Enforcing Northern Ireland’s New Swedish-Style Sex Purchase Law – A Sex Worker’s Story

Kate, a sex worker in Northern Ireland, shares her fears on how the new sex purchase ban will be enforced.

Ruth Jacobs

Guest post by Kate

Photo credit: Justin Grimes, Flickr Photo credit: Justin Grimes, Flickr

A rainy night in Belfast. Cold and wet with a wind whipping round the corners of the barren streets where women used to stand. How things have changed. A decade ago, even on such a horrible early winter’s night, there would have been activity, but the law changed and drove the women away. Many moved inside, others stood in darker corners by derelict houses or under battered trees in city parks, waiting for the cars.

Now, the law’s about to change again. Protesting that they don’t want to criminalise the women – just the men who seek out the women – the gentle Sinn Fein folk demanded that the old rule against loitering for the purposes of prostitution be struck down.

We talked about this, a few of us, at the quaintly but tautologically-named Commercial Sex-workers’ Clinic recently. The wonderful woman and man who run the service…

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National Police Lead for Prostitution, ACC Chris Armitt, Discusses the Merseyside Model

ACC Chris Armitt, National Police Lead for Prostitution

ACC Chris Armitt, National Police Lead for Prostitution

This article was first published on The Huffington Post  – 3 March 2014

With nearly 65,000 signatures, our Change.org petition calling for Theresa May to make the Merseyside hate crime model law is gathering momentum. We’ve yet to hear from Mrs May, but as Home Secretary responsible for freeing up the police to fight crime more effectively, I hope we do. However, we did hear recently from Assistant Chief Constable Chris Armitt, the National Police Lead for Prostitution, and he met with me, Jackie Summerford, mother of Bonnie Barratt who was murdered at age 24 in the sex trade, and Alex Bryce, Manager of National Ugly Mugs, to discuss our campaign.

Based in Merseyside where he is Assistant Chief Constable for People Development, ACC Armitt sees first-hand the positive outcomes for people in the sex trade, the police and the wider community of the hate crime approach. Since 2006 when they adopted the model, reporting of crimes against sex workers has dramatically increased and their conviction rates for rapists and other violent criminals are astounding, making all of society safer. Here he explains why he advocates for the Merseyside model of policing prostitution.

What do you see as the benefits of the Merseyside hate crime model? 

It forms only a part of an overall approach that focuses on the vulnerability of those involved in the sex industry. The Merseyside model aims to build trust and confidence amongst sex workers to report when they are attacked, which allows the police to identify and arrest dangerous people who pose a threat to the whole of society. It also means that when sex workers are operating in a manner that is causing public concern then influence can be used to quickly modify behaviour and reassure communities.

Would you agree the hate crime model for policing prostitution should be made law in line with other hate crimes which are monitored by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers?

I think any steps that are taken that enhance the police response to attacks on vulnerable groups such as sex workers are important. By treating such attacks as a hate crime it helps to reassure the victims that the Police Service are taking their crime seriously and it ensures that the subsequent response and investigation will be as comprehensive as possible.

What are your thoughts on the hard line policing approaches to on-street prostitution some forces have adopted, such as Operation Clearlight in Redbridge, London, and the Safe Exit operation that ran in Medway, Kent?

The operational challenge facing respective forces is diverse and challenging and ultimately each force needs to decide what operational tactics it employs to deal with any issue that is of concern to the communities it protects. The national guidance we promote urges forces to work in partnership to achieve long lasting solutions to benefit communities and sex workers.

Do you know why no other police forces have taken on the 2011 Association of Chief Police Officers’ guidance recommending the adoption of the Merseyside approach?

It might be that some forces see it as a big step to take, ultimately change takes time and all we can do is to continue to promote what we believe is best practice. That is exactly what I will continue to do.

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Please add your name to our Change.org petition, hopefully bringing us closer to hearing from Theresa May and making the Merseyside model the national standard policing approach for prostitution.

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)”.

Criminalising clients puts people working on-street in greater danger and forced ‘exiting’ does not work

Ruth Jacobs

Since reading of the murder of Mariana Popa, a 24-year-old Romanian woman working on-street in Ilford Lane in October 2013, I have thought about her often. Her death occurred just as police embarked on a hard line ‘cleaning up the streets’ approach to prostitution named Operation Clearlight.

I have recently investigated another such ‘cleaning up the streets’ campaign in Medway, Kent for BBC1. Their Safe Exit scheme was meant to help women exit the sex trade and was hailed a success. However, our investigation found that although Kent Police claimed to have reduced numbers of women working on-street in Medway by 90 or more, only one woman was actually helped and sadly she is no longer alive. Another woman was murdered, and other women who were working on-street are known to have died since the scheme started. In response to our Freedom of Information request, Kent Police was…

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Jackie Summerford and Ruth Jacobs

Rt Hon Mrs Theresa May MP: Make the Merseyside hate crime model of policing prostitution law UK wide

Jackie Summerford is the mother of Bonnie Barratt who was murdered at 24 years old in the sex trade. If the Merseyside hate crime model was in operation in London, Bonnie’s killer might have been reported to the police before and she would be alive today.

Please add your signature to the Change.org petition calling for Rt Hon Mrs Theresa May MP to make the Merseyside hate crime model law UK wide: http://www.change.org/merseysidemodel.

“Jackie Summerford talking with Ruth Jacobs for the Merseyside hate crime model campaign” Produced by Matthew Lynch (www.jlfilmandmedia.com)

  • Jackie Summerford’s first interview for the Merseyside model campaign can be read here.

Related Content

BBC1 Inside Out – Documentary Investigating Policing of Prostitution in the South East – Monday 13 Jan, 7.30PM

Inside Out - Merseyside model 750A short documentary investigating the policing of prostitution in the South East will air on Monday 13 January at 7.30PM. It will compare this with the Merseyside hate crime model, which leads the country, ensuring people in the sex trade feel safe to report crimes committed against them and perpetrators are convicted.

As well as airing on BBC1 in the South East region, the documentary can be watched across the UK on BBC iPlayer and on Sky channel 963 and Freesat 959.

At 7AM on Monday morning I’ll be on BBC Radio Kent discussing the Merseyside model with Clare McDonnell and at 10AM I’ll be interviewed about my past in prostitution by Julia George.

A clip from the previous BBC1 North West documentary on the Merseyside model can be watched worldwide on BBC News here.

The BBC1 London Merseyside Model documentary can be viewed on iPlayer here.

For more information on the Merseyside model click here.

Please add your name to the Change.org petition calling for the Merseyside model to be made law UK wide.

International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers – 17th December

Every Sex Worker Deserves SafetyI wanted to write something for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers but I didn’t think I could as I’ve been in too much of a dark place these last few weeks with my own suffering from the repercussions of sexual violence. I wanted to go to London to stand in solidarity with sex workers and allies to mark this day, but for the same reasons, tonight, I couldn’t do that either. Then I felt selfish wrapped up with my own pain when tonight there will be women in the sex trade who will be raped, who will be beaten and some will be murdered. So I have to say this…

Violent men think they can beat, rape and murder women in the sex trade because they do not have the protection of the police and recourse to justice. Then there are some feminists who say all sex work is violence and rape. If this is so, how can anyone in the sex trade report violence or rape against them, if it is all the same? Let me tell you, because I have lived this, it is not. There is nothing remotely similar between clients who respected my boundaries and clients who raped me, or the client who beat me. This complete disparity must be recognised so the police do take notice and deal with the rape or violent attack we’ve suffered as they would any other victim. If our friend, sister, mother or daughter is murdered by a client, it was never part of their job!

Most people in the sex trade do not have other choices, many are in poverty, and for those who do have other choices and still choose to sell sex, every single person deserves the same respect from all of society and the same protection of the police and recourse to justice when they have been the victim of a crime and for that to happen, the Merseyside hate crime model must be made law UK wide.

The hate crime model is not just about classifying crimes against people in prostitution as hate crimes; it is so much more than that. There are relationships built between people in the sex trade and sex work projects, between people in the sex trade and the police, and the police work closely with the sex work projects. There is a dedicated Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) who supports the victim of crime from report to court. And for all this to work, the police prioritise protection of people in the sex trade over enforcement of the law. This means in Merseyside, people in prostitution are not viewed as ‘easy targets’ by criminals as they are throughout the rest of the UK.

And to prioritise protection over enforcement that means that when a woman, man or transgender person reports a crime committed against them, the police deal with that crime and treat that victim of crime as a victim and not a criminal, as is known to happen in the rest of the UK where the victim of crime is instead charged for something related to prostitution. So in Merseyside, the police do not charge them for working in premises with another woman for safety, which is classed as running a brothel, they do not charge them for soliciting if they were working on-street, they do not charge their university student twenty-year-old son or their elderly mother who lives with them for living off immoral earnings. They deal with the crime reported against them and treat them the same as any other victim of crime.

Knowing this is what has increased reporting of crime in Merseyside, is what brought about a 90% conviction rate of those who raped sex workers in Liverpool in 2009 and a 67% conviction rate for those who raped sex workers in Merseyside overall in 2010, is what has made all of society safer by taking off the streets more rapists, murderers and other violent criminals and what means there are fewer rapes, other violent crimes and murders.

What is operating in Merseyside is a discretionary decriminalisation of sorts. Decriminalisation is needed for the safety of people in the sex trade. It does absolutely not decriminalise sex trafficking. There are laws in place already that need to be upheld when a man pays to have sex with a sex trafficking victim, because that is rape every time. There are laws in place already that need to be upheld when a man pays to have sex with a child. This is child sex abuse. That money has changed hands does not make this anything other than child sex abuse and it needs to be treated as such. There also needs to be tougher sentences for trafficking in persons, which is already a crime.

To the people currently seeking to abolish prostitution, in a capitalist society what you are actually saying is abolish prostitutes because there is no money for exit routes; our UK government here is not going to invest in this if it even has the money. Most people in prostitution are in poverty. Shelter estimate there are 80,000 children who are homeless. If their mothers choose to, and it might be their only choice so there isn’t a real choice, but if they do, sell sex so they don’t end up homeless, or to take them out of the temporary accommodation homelessness has left them in and in which over half have witnessed disturbing incidents, we as a society need to make sure they are as safe as they possibly can be. We need to end poverty. That is what we should be seeking to end, not demand. This is the wrong fucking way round. And I can’t see why people cannot or will not see this.

As we’ve seen in Scotland when clients of women working on-street are criminalised, the women are left mostly with the more dangerous clients, murderers and rapists, and they have to see more clients for less money and they have to agree to sex acts they don’t want to do because of lack of clients. And you might argue that they do not have do this, but if their home is freezing because they have no money for gas, if their children have lived on porridge for a week and they want to buy them some meat, if they are about to lose their home because they are in rent arrears and the council won’t help them and this new bedroom tax has meant their benefits are no longer enough, and they would rather sell sex and have their home warm, their children fed, not end up homeless, then they need to be able to do that as safely as possible. And if the woman wants the money to save going into further debt while studying, or for drugs, or for any other reason, whatever the reason, she deserves the same safety, and not the judgement of people on their plastic moral high ground.

Some people seeking to abolish the sex trade want to criminalise clients in every country based on research of the Swedish model, research that does not stand up. It is a “failed experiment in social engineering” and Sweden has history here. They want this Swedish model, which regrettably I used to support because I did believe it was best for people in the sex trade, but it will cause more rapes and murders, deeper poverty and more homelessness, to operate globally. And even if the research did stack up, any sane person can see you cannot replicate something that relies on government investment for ‘exit routes’ from a wealthy country with a tiny population and a small number of people in the sex trade to the UK, which has an estimated 80,000 people in prostitution. And then use your common sense when you look further to India, for example, a poor country with a huge population and high number of people in the sex trade, where if there was this Swedish model, there will also be starvation and death for women in the sex trade and their children and grandchildren.

I do believe there needs to be in every country serious investment for real alternatives for women seeking to leave the sex trade. Personally, I do not believe these services should be forced, but optional, and non-judgemental and non-religious. But surely even those wanting to criminalise all clients can see these ‘exiting routes’ need to be in place first. Even if countries had the money and were willing to invest, these services and the volume required are not going to pop up overnight, or in a month, or even a year.

I am not the sex trade lobby and I am not pro-prostitution, but I am pro-every-person-in-prostitution, both sex workers and victims of sex trafficking. It is possible to care about both equally and it is possible to realise different laws are needed to protect both groups of people. And as someone who has sold sex, who knows that for her and for most of the women she knows who are out of that life that it is traumatic, even with that knowledge and the repercussions of trauma that I live with daily, as a mother I would still choose to sell sex to keep my home warm, to feed my children, to pay my rent arrears, if those were my circumstances. I am fortunate that right now, they are not, but perhaps because I am able to envisage that and imagine myself in other women’s shoes whether in the UK or India or anywhere else, I respect them for what they do to survive, which is the reality for most people in the sex trade. I am no different from those women just because I don’t sell sex any more, and I and them are no different from any other woman who has never sold sex.

No woman deserves to be raped or the victim of other violence or murder. It is never right to blame the clothes she was wearing, that she was drunk or on drugs, that she was out late at night, or that she was selling sex.

End Violence Against Sex Workers