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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.