Kerbs on behaviour

The government’s recent prostitution strategy made the headlines for its zero tolerance stance on street prostitution.(1) The strategy’s aims are to achieve an overall reduction in street prostitution, improve the safety and quality of life of communities and sex workers, and reduce all forms of commercial sexual exploitation.

These objectives are generally unquestionable, but the underlining principles and methods to achieve these objectives have been questioned by practitioners who support sex workers through outreach projects. The strategy wholeheartedly supports arrests, naming and shaming tactics and removing driving licences from men who kerbcrawl with no thought of the consequences for the individuals and their families.

Leaving aside the moral issues of whether it is right to buy sex from the street, research suggests that any street  prostitution policy that prioritises enforcement will only increase risks, dangers and distress. We know from sporadic  kerb-crawling crackdowns that this is a “short, sharp, shock” treatment. A few individuals will be deterred by the humiliation and the message will be sent out momentarily that cruising the streets will bring trouble. But this is not a long-term solution for either the abolitionists who want an end to prostitution or the liberals who want to promote choice, non-exploitation and safety.

First, there have been no evaluation studies to assess exactly what happens to the men once arrested. Do they stop seeking out commercial sex entirely, or do they visit indoor places such as massage parlours? What is certain is that the demand is pushed to a neighbouring town as displacement has long been known as a consequence of any crime intervention initiative that is based on removing individuals.(2)

Displacing demand has immediate negative effects on sex workers. From my own research with street sex workers in Birmingham,(3) highprofile police activity in street beats increases the levels of danger to which women are exposed.

First, women reduce their safety precautions and strategies to assess risks because they just want to get into a punter’s car and off the street quickly. Second, women work later, reduce contact with outreach services and tend to work on their own rather than with peers. Third, scaring off trusted and safe customers means that women have to negotiate with more strangers rather than clients with a record for safety. The implications of increased policing do not address the high levels of violence that street sex workers experience. Street sex workers in the UK are 12 times more likely to be murdered than other women. The consequences of police interventions to enforce zero tolerance can only sustain this.

The zero tolerance ethos adopted by the strategy also informs the government’s desire to change the law on soliciting and  loitering offences to make them more effective in removing women from the streets. Reframing the existing laws with a rehabilitation emphasis will give the courts more powers to insist on welfare interventions to keep women off the streets. In practice, this will mean that traditional offences and, more recently, antisocial behaviour orders, will have a new  intervention order (available from next month) attached setting out a path of reform for the individual.

For sex workers this will mean the courts will issue an enforcement order that provides some level of drug treatment, housing support and other welfare interventions as an alternative to harsher criminal justice sanctions. Providing holistic  intervention provision for women who are receptive is potentially the kind of “wraparound” service that could help some women to make choices and address the causes of their involvement in prostitution. Yet, with this new approach there will be no alternative for women who do not wish, or are not ready to comply with, state-sanctioned “rehabilitation” under the scruples of criminal justice intervention programmes.The strategy makes it clear that women who do not comply will receive harsh sentences
by the criminal justice system.

The problem with enforcement strategies against sex workers is that their involvement in the sex industry is considered as antisocial or offending behaviour. From the outset they are treated as criminals and perpetrators of nuisance and therefore in need of rehabilitation into a more acceptable and clean lifestyle. This displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the routes into the sex industry, the trapping factors once involved and the inextricable links between the sex and drug markets.(4)  Although the strategy documents the need for prevention, routes out and services for sex workers, there is no additional money or resources to address the monumental and entrenched issues that result in women working on the streets.

It is highly unlikely that, first time round, a court order will be the trigger that results in individuals changing a complex involvement in street sex markets. Instead, forced “rehabilitation” that results in breaches and under-resourced packages that set women up to fail will produce another revolving door of marginalised women moving in and out of the criminal justice system.

The strategy is not all bad news as there are some significant changes that have been welcomed by sex workers and  practitioners, such as the strident effort to increase prevention measures for those children most at risk of sexual exploitation and those already exploited in prostitution. Trafficking is high on the agenda; research has been commissioned to assess the scale of the problem and develop an action plan for proactive policing.

There will be a repeal of the outdated and gender-biased term “common prostitute” from the law. Most welcome is the relaxation of the laws that prevent women working together in small numbers that has always contradicted safety advice. This goes some way to recognising that the indoor markets are vastly different from the street and that there are circumstances where women can make choices to work and do so safely. (5) Although there is a veiled hope that more just, holistic and pragmatic practices will result from the strategy, an absence of money from such a morally driven and condemning strategy may be a blessing in disguise.

TEELA SANDERS is an academic researcher at the University of Leeds and has been involved in researching the sex industry for the past six years resulting in her book Sex Work. A Risky Business. She is also chair of the sexual health outreach project, Genesis, in Leeds, and has previously worked as a social worker in child protection.

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In light of the recently published government prostitution strategy that aims to “disrupt the sex markets” and promotes zero tolerance of street prostitution, this article explores what this means in the context of the sex industry. Delving into the details of the strategy, the author assesses the positives and negatives in relation to the impact on women who work in the street markets.

(1) Home Office, A Co-ordinated Prostitution Strategy, HMSO, 2006
(2) P Hubbard, “Community action and displacement of street prostitution: evidence from British cities”, Geoforum, vol 29, 3, pp269-286, 1998
(3) T Sanders, “Risks of street prostitution: punters, police and protesters”, Urban Studies, vol 41, 8, pp1703-1717, 2004
(4) T May, M Edmunds, and M Hough, Street Business: The Links Between Sex and Drug Markets, Police Research Series Paper 118, Home Office, 1999
(5) T Sanders, Sex Work: A Risky Business, Willan, 2005


  • Research for Sex Work –
  • UK Network of Sex Work Projects –
  • R Campbell, M O’Neill, Sex Work Now, Willan, 2006



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