On top of the global pandemic stresses, recent events have been completely overwhelming for many people, especially for those already marginalised by society. Umbrella Lane would like to send our thoughts to the friends and family of the victims of the Atlanta Spa Shootings and Sarah Everard’s, and also to every person who has experienced violence personally or systemically. It has been appreciable to see so many people galvanised and issues finally highlighted around male violence and police brutality. We hope that the shared sense of grief will spur collective action for change in the same way the Black Lives Matter movement was created in response to police brutality and police officers’ innate sense of impunity.
Umbrella Lane is a peer-led Sex Worker well-being project established in 2015 in response to community need. Umbrella Lane supports sex workers’ needs holistically, using a rights-respecting and trauma-informed approach that prioritises the needs of the individual Sex Worker. Our ultimate goal is to reduce stigma for sex workers so that everyone can enjoy fulfilled and embodied lives free from discrimination and help reduce barriers to accessing health and wellbeing services. We are pro-decriminalisation of sex work and take an evidenced-based, harm-reduction approach to sex work, not one based on ideology.
We want to make it clear that as a sex worker-led project, we support the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut. This group openly includes marginalised women in their advocacy, including trans, migrant, Roma and sex workers, people who will face even greater sanctions under the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill 2021. As a feminist sex worker-led collective, we will always stand with those challenging deeply embedded structural patriarchal, racist, transphobic and whorephobic violence. We believe that true feminism is intersectional.
The Reclaim the Night marches began in reaction to the brutal murders of women by Peter Sutcliffe, who came to be known as “the Yorkshire Ripper”. The police, press and public had become conditioned to the idea that the Ripper targeted sex working women in a case chillingly similar to the ‘Jack The Ripper Murders’ in the late 19th Century. There was little public and press outcry over the first murders due to this assumption, which changed when it became clear that non-sex working women were also being killed. The Police’s attitude to sex worker victims was exposed in a press conference in October 1979, when Detective Chief Superintendent Jim Hobson told reporters: “He has made it clear that he hates prostitutes. Many people do. We as a police force will continue to arrest prostitutes. But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls.”
In 2005, the tragic murder of Emma Caldwell was described in headlines as a “27-year-old heroin addict who had been working as a prostitute”. This case remains unsolved and the subsequent lack of urgency to reopen the investigation is an unjust reality of negligence in dealing with violence against women that has stood the test of time. When it comes to violence against women who use drugs and women who engage in prostitution, a complete disregard for the person is exposed in stigma-fuelled media reporting, a lack of public outcry and dereliction of duty by police and others responsible for securing justice for the victim and the family.
This is further echoed in the Reclaim the Night movement, which evolved to be openly exclusionary towards sex worker demands for safety. Previous marchers have behaved violently towards sex workers, passing by strip clubs to protest sex work, and even spitting on the sex workers who attempt to join the march. Sex workers are subject to an enormous amount of gender-based violence, not only from clients but from police harassment, raids, and street violence. And yet, they are still often painted as perpetrators of patriarchy and contributors to a misogynistic system rather than victims of it. There is also a clear erasure of trans women experiencing violence within this narrative or any ‘people repressed as women’. These marginalised women can not be sacrificed within the violence against women dialogue as we know they experience violence disproportionally. Some gender-based violence organisations, in their refusal to broaden their activism, seem to place more obstacles on the road to equality than they break down.
It is very concerning for sex workers everywhere that within the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill 2021 there has been an underhand move to legislate for ‘The Nordic Model’ concerning sex work policy which would criminalise clients of sex workers. This is not an answer to violence against women and has been proven to increase crimes against women in all countries it was introduced, including in France, Norway, Ireland and Northern Ireland and in Canada. Similar laws as introduced in these contexts, have increased sex workers vulnerability to violence, stigma and police violence, given their need to work in more precarious, hidden and isolated ways. Sex workers’ reporting of crimes against them substantially decreased, meaning that sex workers became a target for violent perpetrators carrying out crimes with impunity.
In Sweden, abhorrently, this violence is seen as a necessary evil to deter sex workers from their chosen profession- we believe this is state-sanctioned violence against women. Whilst seemingly well-intentioned, the Nordic Model is not a feminist approach to enhancing safety for sex workers. We completely agree with harsher sentences for crimes related to violence but we must not let sex workers suffer even further if there is a push towards the Nordic Model and criminalising aspects of their work. Police brutality is an issue that sex workers know more about than most, especially those from migrant or non-white backgrounds. Therefore, funding more policing to enforce criminalising clients will only make the situation worse for sex workers, who will remain under surveillance by police and increase state violence against already marginalised groups.
On Friday sex workers were dealt yet another blow. Cross Party MSP’s reported their findings on SEA (Sexual Exploitation Advertising) with the goal of targeting websites on which Sex Workers advertise and creating a new offence by updating the law to include charges against ‘enabling or profiting from the prostitution of another person’. They note that a large number of Sex Workers in Scotland use these websites to advertise. They argue that these websites act as an exploitative agent against women, furthering inequality in society. Their argumentation relies on framing the websites as ‘pimps and traffickers’. The policy proposed by some Scottish government MSP’s is designed to counter-trafficking and exploitation but fails to consider that consensual Sex Workers, will be left having to move to unsafe spaces, like the dark web, in order to advertise. It also fails to consider the research conducted after similar legislation was passed in the US which resulted in a degradation of Workers ability to operate safely and independently.
Sex Workers, whom Umbrella Lane seeks to advocate for, are opposed to SEA legislation. Their concerns about the negative consequences of legislation are backed by academic research in the area and supported by international standards of Human Rights.
Legal Solution: Decriminalisation for Safety
Sex workers globally call for full decriminalisation due to growing evidence highlighting the legal framework as the safest for sex workers both indoors and on the streets. Research from New Zealand, which was the first country to decriminalise sex work, has concluded that the change resulted in safer, healthier sex workers, who are more empowered to insist on safe sex, and more likely to report violence to the police. These calls must remain part of wider Reclaim the Night calls for measures to enhance safety and reduce misogynistic killings of women.
Support of Existing Safety Strategies and Tools to Minimise Risk
Sex workers disproportionately feel the effects of violence so the government should prioritise funding projects like National Ugly Mugs and ClientEye that offer safety screening of clients in order to reduce violent crimes. This would be a far more effective way to reduce violence against women than criminalising clients.
Coming from a harm reduction perspective, banning of advertising sexual services on websites would increase harm against sex workers who would be forced onto the street or forced into poverty by this legislation. Their only other option would be to advertise on the dark web where services are unregulated and where trafficking can occur completely unmonitored. Whilst workers can currently advertise their ‘Do’s & Don’ts’ on advertising websites, removing this safety feature would make it harder for workers to allow clients to know their boundaries and will increase the risks of miscommunication and violent attacks.
Address Structural Violence of the Feminisation of Poverty - exacerbated by COVID
Sex work will always exist whilst poverty exists, so until there is a push to eradicate poverty it is barbaric to make the lives of marginalised people even harder. Sex work enables many to live free independent lives free from poverty and taking away a revenue stream for these people will result in more people living in poverty with the ripple effects also being felt by those closest to them by increasing child poverty. This has been shown during the pandemic when demand was reduced for sex workers.
Address Police Violence / Hold State to Account / Improve access to justice for all
It is clear that among the police there is a widespread sense of impunity. In the UK between 2012 and 2018 only 43 out of 562 MET police officers accused of sexual assault had proceedings against them and of those 43, only 31 had formal action taken against them. This is also the case for domestic violence cases - convictions for allegations of domestic violence are a staggeringly low 6.2% in the general public and even lower for the partners of police officers at 3.9%.
This is a stark reminder that whilst police face such high levels of impunity and are protected by the state, and whilst the criminal justice system is so institutionally biased then there can be no justice for marginalised groups including women.
If there is more funding going towards tackling violence against women then this money should be spent educating the police on dealing with the nuances of domestic violence, rape, coercive relationships and educating all mainstream services to identify risks. Until women and marginalised communities feel that they can trust the existing police - funding even more police, the exact people who are enacting state sanctioned violence on marginalised groups in the first place, will make them feel even less safe and increase state violence.
Include Sex Workers in Advocacy & Consult with Peer-led Groups to ensure responses don’t exacerbate risk
First and foremost, any debate on changing national policy or legislation on sex work must consult active Sex Workers and seek to gain their views on the proposals, since they will be the groups most affected by these changes. Sex worker led organisations exist to amplify the voices of sex workers throughout the UK, these voices must be heard in the process of regulating the elements they rely on for their safety.