Deborah Orr: Why these women are paying the price of a zero tolerance approach to street prostitution

The way they get money is usually just one more nasty and unpleasant detail in a nasty, unpleasant life

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On average a prostitute is killed on the streets of Britain once every couple of months, and few people take much notice. Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, and two women still formally to be identified, have lost their lives over a much shorter time-span, in one small town in England, and in chillingly similar circumstances. Killing one woman who is selling sex, it appears, is merely regrettable. Any more, and all hell breaks loose.

Many of the reasons for this are pretty obvious. Popular culture has given full expression to human fear and revulsion of, and fascination with, the psychopathic multiple killer. But a large part of the reason why one prostitute's death is easily ignored, and a connected series of them reviled, is driven by punitive ideas about how much a prostitute should be expected to risk for her sins.

A woman who works in this criminalised part of the sex industry is seen as someone who is deliberately putting herself in danger. When the worst happens, to a great degree, she is considered to have brought it on herself. But when there is clearly a maniac on the loose, systematically targeting women, then the balance of risk is disturbed. No woman deserves to be sought out for murder quite so intently. Not even a prostitute.

The harsh fact, unfortunately, is that it is just such attitudes that leave women in this most-hated corner of the sex industry vulnerable to violence or to murder, whether as part of a lurid series or as a tragic "one-off". In telling women in Ipswich to stay off the streets at this particular time, the assistant chief constable of Suffolk, Jacqui Cheer, is telling them what they are told every day of their working lives.

Government policy is designed to propel women off the streets, in a four-pronged strategy brought in almost a year ago. It aims to: challenge the view that street prostitution is inevitable and here to stay; achieve an overall reduction in street prostitution; improve the safety and quality of life of communities affected by prostitution including those directly involved in street sex markets; and reduce all forms of commercial sexual exploitation. Asbos are often used in pursuit of this agenda.

Essentially, it's an abolitionist strategy, that concerns itself least with the welfare of the unco- operative people among Britain's estimated 80,000 prostitutes who carry on working the streets. Maybe it deters some, and of course that's not a bad thing. But for those who continue with this work, it is a perilous policy. It propels women into the darkest and least policed places, where there are no CCTV cameras to record them or their clients, and it propels them to make no report to the police when they are assaulted or when they have reason to believe that one of their clients might be a dangerous character. It makes things easy for this killer. It's the reason why the women of Ipswich work on an industrial estate where few people go at night.

Even though some of the street workers in Ipswich expressed anger at police exhortations for them to give up their income while the danger is so great, most of them are adhering to the instructions. How long this can continue is yet to be seen. Few women work the streets because they like it. They do it because they consider themselves to have no alternative.

It might have been kinder for the authorities to have told the women at risk that they could go to their doctor and get prescriptions for their heroin, which might also be a way of keeping them off the streets more permanently. One study found that 98 per cent of sex workers on the street had a drug problem. Unfortunately, just as street prostitution is stubbornly seen as a feckless choice rather than a rock-bottom consequence of having no perceived choice at all, heroin abuse is viewed as a moral dereliction rather than an addictive illness.

Much, inevitably, has been made of the death of 25-year-old Gemma Adams, because she is from a middle-class background, and from a childhood strewn with Brownies, horse-riding and piano lessons. She "fell in with a bad crowd" and became addicted to heroin. She lost her job in an insurance company because of her chaotic drug use. She ended up on the streets. Bad choices, all.

The Government suggests that by at the same time relaxing restrictions on brothels so that three girls can work together on private premises, it is balancing a zero tolerance approach to street prostitution by facilitating further choices for safer "inside" work. Now, enterprising sex workers can work for themselves, as an alternative to working as escorts or in saunas.

The irony is that those who run escort services or saunas are no more enamoured of drug-addicted employees than are the managers of insurance offices. Addicted, chaotic, mentally-ill, care-leaving girls or abused women - even older, less attractive, or less personable women - find it hard to get work in other, less dangerous, parts of the sex industry, for much the same reason as they can't get work anywhere else. They're just not very employable. They're not good material for entrepreneurial self-employment either.

The most minimal help and protection that street workers can be given is for their transactions to be decriminalised within "managed zones" where they can be protected by the presence of CCTV cameras, regular police patrols and organised recourse to multi-disciplinary support, including strong "exit" support for the many women who would leave the business if they could see a way to do so. This possibility was mooted in the Government's 2004 public consultation document, Paying The Price, but was later rejected as "unworkable". Rosie Campbell, chairman of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, says that research from countries where such zones had been created, such as Cologne in Germany, showed that they could be effective. "In Cologne, there has not been a single murder in one of the managed areas and a study has shown that there was a massive reduction in attacks ... Of course you cannot say that something like the Ipswich murders would never have happened if there had been managed areas, but they certainly seem to reduce the likelihood of women being murdered."

Even among sex workers, the idea is controversial, because it is so crude. Many articulate women want nothing less than full legitimacy for their trade, and say they are happy to be sex workers. Such voices are only rarely drawn from the ranks of the street workers, although their cause was strengthened by a report earlier this year from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which suggested that even in red-light districts "the scope for improving relations between residents and street sex workers was considerable, particularly through mediation and awareness-raising".

For street workers, the way they get money is usually just one more nasty and unpleasant detail in a nasty, unpleasant life. Public revulsion for street girls is reflected in law and government policy. Amid the horror in Ipswich there is a chance to see the extent to which these add further degradation to lives already subsumed by it.

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