A Sexist Prism: National Police Guidance on Policing Prostitution

In January 2019, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) released new national Guidance for ‘Policing Sex Work and Prostitution’ in England and Wales. While we welcome its emphasis on treating those involved in prostitution with respect and not as criminals, we have some major concerns about this Guidance.

‘What underpins the Guidance?’

Nowhere in the new Guidance is there any mention of the gendered nature of prostitution – that around 99% of punters (‘clients’) are male and at least 80% of those who are prostituted are female – the majority from disadvantaged social groups and backgrounds.

There’s no consideration of prostitution as a practice of male dominance that tends to lead to men harassing women and girls in public places, and that it is connected to attitudes that make rape and domestic violence more likely. Nor is there any consideration of the relevance of this at this time when male violence against women and girls is at epidemic levels.

There’s no mention that many women are coerced into prostitution by their male partners who use her as a meal ticket, and that even when he doesn’t use physical violence to control her, invariably there are elements of coercive control.

There’s no mention that CEDAW implicitly recognises prostitution as a form of violence against women, and that having ratified it, the UK has an obligation to crack down on third party profiteers of all descriptions, including brothel keepers and ‘boyfriends.’ Nor is there a mention that the UK has a legally binding obligation under the Palermo Protocol to work to reduce men’s demand for prostitution, because it is the driving force behind sex trafficking.

Nowhere does the guidance question men’s ‘right’ to buy sexual access to women and girls, nor the impact of a thriving sex trade on women and girls’ human right to equality, dignity and freedom from violence.

Instead the guidance accepts the sex industry as a given, as if it is a necessary part of society and not inherently harmful. This is a moral judgement – because it is not based on dispassionate evaluation of the evidence. Had the NPCC evaluated the evidence properly, they would know that prostitution is harmful to those who are directly engaged in it, to women and girls as a group with the protected characteristic of female sex, and to the wider community.

The ‘What underpins the Guidance?’ section includes five ‘guiding statements,’ the fourth of which is as follows:

“The role of policing is not to make moral judgements. The police focus will be on reducing vulnerability and criminality. We will seek to maximise safety and increase trust and confidence. This will encourage those in the sex industry to report crimes and abuse. This approach will shift the focus onto safeguarding those being harmed in the sex industry. Intelligence and information should be shared between forces and relevant partners to maximise safety and target those who exploit or cause harm.”

We agree that the role of the police is not to make moral judgements. But as we have shown, this Guidance does make implicit moral judgements – but the NPCC appears to be unable to see this. This is of serious concern – as are the simplistic aims of “reducing vulnerability and criminality” and maximising “safety and trust and confidence” in an industry that is inherently violent and is based on exploiting the most vulnerable women and girls for the benefit of men’s egos and sense of entitlement, and third-party profiteers.

‘Safety’

Page 6 of the Guidance states:

“Safety within the industry is an issue compared to other sectors: 180 sex workers were murdered in the UK between 1990 and 2016. 110 of these 180 homicides were directly work-related; the sex worker was killed either by a client, in a sex working workplace or last seen alive in a known street sex work area. Based on this data from 1991 to 2000, working as a sex worker in the UK carried the absolute greatest risk of occupational homicide for women. Five times as many female sex workers were murdered compared to female bar staff in the period.”

These murder statistics are shocking but this statement is confused and confusing. Most work-related deaths and injuries are caused by things like falls, machinery, and moving objects or vehicles. Workplace safety measures are therefore focused on reducing these risks.

Very few people in the UK are murdered by clients and managers at work. The comparison with female bar staff is therefore disingenuous, because it is extremely unlikely that many of them were murdered by clients or managers in the course of their work. Like all women in the UK, the female bar staff were most likely to be murdered by their male sexual partners or ex-partners.

Unlike bar work, prostitution involves sexual contact but with any pretence of mutual respect and consideration stripped away. The punter pays exactly because he doesn’t want to have to take her feelings, pleasure and humanity into account. In other words, prostitution is an extreme form of the general (unequal) relationship between the sexes, which tragically leads many men to be violent to their sexual partners and ex-partners. So it should not surprise us that so many women in prostitution are murdered by punters and pimps. It does emphasise, however, the dangers and misogyny at the very heart of prostitution. The question is how to address this.

The next paragraph of the guidance says:

“It is clear that some sex workers are targeted because of their occupation and these offences should be treated as hate crimes.”

But again this is misleading. We welcome the subsequent advice that women in prostitution who are victims of crime should be given extra support, such as is given to victims of hate crime. But being a ‘sex worker’ is not an innate personal characteristic – like being female, African or gay.

Defining crime against ‘sex workers’ as a hate crime would therefore suggest that being a ‘sex worker’ is an innate identity and any problems are caused by a few people who have an irrational hatred of those with such an identity – and not that prostitution is inherently exploitative and violent, and that it feeds the very entitlement that underlies all male violence towards women and girls. Crimes against those involved in prostitution are an expression of male entitlement and violent misogynistic hatred. All of this would be obscured by defining crimes against ‘sex workers’ as hate crime.

‘Safeguarding’

Page 10 of the Guidance calls for frontline staff to address safeguarding issues in a sensitive and supportive manner – but is vague about how exactly to do this. One of the practical suggestions is for police officers to share the National Ugly Mugs (NUM) safety tips with ‘sex workers.’ Here are some excerpts:

“Check that your clothing is ‘straightjacket proof’ and can’t be pulled over your shoulders to lock your arms.”

“Don’t wear a scarf or other item round your neck as someone could grab it, possibly from a car, and choke you.”

“Many sex workers recommend sitting astride (on top of) their customer for vaginal or anal sex as this gives you the best position for control; you have your hands free and your customer is lying below you. In this position, you can sit on your knees for penetrative sex and guide how much the penis enters you, particularly useful for large boys and when you are sore! Try to avoid the customer being behind you (doggy style) as you can’t see what they are doing and this position makes you much more vulnerable.”

“Some local support projects run workshops on de-escalation techniques so you can learn how to calm a person down; how to talk them out of attacking you; and how to get away from an attacker.”

“[Y]ou may have to submit in order to preserve your life. Some people are sometimes physically stronger than you. DO NOT try to fight unless you are certain you can win or you are convinced they intend to kill you.”

The cognitive dissonance in the NPCC Guidance is breath taking – it advices police staff to prioritise the safety of ‘sex workers’ but one of the more practical suggestions for doing this is to share these so-called safety tips that are clearly premised on prostitution being extremely dangerous and every single punter being a potential risk.

One of the principles of safeguarding is that it is better to prevent harm before it happens than to deal with its aftermath. We do not believe that advising women not to wear a scarf and to avoid punters penetrating them “doggy style” can be considered preventative measures. Real prevention would be to work towards the ending of this dangerous institution by clamping down on profiteers, using the full extent of the law to discourage men from buying sex, and helping women find alternatives. But the Guidance is either weak or silent on these approaches.

It doesn’t even mention the legislation that can be used to address men’s demand for prostitution. It explicitly advises against encouraging women to exit prostitution. And it is woolly on addressing profiteers.

Profiteers

Even though running brothels is illegal in England and Wales, in most places they operate in plain sight. In our submission to the APPG on Prostitution’s inquiry into ‘pop-up’ brothels, we used Bristol as a case study and showed that of the 65 brothels the police themselves had identified in the city in 2016, most were still operating and there was no evidence that the police had attempted to systematically close them.

This is hardly surprising since the new Guidance is simply a ‘refresh’ of the previous Guidance, and neither provide any clear direction about enforcing the pimping and brothel-keeping legislation.

The confusing and euphemistic-laden language used in the Guidance seems to obscure the reality. For example, on page 3 it says:

“This guidance highlights indicators of sexual exploitation and the presence of organised criminal activity. The presence of organised criminal activity within the sex industry is unquestionable and causes great harm to individuals and communities. Where such criminal activity is identified, it is our responsibility to robustly investigate and bring to justice those involved.”

But it doesn’t explain simply and clearly what form that criminal activity might take. In the Glossary, ‘exploiters’ are defined like this:

Exploiters – Exploitation is accepted as a very wide term. It, of course, is used in conjunction with Modern Slavery but can also be considered in more simplistic forms such as a person or persons taking advantage of someone’s work unfairly.”

This ‘definition’ waters down obligations under international treaties (such as CEDAW and the Palermo Protocol). These use the term “exploitation of prostitution,” which implicitly includes third parties simply profiting from another person’s prostitution – regardless whether any “unfair” treatment is involved. We do not believe that the law in England and Wales is compliant with obligations under these treaties, but the police have an obligation to enforce such legislation that is available to use against offenders. Instead the NPCC appears to have taken it upon themselves to make up ‘definitions’ and to unilaterally decide what is and isn’t relevant.

The Guidance does not advocate pro-actively investigating profiteers – whether those are ‘boyfriends,’ ‘organised criminals’ or brothel keepers. Instead it focuses on ‘building trust with sex workers’ and only investigating ‘exploitation’ after it is ‘suspected.’ It is no surprise therefore that most pimps and brothel keepers operate with virtual impunity in England and Wales.

Freedom of information requests

Concerned that the previous version of the Guidance ignored the implications of a thriving sex trade on equality between women and men, last year we submitted a freedom of information request (FOI) to the NPCC. We asked what steps were taken to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) when developing it and we asked for copies of any impact assessments that were undertaken. We also asked what steps were taken to ensure the Guidance complied with obligations under CEDAW and the Palermo Protocol.

The response was that there was no information about such steps and no impact assessments. (For more on this, see Case Study 3 in our Submission to the Women & Equalities Committee’s inquiry into the enforcement of the Equality Act.)

The FOI responder went on to say:

“I have consulted with colleague [sic] who confirm that the latest iteration of the guidance is currently being finalised and will include an Equality Impact Assessment. This will further go to the NPCC Council for final ratification in early 2019.” [Our emphasis]

We were hopeful, therefore, that when developing the new guidance, the NPCC would take seriously its obligation under the PSED to consider the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment of women and girls by men in public places and to foster good relations between men and women in the wider community, and to ensure that its advice does not contravene obligations under binding human rights treaties.

When the new Guidance was released in January, we were disappointed therefore to find that the changes were superficial and there was still no mention of the impact of a thriving sex trade on sex equality and on women and girls in the community, nor of obligations under CEDAW and the Palermo Protocol.

We submitted another FOI request about the new Guidance. The response confirmed what we’d guessed – that there had been no consideration of the impact of the Guidance under the PSED and no consideration of obligations under CEDAW and the Palermo Protocol. This is how they justified it:

“It must be noted that this is advice only to Police Forces, and although it has been agreed by NPCC, it is not a defined formal Policy or Procedure and as such no formal assessments were required or undertaken.”

According to the Government Equalities Office’s Quick Start Guide, the PSED was designed to ensure public bodies “play their part in making society fairer by tackling discrimination and providing equality of opportunity for all.” It goes on to say:

“Public bodies need to consciously think about the three aims of the Equality Duty as part of the process of decision-making. The Equality Duty will be one of a number of factors that need to be considered. The weight given to the Equality Duty, compared to the other factors, will depend on how much that function affects discrimination, equality of opportunity and good relations and the extent of any disadvantage that needs to be addressed.”

The creation of guidance for police forces is part of the routine functions of the NPCC and, as we explained earlier, prostitution is a both a cause and consequence of the inequality between men and women. We therefore believe that the suggestion that the PSED does not apply to this Guidance is incorrect. This Guidance is used by police forces all over England and Wales and underpins the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance.

The irony that the NPCC appears to be flouting the law is not lost on us.

National Ugly Mugs (NUM)

In our FOI request, we asked which organisations or individuals were used as advisors during the development of the guidance. Other than the Home Office, the only individual or organisation that was explicitly named was National Ugly Mugs (NUM).

We had heard anecdotally that NUM had had a significant role in developing the previous Guidance, of which the new Guidance is a so-called ‘refresh.’ So it is helpful to have their involvement officially confirmed.

NUM keeps a register of punter attacks and sends alerts about them to those involved in prostitution. NUM works closely with the police, passing on details of punter attacks when given permission to do so, and helping those in prostitution to report crimes to the police. This is obviously valuable work – but it is based on the premise that there is nothing wrong with prostitution per se, the only problem is a few ‘bad apples’ or ‘ugly mugs.’ It’s noteworthy that Steve Wright, a punter who killed five prostituted women in Ipswich 12 years ago, would not have been recognised as an ‘ugly mug’ – because the women didn’t live to report him.

NUM is a member of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), all of whose members endorse the following values:

“Acceptance of sex work as work.

Opposition to all forms of criminalisation and other legal oppression of sex work (including sex workers, clients, third parties*, families, partners and friends).

Supporting self-organisation and self-determination of sex workers.

* The term ‘third parties’ includes managers, brothel keepers, receptionists, maids, drivers, landlords, hotels who rent rooms to sex workers and anyone else who is seen as facilitating sex work.”

On its page on the NSWP website, NUM says that as well as the above, its priorities include challenging  the “myth that sex work is inherently gender-based violence.” This contravenes the understanding implicit in CEDAW.

Rather than having an analysis of male entitlement and the significance of this for vulnerable women, NUM appears to celebrate male entitlement, as demonstrated in this tweet, a screenshot of which is shown opposite.

The NUM is not a dispassionate and unbiased organisation, and it receives significant funding from the police.

It is therefore deeply inappropriate that the NPCC should use NUM as one of its primary sources of advice on policing an issue that has such an impact on the well being of the most vulnerable women in our society and on the status of all women and girls.

Conclusion

It appears to us that in this Guidance, the NPCC has gone beyond its legitimate remit, has violated equality laws, and contravened binding obligations under human rights treaties.

It is as if the NPCC does not consider women to be full human beings whose human rights are paramount. Which does beg the question of how much the NPCC members have themselves been brainwashed by the sex industry.

The Guidance is not fit for purpose. We call for it to be scrapped and for the NPCC to go back to the drawing board, but this time putting women and girls’ human rights, and obligations under the PSED and binding international treaties firmly in the centre of all its considerations. Advisors should include survivors of prostitution and organisations like Nordic Model Now!, and Nia, which provides high-quality exit services for women involved in prostitution.

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