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.