Sex workers say they are being left more vulnerable to attack by laws making it illegal for them to share premises for safety, and that they feel unable to report abuse. Two such women have spoken to the Victoria Derbyshire programme.
“I understand I am a sex worker for a living, but I deserve the same human rights as everybody else,” says Suzanne – not her real name.
Born in Romania, she has been a sex worker in Soho, London, for five years.
“Every time I come forward to report violence I end up threatened to be arrested and prosecuted for working in a brothel,” she says.
“Next time I suffer violence, I sure as hell won’t report it.”
Campaigners say this is a familiar story for sex workers, and Suzanne believes in one incident she came close to dying.
It began like a normal arrangement, she explains: “The person came up, discussed the price, agreed a time, and paid.”
But, she continues: “At the time of the service the person just put his hands around my neck. He kept on pressing with one hand on my throat, and punched me in my face until I passed out. I was in agony, I was bleeding. During the attack I lost two teeth.”
She adds: “The person was there to kill me. I was lucky because I passed out, but if I hadn’t he would have done it until I was definitely dead.”
In England and Wales – while the sale and purchase of sexual services between consenting adults is legal – many activities connected with selling sex, such as brothel keeping and soliciting, are illegal.
Suzanne says the law around brothel keeping acts as an incentive for women to work alone in order to avoid prosecution – since if they work collaboratively, they may be charged.
As a result, she says, women are left more vulnerable to attack.
She claims that were it not for the brothel’s receptionist calling the emergency services she may not be alive, and says she will continue to work in a brothel for her safety despite it being illegal.
“I would rather be prosecuted, than die,” she says.
Maria – not her name – says when armed men carrying knives entered the brothel she was working at and stole money, the police were as much interested in the women’s activities as the robbery.
She says the police “asked about the guys that went there – but they were talking more about the work inside of the place, how much money they got, how many girls, how many customers”.
A week later, they received a letter from police.
Maria – originally from Portugal – says it told them they “could go to jail or be deported, because we were working in a brothel”.
She says it is for this reason that many sex workers are reluctant to report incidents of abuse and violence to police.
Because criminal gangs know this, she adds, they deliberately target sex workers who choose to work collectively.
“The police will just see the place where they are working, and just say, ‘Leave’,” she says.
Niki Adams, from campaign group The English Collective of Prostitutes, says such grievances are heard frequently.
“Women know that by going into sex work you’re taking a risk because there is a lot of violence,” she explains.
“[But] at every turn our efforts to keep safe are sabotaged by the law.
“We have heard of many, many situations where women come forward to report violence and instead of the attackers being pursued and prosecuted by the police, sex workers get prosecuted instead.
“That is appalling because when that happens it’s a big deterrent for women to come forward and report violence.”
‘No plans to change law’
In 2016, MPs on the cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee recommended a change in the law “so that soliciting is no longer an offence and so that brothel-keeping provisions allow sex workers to share premises, without losing the ability to prosecute those who use brothels to control or exploit sex workers”.
But the government said it could not introduce the change because “we do not have at present a robust evidence base regarding the scale and nature of prostitution in England and Wales”.
As of September 2017, the Home Office said it had “no plans to change the law around prostitution”.
But, it added: “This government’s priority is to protect those selling sex from harm and exploitation, and target those who exploit vulnerable people involved in prostitution.
“We will continue to work closely with the police, Crown Prosecution Service, other front-line agencies and wider partners to ensure that the current legislation achieves these aims.”
The Metropolitan Police said since 2012 it had “developed strong working relationships with a number of sex worker support agencies and begun to change the way we work with sex workers directly.
“This has seen us realise that taking enforcement action, based on legislation, is not always the best way to support sex workers, who often have complex lives with little or no support around them.”
For Suzanne, a change in legislation needs to come soon.
“I’ve learned working in the sex industry, that a perpetrator will seek to attack someone who is vulnerable, who is not protected by the law.
“And we, as sex workers, are not protected by the law.”