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This Charity Helps Sex Workers Identify Bad Clients But Police Are Cutting Its Funding

National Ugly Mugs helps sex workers share descriptions of rogue customers with each other and the police but it's struggling to raise money from police forces that are sometimes reluctant to supports its cause.

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Two years ago, Roberta was attacked and raped at work. Her assailant locked her in a room and pulled out a knife, threatening to "cut her beautiful face" if she didn't pose naked for photographs. The ordeal lasted for two hours.

Despite the brutality of her attack, Roberta (which is not her real name) was adamant she wouldn't go to the police. Like other sex workers, she had little faith that any good would come from such an interaction. However, she did attend Open Doors, an advice service for sex workers at Homerton Hospital in Hackney, East London. Here, she confided in a nurse.

Understanding Roberta's reluctance to go to the police, the nurse encouraged her to fill in a report for the National Ugly Mugs (NUM) service. This meant a warning could be issued to sex workers across the country, via text and email, giving details about the dangerous client. Roberta also agreed that the information could be given, anonymously, to the police.

NUM passed on the information to the SCD2 unit at the Metropolitan Police, which covers rape and serious sexual offences. Soon after, officers believed they had identified the suspect. Working through NUM, Roberta began to assist the police directly and, after she made a full report, her attacker, Dale Brown, was arrested. He is now serving 10 years in prison for rape.

However, despite its success the organisation told BuzzFeed News that some police forces are being slow to supply crucial funding. In some cases, this could be because of a conflict in approaches to sex work.

"We're often critical of policing approaches and would never hold back, even if it meant that a particular force would withdraw support," said NUM director of services, Alex Feis-Bryce. "We've recently been extremely critical of Humberside Police's support of some of the most regressive and dangerous policies I've ever heard of. We received a fairly curt letter from the [Humberside] Police and Crime Commissioner and I just hope that they don't see our criticism as a reason not to support a life-saving project."

Violence against sex workers remains common in the UK, with 151 murdered in the UK since 1990 and an estimated two-thirds having experienced violence while working. However, given the chaotic state of UK law around the prostitution – selling sex isn't illegal, but running a brothel, soliciting and pimping are, meaning women can be prosecuted for working together and street workers can be slapped with fines or ASBOs – the relationship between police and sex workers is fraught.

Last year, the Chief Constables Council, which co-ordinates efforts between police forces, stipulated that all forces should contribute to help fund NUM. However, so far this year the organisation has only received contributions from 15 forces. Funding from non-police sources can be hard to come by. Feis-Bryce suggests this may be because the organisation supports sex workers who remain in the profession, focusing on harm reduction.

"Organisations supporting sex workers to exit are often favoured by funders because they have an oversimplified view of sex work," he said. "They fail to see that the majority of sex workers choose their work and the main downside is the stigma and the fact that they can be targeted by dangerous individuals."

NUM was set up in 2012 with funding from the Home Office, on the understanding that this would be a temporary arrangement. But the transition to relying on police funding – and dealing with local political attitudes to prostitution – have left the charity on the brink of closing down due to lack of money.

"We were told that the Home Office sees us a police operation," Bryce said. "And that as police funding is now devolved, we would have to go to each individual police force for small contributions. While this may sound sensible in theory, there are 44 police forces in Britain so it's very difficult and hugely time-consuming to continuously lobby so many police forces for relatively amounts of money."

NUM enables both sex workers and police to share information about potentially dangerous clients. For every incident reported to the organisation, a legally compliant alert is produced, detailing enough information to warn sex workers about the activities of suspicious individuals without breaking the law by naming any individuals. The alert is published on a secure part of the NUM website and sent to all members who've opted in. Police can also offer information; for example, when a known offender is released from jail.

With police permission, names and photographs can be released. Often though, for legal reasons, alerts must be more creative. Last year, there were reports of a rapist who would call women to his car by clicking his teeth and whistling. Simply on this description, several women were able to identify and avoid him.

Since its inception in July 2012, 1,500 incidents have been reported to NUM, almost a fifth of which were rapes. While 25% of those reporting are unwilling to go to the police, 95% agree to share the information anonymously. The charity claims this has led to the conviction of more than twenty serial offenders and prevented an estimated 1,000 serious crimes including the conviction of a serial rapist who used knives to torture escorts in London.

Not all police forces are cutting funding to the organisation. In Lancashire, where support for NUM is strong, 75 reports of violent attacks have been made since 2012 and 33 of those reporting were willing to involve the police.

"National Ugly Mugs is vitally important when you look at the historic number of sex worker murders," said Superintendent Sue Cawley, head of public protection for Lancashire Police. "We know that some sex workers won't approach the police even when they've really badly attacked and sexually assaulted. So from police point of view it's an important intelligence tool and also assists us in being able to target offenders, even when there's been no complaint from the victim."

"We're pleased that following the pilot, the scheme has been successful in increasing access to justice and protection for those involved in prostitution," a Home Office spokesperson told Buzzfeed News. "However, we were clear from the outset that we would not be providing ongoing funding for the scheme and this remains the case."

Humberside police declined to comment but the relative lack of engagement with NUM in the area is conspicuous. Following a landmark ruling last December, prostitutes and kerb-crawlers found in the Hessle Road area of west Hull can be arrested. Although some local residents have welcomed it for tidying up the area independent charities, such as Hull-based Lighthouse, have warned that the action simply pushes women to work in more dangerous locations. Engagement with NUM is low in the area and, of the sex workers who have come forward to make a report, not a single one has been willing to share information with the police.

Frankie Mullin in a freelance journalist.

Contact Frankie Mullin at frankiemullin@gmail.com.

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