This year on 17 December we remember and commemorate the sex workers who have been killed across the globe in 2017, and the countless others whose names never made the headlines.
Women and non-binary people across the world live under the constant threat of violence and, for sex workers, this is heightened by illegality and stigma.
Since 1975, the ECP has had a long history of fighting violence against sex workers.
Following in the footsteps of sex workers in France who occupied churches across the country to protest police arresting and fining them while doing nothing to stop murders and rapes, we occupied the Holy Cross Church in the red-light area of King’s Cross, London for 12 days in 1982 to protest police illegality and racism against street workers.
During the 1980s we protested the horrific murders of 13 women by the Yorkshire Ripper and the official disregard for sex workers’ lives, notoriously expressed by the Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers’ comments that “some [of the victims] were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.”
When a serial killer terrorised South Central LA for over 25 years, targeting Black women, many of whom were sex workers, we spearheaded a campaign in the UK with Women of Colour in the Global Women’s Strike in support of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders and their struggle for justice. Police reports recorded some of the murders as “NHI” — no human involved. A police commander who met protesters in LA asked if they were prostitutes, and if not, why did they care about the murders “because the guy was only killing hookers.”
The Black Coalition has been repeating for decades that ‘Every life is of value’. In London, we commented:
“We protest the double standard being put forward by police, media, and elected officials who say that if you’re a prostitute woman, or the police assume you’re a prostitute woman, your life is worth less … The prostitution laws which make us illegal … are used as an excuse to dismiss the murder of women. When prostitute women aren’t safe, no woman is safe.”
Since then, there’ve been many serial murders. Police estimate that over 200 sex workers in the UK were murdered in one 10-year period; many of these cases remain unsolved. After the murders of five young women in Ipswich in 2006, we initiated the Safety First Coalition to decriminalise sex work and prioritise safety.
Over the years we have won some important victories including the first ever private prosecution for rape in England and Wales in 1995 with Women Against Rape after the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case of a serial rapist who had targeted sex workers.
In 2013, we mobilised against mass police raids in Soho, central London, which forced the closure of flats where women had been able to work together for decades in relative safety. Most of the flats were reopened and the lie promoted by the police that the raids were aimed at saving victims of trafficking was thoroughly discredited.
We are still fighting the same battles against arrest, fines and imprisonment, for safety and for our rights as workers to be recognized. While prostitution is increasing because of an increase in poverty, police crackdowns, including those claiming to be targeting clients, impact on women first and most of all, starting with street workers, often women of colour, immigrant and trans women.
We draw much of our strength from the international sex workers’ rights movement. We are not victims in need of being saved, we are workers demanding rights and justice. When sex workers in New Zealand won decriminalisation, it was a massive boost for us and we immediately used it as a model for change here. When sex workers from Sweden courageously spoke about the dangers of criminalising clients under the so-called Nordic model, we lapped up every word they said and did what we could to amplify their message. When women in Thailand and India spell out in excruciating detail how anti-trafficking legislation had increased the criminalization of sex workers we broadcast their precious words wherever we find people to listen. We’ve fought against stigma, life-destroying violence and criminalisation and won friends like Amnesty International and the UN to our side. If we campaign together we can win.
Here in the UK we are demanding that police do their job and prioritize protection over prosecution. Laws against soliciting mean that sex workers on the street run from the police rather than go to them for protection. Brothel-keeping laws, which claim to target “third parties” (that is receptionists and security people etc.) are most commonly used against women working together in premises for safety. This forces people to choose between working alone or breaking the law. Fear of arrest and, if we are immigrant, deportation deter most sex workers from reporting. That’s how serial rapists and murderers are enabled and encouraged.
Critically, our experience shows that when sex workers do report violence they often face prosecution themselves while little is done to catch their attackers. One woman in our group was recently attacked at knife point by five men, but when she reported it to the police she was threatened with prosecution for brothel-keeping. She later received a deportation order which was only overturned after a campaign spearheaded by the ECP. Her attackers are still at large.
There is a growing movement, spearheaded by sex workers, demanding the decriminalisation of sex work as introduced in New Zealand in 2003 with verifiable success. This must be an urgent priority for the new UK government before more precious lives are lost. This year, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) will create a memorial outside the Houses of Parliament. We will be calling on MPs to join us and hear our demand for an end to criminalisation, stigma and poverty which makes us vulnerable to all kinds of violence and exploitation.
- Immediate implementation of the Home Affairs Committee (HAC) recommendations that sex workers on the street and working together in premises be decriminalised. As well as the “deletion of previous convictions and cautions for prostitution from the record of sex workers”.
- Police forces urgently review their practices in line with the NPCC guidance and immediately cease raiding and forcing closure on the premises of sex workers working together for safety
- Police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prioritise protection over prosecution of sex workers by vigorously investigating and prosecuting rape and other violence. Resources should not be squandered on the policing of consenting sex.
- Repeal universal credit, benefit sanctions, the benefit cap and bedroom tax and reinstate Income Support for single mothers, to ensure that people aren’t pushed into sex work by hunger and homelessness.
- Provide viable economic alternatives and other support for those who want to leave prostitution.