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Criminalising Clients Puts People Working On-Street in Greater Danger and Forced ‘Exiting’ Does Not Work


Photo credit: Ian Britton

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 only able to provide evidence of their rocketing arrest records of women working on-street: 67 women were charged with soliciting for prostitution* during 2008-2013, with nearly half charged during 2010/11. Our sources, two public servants associated with the scheme, say it was purely a “political PR stunt” and resulted in dispersing the women and instilling in them fear so they were no longer able to access harm reduction services – which are life-saving.

These aggressive policing initiatives put women in danger, making them work in less safe and unlit areas, unable to work with friends for safety to take down number plates and check when their friends return to the beat, reduce the time they can assess clients and negotiate before getting into cars, and facing fear of arrest, there are fewer clients so the women are forced to charge less and agree to sex acts they do not want to do and to see clients they would normally turn down, and remaining are the more dangerous clients, rapists and murders.

There is much evidence proving these policing approaches do not help the women with whom they claim to be concerned. Instead they are concerned with gentrification. The recent raids on Soho walk-up flats being another example. If success is measured by women being unaccounted for, made to work in more dangerous areas, alienating them from harm reduction services, and soaring arrest records, making it even harder for people to leave the sex trade when seeking other employment, then it is a sick measure of success, and in actuality is a measure of social cleansing, targeting the poorest and most vulnerable women.

The Merseyside model of policing prostitution is what works and what should be made law – please sign and share the petition calling for Theresa May MP to make this happen.


Below is evidence from Assembly Member Andrew Boff, Leader of the GLA Conservatives, and a Member of the National Working Group (formerly ACPO) on Prostitution and Exploitation, and Tamara Barnett, Senior Researcher for Policing and Crime, Greater London Authority from their submission to the Northern Ireland Assembly on the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill.

On safety 

Those working with sex workers state that criminalisation of either the client or sex worker can result in dangerous and sometimes fatal consequences for sex workers. This is particularly the case for on-street sex workers, since criminalisation often leads to displacement, forcing sex workers to work in less well lit, more dangerous and less well known areas.

Holistic response 

In London a focus on ridding the capital of prostitution, rather than a holistic focus on safety, has not had successful results. Sex workers have been displaced to less safe areas to work, they are reporting fewer crimes to police now than before, gangs increasingly see sex workers as more of an easy target because of the newly perceived breakdown in relations between the police and sex workers (Boff 2012), and prostitution, including street prostitution involving migrant women has increased (Eaves, 2013).

Exit schemes have not been shown to have had huge levels of success. Evidence instead suggests that a holistic approach of supporting sex workers – many of whom do at some point want to exit – by focusing on safety and access to services, rather than on exiting per se, has led to more sex workers leaving prostitution and more sex workers reporting crimes. Merseyside police worked more holistically with sex workers and service providers and this led to an increase in the number of women leaving sex work, with 95% of those they worked with quitting prostitution. Merseyside agencies also saw a 400% increase in sex workers willingly reporting violence to the police in the first 18 months of implementing the model and there was an 83% conviction rate for all cases going to court, compared to only one conviction achieved during the previous five years.

The lack of success of schemes in London and the success of the Merseyside scheme suggests that sex workers choose to exit when they feel supported, not when they are simply ordered to join an exit scheme.

Anti-Slavery International also concludes the criminalisation of the purchase of sex does not reduce trafficking.

4.7 Arguments are often presented, mainly by experts from Sweden, suggesting that criminalising the buying of sexual services of a person is a solution to trafficking for sexual exploitation. However, Anti-Slavery International has not been able to find robust enough evidence that any measures aimed at regulation of prostitution or criminalising the purchase of sexual services have any significant impact on reduction of trafficking.

4.8. The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention found no evidence that after a decade in place, the Swedish law criminalising the buying of sex had any significant impact on decreasing trafficking for sexual exploitation in Sweden. In fact, evidence had previously been presented to show one of the effect was to drive the problem underground and into the realm of modern information technologies, such as the internet and mobile phone technology.” The number of women involved in the online sex market is often higher than, for example, the number of women working for trafficking networks engaged in street prostitution…..In most Swedish cases, the contacts between clients and organisers or the woman or girl take place when the clients send e-mail or call a phone number in the ad.” 7

There is much evidence that shows the Swedish model is a failure and with no harm reduction being practised is social cleansing. More information on these issues and the case for decriminalisation can be found on this page.

*Kent Police told us that “an individual arrested and charged could be counted more than once (i.e. if arrested in more than 1 year)”.

About Ruth Jacobs (297 Articles)
Author of Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, a novel exposing the dark world and harsh reality of life as a drug addicted call girl. The main storyline is based loosely on events from my own life. In addition to fiction writing, I am also involved in journalism and broadcasting, primarily for human rights campaigning in the areas of sex workers' rights, anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking.

9 Comments on Criminalising Clients Puts People Working On-Street in Greater Danger and Forced ‘Exiting’ Does Not Work

  1. aformersexworker // January 20, 2014 at 9:21 pm // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Sex Work Brief and commented:
    The Nordic Model is all about lies, abuse and cold blooded disregard for life and humanity.
    I want to run up and down streets screaming that at the top of my voice. But what is worse is that so many people who are supposed to be “caring” know that perfectly well and still hide the truth and promote it. Sometimes it makes me wonder if there is any good in humanity at all.

  2. Reblogged this on The ObamaCrat™.

  3. Reblogged this on Ace News Services 2014 and commented:
    #AceNewsServices says “Criminalising Clients Puts People Working On-The-Street in Greater Danger” Such As: #MariaPope #Support #Petition

  4. (Apologies if this isn’t in the right place)
    On the subject of Street Sex Workers in Medway, prior to the ‘Safer Exit’ scheme, there was a project called ISIS which was part of the then NHS Sexual Health Programme, which, from about 2005 came under the management of Medway Council Public Health. Between 2003 and 2008 ISIS provided both a street outreach service and had contact with the ‘off street’ workers. A drop-in facility was also provided to engage with the women (and sometimes partners), helping them into treatment and supporting them with housing issues with the aim of helping them exit prostitution. They were also able to report incidents to us and we worked alongside the Police.
    During the 3 years I ran the street outreach I successfully helped women turn their lives around and to access treatment and other services. I ending up leaving primarily because it felt that the council were doing it’s upmost to destroy the service, even to the extent that they commissioned a report which showed that the project was excellent and needed in the area, we even had funding withheld from us.
    I did not see the Inside Out Programme but just wanted to let you know that the NHS had a very successful project running but that has never been recognized. We even had Rob Smith from BBC South East visit the project but we were never allowed to publicise the fact that there was a service to help women exit prostitution.
    It is therefore very sad to hear that despite the talk of Safe Exit being a success – this was not the case.
    I totally agree that enforced exit does not work, merely causes women to take dangerous risks and hope that you succeed and things do change.

    • Hi Dawn, thank you for your comment. It sounds like you were running the ideal service in Medway offering harm reduction and for the women who wanted to leave the industry the help they needed was there for them. It’s the trusting relationships non-judgemental and non-enforced services can build that enables the women to reach out for help when and if they do want to exit the sex trade. I am so sad your service was stopped as harm reduction is life saving. With the timing, it would seem the police and council prioritised gentrification of the area over the lives of real women. It’s sickening. Best wishes, Ruth

7 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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  3. EU – European Parliament’s attempt to reduce prostitution fails women | Sexwork Blogs
  4. The Swedish Model Criminalising The Purchase of Sex Is Dangerous: The European Parliament Should Have Rejected It | Soul Destruction
  5. APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade Report “Shifting the Burden” Increases Violence Against Women | Ruth Jacobs
  6. APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade Report “Shifting the Burden” Increases Violence Against Women | Soul Destruction
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