Past, policing and legislation (part 2) – Ruth Jacobs

Ruth Jacobs


In the second half of this interview, the policing approach to sex work that leads the country and currently operates only in Merseyside will be discussed.

You used to be an advocate of the Swedish model, what changed your mind?  

When I first heard of the Swedish model, it did sound good because of the ‘exiting routes’ and the decriminalisation of people selling sex – and those two elements I am still strongly for. It’s stated that nine out of ten women in prostitution would like to exit if they could, and from my experience, that could well be right, but their needs must be addressed and it also has to be taken at their pace and services must be non-judgemental and non-enforced. In the UK, we have an estimated 80,000 people in prostitution, many single mothers and most in poverty. For services to be established, it’s going to take a lot of government investment and a lot of time. I doubt our government will invest in this, and when I was on a panel at Amnesty last year with MP Fiona Mactaggart, she said the government will not. But it’s also more complex than that, because the law does not work in Sweden, there is no harm reduction being practiced and it is more like social cleansing.

The Swedish model is an ideology that in real life is dangerous. When clients are criminalised, women working on-street have to make quick decisions to get into cars. They can’t stop and check in the back of the car to ensure no one else is there, they can’t check if there’s alcohol on the driver’s breath, look closely into his eyes and listen carefully to his speech to ensure he’s not high on drugs for example. They are forced to make snap decisions, like the one I made in Australia that led to me being raped and I wasn’t expecting to get out alive, and some of these women won’t!

Criminalising clients also means for women working on-street they have to place themselves in more out of the way, unlit and dangerous areas and without the security of a group so they can keep an eye out on each other for safety, taking down clients’ number plates, knowing when to expect their friend to return to the beat. With this law, safety measures are prevented.

Not only are the poorest and most vulnerable women in the sex trade put in more danger but with fewer clients, the women on-street are forced to charge less, therefore they have to see more clients to make the same money, and also end up accepting clients they might usually refuse and agreeing to sex acts they do not want to perform.

As I mentioned about the police crackdowns being enforced in certain areas within the UK, women have already been murdered. Do we really want to cause more women to be killed? Is this what our society deems acceptable in order to be rid of the sex trade, to sacrifice the lives of women?

And the law also affects other sex workers including mothers, who can be deemed unfit parents and lose custody of their children, and people in rented accommodation, who can face eviction if it’s discovered they are selling sex.

With no harm reduction being practiced in Sweden, there is no access to free condoms. This is because it’s seen as encouraging sex work. For drug users, there is also no harm reduction; I’ve heard of addicts using ten-year-old needles. If what has happened in Sweden happens here then these issues and their negative repercussions will be widespread.

Where there have already been police crackdowns in other parts of the UK, it’s had a detrimental impact on support services. Through fear women stop engaging with services, for example drug and alcohol services, and if they do still engage, they’re generally too frightened to discuss their sex work, and therefore be open to assistance whether that’s for condoms, counselling or help leaving the industry, which they may well not be able to do immediately, not until they have something else in place financially.

The idea of ‘exiting routes’ is brilliant and I very much hope to see our government invest in this, but without the Swedish model, which does not work to reduce sex work or sex trafficking. And as I said, ‘exiting’ can never be forced, but it should be made known those services are available and they should be on offer unconditionally.

When police resources are already stretched, it is absurd for time to be spent tracking down clients of women who are selling sex rather than tracking down clients who commit rape and other violent crimes, and sex traffickers, and identifying and freeing sex trafficking victims. I would be loathed to see our jails being populated by men who have paid for consensual sex with another adult, when we read about child sex abusers walking free from our courts because our jails are already full. I think it is also abhorrent to class men who pay for sex with women who are selling it as the same as rapists and child sex abusers. There is nothing remotely similar between clients who respected my boundaries and the men who sexually assaulted me when I was a child or the men who raped me as an adult. Not only is it an injustice to men who pay another adult for consensual sex, but it minimises the horrific crimes of rape and child sex abuse.

Do you think the police protect sex workers?

Here in the UK, it is extremely hard for people in the sex trade to report crimes committed against them. When turning to the police, there is the very real fear of being treated as a criminal, perhaps for soliciting on-street or working from premises with another woman, which is classed as a brothel, or even just living with another person who could be charged with living off immoral earnings. For migrants without the right to live in the UK, there are further barriers, such as the fear of being sent back to a dangerous country. Women are often not believed, dismissed, considered to have deserved it, that it’s an occupational hazard… There are so many barriers for sex workers reporting crimes against them; most of us do not. And this very issue is what makes people in prostitution ‘easy targets’ for criminals.

I had the same issues when I was raped while in prostitution and the one time I did try to report, I was dismissed. Then a couple of years ago, I reported an alleged filmed gang rape of which I was informed I was the victim and that occurred approximately two decades ago. The treatment I received from the police and their handling of the investigation was appalling. I am fortunate and grateful that the English Collective of Prostitutes supported me through this. The stigma of having been in prostitution never leaves, and I hope to live to see a day where there is no stigma attached to selling sex.

With the Swedish model, it will be even more difficult. For example, if a woman reports a client raped her and the police have her address, her landlord could be forced to evict her so she could be made homeless; she could risk losing custody of her children as has happened in Sweden, and custody is given to inappropriate fathers who are violent, such was the case with Petite Jasmine who was then murdered by her ex-husband last year.

What do you believe would be the best policing approach to sex work?

The hate crime model operating in Merseyside, which we’re campaigning to be made UK wide. It’s more than just classifying crimes against people in prostitution as hate crimes; the scheme involves the police working closely with sex work projects, and the projects having a dedicated ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor) who supports the victim of crime from report through to court. The police in Merseyside treat people in the sex trade with the same respect and dignity as all other victims of crime, and this needs to happen across the UK, as it is every citizen’s human right to such treatment.

Merseyside police prioritise protection of people in prostitution over enforcement of the law, which has built trust between sex workers and the police. Sex workers know if a crime is committed against them, they can report to the police, expecting to be treated like any other victim of crime. In Merseyside, their conviction rates are astounding for crimes committed against people in prostitution – in 2010, the overall conviction rate for crimes against sex workers was 84% and for those who raped sex workers, the conviction rate was 67%. In the UK, the national average conviction rate for rape is just 6.5%. I see it as a hate crime that this is not the standard policing approach throughout the whole of the UK.

Also because trusting relationships are developed between the women and the sex work project staff, the number of women involved in street prostitution in Merseyside has halved. The project offers the services for ‘exiting’ but these are not forced, just made known they are available. When we were filming the BBC1 documentaries about the Merseyside model, I met May who had been in prostitution for many years, and since Shelly Stoops, the ISVA at the sex work project, supported her through a court case against a rapist who was sentenced to ten years, she got clean from drugs and alcohol, went to college and trained as a chef, a job in which she’s now working.

In addition to the Merseyside model, I also believe sex workers should have their criminal records wiped of prostitution charges to enable them to seek other employment when and if they would like. Also essential is that safer working practices are decriminalised. For example, currently women working in premises together for safety is classed as a brothel and illegal. It is unjust this is the case. Although I do not believe selling sex is like any other job due to the trauma I have experienced and the many women I know, regardless of that, selling sex is indisputably a means to make money and therefore health and safety in work environments must be legal ‒ how workers feel about their job is irrelevant to their human right of safe working conditions. For women working on-street, safety measures must also be decriminalised: there should be well-lit areas from which women can work in groups without fear of being charged with soliciting. Research shows, whether working on-street or off-street, women are at more risk of rape and other violence when they are isolated. The times I was raped by clients and the time I was beaten, I was working alone. I do know women who have suffered rape and other violence while working with others and I do not believe the sex trade can be made completely safe, but it can be made less dangerous and it must be.


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