Attacked Street Sex Workers Too Often Shrugged Off By Police

It’s too late for Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol and a third, as yet unnamed, woman, the three Ipswich street sex workers found brutally murdered in Suffolk. But to prevent the death toll rising, urgent action needs to be taken to protect other women who are working on the streets of Britain.

Nobody has yet been charged, and it is not known if one person alone is responsible. What is known, however, is that, among men convicted of murdering sex workers, killing is rarely the first offence. There is often a history of violent attacks on women. Street-based sex workers are at risk of violence and it is vital that a relationship of trust exists between the women who wait for “business” on the streets and the police officers who can apprehend men who commit violent sexual offences against them. Sadly, trust is all too often absent between these two groups.

Not including the latest victims, at least 51 sex workers have been murdered since 1990. Most women working on the streets are funding expensive drug habits. They are among the most vulnerable members of the community. A report from the Economic and Social Research Council found that two-thirds of sex workers had experienced client violence, that women working on the streets were at greatest risk of violence, and that 28% said punters had tried to rape them.

Overwhelmingly, these women are not involved in serious crimes. While soliciting is a (non-imprisonable) offence, prostitution in itself is not illegal. More needs to be done to guarantee women a sympathetic hearing if or when they report attacks to the police.

In one horrifying case a half-naked street sex worker ran through the streets of south London after escaping from a customer who had raped and attempted to strangle her. Police officers witnessed her running through the streets in a distressed state and followed her to a local crack house, where she sought refuge. Officers then raided the crack house but ignored requests to gather forensic evidence from the woman.

In another case, a street sex worker wanted to report an attempted rape. There was a warrant out for her arrest, so a support worker called the local police station, asking if it could be temporarily waived so that she could report the attack. The police refused.

In some parts of the country police have liaison officers who offer support to sex workers who wish to report violent attacks. Women’s experiences have been positive and a relationship of trust exists between street sex workers and local police.

In other places, however, the attitude of the police is “What do you expect if you sell your body on the streets?” In Ipswich, where there is a very small street beat – about 30 women, now reduced by 10% – some of the women have received Asbos, prohibiting them from entering certain streets. This has established an unhelpful and adversarial relationship between police and street-based sex workers. A breach can result in a jail sentence even though the original offence was not imprisonable. Criminalising does not help women to leave prostitution – harm reduction, including drug programmes, opportunities for alternative employment and emotional support are far more likely to succeed in getting women off the streets.

Women involved in street sex work are vulnerable. They should have the same rights as every other woman to have attacks treated seriously and sympathetically by police. Violence against women involved in street sex work should never be shrugged off as an occupational hazard. And taking this crime seriously could make the difference between life and death for the thousands of women who work on the streets.