Earlier this year the East London-based charity Toynbee Hall made an uncharacteristic approach to the media. It felt moved to tell newspapers that it had witnessed an increase in the number of arrests and new bail conditions imposed on women arrested for street prostitution.
It’s hardly a charity that sticks its head above the parapet at the best of times, but then this wasn’t a slight rise - arrests in the first two and a half months (48) exceeded arrest levels for the whole of 2011 (44).
It suggested a whole new strategy in terms of policing the problem. The unspoken assumption – one the media deduced – was that this was a bid to get the streetwalkers out of the Olympic boroughs in time for July. One feels they might not quite square with Danny Boyle’s vision of England, Green and Pleasant LandTM.
The charity could monitor the number of arrests because of the referrals it received to its Safe Exit programme. Laura is one of the women who has been sent to it. Her full story is told in this video:
At a young age, Laura was encouraged to take drugs by a crack addict. She helped him scam other men, offering sex, taking the money and running away, with him stepping in to ward them off. But after a while he stopped showing up. He spent all the money on drugs, which they’d share, and he began to beat her up. She remembers standing outside King’s Cross station with a black eye, and a policeman looking at her. She wished he’d do anything – even arrest her – just to get her away from her pimp. He walked away.
The punters approached her in their cars, some of them playing with themselves. They were often, in her words, “Fat, and smelly and gross”. Some were simply lonely and wanted to talk; others were crazy – one man kept her in his flat and threatened her with a knife. Aged 19, she ended up in prison. Once she was out she slipped into the same routine. By this time she was taking heroin (she feels that 99% of girls who walk the streets are doing it to feed their drug habits).
She served another year in prison, and knew her life was going down the pan. The police offered her a choice between court and Toynbee Hall’s Safe Exit programme. She was given a flat and began to feel better about herself. She’s taking Methadone, and has a doctor nearby who supports her. Things have improved in the last five years. She still falls back on the drugs from time to time, and to fund it she goes back into prostitution. Her son doesn’t know about all this – she tells him and her mother she’s got a bar job. If she could have anything it would simply be a quiet life.
The question of how to deal with a case like this is complex: if you have an opinion, it’s not likely to be supported by statistical data, because useful studies are thin on the ground. But one thing that most people in the know are unanimous about is the fact that you can’t police this problem away, and if you want to help women like Laura it’s unlikely to happen when they’re in the criminal justice system.
Back in the New Labour glory years, much of the chat was in support of punitive measures and the likes of Denis MacShane and various radical feminists regularly bellyached about trafficking without a shred of decent empirical data. It was all a bit shouty and down with this sort of thing. Let’s arrest the prostitutes! No, let’s arrest the johns! No, let’s shut down the brothels! No, let’s put them all on compulsory drugs treatment programmes! No, let’s send Brooke Magnanti a turd in the post!
But even back then, the Poppy Project (one of the noisiest collectives) spoke out against the use of ASBOs on streetwalkers, on the grounds that the last thing you want these women doing is disappearing even further under the radar. Laura’s point about drugs is germane – most of the women who walk the streets are there because brothels and massage parlours refuse to take them.
But this doesn’t mean the police don’t have a role to play. Street prostitution doesn’t just impact on the women involved in the trade. Near Toynbee Hall is the Flower and Dean estate: a small, red brick maze of dark alleys and cul-de-sacs. The main road nearby, Commercial Street, is a busy thoroughfare that runs between the City of London and pubs and clubs of Brick Lane: it’s an informal red light district for streetwalkers.
The residents of Flower and Dean, many of them devout Muslims, have suffered a significant impact on their quality of life due to prostitutes using it as a location to have sex with their clients. It’s not nice to have your kids playing around used condoms and needles, and there’s been threatening behaviour from the sex workers towards female residents.
There’s a horrific irony to the fact that desperate women are plying the most dangerous of trades here. In 1888, two streetwalkers who lived on the road from which the estate takes its name were murdered. Their killer was never caught, but his name – Jack the Ripper – was never forgotten.
The charity has helped a group of mothers on the estate take charge of the situation. It put on workshops which taught them about the wider social issues that cause the problem, and how they could deal with it. Marcus Duran, the programme coordinator, says: “The women were in the dark about the law, and about what the police could do to help, despite the fact that believe it or not, the local station backs onto the estate. We helped them work with the police, lobbying for bail restrictions that would stop the estate being used, and demanding different patrols – it shocked me to discover the activity often started around 9pm.”
All of this made the lives of those on the estate better, but at the same time there was an acceptance that this simply shifted the problem on. And so alongside the Safe Exit programme, the women have pledged to involve themselves in a long-term, cross borough strategy, offering their expertise based on dealing with the problem on their doorstep.
There were plenty of well-meaning initiatives around the area in the Ripper’s time. It’s hard to believe many of the same battles are being fought over 100 years later.