12:17 pm - October 22nd 2008
The work of government-funded anti-prostitution group The Poppy Project is ‘incoherent’ and ‘dangerous’, according to British experts.
The release of a damning report by academic specialists in the politics of sex work comes in the wake of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s plans for a massive crackdown on the ‘blight’ of prostitution in the UK. The Home Secretary’s proposals, based largely on the dubious work of The Poppy Project, will outlaw street prostitution and criminalise some buyers of sex – moves which have also been denounced by women’s rights groups.
‘We are appalled that the government has used this sloppy research while ignoring a large body of reputable research,’ said Dr Helen Ward, one of the authors of the document. ‘Jacqui Smith’s proposals are deeply flawed and will put sex workers at even more risk of violence and exploitation. They also contain yet another major assault on civil liberties – this time on the liberties of adults having consenting sex.’
‘Just two years ago in Ipswich we all witnessed the tragic consequences of zero tolerance policies on sex work,’ said Kate Hardy, a researcher in sex work and member of activist group Feminist Fightback. ‘Women are forced to take more risks, with less time to decide whether or not to get into cars, having to work alone rather than in pairs or small groups and working in darker more isolated areas.’ Police in Ipswich implemented just such a policy before the tragic murders of a number of sex workers in the city in 2006.
‘It is not the place of the criminal law to be policing people’s personal morality,’ said Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon of the University of London, adding that ‘If they really cared about people’s safety or about public nuisance, the government would allow these women to work off the street.’
The Poppy Project, which last year received over £2.4 million of public money, offers highly conditional help to the 0.2% of prostitutes who are victims of sex trafficking. Feminists and sex workers alike have been appalled at the insistence by members of the Project that prostitutes agree to give up sex work forever and to turn in their traffickers – sometimes a very dangerous step for them to take – before they receive any help whatsoever. ‘It’s like the worst sort of Victorian philanthropy,’ said Dr Brooks-Gordon.
As well as making life more dangerous for street prostitutes, the Home Secretary’s proposals will give the police greater powers to raid brothels and flats where sex workers operate. This move is particularly astounding, given the fact that the police are currently allowed to keep a quarter of the money used in such raids – even if that money represents a woman’s life savings. The risk of diverting police attention to pursuing the most profitable rather than the most exploitative sex work establishments has not been lost on the Home Secretary, who simply declared: ‘we will take their bling away from them.’
‘There have been scenes of police arriving at 5am in full riot gear and dragging women out into the street in their underwear,’ said Dr Brooks-Gordon. ‘As a feminist, I find it very hard to see how that promotes women’s rights.’
The aim of the changes, according to a Home Office memo, is ‘to send a clear message that the Government will protect the vulnerable.’ However, many groups, including coalitions of sex workers, have raised concerns that the implementation of such legislation will actually increase the dangers for trafficked women and migrant workers in the sex trade, whose lack of papers will leave them even more vulnerable to abuses within underground prostitution rings.
The Safety First Coalition denounced the moves towards criminalising the purchase of sex being promoted by UK ministers ‘despite evidence from academics and sex workers in Sweden that the law has forced prostitution further underground, undermining women’s safety, driving women into the hands of pimps and making it harder for the police to prosecute violent men and traffickers.’
Isabella Lund, of the Sexworkers and Allies Network in Sweden, commented on the failures of the Swedish Model in Sweden itself, saying that ‘street prostitutes today are more exposed to robbery, assault and rape than before.’
If Jacqui Smith and her cronies really care about protecting society’s most vulnerable workers, they wouldn’t be focusing on ‘taking their bling away’ but on putting schemes in place to help prostitutes clean up and clear out, or to make their work safer, if that’s what’s needed. The work of The Poppy Project smacks of the worst sort of moralising Victorian philanthropy, and is utterly inappropriate for dealing with the social problems caused by prostitution in the 21st century.
Laurie Penny is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a journalist, blogger and feminist activist. She is Features Assistant at the Morning Star, and blogs at Penny Red and for Red Pepper magazine.
· Other posts by Laurie Penny
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