As arrests, raids and prosecutions of sex workers increase in Olympic boroughs and throughout the UK, calls for the decriminalisation of prostitution highlight the need to protect sex workers from rape and violence.
Cari Mitchell, English Collective of Prostitutes commented:
“Police crackdowns are putting sex workers’ lives at risk. Security systems among women on the street are being busted up and women displaced into unfamiliar areas. Women are having to work harder and take more risks to make the same money. Street work is increasing as women are forced out of premises by brothel-closures. 70% of sex workers are mothers, mostly single mothers. With government cuts causing more poverty, debt and homelessness what are women supposed to do. Criminal records and imprisonment, including as a result of ASBOs, trap women and young people in prostitution and devastates lives. It is imperative that prostitution is decriminalised so that sex workers can work together and are able to report rape and violence to the police without fear of prosecution. If things continue like this, before long we will see more tragic deaths like in Ipswich.”
Victims of violence are being threatened with prosecution while violent gangs are left free to attack again. One example is: women working in a flat in Barking reported a violent gang of five men who attacked them at knifepoint. The initial police response was to send a letter threatening the victims with prosecution for brothel-keeping. Other women were subsequently attacked by the same gang and one woman was raped but no-one would report these crimes. Public pressure led to the London Crime Squad taking over the investigation. They have given a written assurance that no victim will be prosecuted for prostitution offences but this came too late to stop this violent gang.
This same pattern of crackdowns and resulting increase in attacks is being repeated around the UK. For example: in Walsall 168 sex workers were arrested during a 15-month period with ten assaults on sex workers reported in the same period; in Plymouth arrests have increased and so have attacks; also in Derbyshire, Leeds and other London boroughs.
The number of sex workers is increasing as government cuts cause more poverty, homelessness and debt among women. 70% of sex workers are mothers working to support families.
The brothel-keeping law makes it illegal for two or more prostitutes to live or work together forcing women to work in isolation. Canada just deemed this unconstitutional and illegal. New Zealand successfully decriminalised prostitution both indoors and on the street eight years ago. There has been no increase in prostitution since and sex workers find it safer.
It is 10 times more dangerous to work on the street but sex workers are being forced onto the street by poverty and brothel closures.
Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) have reintroduced prison sentences for street workers. Like anti-terror legislation, there is no “fair trial” and human and legal rights are cast aside. Hearsay evidence from police or anyone with a grievance can be enough for an order which if broken can result in up to five years imprisonment. Sentences of 18 months against sex workers are common and women are losing custody of children and their housing. 17,000 children are separated from their parents each year by imprisonment. 60% of women in prison are there for non-violent offences. Why are the government and police adding to these numbers?
Proceeds of Crime legislation is fuelling these raids and arrests as the police keep 25% of any assets confiscated from sex workers, the Crown Prosecution Service keeps another 25%, and the Inland Revenue the rest.
Calls to criminalise clients along the lines of the law in Sweden ignores the impact on sex workers who have been displaced over the border or forced underground. In Scotland attacks on sex workers soared after kerb-crawling was made illegal
Sheila Farmer, whose prosecution for brothel-keeping, was dropped at the last minute in January by the Crown Prosecution Service, after an 18-month campaign,is in court again tomorrow charged again with brothel-keeping on the flimsiest evidence.
Marie Bonavia, a 72-year-old woman, who was trying to earn a little extra income to support her severely disabled husband, was recently found guilty of brothel-keeping, despite evidence from a working woman that Ms Bonavia was there to keep her safe.