 113 arrests in 2015.
The increase contrasts with steep falls in the number of arrests of men and across all the other ages for crimes related to prostitution. The overall decrease appears to reflect a more compassionate strategy for dealing with sex workers the police adopted in 2011. It's supposed to prioritize their safety.
The reason for the rise in arrests of young women is unclear. It could be that there more young women on the streets and they are less able to avoid the police, or it could be for another reason. The underground nature of the industry coupled with the lack of thorough investigation into sex work means the information is simply not available.
Broadly's findings come soon after the Home Affairs committee recommended the UK immediately decriminalize sex workers. It said: "Despite there being no clear evidence that it reduces demand for prostitution, the current practice of treating soliciting as an offence is having an adverse impact."
A criminal record makes it harder for those to leave the industry, they reason. And the committee recognizes treating sex workers like criminals is "exposing them to abuse and violence." In other words, they say labeling sex workers as criminals only makes things worse.
For this reason, charities working with prostitutes are worried about the rise in arrests of young women. "Arresting young sex workers entrenches their vulnerability, while at the same time reducing the likelihood that they'll report to the police if they are attacked," says Alex Feis-Bryce of the National Ugly Mugs (NUM), an organization that helps sex workers stay safe. "It's a disgrace."
They say they are saving young women from exploitation, but in fact they are just arresting them.
Laura Watson, from the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), calls the rise in arrests of young women "horrifying." The ECP argues that more women in their teens and early 20s are entering sex work because government austerity cuts that target public services affect the young disproportionately. "Young people are getting poorer, so it's no wonder there has been a rise in prostitution," Watson explains. According to her, there are simply more 18 to 25 year old sex workers for the police to arrest in the first place.
But Watson also thinks the police are choosing to target those who are most vulnerable. "The police use public concern for young people's wellbeing to justify targeting and 'saving' young people from working as sex workers by arresting them," she argues. "They say they are saving young women from exploitation, but in fact they are just arresting them. No alternatives are given, just criminalization." If Watson is right, treating young prostitutes as victims does more harm than good.
The arrest figures in London describe another trend. As the law stands, it's a crime both to sell sex on the street and to kerb crawl looking for it. But the numbers of arrests the police make show there is a chasm between worker and client when it comes to who gets caught. On average, data obtained by Broadly from the Met shows prostitutes working on the street are 83 per cent more likely to be picked up by the police than the clients who buy them.
This is not to say that pursuing the client is one way to improve the situation. According to a survey by the NUM, 96.2 percent of sex workers oppose the criminalization of their clients and 78.4 percent of respondents said it would make them feel less safe. Studies in countries that pursue the buyer, such as in Sweden, support this idea. Academics have found that street workers are left with less time to suss out clients when the latter are made into criminals, which increases risk.
But under the current legal system in the UK, those who purchase sex are the ones with power over street sex workers. "[Clients] do whatever they want," says Maria. "If they want to do something wrong, they know we won't call the police, because they will arrest us and not do anything to them."
Commander Christine Jones, the Met's lead on prostitution crime, responded to Broadly's discoveries by saying: "The MPS recognizes that there is a need to understand the issue of prostitution across London in a more sophisticated way. Our starting point with sex workers should be that of a victim based approach... rather than criminalizing their activity."
She added: "A greater understanding of the picture of sex work is required."
The need for police and policy makers to better grasp what is really happening to sex workers is something all sides of the debate agree on. A forthcoming report, requested by the Home Affairs committee when it published the results of its inquiry, will aim to provide some answers.
Maria says the police she encounters do not understand why she and the others work on the street. "It's for my son's future, not for me," she says. "If I had another choice I wouldn't do this."
Sometimes, Maria says, the police call her and the other street workers names. Every time that happens, Maria replies: "You don't know the reason why I'm here." Then, she demands: "Why don't you ask me?"
* Maria's name has been changed to protect her identity