Policing Pleasure — How Sex Workers Are Left Out in the Cold
Selling sex may be distasteful to many, but sex workers deserve protection.
Daria Pionko was brutally murdered two days before Christmas in 2015. Pionko had been working as a prostitute in an area designated for that purpose by the local authorities. She was ‘supposed to be safe’. Three months earlier sociologists at the University of Leeds had reported that increased police presence in the area was needed to combat the fear of crime. Prostitution exists in an ambiguous legal landscape on the fringe of society. Issues of worker safety compete with questions of morality and community interests to stifle decisive policy from central government. The police are left to balance those interests.
Informal toleration zones became a feature of many towns and cities in the UK during the twentieth century as a means to manage street prostitution. Police enforcement concentrated on ensuring that the trade stayed within designated zones. The 1980s saw a trend towards ‘managing out’ street prostitution through the use of traffic management and environmental design to hinder the street trade. There was a resurgence in the establishment of zones in the 1990s.
The rationale is to contain activity to a designated area at designated times. Workers enjoy an informal immunity from police intervention in exchange for following the rules. Toleration zones provide a means for the police to control and contain street prostitution using enforcement when necessary. Such an approach makes sense.
Prostitution is often referred to as the oldest profession, a moniker earned from its ubiquity throughout human history. Different approaches to prostitution, from full criminalisation to decriminalisation, have been tried around the world with prostitution surviving them all. Indeed, enforcing a zero tolerance approach serves only to displace, not eradicate. The deployment of policing to toleration zones is an efficient use of resources compared to the alternative of chasing numerous pockets of prostitutes and johns around town in a futile attempt at prohibition.
Prostitution can be controlled but not eliminated. There is evidence of concern for the safety of sex workers. There is also evidence of a perception of immorality among the general population. The toleration of street prostitution carries a social cost with nearby residents reporting anti-social behaviour, sexual activity taking place in public, streets littered with used condoms and abusive behaviour from prostitutes and their clients. The subject is a political hot potato with the Home Office committing itself only to a policy of ensuring that legislation enables the tackling of exploitation. The stance taken by central government is ineffective at best. At worst it contributes to fostering a dangerous environment.
The law relating to prostitution in England and Wales is incoherent and contradictory. The sale and purchase of sex is not in itself illegal. Various aspects of the procurement process are outlawed, particularly those occurring in public. The Street Offences Act 1959 makes it an offence to persistently loiter in public for the purpose of offering services as a prostitute, with persistent defined as two or more occasions over a three month period. On the other side of the transaction the Sexual Offences Act 2003 makes it an offence for a person in a public place to solicit another for the purpose of obtaining services as a prostitute. Thus, while the sale and purchase of sex are not in themselves illegal the arranging of such a transaction in a public place will result in one or both parties being criminalised. One can, it seems, legally loiter for such purposes once a quarter. Transgressions result in fines or Engagement and Support Orders, introduced in 2009 with the aim of providing support by way of drug and alcohol counselling and medical care.
Controlling or inciting prostitution for gain are criminal acts under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, as is paying for the sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force by a third party. It is a crime to keep a brothel (defined as a venue where more than one prostitute works) or even to allow premises to be used as a brothel under the Sexual Offences Act 1956. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 outlaws exploitation through trafficking or enforced labour. Penalties for exploitative behaviour are more severe, ranging from fines for paying for the services of a prostitute subjected to force up to 14 years imprisonment for causing the sexual exploitation of a child. Paying for the sexual services of a child under 13 carries a life sentence.
The law can be summarised as allowing sex to be bought and sold in private between consenting adults providing that no third party facilitates, controls or profits from it. This does not solve the issue of street prostitution which has fallen to the police to handle as they see fit. This is easier said than done with budget cuts of 20% since 2010 reportedly leaving police forces unable to respond to 999 calls. The impact of budget cuts is supported by official figures which show the number of police officers to have declined by 12% from 171,000 in 2010 to 150,000 in 2017. So how do police decide policing priorities?
The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 created Police and Crime Commissioners to oversee most police forces in England and Wales. The Commissioners are elected by the public and responsible for the appointment of the Chief Constable and the setting of priorities. The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the Home Office also contribute to policy aims. Budget cuts play a part; as the outgoing Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe so succinctly put it in 2017, ‘the bottom line is that there will be less cops’. Less cops mean less policing. Less policing means more crime. Why should stretched police resources be assigned to areas frequented by those soliciting sex in public? The related offences are minor and attract fines of £500 to £1000. It would seem prudent that in the face of budget cuts attention be turned away from relatively minor indiscretions and focussed on more serious matters. If only it were that simple.
The Home Office and the NPCC view prostitution as a dangerous pursuit. Prostitutes are often vulnerable individuals with drug, alcohol, domestic or other issues. That they are more vulnerable to violence and sexual crime is widely acknowledged with the Home Office stating that the police have a core role to play in stopping attacks on prostitutes. The NPCC mirrors this stance, citing a study which found that sex workers are 12 times more likely to be murdered than the general population. The NPCC also points to the need for a holistic approach to tackling prostitution which involves various support groups. The National Ugly Mugs (NUM) scheme, which provides a reporting service for sex workers subjected to violence is one such group; it is estimated that only 25% of incidents reported to NUM were reported to the police by the individuals concerned. The importance of the police and support groups working together not only to support sex workers but to instil confidence in the local community is also emphasised. Interestingly, the NPCC considers the criminal status of many aspects of the sex trade an invitation to organised crime and trafficking.
Taking this wider view of prostitution into consideration clarifies the picture somewhat. The policing of prostitution is less about the policing of pleasure and more about the protection of vulnerable individuals forced by the law to operate at the fringes of society. It is also about the protection of local community interests and allaying fears about public safety. When viewed in this light the use and policing of toleration zones turns into a vehicle for saving police resources and protecting the wider community.
This is all well and good but if toleration zones are not policed or are policed with an enforcement outlook they disintegrate. The sex workers and associated customers, drug dealers and traffickers disperse far and wide. Support from groups such as NUM falters as the trade goes underground. The police are left with the task of policing sex workers and protecting against the elevated levels of violence visited upon them across an entire town or city rather than a single industrial estate. Not allocating resources to toleration zones creates more work than it saves and alienates local residents. Although police funding is due to increase, in these austere times there is a fiscal argument to be made for rethinking the official policy approach to prostitution.
Though the criminal elements relating to exploitation and trafficking should undoubtedly remain, regulating sex as a legitimate business would have several benefits. Legal brothels can provide a safer environment and would likely entice sex workers in off the street. Safe, well managed brothels already exist. Regulating the street trade would allow for the establishment of permanent managed zones; the Leeds zone shows this has potential for success and previous proposals for a zone in Liverpool found broad community support. The fact is that that prostitution is here to stay.
Officially sanctioned zones should increase access to outreach and support groups, allowing vulnerable sex workers to get the support they need. Those making an economic choice can do so without fear of police harassment. All should receive the protection they deserve. A lack of policing becomes a topic for public debate as it would in other high risk areas such as sports events or public demonstrations. The support networks that legal zones allow to develop would, as in most areas of civil and professional life, negate the need for the police to be the primary point of contact with wider society. Rates can be charged to contribute to policing, incomes can be taxed. Legal business contributes to society and regulation of the sex industry would alleviate the burden which is already being shouldered by the police. Moral indignation must yield to the realities of 21st century society though decisions to recognise and condone those realities should not be taken lightly. Decriminalisation does not necessarily legitimise, with exploitation remaining a very real risk.
All those affected by the trade need adequate protection. Marginalising those involved serves only to increase the risks they face. While many find the very idea of sex for sale distasteful it is, and always has been, a reality. There is much commentary centred around recognising sex-workers as universal victims and placing the criminal burden on those procuring sex. This stance may be easier for politicians to get behind but will ultimately prove ineffective as it will do little to improve the situation of those most in need.
The Home Affairs Committee has reported that in order for informed policy decisions to be made robust evidence and up to date research is needed. Unfortunately those recommendations were published on 15th June 2016, just a week before politics in the UK was engulfed by the Brexit referendum result. The announcement by the Home Office recently that £150,000 has been granted to Bristol University to carry out a research project on the nature of prostitution in the UK is a welcome sign of interest. The current law relating to prostitution is unrepresentative of the realities of society and serves only to disenfranchise sex workers. The police have been left to decide between enforcement and toleration — they should be focussed on protection. A change in official policy and reform of the law would facilitate this and must not be stymied by pockets of moral indignation. Strong leadership is needed, focussed on outcomes rather than votes. Alas, such leadership appears absent from many areas of public life at this time.