Last week, North Yorkshire Police announced that they had updated their Hate Crime Policy to include people involved in sex work. Laura McIntyre, Head of Women’s Services at Changing Lives, explains why we support this policy change and the importance of recognising that those engaged in sex work are at significant risk of harm and often feel completely powerless to report crimes.
It’s really important to recognise and understand that building up trusting relationships is paramount to help people report crimes of this nature, and this can take long periods of time. Local policy change is a great place to start, but the delivery of the model requires ongoing commitment, empathy and recognition that there’s simply not one definition of a ‘sex worker’. We therefore work closely with North Yorkshire Police and will continue to work in close partnership with the force’s Dedicated Police Officers, to help improve levels of reporting and conviction rates against those who offend against sex workers.
In 2006, Merseyside Police launched the “Merseyside Model” where crimes against sex workers are treated as a hate crime. Our Red Umbrella Project has been operating for the last 18 months in Merseyside and has made a real difference – between December 2017 and August 2019, we are aware of 106 crimes reported, compared to only 47 reports in the preceding two years. This has led to approximately 20 arrests, and nine charges resulting in convictions.
In 2011 Northumbria Police launched the Dedicated Liaison Officer (DLO) role, where police are specially trained in supporting sex workers and adults exposed to sexual exploitation. This role was developed on the back of recommendations from our peer led research. The DLO model has since been adopted in other force areas across the country and is very successful in building women’s support in the police.
Changing Lives support people who sell sex across five different localities in the North and Midlands: covering Northumbria, York, Doncaster, Wolverhampton, Walsall, and Merseyside. Next month we will be launching findings from our peer led research project that have focused on the nature of sex work and survival sex across York and Scarborough. Our peer research methodology is based on women with lived experience of sex work, survival sex and/or sexual exploitation going into their own social networks to interview their peers. North Yorkshire will be our fifth piece of peer led research and our findings consistently tell us that violence is a significant risk factor for women selling and exchanging sex. The level of violence reported in our research really demonstrates the importance of a policy-led response.
I began supporting people involved in sex work and those vulnerable to sexual exploitation in 2007 and learnt very quickly that people have different experiences.The sex industry is diverse as are the people involved and no assumptions should be made! A common theme is that all of the people who I have been in contact with or who I have supported have reported that they feel stigmatised, judged, isolated, disregarded and threatened. People feel judged by services and organisations, members of the public and by their family and friends.
Hate crime towards sex workers can be as serious as physical and sexual assault and even murder. National high profile cases such as the murders of the five women selling sex in Ipswich in 2006 is an example of how serious this issue is, and we also know that sex workers are 18 times more likely to be murdered than non sex workers.
Women and men have reported to Changing Lives staff over the years that they experience different levels of abuse; online abuse from men who have purchased sex making reference to a negative experience they have had using abusive and threatening language, members of public making verbal threats, some people have reported being spat on in the street because it’s public knowledge that they are sex workers. Gay men selling sex have been attacked by other men in public spaces because of their sexual identity and sex worker ‘label’. Many women have reported that they have been blackmailed by use of revenge porn and will be ‘outed’ to the people they love. The list is endless, complex and very upsetting.
For many of those we support at Changing Lives, involvement in selling or exchanging sex is often just one reason why people feel stigmatised and avoid accessing support. There are added layers of discrimination (double discrimination) and people feel they have multiple ‘labels’ associated with sex work, drug use, sleeping rough, offending and complex mental health. Which all lead on to derogatory use of terminology, unhealthy perceptions and judgement. Harmful and discriminating language impacts on social exclusion and people being highly vulnerable to further abuse and exploitation.
Sex workers and people exchanging sex for survival are people living in our local communities; our sisters, mothers, friends, colleagues and they are people who deserve to be treated with respect and understanding.
Reducing levels of stigma is crucial to help people report crimes but is also essential to help people overcome the trauma and violence they have experienced.
Changing Lives is a national, registered charity which provides support for thousands of vulnerable people and their families, every month. Read more about our specialist services for women.