British Politicians Need to Do More to Protect Prostitutes

Sex workers in the UK are angry that their views on decriminalization are being ignored, especially since plans to criminalize clients have already proved dangerous in other countries.

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Nov 7 2014, 3:40pm

Photo via Flickr user Chris Beckett

This post originally appeared in VICE UK

​ "Last year, my friend was attacked by a client and was nervous to keep working alone, so I let her work from my place along with me, for safety," says Toni of the Sex Worker Open University. "Unfortunately, we encountered another aggressive client who really frightened us. I threatened to ring the police, but the guy said it would be us who'd be in trouble. He knew the law, and that took our power away; because there were two of us, we were technically running a brothel."

Toni's story isn't unusual. Recent reports estimate that a sex worker is attacked or raped every day in the UK. Exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, however, given that—like Toni—many don't report crimes to the police.

No doubt you already have your own take on prostitution. Maybe you think it's patriarchal oppression at its cock-swinging, woman-objectifying worst. Perhaps you think it's an enviable, glamorous job that might help you blast through your student loan repayments if only you had the guts to do it yourself. Or maybe you think it's just something that people do to get by, whether of their own volition or because someone else is pulling the strings. Regardless, it's probably safe to say—whatever your opinion—that you don't like the idea of women routinely facing violence.

To give everyone the benefit of the doubt, let's assume this was the motivation behind plans taken to Parliament on Tuesday that would have made the buying of sex a criminal offense. Put forward by Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart, the amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill centered on her previously stated belief that "80 percent of women in prostitution are controlled by their drug dealer, their pimp, or their trafficker" (statistics that have been  ​thoroughly debunked).

Mactaggart's proposal prompted an outcry and a wave of activism. Sex workers, academics, women's charities, representatives from the NUS, the Women's Institute and several LGBTQ groups battled against the amendment, united on a key issue: safety.

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In one corner, cozy-faced but zealous, was Mactaggart. Armed with questionable shock-statistics, Mactaggart believes that by ending demand, prostitution will be wiped out. In the other corner, sex workers themselves, angry that their views (yet again) are being ignored, armed with the fact that criminalizing clients--as Sweden and, recently, Northern Ireland has done—is dangerous, driving prostitution underground and making women  ​even less likely to report attacks.

The day was a triumph for sex workers. Faced with a clear lack of support, Mactaggart dropped her proposal and, for now, buying sex in the UK remains legal. Even without the arrival of the "Swedish Model: of legislation, however, things in the UK are far from rosy for those in the sex industry. Selling sex isn't illegal, but running a brothel, soliciting, and pimping are. This means that women can be prosecuted for working together in a flat and street workers can be slapped with fines or  ​AS​BOs.

"In terms of actually being on the job, it's rape, battery, and theft that we fear the most," says Toni. "On another level, it's evictions, criminal sanctions, loss of custody of children, being fired from other jobs or outed to our family."

Photo by Giorgio Viscardini

Ultimately, the goal for sex workers is full decriminalization, meaning any premises would be legal to work from, and teaming up with coworkers for safety would no longer be a prosecutable offense. Tantalizingly, decriminalization  ​was brought up in Parliament on Tuesday by MP John McDonnell, who supported the challenge to Mactaggart. In reality, though, there's still a long way to go.

So where does that leave us? Back in Toni's flat with a violent client, not feeling able to call the police? Or maybe with Sheila Farmer, a woman who was raped, tied up, and strangled by an attacker while working alone, but prosecuted for brothel keeping after she set up a safer working flat with friends. Or with Hanna Morris, also charged with managing a brothel after she reported an arson attack in her home.

"As sex workers, our experience of the police is horrific," says Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes. "There's been very little indication that police are interested in our protection. Often, when sex workers come forward to report rape and violence, instead of their attackers being investigated, they face prosecution for loitering, soliciting, or brothel keeping."

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This feeling is echoed throughout the industry. One sex worker I spoke to told me that, although she's here legally on a work visa from India, police turned up at her home and were so determined that she'd been trafficked that they referred her case to the Home Office, ignoring her protestations.

In Scotland, where a proposal to criminalize clients was put forward but defeated last year, sex worker and activist Laura Lee describes policing as "appalling."

"There's huge distrust towards the police in Scotland," she says. "And they only have themselves to blame."

Police claim to be sorting out their act. "The horrendous murders of five young women in Ipswich in 2006 was a real eye opener to law enforcement, and other services, of the need to improve our response to vulnerable sex workers," a spokesperson for the Association of Chief Police Officers said. "Since then we've seen great progress in the way in which prostitution is dealt with across the country."

Adams isn't impressed. "The only thing that's improved with the police is their PR," she says.

Illustration by ​Cei Willis

Attempts to build bridges with the police are underway. Earlier this year, a man was sentenced to ten years in prison for the rape of a London sex worker, thanks to National Ugly Mugs (NUM). The system allows sex workers to anonymously report cases of abuse so that a national alert can be issued via SMS and email. NUM works in conjunction with the police, who've been able to make arrests as a result. Police feed information back in, alerting NUM when an offender is released from jail and matching sex workers' reports with dangerous individuals they have on file. Since the project began in July of 2012, more than 1,100 incidents have been reported.

Adams is wary, however, suggesting police may have an agenda behind their cooperation with NUM and similar projects. And her skepticism isn't groundless; last year, police conducted months of "welfare visits" to working flats in Soho, with dire consequences to those they questioned.

"On the face of it, they were asking sex workers whether they were experiencing any trouble and if they'd been trafficked," Adams says. "But actually, they were asking women for their names, finding out how much they were earning, how often they worked, who they worked with.

"When it came to the closure orders [which resulted in 18 premises being raided and shut down], every single scrap of information they'd collected in the course of those visits became the legal bundle that they used in court to evict women. If you know that, how can you not be suspicious?"

Pointing out that sex workers use NUM anonymously, Alex Bryce--the project's director of services--says that until the decrim-dream is realzsed, schemes like his are a good compromise. "Given the choice between working with the police to save the lives of sex workers and advocating for better policing, or having no links with the police for ideological reasons and not influencing them at all, I know which option I'd choose," he says.

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At present, we're stuck with a situation in which certain aspects of prostitution remain illegal and, as such, sex workers' lives and bodies are subject to policing and  ​enforced "rehabilita​tion." Crimes are going unreported because women don't trust the police, and abusers have the system on their side.

The immediate battle is ensuring things don't get worse. Mactaggart will try again, says Toni; the Swedish Model is still a threat. With anti-sex work rhetoric often presented as feminism, and feminism the political T-shirt of choice in Parliament, success may depend again on appealing to a common concern for safety.

"We support full decriminalization," says Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape, one of the groups that battled the amendment. "The end result of Mctaggart's proposal would have been disastrous for women, taking choice away from sex workers to earn a living and promoting them as helpless victims. It's insulting to treat all women who've gone into sex work in that way. It's time feminists showed some respect."

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