Why prostitutes are living in a "climate of fear"

Police crackdowns on brothel-keeping mean that sex workers are unwilling to report intimidation and

The trial of Sheila Farmer, an escort with a malignant brain tumor and diabetes charged with brothel-keeping, collapsed on 4 January after the prosecution failed to bring a witness to testify against her.

Farmer, who worked with friends for safety after she was violently raped working alone, is one of hundreds of sex workers who have been arrested since April 2010, when the revised Policing and Crime Act 2009 legislation increased police powers to raid suspected brothels and tightened the law on soliciting clients for the purposes of prostitution.

Statistics surrounding sex work prosecutions are slippery but it seems that since April 2010, the CPS has brought 967 prosecutions for soliciting and 261 prosecutions for brothel-keeping. While the Home Office statistics cannot provide a breakdown of the number of sex workers charged with the brothel-keeping offence, the anecdotal evidence from campaign groups, workers themselves, and a trawl-through local newspaper reports since April 2010 suggests that sex worker arrests in general, and prosecutions specifically for brothel-keeping, have significantly risen.

In July 2011, the Guardian reported that the number of prosecutions for sex trafficking stood at around 100 a year, resulting in a paltry 40 convictions since the PCA 2009 came into force. A law designed to prosecute those guilty of sexual exploitation and to decriminalise those who sell sex is achieving the opposite.

Being arrested for soliciting is obviously detrimental to sex workers. Once charged, not complying with rehabilitation requirements (attending meetings in which workers agree to stop soliciting) can mean prison. But the brothel-keeping offence is just as, if not more, nefarious, because it forces sex workers to operate alone or face arrest. It therefore increases their vulnerability if they do choose to work indoors, and makes street work a seemingly viable alternative, which directly contradicts the CPS's public interest statement on sex work which is "to keep prostitutes off the street".

As in Sheila Farmer's case, the individual whose name is on the tenancy agreement becomes liable for the exploitation of anyone else who sells services on those premises. Put simply, there is no such thing as legal co-working.

What's more, arresting for brothel-keeping has never been easier nor more lucrative. In recent years, police have had a vested interest in raiding brothels because of the potential assets they can seize under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Since Clause 21 of the PCA 2009 was introduced, police only need suspect, rather than prove, that a brothel employs trafficked or 'coerced' workers in order to issue a brothel closure order, before seizing whatever money or goods they find, keeping 50 per cent for the force itself. Data for the number of closure orders is not centrally collected and remains conveniently unavailable.

This is the reason that many are asking whether the police's pursuit of profit is compromising sex worker safety. In London in particular, a crackdown on prostitution prior to the Olympics is creating what the International Union of Sex Workers' Catherine Stephens describes as "a climate of fear".

She told me of how women running a brothel in a private rented property were accosted by 10-man gang: "They broke into the premises one night when two of [the women] were working. One of the girls thought some of them were armed. When they went to report the incident at the police station, the desk sergeant said, 'You do realise you're at risk of eviction if you carry on telling me what you are telling me?' He was more interested in nicking a couple of discreet sex workers for brothel-keeping than arresting a violent, armed gang."

For every story like this, there are a dozen more. Up and down the country, incidences of violence and intimidation against sex workers now go unreported to the police. Better to risk a punch in the face than a prison sentence.

The CPS guidelines on brothel-keeping stress that it is the amount of money made which should influence whether a prosecution is pursued. Neither co-working for safety, nor any notion of choice, non-coercion or freedom of employment matters when it comes to criminalising those who sell sex.

Isn't it time for the policing and criminal justice system to recognise, rather than penalise, the potential vulnerability of those in the industry, whatever the circumstances of their organisation? Let's hope that Shelia Farmer's acquittal marks the start of that duty of care.

Nichi Hodgson is a 28-year-old freelance journalist specialising in sexual politics, law and culture.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.