Statement: After Ipswich – campaign for press & broadcasting freedom

The tragic murders of five young women in Ipswich in December last year led to an unprecedented outpouring of public concern and showed that the government, police and media are way behind where the public is at.

The media was caught off guard. One Guardian journalist told us recently that she arrived in Ipswich with other reporters with the same expectations as on previous occasions when faced with the murder of sex workers. They predicted they would find prejudice and condemnation of how women had lived their lives. Instead they found compassion and the view that everyone in society deserves to be safe from attack, whatever their occupation or lifestyle.

Under the weight of public criticism for dehumanising the murder victims by calling them ‘prostitutes’, headlines such as “Vice girl Killer”[1] were, in some cases changed to “Women murdered in Suffolk”.[2]

This is a far cry from the 1981 trial of the Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, when we picketed the High Court to protest at comments (reported uncritically in the press) by the Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers. When prosecuting he said of the Ripper’s victims that: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.”

Ipswich residents were expected to be voracious in their opposition to street workers. But they turned out to have defended sex workers when they were being driven out by zero tolerance policies, and to be primarily concerned for their neighbours’ safety. One letter we received spoke for many:
“The police and local authorities have never taken the welfare of the young women seriously and I’m not convinced that they would be making the efforts they seem to be now if there were not so much press interest. . . . There have been other disappearances over the years as well as lots of assaults and these have just dropped off their agenda.”

On previous occasions we have complained about press coverage that suggested that family members were more upset to find out that their loved one had been working as a prostitute than that she had been killed. This time families left none of that to speculation: “We all love you, there’s nothing to hide, everyone loves you.”[3]

The murders have also led to demands for a change in the law. As a sex workers organisation we have personal experience of the impact criminalisation has on safety. Along with many women, including those in Ipswich who organised security measures for themselves and their friends, we know that when prostitute women are not safe, no woman is safe.

Many serial rapists and killers have a history of domestic or other violence, yet violence against women has rarely been a priority for the police. The conviction rate for reported rape is a scandalous 5.3%, but an even lower 1.6% in Suffolk. [4] Over 200 women are murdered each year, half of them by partners or ex-partners. Many of these murders are unsolved.

Violent attacks (whether by men known to the victim or by strangers) that go unreported or that when reported do not result in conviction, allow violent men to attack again and again, and even go on to murder. The Yorkshire Ripper scandal was followed by Fred and Rosemary West, Ian Huntley, Anthony Hardy and others, all of whom had been reported for violence many times before they were finally convicted.[5] Many women and girls would be alive today if their attackers had been prosecuted, convicted and appropriately sentenced the first time they struck! Those police officers, who do not agree with criminalisation and who do their best to catch violent men, have to do so despite a climate in which such attacks are not thought worthy of police time.

In 1995 we helped two women to bring the first private prosecution for rape in England and Wales after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) refused to prosecute. The victims, who had been raped at knifepoint by the same man in also identical circumstances, had been dismissed as “unreliable witnesses” because they were sex workers. Yet Christopher Davies was convicted and sentenced to 11 years on exactly the same evidence the CPS had deemed “insufficient” to prosecute. Davies previous conviction for attempting to kidnap a young woman off the street into his van which was fitted with ropes that could tie people down, had resulted in only a six month prison sentence.

The private prosecution set a precedent. It established that prostitute women are entitled to protection, and that justice can be won, that prejudices can be overcome if the evidence is properly gathered and presented.
Women who have suffered rape, domestic violence or racist attacks generally get a raw deal from the criminal justice system. The conviction rate for domestic violence is less than 5%[6] and 7%[7] for racist attacks. Prostitute women are even more vulnerable because of criminalization: treated as criminals, most do not report for fear of being arrested, having their children taken away, evicted or deported. This is widely acknowledged including recently in the British Medical Journal:
“The welfare of these women must always be our primary concern, and the first priority in harm reduction is the removal of prostitution from crimi-nal law.”[8]
The tragic Ipswich murders must not be used for more “tough on crime” policies which further criminalise people’s private lives. Whatever any of us thinks about men paying for sex, safety must be the priority. The proposal to criminalise clients based on legislation introduced in 1999 in Sweden arrogantly assumes that researchers know what’s best for those they research. It disregards prostitute women’s experience of such criminalisation.

Swedish sex workers report that women have been forced underground, the stigma women face has increased, there is less time to check out clients, regularly clients have been chased away and women displaced across the border into Norway.
“. . . sex workers feel hunted by the police, social workers, media and sometimes even anti-prostitution activists on the streets . . . sex workers are now more apprehensive about seeking help from the police when they have had problems with an abusive customer. They do not want to be forced to report the client.”

Even supporters of the Swedish model admit that promised resources for women to leave prostitution have gone mainly to the police and criminal-justice system.

While the Swedish law is promoted, New Zealand’s experience of decriminalisation is ignored. Yet the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective describes the benefits:
“Some women have come off the street and advertise using their mobile phones. There has been no increase in numbers of women working as prostitutes. Decriminalisation has made a big difference to whether women feel able to report rape and other violence.”

Here in the UK, a review of the prostitution laws published in 2006 reinforced the government’s punitive approach despite evidence that zero tolerance and police crackdowns turn women into “undesirables” and push them into more isolated, less well lit areas, away from the concern and protection of the community. The resulting fines and Anti Social Behaviour Orders keep women working or land them in jail, wrecking their lives and separating them from their children.

In Ipswich, these policies[9] were pursued with devastating consequences. One local woman described how “prostitutes used to work yards from each other . . . but efforts to disperse the women away from the red-light area had driven them apart.”

Domestic violence, homelessness, poverty and debt are acknowledged even by the government as the major factors driving women into prostitution.[10] We estimate that 70% of prostitute women are mothers, mostly single mothers. Yet a single mother with two children is expected to live on £156 a week and can lose 40% of her benefit if she refuses to name to the Child Support Agency the often violent father of her children. Women on average receive 52% of men’s income (Black women earn even less): 30% of children are living in poverty; housing benefit for young people has been cut; thousands of asylum seekers have been made deliberately destitute; student grants have been abolished; and many industries run into the ground. No wonder many turn to drugs and prostitution to survive.[11]

It is 10 times safer to work off the streets. Yet in 2005 the government increased the sentence for brothel-keeping (the charge most commonly used against women working together from premises) from six months to seven years.

Anti-trafficking legislation which claims to protect women is in fact targeting immigrant women working from premises for arrest and deportation. It has provided a cover to target premises where there is no suggestion of trafficked victims being held. Three women have come to us for help in the last few months having been accused of trafficking or related offences when they were either not working as prostitutes or were working collectively with other women with no force or coercion involved. Were it not for the diversion and disinformation so-called trafficking provides, the police could not justify targeting women working independently and more safely in this way.

Urgent change is needed before more women lose their lives. Already in Ipswich many of the resources that were available to help women off the streets while the murderer was at large have disappeared, and the police have rapidly gone back to arresting street workers, making clear that once again their priority is prosecution not protection. It’s time to look at decriminalization and the experience in New Zealand can help us.

It’s also time to look seriously at viable economic alternatives to prostitution. Most sex workers are mothers struggling to support their families or young people struggling to survive, often they are both. Many have been in care or have had their children taken from them. Many are in debt. Some choose prostitution as the best of a set of bad choices. Like women everywhere, doing 2/3 of the world’s work for 5% of the world’s income, we are fighting for more money, less work and an end to criminalisation. If the billions currently squandered on war and destruction came to women, the primary carers everywhere, and to our communities to fulfill people’s needs, no-one would be forced by poverty into sex with anyone.

Our demands for women’s safety include:
An end to the criminalisation of consenting sex which increases all women’s vulnerability to violence. Time and resources now spent arresting and prosecuting sex workers, and non-violent clients, should be redirected towards protecting prostitute women and children from violence. Laws against rape, domestic and other violence should be vigorously enforced, whoever is the victim.

An end to the government, police and social services treating children like criminals when they survive by begging or prostitution. The reinstatement and increase of benefits and safe housing for under-18s. An increase in the minimum wage.

Abolition of the term “common prostitute” which labels sex workers as guilty before the case is heard in court.

Abolition of ASBOs which target, criminalise and breach the human rights of prostitute women and young people in particular, and have resulted in increasing numbers of vulnerable people being sent to prison.

Repeal of anti-trafficking legislation which is primarily used to deport women. Human, legal, civil and economic rights, including protection from police and courts, health care, welfare benefits and the right to stay and to seek employment, for immigrant and refugee women facing violence and exploitation.

An end to kerb-crawling legislation which makes it more dangerous for prostitute women to work, as we have less time to check out clients.

Services that are independent of the police and criminal justice system and viable economic alternatives so that anyone who wants to leave prostitution has the help and support to do it.

[1] The Times, 9 December 2006
[2] BBC Online, 16 December 2006
[3] Brian Clennell father of Paula Clennell, The Sun 13 December 2006
[4] Legal Action for Women and Women Against Rape spell out why: “The police either don’t gather the evidence, or they lose it or misinterpret it. The CPS don’t think about what might be useful and seem more eager to drop rape cases than to prosecute them. The victim is herself put on trial, but without the safeguards defendants are entitled to. The prosecutor has never met her before the trial, does nothing to establish her credibility or to defend her, even from evidence about her sexual history which recent laws should have banned.” Letters, The Guardian, 9 Feb 2007
[5] Women Against Rape wrote to the Bichard Inquiry asking why Ian Huntley’s previous nine sexual assaults, including on his partners, had gone un-prosecuted. The Guardian, 25 June 2004
[6] Fawcett Society’s commission on women and the criminal justice system. The Guardian 31 March 2004
[7] Home Office statistics for racially or religiously aggravated offences recorded by the police in England and Wales. The Independent, 2 August 2005
[8] “Protection of sex workers: Decriminalisation could restore public health priorities and human rights.” Michael D E Goodyear & Linda Cusick, British Medical Journal, 13 Jan 2007 Vol 334
[9] In August by Ipswich Labour Party calling for: “More enforcement action to be taken against both prostitutes and kerb crawlers; more and better use of ASBOs; consideration given to ‘naming and shaming’ kerb crawlers”[9]
[10] Paying the Price: a Home Office consultation paper on prostitution, published 16 January 2006 which also found that “74% of women working indoors cited the need to pay household expenses and support their children.”
[11] For a picture of poverty in the UK see Circumstances force decision. Rev Paul Nicolson, Zacchaeus 2000, Appendix to Criminalisation: the price women and children pay. Collective