All Sheila Farmer was trying to do was guarantee the safety of her and fellow consensual sex workers from violence, rape and robbery, that she was prosecuted is a national disgrace…
It was January 3rd, 2012. Stepping over the broken-winged corpses of umbrellas on Croydon’s pavements, a rain-drenched, gale-battered group of approximately thirty supporters, myself included, approached the Crown Court to witness the conclusion to a landmark case.
Eighteen years ago, Sheila Farmer worked as an IT consultant. After her vision became impaired through the diabetes she had suffered since childhood, she turned to sex work to make a living and support her son. Having worked alone as a prostitute for six months, Ms Farmer was then attacked by a client. She was repeatedly raped, throttled and left tied up for several hours. Her experience is not uncommon.
“Over half of the women working outdoors on the street,” said Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes during a speech at June’s London Slutwalk, “and over a quarter of the women working indoors, in any six month period, will be attacked. That’s what we’re up against.”
Sheila Farmer’s attacker was tried at the Old Bailey and deported but, over the next seventeen years, she never again worked alone and has been active in protecting other sex workers from violence and abuse. Despite death threats, she helped convict a gang of armed men who had been attacking the premises of sex workers across the South of England. What made this act of bravery all the more impressive was that there was more at risk for Ms Farmer than just her life.
As part of the Proceeds of Crime Act, the police can keep 50% of assets confiscated during a raid, as well as 25% from subsequent prosecutions, while the CPS keeps a further 25%. Since it has become more profitable for police to arrest and charge sex workers than their attackers, some damning cases have come to light that demonstrate why working women are reluctant to report robbery, violence and rape.
In 2009, two men barged into a Woking flat with what appeared to be sawn-off shotguns. They poured petrol over the floors and furniture and threatened to torch the property. The flat itself was used by Cloud Nine, a small escort agency run by Hanna Morris, her partner, and a female friend. Ms Morris immediately called the police. The street was cordoned off and sniffer dogs deployed. Convinced that the attackers were now on their way to one of the two other premises used by the agency, Ms Morris provided the addresses to Surrey Police. These were later used as evidence against her. The investigation against the attackers was dropped and Ms Morris and her partner were charged with managing a brothel. They both received 12 month suspended jail sentences, were made to work a combined total of 420 hours of unpaid labour and lost their home and life savings.
“90% of rapists go free,” the organisation Women Against Rape said afterwards. “Prosecuting Hannah Morris who tried to bring two violent men to justice is perverse. Rapists and other violent men often target sex workers assuming they cannot call the police. If sex workers are denied the protection of the law, this vulnerability is magnified. The CPS and police should prosecute rapists, not victims.”
Ms Morris’ solicitor, Nigel Richardson of Hodge, Jones and Allen agreed: “…it is hard to see how a prosecution in this case can do anything but make would-be attackers more confident in their actions and increase the dangers for working women.” The words in Richardson’s letter to the CPS have become all the more prevalent in cases recorded since: “The prosecution of this offence is likely to directly discourage the reporting of crimes against potentially vulnerable women and thus increase risks to their safety.”
And it certainly has. Robbers and rapists have long been known to exploit prostitutes’ reluctance to come forward, and the police became aware last year that one such gang in Southampton had compiled a list of brothels and potential victims whom they planned to target. Kim Byrne and Claire Smith, both working mothers fighting debt, were warned that they were on this list. They had previously been on friendly terms with the local police, having helped in a previous case by reporting concerns they had about an underage Eastern European sex worker. However, now that the robbers’ list revealed that Byrne and Smith were renting a flat together for their own safety, the law considered them to be managing “a brothel”. Both women were arrested and charged. Ironically, during sentencing, the Judge warned them that prostitution comes with “inherent dangers” as if they were somehow unaware of this.
Police raided Sheila Farmer’s flat in August 2010. A neighbour had complained that she was running a brothel. When most people think of a brothel, they picture a cartoonish Madam corralling buxom young wenches in corsets through a wild west saloon – or possibly a 1970s pimp with a hat, cane and team of shiny-fleshed strippers draped across opulent furniture – or, most likely, a damp, stinking hovel full of poverty, drugs and exploitation.
Sheila Farmer’s flat resembled none of these. The place raided by police that summer was a collective of friends who each chipped in for the cost of running the premises, working there consensually and independently. It was clear that no force or coercion was involved, and the police left. Not wanting to trouble her neighbours however, Ms Farmer agreed to move to a new address. Whilst in the process of moving, she was arrested.
For nearly eighteen months, she has faced the ordeal of court appearances, adjournments and delays. When first taken into custody, her insulin was confiscated and she was only released after a doctor told police that her health would be in danger if she were to be held any longer. As well as the severe diabetes, Ms Farmer is battling a malignant brain tumour, both health problems which have been exacerbated by the drawn-out Damoclean threat of a seven year jail sentence.
“I am afraid the future is uncertain,” said her medical consultant in a letter to the court, “and one can almost guarantee that the tumour will grow and progress in the relatively near future. If possible it would be medically justifiable to try and avoid any stress associated with any prolonged Court hearing.”
Yet prolonged it has been. Due to a number of administrative failures on the part of the prosecution, it took almost a year and a half for Sheila Farmer’s case to reach the point when, last Tuesday morning, she sat silently in a chair outside the Croydon courtroom with her Barrister and waited to be called inside. The journey had been long. So far, she had attended court 6 times, there were two case management hearings and the case had been listed to start on two previous occasions. Despite her ill health, Ms Farmer spoke to over 5,000 people at the London Slutwalk last summer. Over 1,000 people wrote to her MP to argue against the prosecution. Both the English Collective of Prostitutes and Women Against Rape met with the Director of Public Prosecutions, Kier Starmer QC, and tried to persuade him to intervene. In July, a protest was held outside the headquarters of the CPS and Cari Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes spoke out about the case: “Like the vast majority of women who work in the sex industry, Ms Farmer is a single mother who went into it because of poverty. Also, she had health costs as she is fighting cancer. After a brutal rape she started working with other women for protection and is now being prosecuted for running a brothel. What is she guilty of? Wanting to be safe?”
So, on Tuesday morning, we entered the courtroom. Ms Farmer sat quietly in the box beside a female guard. Her supporters filled every seat of the gallery and press area. Several remained in the corridor outside, anxiously sipping cups of coffee and waiting for news. The Judge entered and we all stood up. The prosecution then explained, with some embarrassment that, due to an administrative error, their witnesses were not present. One had not been contacted and another could not be found. Some paperwork had been misplaced. With a knotted brow and a theatrical sigh, the Judge granted them another 24 hours and we were all let out.
The following day, the witnesses were still absent and the case was dismissed. It was a positive result, despite the trial having collapsed through incompetence rather than – as we had all hoped – a legal consensus that charges like these are both harmful and impractical. Nobody yet knows how much public money was wasted on the case against Sheila Farmer. Solid statistical information about crimes committed against sex workers, reported or not, is also sparse. A journalist who approached the Metropolitan police to enquire about this was told that the data was not collated due to the illegality of prostitution.
This case is not about whether sex work is right or wrong. Famous for being the oldest profession, prostitution has always existed, and always will. Further criminalisation will not change this. Laws brought in over the past decade seemed, at first, intended to protect people in the sex trade from trafficking, exploitation and violence. In reality, they have just given the authorities an excuse to loot the finances and property of those already victimised from so many other angles and discouraged those in the industry from reporting violent crime or finding safe spaces to work in. Legislation designed to prevent danger to prostitutes has only exacerbated it. Things must change.
“Whilst I’m relieved not to be facing trial, I am angry that I was prosecuted.” Ms Farmer stepped out into the wind and rain of Croydon’s storm-sodden streets. “Will the person who made that decision now be held accountable for the 18 months of distress and upset I have suffered while waiting for this case to come to court?” Despite illness and all she has suffered, Sheila Farmer remains strong and determined, looking to the future. “Safety and survival has always been my priority.”
by Slide Rules