By Lauren Crosby Medlicott | Freelance Journalist
Street Offences Act 1959, Section 1.
The Crime and Disorder Act, 1998.
Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 53.
Modern Slavery Act 2015
Criminalised for kerb crawling and working together, British sex workers feel they are fighting a desperate battle with the law to provide for themselves and their families.
The last UK government study on prostitution revealed there were 72,800 sex workers in the country – 88% of them women. With a tough cost-of-living crisis, experts say that number is sure to have increased as women, many who are mothers, turned to sex work to provide for their families.
But instead of protection or support, hundreds of sex workers say they are being criminalised for their choice of work, slapped with fines for soliciting services, arrested for working in groups, and prosecuted for breaching Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and Criminal Behaviour Orders (CBOs).
Even though poverty is the reason most women choose to do sex work, several prostitution laws since the 1950s have forced them into more dangerous conditions and created an endless cycle of criminalisation and poverty.
While it is legal to exchange sex for money in the UK, laws passed over the decades effectively make it illegal. The two primary things sex workers are criminalised for are loitering and soliciting on the streets, and brothel-keeping, both banned under the Street Offences Act 1959 and Sexual Offences Act 2003.
Out of sight
The justification for the Street Offences Act 1959 was that it would prevent public nuisance and keep prostitutes, as they were referred to then, off the streets and out of sight.
It immediately impacted sex workers. Labelled as a common prostitute by the court, hordes of women were handed convictions they could never erase from their records.
“We have women in our network in their sixties who had a conviction for loitering and soliciting when they were 16,” Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes told me.
“It has trapped them in prostitution and determined the direction of their lives ever since.”
Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes, speaks through a megaphone during a demonstration at the offices of Soho estates by sex workers against the threat of eviction from a building in Soho, in central London October 9, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Winning
With a criminal record of any sort, sex workers have said they struggle to find work and housing and have had social services get in touch regarding the removal of their children, and in extreme cases, taken their children into care.
One mother, Gemma* told me how social services took one look at her, saw she had been arrested for prostitution, and decided she was a bad mum. She eventually lost her children.
In the early 2000s, working outside became even more dangerous for sex workers with the introduction of ASBOs. The ASBO is broad and could target noise, fly-tipping, graffiti – and street-based sex work.
ASBOs were introduced in 1998 by section one of the Crime and Disorder Act and later replaced in 2014 by Civil Injunctions and CBOs, which act in a very similar way to ASBOs.
In their book ‘Revolting Prostitutes’, Molly Smith and Juno Mac describe how, once an ASBO was issued, breaching it would criminalise non-criminal behaviour.
For example, imagine a woman was working the streets and got an ASBO banning her from the area. If that area was also where she lived, naturally, she would breach it. Though imprisonment for soliciting was abolished in 1982, the woman could be jailed for up to five years for breaching her ASBO.
“Women would inevitably breach the ASBO,” said Adams. “From the early 2000s, we would regularly see women going to prison for 18 months with devastating consequences of family breakdown and homelessness.”
Similar to ASBOs, now CBOs can be given out by prosecutors if sex workers are convicted and sentenced for soliciting or loitering.
These orders both include prohibitions (things the person must stop doing) and requirements (things the person must actively do). If the order is breached, it is a separate offence that may require the sex worker to return to court, where she could be sentenced for up to five years in prison and be required to pay a hefty fine.
Despite ASBOs, sex workers will tell you it’s safer to work in groups than it is individually.
They might recall the death of Lenuta Haidemac, who could not work at home so visited clients in their homes or hotel rooms. In 2017, she was brutally stabbed and strangled by a male client who said he was inspired by the notorious 19th century serial killer Jack the Ripper.
She’d been working alone.
Lenuta’s story and those of others who have been violently attacked and killed underline the importance of having backup when sex working. But the Sexual Offences Act 2003 outlaws it.
In the UK, a brothel is defined as a space where two or more sex workers are working. Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (the revised version of the Sexual Offences Act 1959), those accused of keeping a brothel, assisting in the management of a brothel, or of controlling prostitution for gain (which doesn’t require proof of force or coercion to secure a conviction) can receive up to seven years in prison.
Sex workers demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Claire Finch had been operating from her home with friends who wanted to work together. There were always two women in the house for safety. Neighbours said they knew about her work and considered her a loved member of the community.
She was charged with brothel-keeping and went through 16 months of distress fearing a criminal conviction and possible prison sentence.
After a legal fight, she was found not guilty, but many women don’t have such an outcome and are convicted of brothel keeping. They face a criminal record, up to seven years in prison, the relinquishing of money under the Proceeds of Crime Act and, for migrant women, deportation.
Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, a person can be convicted for trafficking under UK law for helping a sex worker come into the UK or move around within the UK – again, no evidence of force or coercion is needed.
“All migrant sex workers immediately got labelled as victims of trafficking regardless of what they said about their situations,” recalled Adams.
“Police started getting masses of money for anti-trafficking operations, and the way they justified that money was by raiding sex worker premises if migrant women (were present) and prosecuting anybody they could for brothel keeping. Even the migrant sex workers they were meant to be saving.”
Raids in London’s Soho district in 2013 demonstrated this as 200 police officers, dressed in full riot gear with dogs, stormed into women’s flats in Soho, dragging some out in their underwear.
Police claimed the raids were to “close brothels where we have evidence of very serious crimes happening, including rape and human trafficking”. But no victims of trafficking were found. Instead, migrant sex workers were traumatised and some were deported.
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 was a pivotal piece of legislation that was headed in the right direction, but since it was passed, it has left those in the sector with mixed feelings due to its lack of victim provision protection.
For sex workers, the act gave the police justification for going into premises. Several raids have found no trafficking victims, but women were prosecuted for controlling prostitution for gain and brothel keeping.
“It provides a cover for really repressive and persecutory raids,” said Adams.
In December 2020, Diana Johnson, a Labour Party member of parliament, introduced the Sexual Exploitation Bill to “bust the business model of sex trafficking.”
Although the second reading of the bill has been delayed, it is expected to come back on the agenda at some point.
It’s been likened to the Nordic Model, an approach to prostitution law in which buyers of sex are criminalised while sex workers are decriminalised.
Sex worker advocacy groups, though, said the model has been a failure internationally, and Adams is concerned its introduction will only add to a long list of prostitution laws that hurt sex workers.
“The claimed intention is the protection of women,” she said. “But it was never about this. It was always about control and giving the police massive discretionary power which they were then free to abuse. And outrageously, the anti-trafficking laws have primarily been used to increase powers to deport migrant workers.”
Though laws are meant to protect society, sex workers in the UK say past and present legislation is doing the exact opposite for their community. They say they are determined to continue to fight for full decriminalisation of sex work, arguing it would reduce stigma and violence towards them as they attempt to provide for themselves and their families.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.