Sex work, figure fixing and Victorian philanthropy

12:17 pm - October 22nd 2008

by Laurie Penny    

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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.

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About the author
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.
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Reader comments

Excellent piece. I wish there were an Evidence-Based Party – I’d vote for them more or less irrespective of their ideology…

2. Mike Killingworth

Laurie, can you give a source for your claim that only one prostitute in 500 is a victim of sex-trafficking? (The Brooks-Gordon figures don’t convince me – why is it “accepted on all sides” that there are 80,000 prostitutes in the country, and the figures for victims are for those identified, obviously a fraction of the whole). It implies that there’s been a reliable count of how many women are engaged in prostitution, which I find implausible.

I would feel happier about the idea of legalised brothels if I could bring myself to believe that all the women who are currently selling their bodies would operate from them. But I don’t – they would, I suppose, enforce health regulations (e.g. in respect of medical checks and drug-free status) that some would be too desperate to accept. And if we did have legalised brothels, the argument against criminalising men who purchase sex from women elsewhere seems pretty thin.

If on the other hand you want the New Zealand law, as opposed to licensed brothels, you need to make the case for a woman’s right to sell her body outside a safe, sane and caring environment.

I think there’s a ‘forcible’ missing from ‘sex-trafficking’ above – clearly more than 0.2% have been illegally smuggled into the country. This doesn’t alter any of the substantive points.

Mike touches on a good point – should registration of sex workers be a requirement for it’s decriminalisation thereby legitimising sanction of unregistered sex-work?

And while I’m at it wouldn’t the practice be destigmatised by broadening the term to be more inclusive by calling lap-dancers, models etc plain and simple workers in the sex industry?

the worst sort of moralising Victorian philanthropy,

I thought that the Victorians accepted legal prostitution, drug-dealing etc. Consenting adults, and all that…

6. Suzanne Hammond

In response to one or two points above, the 80,000 figure as the estimated number of UK persons involved in prostiotution hails from a Government consultation document “Paying the Price” which you can find easily if you Google it.

The numbers of estimated trafficked persons (“sex slaves”) “in the UK is a very movable feast. You can find estimates ranging from 4,000 in the UK at any one time up to and including 700,000 (about the entire population of Leeds) moving in every year on Government web sites, depending on your mood and how driven you are to famtasise.

The number of actual trafficking victims quoted by Belinda is the number found by the two Pentameter exercises conducted by the 55 police forces throughout the UK. With an FTE equivalent of c 185,000 police officers, the 55 forces searched brothels up hill and down dale for trafficking victims. The two exercises between them lasted nearly a year.

After the first exercise, codenamed Pentameter (you can tell it’s a code because everyone knows what it is – presumably they’d left it on a bus somewhere) they found either 84 or 88, depending on which official website you read. This bitterly disappointed the Home Office, which had been promised (at that stage) 4,000 sex slaves.

So the boys and girls in blue were sent out to do it all over again + get it right this time.

Hence Pentameter 2, in which they spent a great deal more time and raided a lot more premises and came up with 167 rescuees, five of which were not from the sex industry.

So giving them the benefit of the doubt and saying they found 88 in the first exercise, the two exercises together found exactly 250 in the sex industry which, as a percentage of 80,000 is actually 0.3125%, or less than a third of one per cent.

Questions may, but undoubtedly won’t, be asked about why these sex slaves, apparently so available for up to 40 ordinary blokes a day to have sex with, are apparently invisible to 185,000 police officers given nearly a year to locate them.

On the other hand, it just may be that the vast majority of migrant sex workers in the UK are just that – migrant sex workers in the UK, who have moved here to replace UK sex workers who, as far as I can make out, have largely moved to Australia due no doubt in part to the inhabitants of its equivalent of the Home Office being sane.

Suzanne: Great comment that is worthy of some thought, almost worth a post in itself.

Yes – brilliant stuff, Suzanne!

Thomas @5: that, in fact, is what many within the industry are trying to do. However, not all ‘sex workers’ appreciate being bucketed in with everyone else.

ad@6: are you kidding? Pleasant as the image of the cheery Victorian streetwalker may be, the ‘reforming’ of prostitutes was one of the Victorian philanthropic industry’s pet projects. Famously, Gladstone used to scour the streets of London looking for young prostitutes to take home for tea and moral lectures (really). The idea with all of this, though, is that the ‘help’ offered was highly conditional and only dispensed to the deserving – i.e, to those who showed ‘repentance’ for their wicked ways.

I support the work that the Poppy Project does, though v much open to persuasion (the article by Dr Brooks-Gordon that is linked to is pretty unpersuasive, though).

The case for the Swedish system is put quite effectively here –

In particular, would be interested in any responses to the University of London study for the Scottish Executive in 2003 which found that:

Legalization and/or regulation of prostitution, according to the study, led to:

* A dramatic increase in all facets of the sex industry,
* A dramatic increase in the involvement of organized crime in the sex industry,
* A dramatic increase in child prostitution,
* An explosion in the number of foreign women and girls trafficked into the region, and
* Indications of an increase in violence against women.

10. Suzanne Hammond

Dear donpaskini

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear….

Now, there an awful lot of references and works and links and stuff, only a few of which I can find time to locate so you’re just going to have to take most of it from me that:

1. The Swedes didn’t count the sex workers before the new law and thus haven’t a clue whether the numbers are up or down.

Even if they had, the resulting dispersal of street sex workers makes them impossible to find, count, monitor, or provide advice on safe sex, dubious clients or routes out of prostitution.

Stockholm’s red light district consisted of one street. Nobody counted the number of sex workers on it before the new law. Counts since by police and social services produce different results though taken at the same time. There certainly weren’t any “renowned Swedish brothels and massage parlours which proliferated during the last three decades of the twentieth century when prostitution in Sweden was legal.”

2. Finnish ‘trafficking’ figures are merely Finland’s estimate of migratory sex workers in Finland.

3. The link you provided works but its link to the 2003 London University study doesn’t work.

4. The radical feminist myth that all prostitution is violence to women is nonsense. Forgetting (i) that a significant amount of prostitution does not involve women; (ii) that a further significant amount consists of Max Mosley type escapades in which the clients pay the women to subject them – the (normally) men – to pain and/or humiliation; (iii) that in some prostitution the clients are women; one is then left with (iv) that all evidence shows that amongst the mainstream, female sex workers and their clients get on very well together most of the time.

5. There are cities in the UK with populations smaller than the UK estimated prostitute population. There are innumerable streets with populations higher than the number of trafficking victims UK police have been able to find among them on two major exercises. See my previous post on this thread concerning UK human trafficking.

6. 79% of Swedish prostitution clients access sex tourism.

7. Read:

Then read:

Then read the background to how + why the Swedish law came about by clicking on the “400,000 Swedish Perverts” line at my good friend Michael Goodyear’s site here:;O=A

Then read the rest of those papers.

Then come back.

Don – you appear to be countering references to academic studies with a link to a gibbering polemic. Do feel free to link to the University of London study (and indeed, any other studies by institutions that don’t actually, err, exist in a ‘publishing of research’ sense).

Sometimes LC’s “being civil to people even when they utterly don’t deserve it” policy grates.

yes, but the problem with stigma is that it tends to reflect our own insecurities.

Even just flicking through a few TV channels we can see that the sex industries in different countries are far more open than in our own. A pornographic video producer or lap-dance club owner is no less of a worker in the industry than her/his peformer, so maybe some cross-class solidarity should be called for – does Peter Stringfellow feel stigmatised?

IIRC there was a BBC documentary on the infamous Paul Raymond who certainly did feel frustrated at his inability to integrate into higher society because of his background – when his political donations failed to ingratiate him enough with the establishment of the day to award him a knighthood ‘for services rendered’ he apparently felt less compelled to be a good manager, letting his property empire decline and exploiting his employees ever further, which is one reason why Soho started becoming so seedy from the second half of the sixties after a period of relative improvement.

IIRC there was a BBC documentary on the infamous Paul Raymond who certainly did feel frustrated at his inability to integrate into higher society because of his background – when his political donations failed to ingratiate him enough with the establishment of the day to award him a knighthood ‘for services rendered’ he apparently felt less compelled to be a good manager, letting his property empire decline and exploiting his employees ever further, which is one reason why Soho started becoming so seedy from the second half of the sixties after a period of relative improvement.

Raymond was ahead of his time: David ‘Sunday Sport’ Sullivan tried to buy the Daily Star in the 1980s, and was warned off – whereas Richard Desmond got the Express papers despite owning porn titles and satellite TV stations.

I await the Peter Stringfellow City Academy with interest.

Desmond I thought was allowed to add the Express titles to his publishing empire because he made large donations to Blair and promised a sympathetic political line… social mobility is sometimes a greasy pole (no, I didn’t want to mention Stringfellow).

12 – my bad for not checking the links 🙁 Hopefully this one will work?

Whether or not you agree with it, I hope you’ll find it replete with academic references rather than ‘gibbering polemic’.

11 – Suzanne, thanks, those are interesting links. Do you have a link for ‘all evidence shows that amongst the mainstream, female sex workers and their clients get on very well together most of the time’ ? How does that, for example, tally with findings such as the three city study of 240 women working in indoor and street locations completing questionnaires (Church et al, 1991) which found that ‘Almost two thirds (63%) reported violence from customers, and over a third (37%) had been assaulted in the three months prior to the survey. Women working on the street reported higher levels of violence and injury’ or the London study tracing patterns of violence over 10 years which found that as more women moved into call flat locations the incidence of violent robbery of women increased markedly (Da Silva 2000).

16. Butterflywings

With donpaskini.
Yes, I wait the Peter Stringfellow, and perhaps Hugh Heffner, City Academies with interest.
After all, it’s all just fun and laughs between consenting adults.

No abuse there. No, all clients are nice and respectful and not misogynist. Sex workers never get murdered. Yes, that is sarcastic. I get very tired of so-called feminists bigging up the most exploitative industry in existence. Some feminists.

@Butterflywings: “I get very tired of so-called feminists bigging up the most exploitative industry in existence.”

I’m guessing you’ve never worked retail, as a waitress, dishwasher, a receptionist or in elderly care. I have. I’m also CHOOSING to be a sex worker full time after much thought and research on the field (and have worked part-time as a sex worker in the past). I prefer sex work, in and of itself where I get to dictate how much I am paid rather than told, and prefer it infinitely more than my previous jobs. You do not have the right to judge whether another woman gets to call herself feminist or not. The feminists you are referring to are there to support the WORKER who is more than likely female. If one actually cares about women’s rights, that’d be ALL women, not just the ones who get the “stamp of approval”. There are thousands of sex workers who are also feminists. Maybe you need to reach out to them rather than standing back and judging them, their motivations and their field of work. But you’ll have to reconsider your views and that’s a scary prospect for most people. Sort out your priorities, mate.

Yes there are horrible, repulsive, evil clients, which is why sex workers want decriminalization and the right to file complaints with law enforcements when that ugliness rears its head. Please tell me in what other case is an innocent victim arrested instead of the perp? Please tell me how keeping sex workers frightened of reporting crimes against them for fear of arrest helps them? Come on, you’re such a feminist! Tell me how this helps women. Let’s apply such logic to domestic violence that disproportionately affects women (in heterosexual relationships). What if the wife couldn’t call the police to report a beating because SHE would get arrested? This is the position prostitutes are put in due to the criminalization of their work.

Then other sex workers in legal aspects of the trade aren’t living care free and totally protected either. A friend of mine, a male porn performer, got kicked out of his apartment building simply because of his job. HIS LEGAL JOB! Now he and his girlfriend, also a performer, have to find some place else to live and hope this crap doesn’t follow them. Strippers are often harassed and even assaulted by cops and their claims are similarly treated as a joke by the police and the courts. The list goes on.

So is this okay for you, Butterflywings? There are a ton of industries out there that are much more exploitative, the garment industry springs to mind. Now, there are sweatshops and there are non-sweatshop factories. Using the “logic” applied to the sex trade, the non-sweatshop factories should be closed too. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how to make my own clothes. What about the people who pick your fruits and vegetables or, if you’re a meat-eater, slaughter the animal? There are tons of trafficked people there too. In my dorm at university I lived on a floor with immigrants and children of immigrants who were trafficked onto farms on the US West Coast so they could get out of Central and South America and HATED what they had to do to survive and on that same floor with children who joyfully worked on the farms in their local community. Does one experience have more weight than the other with regard to farming? I took a class trip to a farm where we actually did the work. It was exciting but hard and tiring. I’d do it again, under my own volition, but I wouldn’t want to be forced to do it. So let’s shut down all farms and ranches and orchards and groves. Just in case there’s exploitation. Better get to planting your own.

Sex workers are treated like children by people with your attitude. Children who are told, “Clean up your room or NO COOKIE!” The cookie being equal protection under the law in exchange for ‘proper’ behavior. When this approach is taken by those who claim to care about sex workers, it is apparent to me that their concentration is on the ‘sex’ part and not on the human part. If they cared for that human and their personal experience, then the help would be tailored as such. But it’s not. It’s sweeping, generalized and often humiliating.

MOST jobs are exploitative and people can be forced to do ANYTHING. All those jobs and other activities that can be forced can often, and are often, FREELY entered into. Prostitution is no different. Learn that. Understand that.

Okay. Done ranting now. I’m sure there will be much moralizing now, so carry on, but I’ll be moving on. I’ve said my piece.

Thanks For nice blog…….

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