When Maria was robbed at knifepoint in her bedroom by men who stole hundreds of pounds in cash from her, she called the police for help. “I was in the room, then someone opened the door – I saw it was a few men in the house and I saw it was a robbery,” she says, speaking softly in accented English.
“I saw they had knives and I felt really scared. They were asking for the money, they were going in every room asking for money from every girl. They kept me in the room,” she explains, adding that another woman and a security guard were also trapped in the room with her. “One guy with a knife was keeping us there. He was there all the time keeping us there.”
What she didn’t expect was that the officers who came after she called the police would be more concerned about how she had earned her money than the robbery itself.
Maria’s case is one of several examples uncovered by BuzzFeed News of sex workers who, as victims of crime, feel they were largely ignored – but were later singled out for investigation themselves.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, MP Gavin Shuker, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution, said that he was unsurprised by our findings, and described a “postcode lottery” of policing of sex work in the UK. BuzzFeed News conducted Freedom of Information research and spoke to academics to uncover evidence that backs up his assertion.
Shuker described a situation where “tens of thousands of people involved in selling sex are at risk of exploitation, violence, murder, rape” as “a collective failure of parliament”.
Small and slight, with her dark hair tied back in a ponytail, Maria (not her real name) looks younger than her 23 years. Sitting in a large armchair, which dwarfs her petite frame, she twists her hands nervously as she recounts what happened when the police visited the flat she shared with other sex workers in the early hours of a June morning, in Enfield, north London.
“They were looking, asking what we'd been doing. They asked about work things,” she says. “They asked about the robbery, but I think they were asking more about us.”
Officers took a few fingerprints, she says, but did not test the security guard's phone, which the women pointed out one of the men had touched without gloves. She says they wrote down the women's details, but that she was not asked to make a formal statement.
A few days later, the women heard from the police again – but not in connection with the robbery.
“They gave me a letter saying that they had reason to believe that the place was being used as a brothel,” she says, “and said that they would come back in the next few days and anyone found out to be breaking any laws would be prosecuted,” adding that “basically they were shutting it down”.
“I left the same day,” she says.
Maria, who as a Brazilian citizen, does not qualify for any state help, hasn't been able to work since July, and is living off her rapidly diminishing savings. “I think about it a lot after what happened,” she explains. “I got really traumatised. Every time I saw someone with a hoodie I thought it was them.”
Women work together, Maria says, “because it's dangerous – even with one customer it's dangerous.” But working together brings the risk of arrest. Among her friends who work in the trade, she says, there have been several other armed robberies on houses where they are working – with a similar modus operandi.
While the act of selling sex is not criminalised under English law, related offences such as brothel-keeping and soliciting still leave sex workers open to prosecution if they approach police to report crime.
Some forces view sex workers as vulnerable victims, and treat offences committed against them as hate crimes, but others have been accused of failing to abide by the Victims’ Code and criminalising sex workers who come to them looking for help.
Shuker, the Labour MP for Luton South, told BuzzFeed News: “To my mind, what you have effectively is a postcode lottery around policing of prostitution in the UK.
“Some forces with extraordinary political leadership we found were successful at beginning to change the culture of the force, to viewing people that are involved in prostitution as being especially vulnerable to assault, attack, robbery, and all of the associated crimes there, and were effective at basically coming up with a victim-centred model for policing around it, about managing risk.
“Unless the law sends a clear signal about where the burden of criminality should lie, you're always going to end up in a situation where forces will target the most visible part of that transaction, which is the women, and that's where the problem comes in. They view their role as disrupting the sex trade, as opposed to protecting those that are most vulnerable in the transaction.”
Dr Rosie Campbell, a sociologist based at the University of Leicester, is a trustee of National Ugly Mugs, an organisation allowing sex workers to report abusive clients to their peers. She agrees with Shuker. Her research has found that “laws are enforced selectively and inconsistently by the police, who have favoured a form of regulation whereby sex work is spatially contained and informally tolerated as long as public complaints or political priorities do not demand a ‘zero tolerance’ crackdown”.
“From my work as a researcher, project manager, outreach worker,” she said, “what we have is a range of approaches to policing sex work. In areas where they’re more enforcement-based, there are low levels of confidence to report; people are more reluctant.”
Campbell said that police responses vary vastly between forces, but offenders who commit crimes against sex workers – for example, physical and sexual assaults – are in some cases escaping prosecution due to police attitudes.
“If they’re allowed to carry on,” she said, people will be able to perpetrate “the most serious sex offences, rape, murder”.
BuzzFeed News submitted Freedom of Information requests to police forces around the UK, asking how many brothels have been shut down after a crime was reported there.
Half a dozen forces, including London’s Metropolitan Police Service, declined to answer either fully or in part, citing cost, privacy, or in one case that releasing the figures was not in the public interest.
A dozen forces said that the answer was zero, while six more said they did not hold the information, or it was not in an accessible format. However, at the other end of the scale, Bedfordshire had issued 12 closure notices, 10 of which were at premises where crimes had been reported, and West Yorkshire shut down three where dozens of offences had been recorded in total.
BuzzFeed News asked both those forces for clarification on the types of offences that had been recorded, and whether or not these related solely to brothel-keeping, but no response had been received from either force at time of publication.
The extent of the problem of police targeting brothels for closure after sex workers reported crimes is therefore unclear: BuzzFeed News is aware of at least two cases, one in Dorset and one in London, that did not appear in FOI statistics as the relevant forces said they were unable to provide the data. This suggests there could be many more unknown cases that have been omitted from the data supplied.
Shuker said that it was difficult for those within parliament to achieve change for sex workers as “the issue of prostitution shifts no votes”.
“I think it is a collective failure of parliament that we are willing to tolerate a position where tens of thousands of people involved in selling sex are at risk of exploitation, violence, murder, rape; are treated differently to other citizens in our community with very, very little interest from the major parties,” he added.
According to the English Collective of Prostitutes – which wrote an open letter about the case – this is true of Maria’s experience, where police could much more easily shut down the brothel she worked in than apprehend the men who left her cowering on a bed.
In early August – about six weeks after the robbery – and after the campaign group Legal Action for Women and local MP Keir Starmer took up Maria's case, she was asked to make a statement, but had heard nothing from the police when BuzzFeed News spoke to her almost four months later.
After BuzzFeed News raised Maria's case with the Met, a spokesperson said that detectives had “pursued all possible avenues of investigation”, including a thorough search for forensic evidence and a review of CCTV, but had found no leads.
They added: “A knife that the victim informed had been left by one of the suspects was also sent off for tests – but no forensics were found. Work was done to review reports on crimes of a similar nature both in the borough and Met-wide over the past 12 months in order to see if there were any links, but no evidence was found of this.”
The spokesperson added that the investigating officers had been “scrutinised by their line manager as well as other senior officers”, who believed that a thorough investigation had been conducted and “were also satisfied the victims had been treated in accordance with the charter that guides officers”.
Maria’s is not the only such case we looked at in detail. In Sussex last year, a woman who works as a burlesque artist appeared before the courts charged with assault and wasting police time. She’d called the police after an encounter with a client turned nasty.
Louise – for legal reasons, her real name cannot be used – had been booked through an agency to appear at a stag party, but when she arrived the group of men were drinking in a bar that did not have the correct entertainment licence, so she could not perform there. A member of the group, who had paid for the booking, said she could perform for him instead of the groom.
However, the pair then had a disagreement and got into a tussle. The man was arrested a short time after the incident on suspicion of assault, sexual assault, and criminal damage. He later admitted to damaging a car and was fined, but he was never charged for the other alleged offences. Louise, on the other hand, was summoned to court for wasting police time.
Louise said the police told her they wanted to interview her after they found discrepancies in her statement but, she said, she had given this in the back of a police van while still in shock.
“I was in an absolute state,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I felt like I had to give a statement even though I was in trauma. I was crying. I was hysterical.” She said that she did not immediately disclose to police the fact that she had been hired for a kissogram, and she believes this is why Sussex police later decided to prosecute her.
“It just beggars belief. They arrested me because the statement, I got it wrong. The bits I got wrong were minor. I believed I was going to prison. I didn’t even know what I’d done wrong.
“I didn’t say why I was there – that I was a kissogram. I was embarrassed, I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t feel it was of any relevance why I was there.”
Louise said her statement had been taken by a lone male officer, while Stacey Clare from the East London Strippers Collective said Louise’s treatment had not been in accordance with how victims of alleged sex crimes should be treated.
“The whole [alleged] sexual assault side of it was completely ignored,” Clare said. “She wasn't offered any support, she wasn't taken to a SARC [Sexual Assault Referral Centre].
“They just terrified her. She's got a family. It's been very, very stressful. Finally the trial happens and she's found not guilty.”
“There’s a hundred or more like me,” Louise said. She believes other entertainers have also been targeted by the police.
“I’d not even had a speeding fine, never been in that situation before. I was totally intimidated,” she said.
Louise complained about her treatment to Sussex police, and in a response seen by BuzzFeed News, the force said that “there was no requirement for specialist officers to take your statement” and that she “did not appear to be distressed”.
The response also said that the male officer who took the statement “did so in accordance with Sussex Police policy”.
Investigating officer Detective Constable Brad Lozynski told BuzzFeed News: “During the initial call to police, the [woman] reported she had been grabbed but didn't make any allegation of rape. She told the call-takers then her occupation. A victim would only be taken to the SARC if they reported a sexual offence, which she didn't. If she had reported any sexual offences we would, of course, offer the support she needed.
“She named the man she was accusing of grabbing her and he was arrested that night. We asked Essex police to collect her clothing for any forensic evidence for the allegations of assault she had made.
“The woman was met by officers at her car in Brighton on the night of the report, and gave an initial statement. She gave a second statement [three days later]. CCTV was reviewed, the woman was invited in for an interview and summoned to court. She was never arrested. She faced trial and was acquitted last month.”
When BuzzFeed News asked why the man had been arrested on suspicion of sexual assault if this was not the crime Louise had reported, a spokesperson said: “The woman reported being grabbed and being touched over her clothing. While this would constitute sexual assault by touching, it would not result in the allocation of a sexual offences liaison officer or a visit to a SARC. We do take our support to victims of sexual crime very seriously and even in the circumstances mentioned here, would seek to provide advice and assistance if requested.”
Another sex worker told BuzzFeed News that officers in Scotland seemed more interested in discerning her line of work than in investigating an alleged assault.
Samira (also not her real name) told BuzzFeed News that she was sexually assaulted by a man she had contracted to do work for her some years ago. She described how she had been groped to the local CID, but said they were more interested in her work. She said that when she went to the police, she felt that the questions she was asked were completely inappropriate.
The police said “it was a ‘lesson in communication for everyone'”, she says. “If I didn't tell him not to grab my breast...how did he know it was inappropriate?
“It coloured how I view the police,” Samira added. “I'd be loath to approach them as [her professional name] if that's how I was treated as me.”
A spokesperson for Police Scotland said that tackling sex crimes is a priority for the force, and that it will treat all reports of sexual crime “with the utmost seriousness”, adding: “Officers may ask a victim questions surrounding their personal circumstances, in certain cases, and always for the purposes of the investigation. This is purely to ensure their welfare and that they are not also the victim of other criminality, such as trafficking or exploitation.”
The spokesperson said that “the focus of the investigation will always be the perpetrator”, adding: “It is of the highest importance to us that victims of sexual crime receive the best possible service and a matter of concern when anyone reports that they are unhappy with how they have been treated by our officers.”
They stressed that they want to encourage victims to come forward and said they “can be confident that we will listen to them and investigate their report thoroughly”.
But Samira said that did not match her experience. She had expected a more sympathetic response from police after she navigated her way out of what she felt was a risky situation.
“You're terrified he'll turn violent, you're terrified of rape,” she said. “I don't think anyone realises the fear and vulnerability thrown on to you until you're there.”
The English Collective of Prostitutes believes that these are not isolated cases, and that often sex workers are not being treated in accordance with the Victims' Code, which should guarantee a number of things, including a written acknowledgement, information on what to expect from the criminal justice system, and an enhanced service for victims of serious crime, or those who are persistently targeted, vulnerable, or intimidated.
“The number of instances and the regularity that this kind of thing occurs [with] in our industry is beyond belief,” Stacey Clare from the ELSC agreed. “The worst of it is this sense that we've got no defence, we've not got disciplinary procedures in clubs, we don't have an ombudsman, there's no complaints commission for us to go through, and for so many sex workers it's just like it or lump it, just suck it up. There's no means to justice and I'd like to see that change," she added.
“I've put myself in risky situations more times than I can remember. I've seen police let down other people so many times that I don't put all my faith in them. In the context of doing sex work and stripping, I wouldn't trust the police.”
Sociologist Rosie Campbell, discussing Maria’s case, told BuzzFeed News that the police response was “inadequate and out of line with National Police Chiefs Council guidance”. “It really highlights the worst of what we can see in certain areas of the UK,” she added.
“If police want to make a change, there’s evidence of different approaches. Different police forces have moved away from enforcement, unless there is clear coercion and exploitation.”
One such force is Merseyside Police, which has the country’s first police sex worker liaison officer, whose role is to support sex workers and encourage them to report crimes committed against them. Since 2006, Merseyside has also treated crimes committed against sex workers as hate crimes.
The force recently bid for Home Office funding to set up Project Red Umbrella, which was launched in December last year to help protect street sex workers from sexual violence, exploitation, and trafficking, and to better support sex worker victims.
Assistant Chief Constable Serena Kennedy said: “Merseyside Police force will not tolerate violence against sex workers and we will make every effort to ensure that offenders are tracked down and face the full force of the law and that victims receive the justice they so rightly deserve.”
After BuzzFeed News pointed out inconsistencies in policing to the National Police Chiefs Council, a spokesperson said it had commissioned an in-depth research study to assess how sex work is changing, and was reviewing its guidance to forces.
The NPCC’s lead for prostitution and sex work, Assistant Chief Constable Dan Vajzovic, said: “Police forces are committed to preventing those who are involved in sex work or prostitution from coming to harm. We are actively targeting those individuals who aim to exploit and profit from vulnerable sex workers and prostitutes.
“We are working towards ensuring that all forces deal with this problem in a consistent way but to do this effectively we need to constantly keep abreast of the scale and changing nature of sex work and prostitution.”
Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Hannah Al-Othman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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