Why crimes against sex workers should be treated as hate crimes

Caution: Contains references to rape, murder and physical violence

Jackie Summerford’s daughter, Bonnie Barratt, was murdered at 24 years of age in the sex trade. Bonnie’s murderer was a regular client of hers and her friends. “He’d been rough with some of them and they’d stopped going to his flat,” Jackie told me. “If there was the Merseyside model, he might have been reported to the police before… ”

The Merseyside model refers to the Merseyside Police Force’s pledge in 2006 to treat crimes against people in prostitution as hate crimes. The hate crime model has had outstanding results. In Liverpool, in 2009, police convicted 90% of those reported to have raped sex workers. In 2010, the overall conviction rate in Merseyside for crimes against sex workers was 84%, with a 67% conviction rate for rape. The national average conviction rate for rape is 6.5%.

Police with car.jpgWomen in prostitution suffer higher rates of violence. More than half have been raped and/or seriously sexually assaulted in the UK, at least three quarters have been physically assaulted, and the mortality rate for women in prostitution in London is 12 times the national average (Home Office 2004, p.20).

Most women in prostitution do not report rape or other crimes committed against them to the police. A major factor is the risk that they will be charged with something related to prostitution. Kate, an escort, spoke to me about the two times she was raped and did not feel able to turn to the police. She said, “I felt I would be judged by the police and their detailed questioning. I felt they would be categorised as ‘alleged’ rapes, with question marks over my reliability and circumstances…and that feeling would be too hard to handle. There was also the question of confidentiality, not knowing how many police officers I might have to speak to…could I trust them all?”

Maria, a survivor of prostitution, who suffered being raped and beaten while in the sex trade, reiterated Kate’s sentiment: “None of us went to the police… There was lack of trust. You didn’t know which policemen to trust. Half the girls were being touched up by them… It would be like you chose to do this job: get out and do it, or get a life…” She said the police “have no compassion. They think the girls and women put themselves in that danger, so why should they be helped.”

She told me of a horrific incident where her friend was trapped inside a van, tied up and the van was set on fire. Maria searched for her friend, found her in the van and rescued her. Bravely, they then went looking for the client who tried to kill her. Finding him in a nightclub, they called the police but “the police were more interested in the arson attack on the van than the girl inside it,” Maria said.

The stigma attached to prostitution and the moral high ground much of society takes affects not only the people selling sex, but also their families

Jackie Summerford told me that before her daughter, Bonnie, was murdered, she was the victim of a severe violent assault and the client who attacked her had left her for dead. Although Bonnie was hospitalised for a few days, Jackie said that, “she didn’t feel she could tell the police because of what she was doing… I think they are all the same in the way they don’t trust them, because at the end of the day they’d still nick them… The police should offer the hand of support and show understanding and compassion to the victim. But to a working girl, it’s the opposite. There wouldn’t be that kindness. With another person, they’d be sympathetic, but with working girls, they’re not. They should treat everyone the same.”

In the Silence on Violence report commissioned by the Mayor of London, Andrew Boff, Conservative Member of the London Assembly, recommends the Metropolitan Police Force adopt the Merseyside model. Andrew told me, “Some sex workers in London feel that when they report crimes, police focus on their crimes related to sex work – such as having a ‘brothel’ – over the crimes they originally reported against them… As a result of this belief in the sex industry, sex workers have told me they feel that they cannot safely report crime to the police.”

Andrew consulted a number of service providers working with sex workers and they had all “noticed a decline in the number of sex workers reporting crimes to police”. He also said that sex workers had told him they felt the police did not treat them with “dignity and respect when they have come into contact with the law”. One woman he spoke with described the treatment she had received by the police as “degrading and humiliating”.

As the mother of a woman in the sex trade, Jackie Summerford spoke of the treatment she received from the police at the time of her daughter’s murder. She said, “I didn’t get on with the liaison officer because when he came to tell me about Bonnie, he was talking about Xiao Mei Guo, the lady who was selling counterfeit DVDs, and he tried to make Bonnie sound worse by talking about the other lady as if she was better, pure.” Xiao Mei Guo was murdered by the same man who murdered Bonnie.

Jackie and her family were not offered counselling. When she turned to a hospital nurse for help, the nurse contacted the police. Jackie said, “Two days after, the liaison officer came over to the house and brought these two books about death and support. He said, “Why I’ve not given you these is because you’ve not got a body.”

The stigma attached to prostitution and the moral high ground much of society takes affects not only the people selling sex, but also their families. As noted in my dissertation on prostitution in 1998, many men who outwardly condemn women in prostitution pay for the very same in private. This double standard is completely unacceptable. It is not morally wrong to sell sex, but it is most certainly morally wrong to be duplicitous.

As a community mental health team leader, Jayne Rogers explained from a mental health perspective the urgent need for the Merseyside model to be compulsory across all police forces within the UK. “There is a long history of women with mental health problems being violently sexually abused and forced into prostitution by pimps. The police are generally of very little help… The women I work with feel it’s pointless reporting anything to the police – nothing ever happens. They feel powerless to act, and this makes working with people for a better future very hard.”

With police training and the change of priority from enforcement to protection, victims of sex trafficking are more likely to be identified as victims and less likely to be treated as criminals

Protest - violence against sex work.jpgJayne told me about one woman under the care of the mental health team who as well as having mental health issues has a learning disability and substance misuse issues. Jayne said the woman “managed to get out of a locked area to be picked up by a pimp. She was sold to ten men for a few drugs for her personal use in one day. She was only picked up by the police after a missing person alert was made by services. The police took her back to the locked area she lived in, but they made no attempt to arrest the men who pimped her or bought her. She sees the police as people that lock her up. We had to move her out of the borough to protect her. Her life is marginally better now, but she finds it soul destroying to talk about her experiences.”

With 68% of women in prostitution meeting the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, a major cause of suicide, access to mental health services, such as specialist trauma therapy is vital. In addition, most women in street prostitution have issues with problematic drug use (Home Office 2004, p.17). Services accessed such as hospitals, private detox facilities and treatment centres, as well as GP surgeries, need to have robust procedures in place that enable reporting when a person in the sex trade has had a crime committed against them that they wish to report. Although it may be that appropriate relationships with the police need to be established, it could be more effective for those service providers, and for prisons as well, to have direct links with sex worker projects. The reason for this is the key role of the ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor) in the Merseyside model.

Rosie Campbell, a researcher and Chair of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects National Ugly Mugs Advisory Group, explained the importance of ISVAs: “The role of the specialist ISVA has proved to be essential in encouraging reporting and supporting sex workers from report to court.” In her former role as Coordinator of Armistead Street and Portside, Rosie saw the need for Independent Sexual Violence Advisors within the sex work projects. She established the first post and now, though only a small number, there are specialist ISVAs in other projects. “ISVAs can have a key role in liaising with the police and sex workers…and as part of that, support sex workers to get justice.”

Rosie also stressed the importance of National Ugly Mugs, which “aims to increase the reporting of crime by sex workers, to alert sex workers across the UK to dangerous individuals and to aid in the investigation and conviction of offenders committing crimes against sex workers.” From women she has spoken with and from reports made to National Ugly Mugs, victims have reported offenders directly saying they knew they wouldn’t inform the police. “This shows the importance of putting protections in place for sex workers, ensuring police do take crimes seriously and challenging the belief that crimes against sex workers will not be taken seriously,” Rosie said. Though successful during the pilot period funded by the Home Office, fundraising is now required for the money needed to keep the National Ugly Mugs scheme going.

The Merseyside hate crime model campaign has gained support from a number of anti-human trafficking organisations. With police training and the change of priority from enforcement to protection, victims of sex trafficking are more likely to be identified as victims and less likely to be treated as criminals – this includes children. Maria, at 15 years old, had travelled to Manchester to stay with a friend for the weekend. When that didn’t work out, she found herself on the streets. She was picked up by the police. She said, “The police didn’t even ask if I wanted to go home and they didn’t ask how old I was… I had expected them to take me home, back to my mum. But they didn’t…” Instead, the police delivered her to a hostel. “I was petrified. I didn’t know what to do. I ended up losing my virginity to a lorry driver for five pounds. That kept me in sandwiches for a week.”

On how the police should deal with crimes committed against people in prostitution, Maria says, “The background of the working girls should not be held against them. Because they are in the sex trade, the police think they deserve to be raped. No one puts themselves in the situation to be raped. They should be treated like a victim. They should be helped more. They should be given help to get a new start in life if that’s what they want. The Merseyside model will bring about all these changes.”

The stigma against people in the sex trade cannot be denied. They suffer undeservedly because of that stigma at the hands of the police, and also at the hands of criminals who view them as ‘easy targets’. As a stigmatised and vulnerable group, crimes against them are unequivocally hate crimes. The hate crime model calls for a change of attitude and treatment from the police. This sea change in the police will affect society more widely and go some way to reducing the stigma suffered by people in the sex trade, as well as people who have exited, and their families too.

When a man rapes a woman in prostitution, he does not become a ‘good’ punter with the next woman

“Merseyside Police see sex workers as members of our community, sisters, mothers, brothers etc. who are as deserving of protection as we all are,” says Shelly Stoops, former ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor) at the Armistead Street Project. “Culturally it sends a message that they are valued and violence against them is unacceptable.”

Rights for sex workers.jpgShelly was instrumental in the hate crime model being implemented in Merseyside. She described how initially the women were “reluctant but once we had the first successful outcome at court and the victim spoke highly of how well she had been treated by the police, and they knew I would come out at 3 am if they needed support, they came forward.” Shelly has witnessed the increased rate of reporting. She told me that the women now have trust in the police and that they “no longer fear them; they feel the police are there to protect them.”

For seven years, Merseyside police have been getting serial rapists and other criminals committing crimes against people in the sex trade off the streets. And it is shocking that in seven years, this hate crime model has not been adopted by all police forces throughout the UK. When a man rapes a woman in prostitution, the chances are that he does not become a ‘good’ punter with the next woman. The reality is that he will go on to rape and rape and rape. Kate told me she has been “left with feelings of guilt: that he is still out there and could strike again”. We need a police force that people in prostitution can safely and confidently turn to and report crimes committed against them.

The Merseyside hate crime model has ensured the police treat people in prostitution who are victims of crimes as victims, as is their human right. As a proven way to reduce rape and other crimes committed against people in prostitution, the Merseyside model is something that must not be dragged into the main sex trade debate. Of itself, it is not a legal solution. It is something that needs to happen no matter what legal solution is in place.

For those arguing about the best legal solution, whether that be the Nordic model or decriminalisation, Kate’s words here are vital: “I would like to think that no matter which part of the spectrum you belong to – pro or anti, the actual health and safety of those working in the here and now would be uppermost. The Merseyside model should not be allowed to become part of the sex trade debate – it’s more important, more urgent than that. It should be a separate issue.”

You can read more about the Merseyside model here . The full Merseyside model interviews can be found here.

Please sign and share the HM Government e-petition submitted by Jayne Rogers and sex worker, Kalika Gold, for all UK police forces to treat crimes against sex workers/people in prostitution as hate crimes.

If you are on Twitter, please follow @NoOneUnrapable, an account supporting the Merseyside model run by Kalika Gold.

First picture of police officer with a car, as part of a campaign to reduce kerb crawling, uploaded by Flickr user West Midlands Police. Second image of protest as part of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers uploaded by Flickr user Steve Rhodes. Third image of person holding a protest sign reading “Rights for sex workers” uploaded by Flickr user philippe leroyer.

Ruth Jacobs is a writer whose recently published novel follows a group of women in prostitution. She is also involved in charity and human rights campaigning in the areas of anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking