Policing Insight: It’s time to protect sex workers not prosecute them

31st October 2017 Niki Adams and Heston Michaels, ​English Collective of Prostitutes

Police crackdowns on prostitution isolate sex workers and undermine their safety. With poverty fuelling prostitution, the English Prostitutes Collective argues decriminalisation is overdue and current resources used to police consenting sex should be redirected into investigating rape and other violent crimes.

We face saturation policing but no protection” is the refrain often heard from sex workers when describing their dealings with the police. Each year hundreds of sex workers are arrested, raided, prosecuted and even imprisoned under draconian prostitution laws.The English Collective of Prostitutes gathers information regularly from our UK wide network about arrests and raids. A snap shot from May to Sept 2017 shows there were organised police crackdowns on street workers in seven areas; closure orders against premises in six areas; over a hundred cautions and civil orders issued; 12 people arrested for prostitution or related offences; nine people facing deportation after arrests. These figures are just the tip of the iceberg and are in no way comprehensive – street workers are underrepresented, for example. But even so, they show that significant police time and resources are going into the policing of prostitution, that is consenting sex between adults (1).

Police crackdowns undermine safety as sex workers are forced into isolated areas, and are unable to implement vital safety measures such as screening clients.


This is happening at a time when prostitution is increasing with rising poverty (2). This is not surprising given that 88-92 per cent of sex workers are women (3), in the majority mothers, and that women are paying for 86 per cent of austerity cuts. In Sheffield for example, outreach project workers who work closely with South Yorkshire police report: “It’s things like having their benefits sanctioned that are forcing these women back on to the streets.”

Police crackdowns undermine safety as sex workers are forced into isolated areas, and are unable to implement vital safety measures such as screening clients. A 2014 survey found that where arrests of sex workers and clients were high, only 5 per cent of sex workers who were victims of a crime reported it. This compared to 46 per cent of victims in areas where police adopted a harm reduction approach. (4)

Critically, our experience shows that when sex workers report violence they often face prosecution themselves while little is done to catch their attackers. One woman in our group was recently robbed at knifepoint in a flat in Enfield where she was working with others.

When she reported it, the police didn’t treat her as a victim, seemed half-hearted in their investigation and instead returned to the premises to deliver a letter saying, “any female at this address now, who is found at this same address in the future, is very likely to be arrested [for brothel-keeping]”.

‘Impunity to attack’

Despite complaints and concern from the local MP that threatening prosecution “could make it more difficult to stay in touch with victims of violent crimes and therefore hinder a future prosecution”, to this day Enfield police refuse to acknowledge that their actions undermine safety.

Platitudes that “the safety of people engaged in sex work is paramount to the police” have no credibility when actions tell another story. The same woman later received a deportation order which was only overturned after a campaign spearheaded by the ECP.

This is not an isolated incident. Last year a woman working the streets in East London came to us for help because she was being threatened by a gang of men who were enraged that she wouldn’t give them a cut of her earnings. When she went to report these threats, the desk sergeant said, “Are you telling us that you are a prostitute because if so, we will arrest you.”

The police wait outside my house to catch me when I leave … they jeer at me, and make sexually explicit jokes. I’m strip-searched and they sometimes leave the door open so the male officers can see in.


The result of this policy is that violent men effectively enjoy impunity to attack again, knowing their victims won’t report violence or that the police won’t act if they do, so they won’t be caught. No wonder that violence is at epidemic proportions.

A 2014 study (5) found 77 per cent of street based sex workers and 17 per cent of inside workers had suffered violent attacks.

Women Against Rape highlights the appalling 6.7 per cent conviction rate for reported rape generally and the shortage of officers committed to investigating sexual violence. How obscene then that on average 25 police officers can be involved in raiding a single brothel where women are working collectively while hundreds of officers can be engaged for months at a time in street crackdowns.

Criminalisation creates what Amnesty International describes as “an environment where law enforcement officers and other officials can perpetrate violence, harassment and extortion against sex workers with impunity.” Police wield enormous power over sex workers because of the threat of arrest and exposure. This is in the context of “hundreds of police officers ..being accused of sexually abusing victims and suspects’. Officers had targeted “vulnerable” women described in one case as “including prostitutes and heroin addicts”.

Sex workers speak of daily humiliation, bullying and threats. One woman in our group who defeated an attempt to impose an Anti-Social Behaviour Order(ASBO) on her reported: “The police wait outside my house to catch me when I leave … they jeer at me, and make sexually explicit jokes. I’m strip-searched and they sometimes leave the door open so the male officers can see in.”


Charges of loitering and soliciting, ASBOs and Closure Orders can be brought on the uncorroborated word of a single police officer. Police discretion can result in sexism, racism and other discrimination as women of colour and/or women with insecure immigration status are targeted for arrest.(6)

In 2012 when sex workers’ flats in Mayfair were raided by police, immigrant women’s flats were closed whilst other workers just got a warning. A complaint to the police documented how Romanian and Thai women suffered racist bullying and abuse and were threatened with deportation.

The Mayfair raids like many others across the country were justified in the name of saving victims of trafficking. In 2012, 250 police officers descended on Soho, the established red-light area in London. Officers in riot gear with dogs, broke down doors to women’s flats and in one case took a woman out in her underwear. This was presented to the public by Commander Alison Newcomb who said the raids were “not about the prosecution of prostitutes” but to “close brothels where we have evidence of very serious crimes happening, including rape and human trafficking”. No evidence of rape or trafficking was subsequently presented in any of the Closure Order cases that went to court. Newcomb later admitted that “no specific number of women were suspected of being trafficked.”

The Soho raids cost at least £20,000. We don’t know how much dedicated anti-trafficking funding the police nationally get (although we’d like to know), beyond some figures obtained through FOI requests that show the Metropolitan Police got £2.4 million in 2013. But we suspect that anti-trafficking funding is fuelling raids against migrant sex workers who get labelled as victims of trafficking regardless of what they say about their own situation.

Whatever the figures, actual trafficking victims are still being sold short. In 2012 four women who were forced into domestic slavery in London won a pay-out from the Metropolitan police after a high court judge found their allegations had not been properly investigated. A 2005 parliamentary committee found victims are frequently deprived of “protection, access to services and justice” and “treated as immigration offenders facing detention and removals”. We have seen no evidence that anything has changed since then.

Proceeds of crime law is fuelling arrests

This focus on raiding and arresting sex workers contradicts National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Policing Sex Work Guidance which stresses that the safety of people engaged in sex work must be paramount.


Proceeds of Crime laws appear also to be corrupting prioritises and fuelling arrests. Police get a percentage (18 per cent in 2013) of all assets and cash seized and therefore have a vested interest in raiding brothels and prosecuting sex workers.

This focus on raiding and arresting sex workers contradicts National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Policing Sex Work Guidance which stress that the safety of people engaged in sex work must be paramount.

It specifies that “brothel closures and ‘raids’ create a mistrust of all external agencies including outreach services. It is difficult to rebuild trust and ultimately reduces the amount of intelligence submitted to the police and puts sex workers at greater risk”.

Senior police officers, at the time of the tragic murder of Marianna Popa in 2012, voiced concerns that “operations to tackle the trade are ‘counterproductive’ and likely to put the lives of women at risk”.

Other senior officers went further, recommending: “an alternative approach…using New Zealand as an example of decriminalisation of brothels where sex workers …can now access health services with ease, whilst maintaining more personal security…”

Sex workers in New Zealand, where decriminalisation was introduced in 2003 with verifiable success, report that police have “moved from the role of prosecutor to that of protector” (7). More than half of those surveyed (57.3 per cent) who had been working prior to decriminalisation thought that police attitudes had changed for the better since the law had changed.

Decriminalisation of sex work in the UK is more of possibility since the influential Home Affairs Committee (HAC) last year 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”.

The HAC reported that only 25 per cent of sex workers report violence to the police and police who gave evidence to the Inquiry acknowledged that “simple enforcement does not produce sustainable outcomes and can actually increase the vulnerability of sex workers to violent attack”.

The improvement recorded in New Zealand could be happening here if resources now used to police consenting sex went instead into investigating rape and other violent crimes. We hope that more police officers who agree that their time and skills could be better spent will speak out in favour of decriminalisation.


(1) Reports of trafficking arrests and any other cases that indicate force or violence may have been involved are excluded.

(2) Benefit sanctions, the benefit cap and other cuts have disproportionately affected women and have been identified specifically as the reason for the big increase in prostitution in some areas. Doncaster reports a 60 per cent increase with charities saying: “Women are being forced to sell sex for £5 because of benefit sanctions.” (The Star, 19 March 2014.) Sheffield reports a 166% increase (The Star, 1 June 2014) while charity workers in Hull report: “ . . . women who are literally starving and they are out there to feed themselves.” (Hull Daily Mail, 13 August 2013).

(3) Brooks-Gordon, B., Mai, N., Perry, G., Sanders, T. (2015). Calculating the Number of Sex Workers and Contribution to Non-Observed Economy in the UK for the Office for National Statistics.

(4) Data provided by National Ugly Mugs (UKNSWP). (2012-2015).

(5) Connelly, L. (2014) Violence against sex workers. Analysis of National Ugly Mugs data.

(6) There is no UK based evidence of the racist implementation of the prostitution laws but evidence from the US shows this to be true: Black people are 13.2% of the population but make up 42% of all prostitution arrests. U.S Department of Justice, FBI, Criminal Justice Information Services Division. Crime in the U.S, 2013.Available at: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/tables/table-43.

(7) Mayhew, P.& Mossman, E. (2007). ‘Key Informant Interviews’ Review of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003.