Who’s the Ugly Mug then ? – policing violence against sex workers in the UK

29/12/2010 at 01:43 Leave a comment

by Cheryl Overs

That December 17, the day against violence against sex workers is the big day in the sex workers rights calendar  speaks volumes.  Violence against sex workers and inadequate police responses are the single biggest issue I have encountered in all my time as a sex workers rights activist. Violence has been at the top of every sex workers list of priorities I have seen  and in every one of the sex workers’ meetings  I have attended in dozens of countries.  Only the extent and nature of violence and the degree of malpractice by police varies.

When the Australian Prostitutes Collective was formed in the mid eighties, and we began what later became known as ‘outreach’, violence emerged quickly as a key issue.  We came up with the idea of publishing and distributing a list of descriptions of bad clients, from timewasters and non-payers to bashers and rapists.  One day a timely street worker came in to the Sydney APC office cursing an ‘ugly mug’ and the brilliant name of the list was born.

The list was an immediate hit in Melbourne and it’s still going.  Then it was  an A4 sheet with descriptions of men, cars and addresses to be avoided, updated daily and handed around the street working area, brothels and escort agencies. It was the early days of computers and only one person in the office could use it, Brett, a local sex worker that the women adored and trusted.  The street sex workers were keen to open, update and print the list around the clock so Brett taught some of them how to do it. Fabulous.

For me the Ugly Mugs stands out as a beacon of success of the sex workers rights movement – it empowers sex workers to prevent violence and it is an excellent tool for lobbying for better law enforcement.  I know it works. When politicians and senior police saw the lists of unreported violent crime we were publishing they were embarrassed into coming to see us to discuss ways to ensure that crimes were properly reports and dealt with. Over the years the Ugly Mugs became an institution and I am delighted and proud to see it taken up by our counterparts in the UK, the US, Canada

So yesterday I was surprised to see the network of services for sex workers in the UK call on “government to implement a UK wide scheme of ‘Ugly Mugs’ so that intelligence about violent offenders can be shared between police forces.” (http://www.uknswp.org/news.asp?id=59) . I can see ‘where they are coming from’ but I wonder how many sex workers have contributed to the idea that government/police should run the Ugly Mugs list.  But then I saw this which goes even further  :

A database of men suspected of attacking sex workers should be introduced say police chiefs ( my italics)  Sex workers in some parts of the country are already distributed (sic) with pictures of so-called “ugly mugs” – men who have in the past been violent or threatening towards prostitutes – but it is not co-ordinated across the country. A national roll-out is being examined by the Home Office. http://www.shropshirestar.com/uk/uk-news/2010/12/28/call-to-reform-prostitution-laws/#ixzz19SABMDoI

This is a significant shift away from Ugly Mugs idea. A data base held by police of names of people accused by someone of committing unspecified crimes for which they have not been charged or convicted is a very different creature from descriptions of troublesome people compiled by sex workers and distributed within their own communities.

Police already have intelligence data bases that they should be using properly to track all kinds of suspected criminals.  I guess a special one for offenders against sex workers is a good idea but they should get their own name for it and not take ours!!!

Because data bases are only as good as the information put into them the UK government should be making sure police create an atmosphere where sex workers are confident to report every problem they have and that they are all properly recorded.  To create that atmosphere police have to actually turn up, behave respectfully, gain trust, take complaints seriously and record them faithfully – which, not co-incidentally, are all things Brett did so well all those years ago.

Sex workers should also be worried about registers of people who are ‘violent’ given the total confusion over what violence and rape means in the context of sex generally (as Julian Assange has found out)  and commercial sex specifically.

Whether any or all aspects of sex work are illegal does not affect the obligation of the state to deal with a crime against that person. Everybody that commits a crime against a sex worker must be subject to police attention and possibly the justice system without regard to the occupation; sexual orientation, HIV status or sexual history of the victim.

Clearly the law is at the heart of this. Street soliciting and doing clients in cars and bushes can never be safe. We know what a safe workplace looks like. The illegality that keeps British sex workers in these conditions and vulnerable to violence is not located in the laws that that address selling sex. Women alone in flats can sell sex legally in the UK.  Rather it is the so-called pimping laws such as brothel keeping and living off immoral earnings that prevent commercial sex taking place in normal workplaces governed by labour laws and contracts.

The UK government currently puts its resources for sex work into clinics and local governments projects tasked with distributing condoms and provide health checks to criminalised female sex workers who work in horrific conditions in British streets. It is hardly surprising that despite the best intentions of the many wonderful staff of those projects they haven’t maintained a strong mechanism for empowering sex workers to share information and demand improved responses to violence and other unlawful behaviour. Rather than putting police in charge of the Ugly Mugs, to reduce violence against British sex workers two things need to happen:

  • The law must be reformed to enable all sex workers to access safe workplaces and labour rights.
  • Resources must be provided to build up sex worker groups so they can develop and use tools like the Ugly Mugs list that reflect their perceptions and demands rather than those of police or government.

Cheryl Overs was a founder of the Australian Prostitutes Collective, the Scarlet Alliance Australia and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.  She has worked in sex work projects since the 1980s,  including in the UK where she lives.


Entry filed under: gender and sexuality.

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