‘In the UK, while selling sex is legal, most of the activities associated with it – such as working in a flat with another person, or soliciting – are criminalised.’ Photograph: Paul Hackett / Reuters/Reuters
Last week, a 70-year-old woman was convicted of managing a brothel in Bournemouth, despite maintaining that she was simply the £6-an-hour cleaner. Christy Norman called 999 after a man walked in and collapsed on the floor. Several sex workers and a manager fled the flat but Norman stayed, carrying out CPR on the man until paramedics arrived.
The man later died; Norman’s efforts were futile. The repercussions of her decision to remain in the flat, however, were vast. On listening to Norman’s – perhaps mistakenly – honest account of events, police arrested her and charged her with brothel-keeping. The judge’s decision to uphold the charge, finding Norman guilty of assisting in the management of a brothel, has left UK sex workers reeling. Anyone in the industry will tell you that current legislation is broken but the idiocy of Norman’s charge, coupled with the circumstances in which it happened, are particularly galling.
“It’s a terrible injustice that a woman who performed a civic duty by trying to save another human being’s life should find herself with a criminal record,” says Cari Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). “How was prosecuting Ms Norman in the public interest?”
Technically, under UK law, Christy is a brothel manager. The fact that she’d kept records of clients and posted an advert online was enough to uphold this charge. But what meaning does “brothel-keeper” have when it applies to both a minimum-wage cleaner and to the ghoulish spectre of a violent pimp? It’s here that all logic breaks down and the dysfunctionality of UK prostitution law is exposed.
In the UK, while selling sex is legal, most of the activities associated with it – such as working in a flat with another person, or soliciting – are criminalised. Of the estimated 70-80,000 sex workers in the UK, the large majority work in indoor settings. We live at a time when two women are killed every week in England and Wales by current or former partners. In the sphere of transactional sex – where stigma and the perceived disposability of prostitutes meets misogyny, racism and transphobia – the danger increases dramatically. An estimated 152 sex workers were murdered between 1990 and 2015. In this climate, working together would make sense.
Perhaps Italian sex worker Romina Kalachi, killed in a London flat this May, would still be alive if she’d not been alone. Yet brothel busts – lucrative, under the Proceeds of Crime Act, for both the police and the CPS – continue, in most cases failing to find people in need of rescuing, contrary to their purported mission.
Police guidelines suggest that targeting individual sex workers is counterproductive to safety, but their actions speak otherwise. This month, a woman contacted the ECP. She had reported a robbery at knifepoint and, for her troubles, received a letter from the police telling her to move on or face prosecution. Like Norman’s case, the callousness of treatment makes a mockery of police claims to be protecting women.
Backed by sex worker-led organisations across the globe, organisations including Amnesty International, World Health Organization, UNAids, Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, Human Rights Watch and Anti-Slavery International call for the full decriminalisation of prostitution.
When the home affairs select committee published its interim report on prostitution last year, it suggested that soliciting by sex workers, and sex workers sharing premises, should be decriminalised. The recommendations were welcomed by sex workers but, under suggested plans, Norman would still have been prosecuted.
Decriminalisation would do nothing to touch existing laws around coercion or trafficking. Abuse would, of course, remain illegal. In cases such as Norman’s however – in which coercion wasn’t even suggested – common sense could prevail. Norman was not a danger to anyone. People should not be criminalised for note-taking.
Demanding labour rights for sex workers is already enough to warrant a branding with the “pimp lobby” epithet, and talking about third parties – such as managers – feels alarming. However, sex workers are harmed by these laws. In Norway, where the buying of sex is criminalised and sex workers supposedly are not, police used third-party laws to evict sex workers from their homes, in “Operation Homeless”. In Bradford, three women working in an informal cooperative were each convicted of “brothel-keeping” on behalf of the others. “Criminalising managers and third parties forces sex workers to work alone,” says sex worker rights organisation Scot-Pep.
In the UK, we already have a version of the Nordic model. Since 2015, paying for sex has been criminalised in Northern Ireland, despite a Department of Justice-commissioned study, prior to the law’s implementation, finding that 98% of sex workers opposed the change. A legal challenge is under way. The Republic of Ireland criminalised sex-buying in March. This month, a spate of knife attacks on trans sex workers in Dublin suggested just how much attention violent men pay to the law.
According to the ECP, which has been supporting Norman, other women in the parlour were too frightened to come forward with evidence that could have cleared her name. Who can blame them? Sharing premises with another sex worker is illegal. Had any of them stuck around when the client collapsed, they too could have been arrested and prosecuted.
Criminalisation doesn’t work. In the US, sex work is fully criminalised in most states yet the industry hasn’t suddenly gone away (and is horrifically violent). If you want to reduce prostitution, demand better social housing, childcare, healthcare, an end to benefit cuts and humane immigration reforms.
When legislation is so clearly unfit for purpose, when “brothel-managers” are simply 70-year-old cleaners, it’s time to demand change. Our laws must be based on evidence, not emotion; particularly when that emotion is so clearly shaped by stigma.
• Frankie Mullin is a freelance journalist