A Dominatrix Writes

Our Mole says the new Policing and Crime Act has made life more dangerous for sex workers

Justice Social Affairs The Mole

From Heidi Fleiss taking part in a recent series of Celebrity Big Brother, to Brooke Magnanti reflecting on life since she was “outed” as Belle de Jour, you might think the “world’s oldest profession” is now an acceptable means of earning a living in Britain. Trust me, it isn’t.

Last month, the most controversial piece of legislation affecting the sex industry in decades, the Policing and Crime Act, came into force. Following months of pressure on the government to legislate on sex trafficking, the Act is partly a vehicle for addressing this highly contentious issue. It’s contentious because the statistics on how many sex workers are trafficked are not reliable. Currently, the Home Office estimates that there are 4,000 trafficked sex workers in the UK. But this is based on Office Pentameter, an intelligence-based police investigation which raided 1,337 premises (around 10 per cent of the total) and found just 255 victims, equivalent to only 2,550 across the entire industry. But whatever the accurate figure, the Act will do little to rescue victims of trafficking. Rather, it will endanger all sex workers, trafficked or otherwise, by forcing them to operate in isolation, or risk breaking the law.

Under its Clause 14, “paying for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force” is now illegal, with the client bearing full liability. Not knowing the sex worker was trafficked is no defence. One would have thought a law aimed at helping the victims of trafficking would define them as “coerced” or “trafficked”, as indeed the UN Palermo protocol does. Instead, the oblique phrasing of “subjected to force”, which, does not have to be violent, merely “exploitative”, means that any sex worker who receives help or instruction from another could be considered illegally enslaved by this definition.

Clause 21, which relates to closure orders, is similarly damning. This gives police the power to raid any premises a) where they suspect sex workers “controlled for gain” are working, b) which they suspect is an unlicensed brothel (defined by law as two or more sex workers trading together), or c) where they believe there is drug use or where they have received complaints of anti-social behaviour (which can even be the act of sex work itself). In combination, Clauses 14 and 21 make it impossible to operate, however loosely, alongside any other prostitute or dominatrix, thereby eradicating the means of mutual protection upon which those working in such a stigmatised, criminalised occupation have long depended. What’s more, police have a vested interest in raiding brothels — under the Proceeds of Crime Act (2002), they may keep 25 per cent of any assets confiscated both at the time of investigation and from subsequent prosecutions. 

Let me put the new Act into context. When I began work as a dominatrix, I assisted my “mentor” as a “trainee”, before gaining the experience and confidence necessary to session alone. Besides there being a sense of camaraderie, working together greatly increased our safety — both when sessioning with a man who might be larger and stronger than the two of us put together and when we left the premises late at night. Unscrupulous punters might loiter around flats and mug the girls they have just paid. 

But were we to session together now, under the Clause 14 amendment, my “mentor” could be charged with “controlling” me, and, if we were ever caught together, our landlady (also a sex worker) would be arrested for running an unlicensed brothel. We would have just 48 hours in which to procure legal representation and appear in court to defend the closure. And all this on mere “suspicion” that we were operating illegally. Unless we could secretly set up again elsewhere, we would be restricted to visiting the client, which brings its own set of risks, and, of course, to doing so alone. 

For those whose income relies on sex working, expulsion from “brothels” could leave only one other option: streetwalking, arguably the most dangerous outpost of the trade — not the place we would expect a responsible government to edge anyone towards. 

In a bid to tackle the demand for prostitution, the Policing and Crime Act will toughen up on kerb-crawling, replacing its current tendency to caution with more first-time arrests. The definition of persistent soliciting has also been amended, so that “persistent” now constitutes just two incidences in three months. Criminalising clients inevitably impacts negatively on the sex workers, and fails to deter the unscrupulous punters, those who seek whatever services they want, whatever the law says. For some, it will merely inflame the thrill of the illicit, for others, intensify the guilt, confusion and self-loathing they experience in purchasing sex in the first place, something that can then be projected on to the sex workers themselves. Since Scotland criminalised clients in 1997, reported incidences of violence against sex workers have more than doubled. According to the human rights organisation Justice, violence against Swedish sex workers rose after kerb-crawling was outlawed.

Rape convictions for sex workers are well below the national average. Meanwhile, the government’s Violence Against Women strategy, published last year, acknowledged that sex workers are the most vulnerable women in the UK today. And yet sex workers are rarely afforded Article 7 of the Human Rights Act — the right to equal protection of the law. Sex workers, it seems, have less right to consensual sex than other Britons.

Jane, a high-end escort, told me how she was forced to abandon her home and move 60 miles to escape the harassment she experienced for selling sex. A female neighbour verbally and physically intimidated her, pumped Halon gas through her letter box and held a knife to her throat, claiming that her “whoring” was damaging the neighbourhood. When Jane reported this to the police, they told her that if she wanted the neighbour to stop, she should stop escorting, “or we will shut you down”. 

In a recent raid on a brothel in Mayfair’s Shepherd Market, prostitutes complained to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) that the police were aggressive, busting down doors, smashing security equipment and stealing money which had never been returned. According to the Home Office, the Policing and Crime Act supposedly aims to increase “police accountability and tackle crime and disorder”. 

Astonishingly, no sex workers were consulted in the construction of the Act. Only after it was passed by royal assent did a civil servant, Alistair Noble, consult sex workers to ask what they felt its practical implications would be. There are multiple sources of alternative, credible research which the government could and should have taken into consideration when constructing the Act: the Royal College of Nurses and the British Psychological Association, the human rights organisation Liberty and academics such as Hilary Kinnell, who wrote Violence and Sex Work in Britain, to name but a few.

Following the murder of five women in Ipswich in 2006, the government amended the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, conceding that the criminalisation of sex workers would only increase their vulnerability. The Policing and Crime Act resurrects that murderous threat.