Poppy’s strange records improvement
CONTROVERSY continues to surround the Home Office’s plan to subject clients of sex workers to £1,000 fines if the women they arrange sex with subsequently turn out to have been coerced, though the nonsensical “controlled for gain” phrase has been dropped in favour of women who have been “subjected to force, deception or threats” including those “subjected to force by psychological means and the exploitation of vulnerability.”
This followed heated exchanges in the Commons Scrutiny Commitee on the legislation – the Policing and Crime Bill – where MPs queried the fates of many trafficking victims and whether they would continue to be rescued by punters given the prospect of £1,000 fines and resulting publicity.
Among those giving evidence at the Committee was Denise Marshall, chief executive of the Poppy Project, which provides homes and support for rescued trafficking victims, mainly in London. Suddenly at the Committee, she made an astonishing assertion:
Interestingly, in the time we have run the POPPY project, we have had 22 referrals from punters—from those buying sex from trafficked women.
They made the referrals because the women were in an obvious physical and emotional state of distress. That sounds good on the surface until you realise that all the 22 men had sex with the trafficked woman before they phoned us.
These are trafficked women whom we have taken into our projects and whom have given evidence to us in statements. All those men, knowing the women were trafficked, had sex before phoning us to help the women to get out of their situation.
This clearly had a stunning effect on the committee, and was duly quoted by Home Office minister Alan Campbell to Parliament at the Report Stage. Yet the more one thinks about this, the less astonishing it becomes, and the more one studies the subject, the more one has reason to question Ms Marshall’s assertion.
Whereas in society in general, a relationship precedes sex, in a brothel the process is reversed. Sex comes first and a relationship, if it happens at all, develops afterwards. That is what brothels are for: it is their very raison d’être. So we should be less than surprised that the men had had sex with the women at an early stage in the proceedings.
A trafficked woman, furthermore, is unlikely to divulge her story to every punter who comes along. In doing so, she risks the punter taking the matter up with the brothel management and the possibility of reprisals. Imparting her plight to a punter therefore entails a degee of risk and consequently requires the build-up of trust.
Furthermore, many trafficked women have little or no English. This story tells the tale of one woman’s remarkable escape and the lengths that a punter had to go to in order to overcome the language barrier.
And from the punter’s perspective, the conclusion that a woman may be a trafficking victim is not necessarily reached quickly. It may gradually dawn. Furthermore, once the conclusion is reached, aiding the victim’s escape may be a dangerous enterprise and may require at least some degree of co-planning, perhaps with repeat visits to the brothel.
But why would a punter get involved in the escape himself, rather than tip-off the police or Crimestoppers and spark a raid? Some undoubtedly do spark raids, but there can be many reasons not to – the possible prosecutions of low level managers, the loss of the establishment, possibly the enforced deporation of some of the other sex workers. In addition to this, the relationship with the victim may by now have become important to him, and this also could be threatened.
More questions could be asked of Ms Marshall’s assertion, however, once one has read through her Poppy Project’s publication Routes In, Routes Out, produced less than six months before her statement to the Committee.
This document was “collated from the case files of 118 women supported by the POPPY Project (on either an acute or outreach basis) long enough to have developed a trusting relationship with their Senior Support Worker between March 2003 and July 2007.”
Paragraph 5.4 on Page 20 gives a breakdown of how the 118 women escaped their captors. Only nine, it states, were known to have escaped with the help of punters.
However, Poppy had no record of how some 25 of these women escaped, whilst a further score or so escaped as a result of police raids which may or may not have been sparked off by punters’ tip-offs.
The other point is that no well-infomed punter is likely to refer a trafficking victim to Poppy – a notoriously anti-punter institution – given alternative organisations who provide support such as the Salvation Army.
It becomes clear, then, that out of the best documented of their 118 referals just last August, Poppy had no idea how more than a fifth of them had escaped their captors, and no apparent knowledge of how many of the police raids were sparked by punters.
Given the departure of most of the women back to their home countries many months ago, it seems extraordinary that Denise Marshall could tell the Scrutiny Committee so definitively not only that Poppy has received 22 referrals from punters, but that in each and every case the men had had sex with the victims after knowing they were trafficked.
A revolution in record keeping indeed.