Originally from Limerick, Mary Kelly arrived in the UK at a young age and spent her early years in Cardiff. Following the breakdown of her marriage, Kelly arrived in the West End of London and became a sex worker. On the face of it she appeared content. She had love interests and a great working relationship with other street sex workers in the area. She was a kind soul and known for taking other sex workers into her home; those who had fallen on hard times. As we say in Ireland she was “fond of a drink” and on the night she died, she was heard by several witnesses, merrily singing Irish tunes; never to be heard from again.
The last victim of Jack the Ripper, Kelly’s body was so badly mutilated that she could only be identified by her hair and eyebrows. Hardly scientific, but then that was 1888. Fast forward 127 years and we have surely progressed a great deal since then in terms of sex worker safety, right? Well no, actually. If anything it’s worse.
Following the removal of the tolerance zone for street prostitution in Edinburgh, crimes against sex workers shot up by 95%. The reason for that is simple, it became known that the police were no longer there to protect the workers, but rather to harass and arrest them, and their clients. Let’s make a clear distinction for once and all, many attackers of sex workers are not or will never be “sex buyers”. They are predators, looking for an easy target, and they know that sex workers are alone, vulnerable and highly unlikely to report an attack to the police.
Conversely in Merseyside, we see a model rolled out where the police established a tolerance zone and pledged to protect sex workers. That measure resulted in a fall of over 80% in crimes against sex workers, in particular because they now treat those crimes as a hate crime, as they would any minority group. That approach works, and has been shown in the preliminary stages to be successful in Leeds too, but it all depends on the police force concerned. Treatment of sex workers in London has been nothing short of appalling, ditto Scotland.
You see, I have a habit, one I don’t think I’ll ever break. In every city I visit, if I find myself free late at night, I’ll go for a wander around the red light district. At the recent ICRSE conference in Paris, we were out until 2am doing street outreach and I have to tell you, it was immensely enjoyable. Once the women established we weren’t there to harass them, they were ace. They told us of their problems with police harassment and the lack of support they experience.
Last week, I found myself in late night Glasgow and as is traditional, went out to see what was what. There I came across a young lady in considerable distress. She was (she told me) three weeks pregnant and to the untrained eye, incredibly drunk. What worried me more than anything was that from her spot, men were already harassing her and that’s before she even had a preliminary conversation with a “sex buyer”. We spoke for a while, and I asked her, “In your current situation, how do you think the criminalisation of buyers would help you?” She looked at me like I was quite mad, threw her head back and roared – “Laws don’t pay my bills!”
In many debates, I’ve come up against prohibitionists who proudly declare, “Yes, but look at Ipswich, he was a punter who was known to all of the women.” I’m afraid that argument misses the point on several levels. Firstly, had the women been allowed to work together on street for safety, and it was known that they were jotting down registration numbers to keep each other safe, it might have been a completely different story. Secondly, had the police been there to protect the women rather than persecute them, perhaps any would be attacker would think thrice. But the most important point here is, what other avenues did those women have? Here’s your answer – none. They needed money for drugs, and in spite of the fact the police begged them to stay inside, out they went. One social worker, who really cared for them, got so frustrated, that he gave one of the women £20 for heroin. That’s documented. As a social worker, that’s not his role.
In the end, what is screamingly apparent is failure on behalf of the state to protect street sex workers. My thinking on this is simple; if women want to exit sex work, give them all the help they need, and I’m not just talking about funding greedy NGO’s who “raise awareness”. I mean REAL help. Conversely, if they want to stay in street sex work, let’s ensure that they can do so in safety. 152 sex workers have been murdered since 1990. How many more Mary Kellys must we have before the penny drops that leaving vulnerable people open to attack is not a good policy?