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Canaries in the Coalmine: An Ally's Perspective

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

The tragic chain of events that led to the death of Sarah Everard are a catalogue of misogyny, missed opportunities and systemic failings that meant that a dangerous killer was left free not only to kill, but paid to do so with our own tax money.

I have absolutely no doubt that as the details of Wayne Couzens’ life continue to emerge, a clear picture of a dangerous, violent man will be pieced together for future historians and documentary makers to dissect, and all of us will be left wondering how he managed to get away with it for so long.

The real tragedy about this sickening episode is that there was already a group of people that certainly knew the true monster behind the badge, but like modern-day Cassandras were ignored.

I am a vocal advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work for several reasons – first and foremost the safety and protection of those engaged in it, but also because decriminalising and destigmatising sex work makes everyone safer.

Wayne Couzens’ use of sex workers was widely known by his colleagues to the point of being an in-joke – brazenly so, in fact, as he allegedly even took a sex worker to a work party. Darker details have also emerged; when a sex worker he’d failed to pay turned up at his station, his seniors brought him back from patrol so he could pay her. These are the same officers that have been involved in multiple raids on brothels and sex workers over the years and yet no action seems to have been taken or questions raised.

It’s highly unlikely this woman was his only target to fleece and, by extension, assault. But if Wayne Couzens had a pattern, why wouldn’t more sex workers have reported him?

Unsurprisingly, Couzens’ position as a police officer afforded him considerable protection, particularly with his colleagues covering up for his behaviour. Regardless, it is no surprise that sex workers did not come forward en masse. How could they, when doing so put them in such legal jeopardy?

This gets to the heart of why decriminalisation and destigmatisation are so important.

It is exceptionally rare that an individual murders as their first offence. There is typically a steady pattern of escalation. Jack the Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, Steve Wright – the most cursory look at serial killer activities demonstrates that sex workers are frequently the first victims, and it’s not difficult to see why.

Not only does the nature of sex work mean that people have private access to a stranger, but the bizarre legal dichotomy of sex work in the UK is almost engineered to be dangerous for sex workers, leaving them very vulnerable to violence and assault.

Sex work in and of itself is legal, but a lot of the systems around it are not. For example, in order to avoid criminal liability, sex workers are forced to work alone. Even working in pairs for mutual protection is illegal.

Sex work is not inherently dangerous. Certainly not as dangerous as, say, being in the military. But it is made incredibly dangerous by the way aspects of it are criminalised, compounded by the stigma that sex workers face from the police, the courts and the general public.

Imagine if sex work were decriminalised, with sex workers working together for safety, sharing information about dangerous clients and felt safe to pass that information to the relevant authorities.

People like Wayne Couzens could be quickly identified. There would be evidence and witness accounts. When he became inappropriate with sex workers, this could be reported safely to the police (who would hopefully be far more sympathetic to sex workers at this point).

Decriminalising sex work would make a huge difference to the safety of sex workers, as well as allowing them to access the healthcare and legal protection they desperately need. It would reduce trafficking and mean that the properly taxed earnings from sex work could be directed into social projects which benefit everyone, as well as leading to better public health outcomes.

In the case of Wayne Couzens et al, decriminalisation means that sex workers can identify and safely report dangerous individuals before they have a chance to become killers.

Sex workers can protect us all, not just serve as canaries in a coal mine.

(Additional thanks to Em @grumpyhooker for her own perspective. To the unnamed sex worker that turned up at Bromley police station to collect her payment - that’s the bravest thing I’ve ever heard. I salute you!)

Trude Perkins is a writer and activist based in Scotland. Her website is

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