Prostitution – Protecting sex workers – Guardian editorial

Prostitution: Protecting sex workers

The parallels between the Bradford murders and those in Ipswich four years ago are compelling but it would be wrong to say nothing has changed

* Editorial
* The Guardian, Friday 28 May 2010

Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, comes to his new department driven by a strong sense of purpose and several years of preparation. His State of the Nation report, which he presented yesterday, highlights the intractable problem of multiple disadvantage. He might have used as an example street sex workers, mainly women, vulnerable and predominantly addicts. The three missing Bradford women Susan Rushworth, Shelley Armitage and Suzanne Blamires – whose body was identified yesterday – all fit the typical profile. They struggled with drink and drug problems, they were jobless and their lives tended to the chaotic. But what is most compelling about their tragic stories is that what is known of their lives mirrors so closely much that is familiar from the five sex workers murdered in Ipswich four years ago, and the lives of many of the 13 victims of Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, a generation before that. Serial murderers capture national attention. But every day someone is beaten up, and death is not uncommon. Selling sex on the streets is not only dehumanising and debasing for both the women and their clients; it is potentially life-threatening.

It would be wrong to say nothing has changed since Steve Wright stalked Ipswich in 2006. In the town itself, a huge and impressive effort has been made to set up the kind of holistic approach to street sex workers that is unknown in most of the rest of the UK. The police, local and county councils, the courts and the health service are now working together to tackle the underlying problems of addiction, poverty and homelessness, trying to stop vulnerable women resorting to selling sex. Last year’s Policing and Crime Act introduced, along with the controversial penalties for men who buy sex with trafficked women, engagement and support orders.
They came into force only last month, and give courts an alternative to a fine for soliciting – which is only likely to force the woman to work more.
Instead, a sex worker has to attend three meetings with agencies or organisations that can address underlying causes.

But already there are doubts about whether the scheme, which is to be run by the already overstretched drug intervention programme, will be adequately funded. The pioneers here are in the voluntary sector. Some projects – like the award-winning One25 in Bristol, Liverpool’s Armistead Centre and the Safe Exit project of Toynbee Hall in the East End of London – have developed schemes that can transform lives, brokering new relationships between street sex workers and the police while providing support and counselling to sex workers themselves. But vulnerable women are low on the ladder of fundraising appeal. And although it is tempting to call for the state to step in to support what are often shoestring projects, there is some caution among them about being picked up by Whitehall – a fear that central funding would lead to unreachable targets for what is always a long, slow and too often unsuccessful journey from the street to a safer lifestyle.

So others call for a change in the law. Straight legalisation of sex work is ruled out: experience elsewhere suggests it leads only to more exploitation. Decriminalisation might improve confidence between sex workers and the police, and improve the reporting of violence, but in New Zealand, where it was introduced in 2003, what the government hails as a success is bitterly opposed by many neighbourhood organisations. Local hostility here has led to the increasing use of asbos. That means women are forced into unsafe areas where they are even more at risk. Anecdotally, street sex workers experience as much violence from men who are not clients as from men who are. Some argue that legalising small co-operative brothels would help. But in the end the law only deals with the symptoms, not the desperation that drives women on to the streets and into danger.