STREETS BEHIND: how police kerb crawling drives kill street sex workers
LATER THIS YEAR, a new law is due to come into effect which will criminalise those who arrange a liaison with a sex worker subsequently discovered to have been coerced.
The offence will be New Labour‘s 3,601st since 1997, contributing the latest instalment of what Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Chris Huhne (right) has described as an attack of “legislative diarrhoea.”
Other clauses in the Policing and Crime Bill, now in the Lords, will:
remove the right to a warning for kerb crawlers
enable buildings housing brothels to be closed for up to three months, and
introduce three compulsory sessions of rehabilitation for street sex workers caught persistently soliciting (as an alternative to a fine), with persistently defined as just twice in three months (it is now a week).
But it is the new client offence which has caused most jubilation among some feminists, and vehement opposition from others. Cheerleaders for the new moves are, predictably, Eaves Housing and Object. Their new campaign, Demand Change, is in the vanguard of the movement to use the new law as a thin end of a wedge towards their ultimate goal of criminalising all who hire sex workers, or, as the prohibitionists would put it, buy prostituted women.
But just before we rush headlong to sign the petitions, dust off the banners and jump aboard this moral crusade’s bandwagon, let us pause and mourn the fallen from previous conflicts. Soldiers die in crusades, but the casualties in this war are unlikely to include many representatives of the socioeconomic groups A, B and C1, who throng launches and campaign meetings in the salubrious surroundings of Portcullis House.
Among those women who will be unable to join, for example, is one Amanda Walker (pictured).
Amanda, 21, was a Leeds street prostitute who left her two year old son at home with his father in the Rawcliffe area of the city to seek work in London as a result of income lost through a local ‘kerb crawling’ drive by West Yorkshire Police ten years ago.
The police initiative was held in conjunction with an experiment by Leeds Metropolitan University, to whom it supplied ‘kerb crawlers’ for the UK‘s first ‘john school’ – an establishment where street sex workers’ clients are taught the supposed errors of their ways – run by Julie Bindel (since a consultant to Eaves‘ Poppy Project).
According to Hillary Kinnell and her excellent work Violence and Sex Work in Britain, the university and those involved in the course had already been warned their action could drive street sex workers away from their home areas and into places where they were unfamiliar with either the territory or the local violent clients. Yet the “experiment” progressed.
Thus, on April 24, 1999, Amanda Walker worked not in the red light area of Leeds, but that of Paddington, where she was arrested for soliciting in Sussex Gardens. Released from the local police station, she made her way back to the patch and met David Smith (left), known to the local sex workers and their support project as dangerously violent and an ’ugly mug’ (as they term such persons) to steer clear of – knowledge of which Amanda was unaware.
She could have stood little chance against the 43-year-old, 19 stone, 6’3” lorry driver, nicknamed ’Lurch’ after the Addams Family character. The following day her blood-stained clothes were found dumped in an alley in Hanworth, west London, and her body was eventually found in a shallow grave in Wisley, Surrey, the next month.
Smith, jailed for the offence in the December, had had an appalling record of violence against women.
Back in 1976, aged 18, he had raped a woman at knifepoint in front of her children and was jailed for four years.
In 1987 he received a two-year suspended sentence for attacking a woman in a car – she only escaped by kicking her way through the windscreen.
A sex worker attacked by him with a knife in a hotel room a year later was too frightened to give evidence and an attempted murder charge was thus dropped.
His later acquittal of the 1991 killing of Sarah Crump, whose body had been mutilated in the same manner as Amanda Walker’s, had been followed by a police statement that they were not looking for anyone else.
Yet amazingly, Smith was not independently monitored by the Metropolitan Police: instead, precious resources were dispersed catching sex workers and ‘kerb-crawlers,’ presumably thus sending the local working girls of Paddington fleeing to the four winds where the local violent punters would not be known to them, either.
That police crackdowns on both buyers and sellers in street prostitution cause increased risk to already vulnerable street workers has long been observed by projects striving to reduce risk, not only of violence but also of the transmission of HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted infections.
Recently, however, a new study has been published following 18 months of work amongst a community of street sex workers, which has actually measured the increase in both physical and sexual violence resulting from criminalisation and enforcement-based approaches, the latest instalment of which lurk in the Government bill.
Although the study took place in Vancouver, the Canadians have very similar laws to the UK over sex work, with both brothels and street soliciting illegal. Its enforcement procedures are similar, too.
While the Home Office brandishes its ill-thought through Coordinated Prostitution Strategy with its liberal use of phrases such as ‘multi-agency’ and efforts to “disrupt” the market, the police at grass roots level often find themselves the pariahs among those – often in the NHS, the voluntary sector or social services – whose job it is to minimise violence, risk and infection.
The boys and girls in blue (or plain clothes) arrive and, like fleas in a barrel of nitro-glycerine, dispense kerb crawling arrests here, soliciting warnings there, apparently oblivious to the fact that the resulting dispersal terminates relationships between vulnerable persons and outreach workers that have often taken months or even years to establish. Looked at from the outside, the so-called coordinated strategy can but nurture aspirations to achieve the coordination one might associate with a rabid millipede.
An excellent example can be found in the UK oil capital of Aberdeen following the abandonment of a tolerance zone after recent Scottish Parliament legislation. The local Quay Services support group was reduced to scrabbling around to find numbers to text sex workers about violent clients – using phones that would cease to function, incidentally, if Westminster had its way.
Too often the debate in the Commons on the criminalisation of clients descended into the playground politics of the ’we’ve been blaming the girls all along and it’s the boys’ fault all the time’ variety.
But what matters to drug addicted street sex workers is their fix and their families – more criminal sanctions will merely exacerbate the problem, irrespective of the role of the consenting adult in the dock.
In Parliament, the question of whether the criminal law has any part to play in adults’ sexual choices, irrespective of gender, has gone unasked.
Yet the politicians march on, lemming-like, addicted to the moral high ground every bit as much as the street sex worker her fix, ignoring warnings that the summit is crowned with sinking sands.
The answers to the real needs of street sex workers, highlighted in the Canadian study, lie not within the remit of the Home Office at all, but more often in access to effective drug rehabilitation and appropriate accommodation.
Lack of either was also identified in Canada as leading to increased risk of violence. It is high time the Home Office ceased exacerbating the problems, and learnt that its proper place in this equation lies not in alienating the police from all and sundry, but in bridge building to enable sex workers and their clients to feel comfortable contacting the police when something serious – such as coercion, violence or trafficking – occurs.
Sadly, it appears much more than three sessions will be required to rehabilitate Marsham Street, however.
Meanwhile, back at Westminster, this latest instalment of ‘legislative diarrhoea’ should be returned gently back from whence it came.
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