On Friday evening a Belfast woman live streamed a video online of an angry mob. This baying crowd was assembled outside a house which they alleged was a brothel. The PSNI were in attendance and the video showed officers hastily escorting three women from the house into the back of a Land Rover and out of the area for their own safety. Shouts from the crowd being held back whilst this going on included "Dirty fucking whores" and "You should have put them on fucking fire".
This incident has all the hallmarks of hate crime but it does not appear to have been condemned by the PSNI or any political representatives as you’d expect if it were hate crime targeted at any minority group other than sex workers.
Sex worker targeted hate crime is not one of the so called five strands of hate crime – race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability - that all UK police forces recognise. But UK police guidance on hate crime encourages forces to also identify and recognise other types of hate crime that occur in their areas. The PSNI’s recognition of sectarian hate crime is an example of this.
There is a solid argument that the PSNI should recognise sex worker targeted hate crime and send out a strong public message that crime against sex workers is not acceptable. This has been done successfully in other regions, notably by Merseyside Police since 2006. Together with Dr Graham Ellison from Queen’s University I put forward a case for this in the upcoming book chapter Hate crime legislation and violence against sex workers in Ireland: Lessons in Policy and Practice, to be published later this year as part of Critical Perspectives on Hate Crime: Contributions from the Island of Ireland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
This latest incident happened on Ross Road, off the Fall’s Road, in West Belfast. But similar incidents have previously occurred in East Belfast. Whilst the act of providing sexual services for payment is not in itself illegal, various associated activities are. Northern Ireland became the only part of the UK to criminalise the purchase of sexual services last year. This happened following the successful passing of Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, a DUP private members bill which was also supported by Sinn Féin, the SDLP and UUP. Whilst there were objections to this legislation, most notably by sex workers themselves, in a climate where panic about sex trafficking was running wild, Unionists and Nationalists came to an agreed anti sex work position.
Following Friday’s incident sex worker and sex workers' rights campaigner Laura Lee, who is currently bringing a legal challenge against Northern Ireland’s sex work legislation, spoke of her tearful anger over the hatred and violence and sex workers are facing. She also recalled a previous similar incident last year where the mob had smashed the windows of the property and were already assaulting the sex workers before the PSNI could get there.
Dr Paul Maginn, of the University of Western Australia but originally from Northern Ireland, commented on Twitter of Friday’s incident that it was evocative of a witch-hunt, working-class West Belfast women calling for other working women to be burnt. Dr Maginn has previously coined the term “sextarianism” to describe the religious and patriarchal ideas, beliefs, practices and policies that stigmatise, physically harm, and criminalise members of sexual minority groups, and deny them their human and labour rights.
My experience of crime against sex workers comes from running UglyMugs.ie, a sex worker safety scheme. UglyMugs.ie is a web service available on computers and via mobile phone apps for Android and Apple that improves the safety of sex workers and reduces crime by bringing sex workers together to share information with each other about potential dangers.
I’ve found that sex workers in Northern Ireland are a group of individuals at high risk of crime due to the stigma and criminalisation they face. And, when sex workers are the victims of crime, they often feel unable to engage with police. The PSNI have made some positive efforts here in recent years, most notably the welcome appointment of PSNI Sex Work Liaison Officers (SWLOs) in 2015. But the stigma around sex work in Northern Ireland remains strong and there is often little sympathy for sex worker victims of crime. I think this is well illustrated by the lack of any media coverage of Friday’s incident and by the lack of voices willing to condemn it.
It shouldn’t be controversial to condemn an angry mob gathering to force women from their homes under threats of violence but somehow, when there is an allegation these women may be sex workers, people fall silent.