They call it the oldest profession in the world, but sex work in Hackney is under scrutiny today more than ever.
This month, MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee launched an inquiry into changing the law on prostitution in the UK. The aim is to consider whether legislation should be changed to shift the focus away from punishing sex workers themselves towards their clients. Or as the website explains: “The inquiry will assess whether the balance in the burden of criminality should shift to those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it.”
Georgina Perry manages Hackney’s Open Doors service. Open Doors offers support to sex workers in east London boroughs, as part of Homerton University Hospital NHS Trust. “What we’re about is stabilising people’s lives, offering them support and enabling them to access services,” she says.
Perry is sceptical of the idea that laws criminalising prostitution can protect Hackney’s sex workers, adding: “Criminalising human behaviour doesn’t change human behaviour. It just makes criminals out of ordinary people.”
According to Perry, a big problem with the current law is that it forces prostitution underground. She says this helps build a stigma around the sex industry in people’s minds, and makes it harder for sex workers to report crimes against themselves.
“The transaction of sex is not illegal in this country, but everything around it is. If the legislation was different, [sex workers] would be able to come forward for support from the criminal justice system and not be fearful of either being judged and stigmatised or refused help because they’re seen as criminals themselves,” she explains.
This stigma is potentially very dangerous for sex workers, acting as a barrier to them accessing support services. Perry says: “If a sex worker is a victim of crime, and is sexually assaulted or robbed, it’s incredibly hard to go and report that because she knows that by and large she will be judged. And on many occasions, sadly, she will be told ‘that’s just a consequence of the job, that goes with the territory’. If you have that experience, why would you believe that you can actually get support from services?”
Open Doors has noticed that the way the Hackney police treat sex workers has changed recently, with a bigger focus on prosecution: “For many years, no criminal sanctions were used against street sex workers in Hackney because there was a real recognition between services like Open Doors and the police, that actually, to criminalise these incredibly vulnerable and complicated individuals was not going to help them at all. In a way, the police acted almost like an arm of outreach.”
She added: “Things have changed. Now there is the use of dispersal orders. It gives police the powers to approach someone they believe might be about to commit an offence, and to then ask them to leave the area for 48 hours. If they breach that dispersal order, they can be arrested and sent to court. If they go to court, they’ll be fined, and inevitably, they’ll go back out onto the street to pay the fine.” In a situation like that, Perry argues, more aggressive police tactics simply lead to a cycle of prosecution and criminal punishment, making the already “complicated” lives of Hackney’s streetwalkers even more so.
The human rights organisation Amnesty International appears to agree with Perry’s view that harsher policing of sex workers doesn’t help. Last August, delegates at an Amnesty conference in Dublin voted to adopt a policy of encouraging governments to decriminalise sex work. In a statement on its website, the organisation argues for the benefits of decriminalisation, saying: “When sex workers are no longer seen and treated as ‘criminals’ or ‘accomplices’ they are less at risk of aggressive police tactics and can demand and enjoy better relationships, with protection from police.”
The problem of stigma is not just limited to official services, however. Perry recalls incidents of violence against women whom Open Doors has been supporting. “We have had many occasions over the years where local vigilante groups have attacked women. That’s so distressing because it shows a real failure — a real lack of compassion among members of the community — to understand the full complex nature of the women’s lives.”
Perry also mentions some positive feedback: “I’m still really heartened though by most of the people I meet and talk to in Hackney, who really recognise the work of Open Doors and really support what we’re trying to do as an NHS service.”
Perry hopes that people will learn to look at prostitution in a different way, to understand the diversity and vulnerability of the people who do it. In the meantime, she will continue supporting Hackney’s sex workers, by giving help and advice to some of the borough’s most at-risk and least visible people.
Open Doors can provide free and confidential advice and support.
Contact Open Doors on 07748 933 847