Exclusive: Campaigner says changing law ‘could be the difference between life and death for women’
Maya Oppenheim Women’s Correspondent
Politicians and campaigners said this marks a “milestone moment” as well as a change in approach from the police – arguing overhauling the law could save women’s lives.
Brothel keeping laws make it illegal for more than one sex worker to operate from premises despite the fact this is something many in the industry do to keep safe from abuse and attacks.
The legislation dates back 66 years to the 1956 Sexual Offences Act which made brothel keeping a crime for the first time – with the law amended in 2003 to increase the maximum prison sentence from six months to seven years.
Speaking to The Independent, Mr Vajzovic, Bedfordshire Police’s temporary deputy chief constable, noted present laws mean brothel keeping is an offence “even where the offence arises from two sex workers deciding to work at the same location to improve their safety.”
He added: “My view on that is I don’t think that is helpful. I am working with government officials to see if we can have a review of that particular bit of the legislation.”
The former assistant chief constable said he had “asked for a review of the legislation to better enable the police to focus our resources on protecting sex workers and tackling those who are controlling or exploiting”.
Christine Jardine, a Scottish Liberal Democrat politician, told The Independent the police officer’s “intervention is welcome and a step in the right direction”.
The MP for Edinburgh West said she is calling for decriminalisation as well as a national debate in parliament on the “form this takes” as she demanded a “proper strategy” from the government on this issue.
The politician, who is the Lib Dem spokesperson for women and equalities, added: “You can’t just say we are going to decriminalise it, you have to look at how you do with that and how you protect women who will still be vulnerable.”
While it is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex in the UK, soliciting, working on the street, sex workers banding together as a group and prostitutes advertising themselves are illegal.
Commenting on the police officer’s remarks, Nadia Whittome, Labour MP for Nottingham East, told The Independent: “Right now, too many sex workers work alone for fear of prosecution, increasing the risks they face.
“Changing the law on brothel keeping so that sex workers could work from the same premise would be an important step in the right direction.
“Other laws aimed at sex work – such as soliciting – should also be repealed, to improve sex workers’ rights, safety and ability to leave the sex industry if they choose. Alongside decriminalisation, the government must urgently tackle the growing levels of poverty that are pushing more women into sex work to make ends meet.”
What makes sex work dangerous is stigma and criminalisation. The stigmatisation of sex workers can mean they are more of a target to violence. Megan Isaac
While Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, a prominent campaign group which supports sex workers, said changing the law on brothel keeping “could be the difference between life and death for women because they would be able to work more safely together from premises”.
She added: “It is a milestone moment in that it indicates a change in direction from the police away from criminalisation. It is a welcome change in direction and an acknowledgement that criminalisation endangers women.”
The campaigner, whose organisation supports the decriminalisation of prostitution, added they regularly hear from women who report they have endured rape and other forms of violence from clients and others.
She added. “In the last couple of months, we have spoken to two women who had men come into their flat and threaten them. They pushed their way in to try and rob the women. One woman had a man threaten to throw her out the window.
“The other was held up by her neck and pinned up against the wall. Both women were horrendously shaken and traumatised. That is the kind of attack which stays with you forever.”
Ms Adams, who has been a prominent campaigner for sex worker’s rights for over 30 years, noted neither woman wanted to go to the police due to fears of facing arrest from officers.
She added: “Repealing brothel keeping legislation so that sex workers working collectively together are no longer criminalised will greatly improve women’s safety but those of us that work on the street, who are most likely to face criminalisation and violence must not be forgotten.
“The loitering and soliciting must also be repealed so that women aren’t forced to work in unlit and isolated areas and are able to report violence without being fearful that they will be arrested.”
Women doing sex work on the street are forced to contend with the “worst violence”, Ms Adams said.
She added: “There is day-to-day humiliation and abuse, like people spitting at you, or throwing things at you from cars, but then also serious incidents of violence as well.”
Previous research by the English Collective of Prostitutes and National Ugly Mugs, an app where sex workers can confidentially report incidents of abuse and crime, found it is 10 times more dangerous to work on the street rather than inside.
Megan Isaac, a spokesperson for a coalition of sex worker organisations called Hookers Against Hardship, argued Mr Vajzovic’s comments are “positive”, but also called for women who on work on the street to stop being criminalised.
“The fact it is illegal pushes women to work in more isolated areas of the town or city and drive to an industrial estate to keep out of the police’s view and this puts their safety at risk,” she said.
“We would hope this is the first step on the road to the full decriminalisation of sex work. What makes sex work dangerous is stigma and criminalisation. The stigmatisation of sex workers can mean they are more of a target to violence.”
The cost of living crisis is pushing more women into sex work, while those who were already doing it are facing greater danger, she added.
Her organisation is calling for a suspension of evictions and benefit sanctions, as well as an amnesty from arrest for sex workers to ensure women can report violence without fear, among other goals.
Previous research suggests UK sex workers have a higher murder rate than women working in other sectors.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “As reflected in our current legislation, we are committed to protecting sex workers from harm and enabling the police to target anyone who exploits vulnerable people involved in prostitution.
“However, we must also be mindful of community concerns and the wider public good. The published National Police Chiefs’ Council guidance makes clear that the safety of those involved in sex work must be prioritised by police forces above enforcement action.”
There is day-to-day humiliation and abuse, like people spitting at you, or throwing things at you from cars, but then also serious incidents of violence as well. Niki Adams
The comments come after campaigners recently told The Independent spiralling living costs are endangering sex workers’ safety by forcing them to accept potentially dangerous male clients whose inquiries they would have previously rejected.
The English Collective of Prostitutes said hundreds of women had called its helpline for advice on the cost of living crisis since August but that was likely to be the “tip of the iceberg”, as many were afraid to seek help.
The campaign group said callers raised concerns about housing issues, eviction notices, serious arrears, alleged harassment by landlords, food banks, debt, food vouchers and benefits, while reports of violence, abuse and exploitative working conditions were also on the rise.
While sex workers told The Independent there are fewer clients due to people cutting back on costs, meaning they are being forced to say yes to both customers and sexual services they would have previously refused.