Social Justice

Sex workers reveal the shocking things police say when they report violence and harassment

The English Collective of Prostitutes has highlighted 10 of the common responses members receive from police when reporting harassment and violence. The group says decriminalisation of sex work could mitigate the stigma.

English Collective of Prostitutes during a protest last year. Image: Juno Mac / SWARM

“Who do you go to if police are part of the problem?” asks Laura Watson, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, an organisation of sex workers campaigning for the decriminalisation of prostitution, sex workers’ rights and safety. 

In a 2016 study involving 240 sex workers in the UK, 49 per cent said they were “unconfident” that the police would take their reports of violence seriously. 

On January 11, the collective took to Instagram to reveal 10 things the police have said to sex workers in their network when reporting harassment and violence. Their post highlights the unfair treatment many sex workers have faced at the hands of those in positions of power.  

One woman recalls being told: “You have to be threatened three times before we can do anything about it.” Another: “We don’t really investigate matters when you have intentionally put yourself at risk.” Yet another: “It’s just an occupational hazard.” 

Current laws surrounding sex work in the UK are something of a grey area. While it is legal to be a sex worker, there are many aspects about the service which are criminalised.  

Working as part of a group rather than alone is illegal, and so is virtually anything that involves contacting a client, such as the advertising of services or solicitation of sex on the street. Despite this, as of 2016, there were around 72,800 sex workers in the UK, 88 per cent of whom were women.  

“The criminalisation of [prostitution] is a massive aspect really,” Watson said. “It’s closely connected to the stigma associated with prostitution, and the fact that a lot of women can’t report crimes made against them for fear of arrest themselves.” 

During her time with the collective, Watson alleges that police officers have frequently dismissed their duty of care when dealing with cases involving sex work. She said that during raids on premises where prostitutes are thought to work, police sometimes bring the press along.  

On multiple occasions, including a large-scale raid in London’s Soho back in 2013, a camera crew was brought along to photograph the arrests for the media. According to The Guardian, during this specific occasion, women were reportedly caught on film “cowering” and “desperately attempting to cover their faces” from the photographers and police.  

Image: English Collective of Prostitutes (2019)

Watson said there are two main advantages to decriminalising sex work and stopping police from being able to take these measures: It would mean no threat of arrest for those who work together and ensure sex worker safety. 

“We don’t think anyone should have to make the choice between working on their own and facing increased danger or working with others and facing possible arrest. Nobody should have to weigh up that as a decision,” said the campaigner.  

Decriminalisation would also mean that sex workers would be able to report violence to the police without being threatened with arrest — or for migrant women, deportation. It is thought that this could transform police priority, so that acts of violence, when reported, are investigated and taken seriously. 

Alongside this, the organisation also suggests that the decriminalisation of sex work would allow workers to access health services without fear of discrimination, prevent criminal records, free up police time and reduce police corruption.  

Decrim Now, another grassroots campaign group fighting for the government to fully decriminalise sex work in the UK, agrees the measure would benefit the safety of women working in the industry.  

“In areas where decriminalisation has been introduced, sex workers report a reduction in violence and in stigma,” a spokesperson for Decrim Now said. “They also report increased confidence in asserting their rights and accessing justice, not only making it safer whilst working, but also allowing women to move into other forms of employment if they want to exit.” 

Many countries across the globe have already adopted this approach. Rather than criminalising sex work, in 2003, New Zealand implemented new health and safety legislation under the Prostitution Reform Act. Amongst other benefits, and as suggested by Decrim Now, this saw a decrease in violence towards sex workers as well as no overall rise in prostitution in the country.  

More than 70 per cent of UK sex workers have previously worked in healthcare, education or the voluntary sector. Watson believes the current laws for sex work as enforcing the criminalisation of poverty. 

“In our network, many sex workers are mothers working to feed themselves and their children and keep a roof over their heads,” Watson said. “If the government are worried about trying to reduce the numbers of prostitution, they need to deal with women’s poverty and mothers’ poverty. They need to deal with basic things, like benefit sanctions.” 

This view is corroborated in a report conducted by the House of Commons in 2019. The study explores “survival sex” and highlights how many people, overwhelmingly women, turn to sex work to meet basic survival needs including money, food and shelter. It’s systems such as benefit sanctions, and the five-week wait for the first payment of Universal Credit, that has left some turning to other measures to get by.  

“For many sex workers working at the margins, sex work has enabled them to survive in the face of poverty, benefit cuts and sanctions,” said the Decrim Now spokesperson. “Removing what can be a person’s last resort does not improve their options, but instead criminalises their survival.” 

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