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.
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.
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.
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)”.