Changing Lives is the only national organisation reaching out to women with experience of sex work, survival sex and/or sexual exploitation in the UK. In this blog Laura Seebohm - Operational Director at Changing Lives, leading Women’s Services, Criminal Justice, Health and Employment - looks at our findings over the past decade and reflects on what still needs to be done to safeguard women with experience of sex work.

When Changing Lives set up a service to support women with experience of sex work and sexual exploitation in Newcastle, there was no visible red light district in the city and at this time very little was known about the extent and nature of the selling sex for women.

We carried out peer research, training a small group of women with lived experience to interview their peers so we could better understand and design our service to meet the needs of women.  We have repeated this model regularly over the past 10 years.

The findings are always shocking on many levels – the direct links to homelessness, childhood trauma and abuse, drug and alcohol use and poor mental and physical health.  But our overwhelming sense of shock is always the level of violence experienced and tolerated by our respondents:

“I got done in and I was really worried ‘cause it was when my friend had just been murdered in ‘Boro.”

“I was raped while staying at man’s house.  I’d already gave him sex so that I could stay there; he woke me up for sex again, I said no, he got violent, raped and hit me.”

“He basically kept me the night, tortured me, took me clothes off us and kicked me in the street.”

“I deserved it.  I chose to do this job.”

The harm was further exacerbated by a lack of trust in reporting to the police:

“There’s no way on planet earth they’d listen to a word a junkie’s got to say over the word of a businessman, they’d think I was lying.  Plus the fact I would have been proper done in off him and his mates.”

Women also reported poor responses by particular officers, including the inappropriate downgrading or mislabelling of offenses:

 “[An officer said:] ‘Maybe we shouldn’t get him done for rape, we should do him for shop-lifting’. Because that’s the same thing, isn’t it…”

Women’s lack of trust in police protection is replicated nationally. They fear being charged, not being believed, being blamed, losing custody of their children – indeed, there are so many barriers to reporting that most perpetrators know very well that they are ‘easy targets’.

To their credit, the response of Northumbria Police force over the past ten years has been positive, including the recruitment of ‘dedicated liaison officers’ (DLOs). DLOs are trained by Changing Lives staff, are known by the women using our services, and are now embedded within Northumbria Police policy.

At the same time that we started our service in 2006, the Merseyside model was being developed and Merseyside Police made a groundbreaking pledge to treat crimes against sex workers as ‘hate crimes’.  This was matched by the recruitment of a dedicated Independent Sexual Violence Advocate for sex workers – the first in the country.

The Merseyside model was never more important than at this time.  In 2006 in Ipswich we saw the murder of five women – Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol, Anneli Alderton, Paula Clennell, and Annette Nicholls – by a regular client.  The following year we saw the murder of Bonnie Barratt in East London, again killed by one of her known clients.  The murders in 2010 of Suzanne Blamires, Shelley Armitage and Susan Ruthworth in Bradford… this does not stop.

Sadly, the positive response of police forces in Northumbria and Merseyside has not been replicated across the country.  We continue to see women criminalized and fearful of reporting crime, despite clear evidence that support rather than criminalization of women has effective outcomes:

  • In 2010 the Merseyside conviction rate for those who raped sex workers was 67%; the national average conviction rate for rape at this time was 6.7%.
  • In Leeds where a tolerated zone was established, reports of violence toward sex workers went from being one of the lowest in the country to the highest. Whilst the concept of a managed area is a matter for debate, this does demonstrate the importance of building trust between police and women selling sex.

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What is the situation now?

Sex workers continue to be at risk of violence.  However, there are some important safeguards and protections available to all local areas:

  • The National Ugly Mugs Scheme is now rolled out nationally so sex workers can report crimes committed against them either anonymously or with full details shared by the police
  • The National Police Sex Work Guidance (National Police Chief Council, 2015) is ground-breaking, clearly differentiating where policing priorities should lie within a safeguarding agenda.

Changing Lives continue to support women with experience of sex work and sexual exploitation across the North and Midlands, with services in Northumbria, Durham and Darlington, Doncaster, Wolverhampton, Walsall and most recently across Merseyside.

We acknowledge the general discourse around vulnerability too often means that services are designed as ‘top down’ interventions rather than being led by women. At Changing Lives, we ensure our approach is defined by the needs of the women; it is not our place to negate the agency and choices made by those who use our services.

However, it is also our experience that most of the women who use our services are involved in ‘survival sex’; selling sex to meet immediate needs such as poverty, addiction, homelessness.

So many have experienced childhood abuse and grooming for exploitation during their teenage years that the ‘choice’ to engage in sex work could be seen as an inevitable outcome of their experiences.  Do they wake up on their 18th birthday to make a consensual choice to face this risk of sexual and physical violence?

My call for action today, on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, is that all Police forces across England and Wales commit to using the NPCC sex work guidelines and dedicate officers to build trust with women with experience of sex work and sexual exploitation. This would ensure the safeguarding of women who have all too often been punished, failed and stigmatised.

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