26 March in Parliament, Stop the Criminalisation of Sex Work

From The English Collective of Prostitutes

PEOPLE’S PARLIAMENT MEETING, HOUSE OF COMMONS.

Stop the criminalisation of sex work – safety first!

image001_20726 March 2014, 6.30-8.30pm

Committee Room 12

Host: John McDonnell MP

Chair: English Collective of Prostitutes

International speakers:

Carina Edlund, Rose Alliance, Sweden

Boglárka Fedorkó, SZEXE, Hungary – tbc

Ariane G, sex worker, Germany

Jenny O, Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland

Morgane Merteuil, STRASS, France

Molly Smith, Scotpep, Scotland

Luca Stevenson, International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe

Plus:

Lori Bora, Soho Working Girls

Candy Hutton, won court case against breach of ASBO

Jean Johnson, Hampshire Women’s Institute

Clayton Littlewood, author

Lisa Longstaff, Women Against Rape

Toni Mac, Sex Worker Open University

Nigel Richardson, Hodge, Jones and Allen

Vera Rodriguez, dancer, x:talk

Didi Rossi, Queer Strike

Robert Jappie, Release

Paula Yanev, English Collective of Prostitutes

_____________________________________

An All-Party Parliamentary Group has just recommended changing the prostitution laws to criminalise clients.

Criminalising clients will not stop prostitution, nor will it stop the criminalisation of women. But it will make it more dangerous and stigmatising for sex workers.  

Sex workers from Sweden – who know first-hand the disastrous impact of such a law – and from a number of other European countries, including the UK, will be speaking against this proposal.

There is widespread anger that MPs are promoting increased criminalisation when unemployment, benefit cuts & sanctions, lowering wages, and homelessness are driving more women, particularly mothers, into prostitution. These proposals will further divert police time and resources from investigating rape, trafficking and other violent crimes, to policing consenting sex. 

The existing prostitution laws force sex workers to work in isolation and danger. Of the two women murdered in London in the last few months, one was working on the street and one was working indoors alone. Senior police officers recently acknowledged that operations to tackle the trade are ‘counterproductive’ and likely to put the lives of women at risk”. Despite this mass raids against sex workers in Soho, London, have thrown scores of women out of the relative safety of their flats. Arrests continue against sex workers on the street.

REPORTS FROM: New Zealand which decriminalised sex work 11 years ago. Canada’s Supreme Court which ruled that criminalisation is in breach of sex workers’ human rights.

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Event supported by: Legal Action for Women, Women Against Rape

The Swedish Model Criminalising The Purchase of Sex Is Dangerous: The European Parliament Should Have Rejected It

This article was first published on The Huffington Post – 27 February 2014
An extended version of this article can be read on Women News Network

Some 560 NGOs and civil society organisations along with 86 academics and researchers urged the European Parliament to reject the report promoting the criminalisation of the purchase of sex that was put forward by London MEP Mary Honeyball in a plenary session this week in Strasbourg. But although the European Parliament has voted in favour of the report, putting pressure on EU member states to re-evaluate their prostitution laws, they do not need to make the same mistake.

Not surprisingly, the experiment has failed. In the thirteen years since the law was enacted, the Swedish government has been unable to prove that the law has reduced the number of sex buyers or sellers or stopped trafficking. All it has to show for its efforts are a (contested) public support for the law and more danger for street-based sex workers. Despite this failure, the government has chosen to ignore the evidence and proclaim the law to be a success; it also continues to advocate that other countries should adopt a similar law. (“The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering”, Ann Jordan, Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor, Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law)

In sound bites, the Swedish Government has been spinning their sex purchase ban, known as the “Swedish model” or sometimes the “Nordic model” though it is not adopted by all Nordic countries, as a success. However, research does not show it has reduced sex trafficking or sex work. In addition, their own police report demonstrates it has pushed prostitution indoors with nearly three times as many Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and the vicinity:

In 2009, the National Bureau of Investigation estimated that there were about 90 Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and vicinity, most of which were judged to be offering sexual services for sale. At the turn of 2011/2012, the number of Thai massage parlours in the Stockholm area was estimated to be about 250 and throughout the country about 450. (The Swedish National Police Board, Situation Report 13 “Trafficking in human beings for sexual and other purposes” for the year 2011)

Mary Honeyball, Labour’s Spokesperson on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee, who wrote the report recommending the Swedish sex purchase ban, said she wanted a model that reduced prostitution. She claims demand has halved in Sweden. However, this is untrue:

The law has been enforced almost entirely against clients of street-based sex workers but the government does not have any evidence of a decrease in sex buyers since the law went into effect. They do not know how many men were soliciting on the street before or after the law. They do not know if men moved from the streets to indoors and on line, or out of the country. They have not collected such data and so cannot prove any success in achieving the primary goal of the law. (“The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering”, Ann Jordan, Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor, Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law)

On Sunday 23 February, I met Mary Honeyball at the BBC1 debate on The Big Questions about whether it should be illegal to pay for sex. Clearly, by the inaccuracies she was stating, she is misinformed – and misinforming others – about the actual outcomes of the Swedish model.

There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to sex work stop demand for sex or reduce the number of sex workers. Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients. (UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work)

As someone who had a traumatic experience of prostitution, mine is a standard narrative held up as an example of why the Swedish model is needed. But actually my traumatic experience in the sex trade, suffering being raped more than once and beaten once, every time while working alone, and ending up an intravenous heroin and crack addict, is a prime example of why decriminalisation is needed.

There is no drug harm reduction practised in Sweden because it is deemed to enable drug use. So as a former intravenous addict, I would probably have died from a blood-borne virus or perhaps lost a limb. Equally, there is no harm reduction for sex workers because access to free condoms is erroneously believed to encourage people to sell sex. So I would be at an increased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases if I was unable to afford my own condoms. These issues primarily affect women working on-street who are most often in poverty and many suffering with addiction. The sex purchase ban has put these women in more danger:

The approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them. Where sex work is criminalised, sex workers are very vulnerable to abuse and extortion by police, in detention facilities and elsewhere. (UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work)

The Swedish model has meant for sex workers who are mothers, they are at risk of losing custody of their children as by selling sex they are deemed unfit parents. This happened to Petite Jasmine and custody of her children was given to the father, a man known to be violent, who had threatened and stalked her. She was given no protection by the Swedish authorities. Then, in 2013, he murdered her.

The Swedish model is social cleansing, something Sweden has history of undertaking. It must not be done in this country or in any country.

Without the criminalisation of the purchase of sex the UK, and other countries, should work to establish comprehensive services to meet the needs of women, men, trans men and women, and nonbinary people seeking to leave the sex trade. There are 80,000 people in prostitution in the UK, most of whom are in poverty and 70% are single mothers. Huge investment from the government is needed and these complex services are going to take a long time to build. Additionally, these services will not work if they are forced.

For many women selling sex, they do not have other options, so we need to reform our benefits system and end poverty so no woman has to sell sex in order to pay her rent so her family are not made homeless, to ensure her children eat, or to heat her home. Criminalising her clients is not going to help her. It will only put her in greater danger.

The priority for police must be building trusting relationships with people in prostitution as it is in Merseyside, but this is impossible when clients are criminalised under the Swedish model. Merseyside has astonishingly high conviction rates for violent offenders targeting sex workers, which makes all of society safer. Their hate crime model, working closely with sex work projects that offer harm reduction services, has great results on assisting women leave the sex trade and ‘exiting’ is not the focus.

Women being able to work together in well-lit areas on-street and a small number of women being able to work from premises together should be decriminalised as research shows whether on-street or off-street, women are more at risk of rape and other violence when they are on their own and isolated. The two women who were recently murdered in London were working alone: Mariana Popa who was working on-street, and in an area where a police crackdown on street prostitution was being enforced, and Maria Duque-Tunjano who was working alone in a flat. Under decriminalisation they might still be alive because they would have been able to work with other women for safety.

Decriminalisation also means sex trafficking victims do not need to fear arrest and being charged. Jes Richardson, a sex trafficking survivor, was not able to turn to police for this reason, and it was a sex worker who helped her escape. She is another woman formerly in the sex trade who is advocating for decriminalisation. The Swedish model, according to the Swedish Police report, cannot demonstrate it has reduced sex trafficking:

According to the Swedish National Police Board it is difficult to estimate how many people may have fallen victim to human trafficking in Sweden during 2011. The number of victims discovered in Sweden depends largely on the resources which the police put into detecting this crime and on the skills that exists within the police organisation. The level of these initiatives varies between police authorities and differs from one year to another. Neither is it possible to identify (nor indeed to locate) all of the victims, mostly girls and women, who are mentioned in tapped telephone calls or observed during police surveillance.  (The Swedish National Police Board, Situation Report 13 “Trafficking in human beings for sexual and other purposes” for the year 2011)

Sex workers are often well placed to identify and assist sex trafficking victims and essential in ensuring this and developing it further are good relationships between the police and sex workers.

I stand with 560 NGOs and civil society organisations and 86 academics and researchers who also object to the Swedish model and urge EU member states not to criminalise the purchase of sex when reassessing their prostitution laws.

Dr Jay Levy, who conducted research in Sweden over several years on the outcomes of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex, met with me in London at the end of 2013 to discuss his findings.

Kent Police ‘Safe Exit’ Scheme Claiming to Help Women in Prostitution Instead Caused Them Harm

Safe Exit

This article was first published on The Huffington Post  – 21 February 2014

Services to help women, men and transgender people seeking to leave the sex trade are essential. Also vital are the life-saving services that are harm reduction focused such as outreach offering condoms to sex workers, sexual health screening, counselling, and syringes for intravenous drug users. These two sets of services are not mutually exclusive, but can and must be provided simultaneously. However, a BBC investigation into the policing of prostitution in Medway, Kent showed harm reduction was dangerously disrupted by their aggressive ‘cleaning up the streets’ approach.

In 2009, Kent Police began a scheme in Medway called Safe Exit, supposedly to help women leave the sex trade by offering treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, training and education, and housing. These services along with others such as trauma therapy are needed by many women seeking to leave prostitution. But what our investigation uncovered was that instead of receiving these services, the women received a criminal record, a major obstacle preventing people leaving the sex trade by hindering other employment chances and keeping them trapped in prostitution.

The women targeted by the scheme were working on-street, most likely to be selling sex due to poverty, with many being single mothers. Kent Police claimed to have reduced the number of women working on-street by over 90, but it seems this figure may have been exaggerated as our sources, two public servants associated with the scheme, say originally there were only 40-50 women working on-street. Our sources also told us the women were not helped to leave the sex trade but that the scheme was a “political PR stunt”. Drug addiction treatment consisted of methadone prescribing and help with housing was a room in a shared house – a temporary solution to a permanent problem. “There was about five or six in one [house] and I’m not sure how many in the other – maybe the same. Certainly not a hundred,” we were told.

“They attached ASBOs on to them and a few ended up in prison and a few moved places, some underground,” one of our sources said. According to them, the hard line policing resulted in alienating the women from harm reduction services. This was reiterated by a woman working as an escort who told me she visited her friends working on-street in the area and provided them with condoms and lubrication as due to fear of arrest they were no longer able to access local services.

Another woman working as an escort locally told me she wanted help leaving the sex industry, but was unable to contact the Safe Exit scheme. Safe Exit did not have a website or a contact number on any of the partners’ websites. A man I met in a Medway cafe told me there were a few brothels in the area. A sex shop on the high street provided us with directories in which local women were advertising sexual services. One escort advertising website listed over 500 people in Kent. Prostitution was not eradicated in Medway. Women working on-street were displaced.

Initially, via their press office, Kent Police told us the scheme was being led by the Council. When we approached Medway Council asking how the women were helped and how many were helped as well as access for filming, they told us to contact Kent Police as the scheme was being run by them. We then put a Freedom of Information request to Kent Police, who informed us their part in the project was purely enforcement and referred us to Crime Reduction Initiatives, a charity providing people with help for substance misuse problems, that were running the Safe Exit scheme. Although CRI allege to have “delivered an award-winning project in Medway which reduced the numbers of street prostitutes from 110 to 15 over ten months” when we posed the same questions we’d asked the Council and Kent Police, CRI never responded.

As we had done with Merseyside Police when making the Inside Out documentaries for the London and North West regions that showed the hate crime approach to policing prostitution, we also asked Kent Police for access to film. This was repeatedly denied to us and in a letter to the BBC, it was implied the reason for this was restructuring of staff within the scheme, the scheme we were led to believe was still running, but the truth was the scheme had actually ceased to exist.

Although we were unable to gain access to Kent Police, in a This is Kent article I found a worrying quote from Sergeant Woolley who seems to have held a senior role running the Safe Exit team engaging with the women. “A lot of them have got no housing, they have no documents, or they have no qualifications. All of these minor things mean these women can’t take that step. We are trying to give them affection and support.” The issues he cites are not minor barriers to leaving the sex trade. They are major issues and need to be recognised for what they are so the right help can be provided to truly overcome them. And what does he mean by giving the women “affection”? Sergeant Woolley continues by saying, “But every woman involved in prostitution in the area knows that if I can catch them fair and square, they will be arrested.” With people in the sex trade suffering higher rates of rape and other violence, when a crime is committed against them they will most certainly not feel safe reporting to Kent police. As well as denying people in the sex trade the human right of the protection of the police and recourse to justice, their punitive approach puts all of society in more danger from rapists and other violent criminals.

In contrast, in Merseyside, the police and the sex work projects collaborate to provide protection and harm reduction to people in prostitution whilst facilitating exiting for those seeking to leave the sex trade. Merseyside leads the country in convictions for crimes committed against people in prostitution – a 67% conviction rate for rape was achieved in 2010 compared with the national average conviction rate for rape of 6.5% – and since their hate crime model was introduced in 2006, numbers of women working on-street have halved.

Undoubtedly, there are fewer women working on-street in Medway, though the actual number is disputable. But fewer women working on-street is not a success if it is achieved by displacing them, forcing them to work in more dangerous areas, perhaps even pushing them into the hands of pimps, giving them criminal records and as our sources confirmed, alienating them from harm reduction services, which save lives. Since the launch of Safe Exit, some women known to work on-street have died, including one woman who was murdered. This is not unusual during police crackdowns. In 2013, a 24-year-old Romanian woman working on-street was murdered in East London one month into the Police Operation Clearlight.

The only measurable element of the Safe Exit scheme, which instead of a success is a huge failure, is the number of arrests. Between 2008-2013, 67 women were charged with soliciting for prostitution* in Medway with nearly half of these charges made during 2010/11. During the five years those 67 women were charged in Medway, in other Kent districts including Thanet, Gravesham, Shepway, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Mailing, and Tunbridge Wells not one woman was charged with soliciting.

This was not a scheme concerned with helping a group of vulnerable women. It was a scheme concerned with gentrification.

The award Safe Exit received from Police and Crime Commissioner, Ann Barnes, was for ‘cleaning up the streets’ and not for any help given to women leaving the sex trade. When I met with Mrs Barnes, she ended the interview early after being unable to tell me what help the women received or where they are now. She could only tell me how nice the area looked.

There were no sex work projects involved in Safe Exit, which should have been a key part in devising and running the scheme. Without sex work specialists, the needs of people seeking to leave the sex trade are not met. For the majority, focusing only on addiction and viewing prostitution as offending does not address the reasons women are selling sex in the first place.

So what lessons can be learned from the Safe Exit scheme and going forward, for future policing of prostitution? ‘Cleaning up the streets’ campaigns come at the cost of human life and utterly fail women involved in on-street prostitution. The opposing model operating in Merseyside, which prioritises the protection of people in the sex trade over enforcement of the law, is what works. It builds trusting relationships between women, men and transgender people selling sex and the police, ensures access to harm reduction services offered by the sex work projects who work closely with the police, provides help to women seeking to leave the sex trade and dramatically increases reporting of crimes and conviction rates of rapists and other violent offenders, making all of society safer.

Our sources say Safe Exit is about to be relaunched. But although in 2011, the Association of Chief Police Officers recommended all forces adopt the Merseyside hate crime model, none have, and none are obliged to. So Safe Exit could continue wreaking damage with the same approach. Because the Merseyside model of policing prostitution is not compulsory, I have joined with Alex Bryce, Manager of National Ugly Mugs, and Jackie Summerford, mother of Bonnie Barratt who was murdered at age 24 in the sex trade, calling for Theresa May MP to make the Merseyside hate crime model of policing prostitution law UK wide. Please support our Change.org petition to ensure the country’s leading policing model operates in every force.

* Kent Police told us that “an individual arrested and charged could be counted more than once (i.e. if arrested in more than one year)”.