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Behind closed doors: What police and charity say about Norfolk's sex industry

PUBLISHED: 06:45 25 January 2019 | UPDATED: 13:02 28 January 2019

Picture posed by model of on-street sex work. Photo: Archant

Picture posed by model of on-street sex work. Photo: Archant

Archant

A boom in high-end escort websites is painting a deceptively glamorous picture of the sex trade and encouraging more young people in into the industry, a Norfolk charity warns today.

Norfolk sex workers advertising online. Image: ScreenshotNorfolk sex workers advertising online. Image: Screenshot

A boom in high-end escort websites is painting a deceptively glamorous picture of the sex trade and encouraging more young people in into the industry, a Norfolk charity warns today.

Former Norfolk sex workers, a punter and charity workers all lift the lid today on what is happening behind closed doors, and the drastic way technology has changed the sex industry.

While many people have an image of sex workers as working on the street, figures from a 2017 House of Commons report revealed a very different reality.

It showed 85pc of sex work was being organised via adult websites, compared to just 3pc on the street.

This marked a big change from a decade before, when 28pc of all sex work was solicited outside.

In Norfolk there are 325 people advertising paid sexual services on one of the UK’s leading adult websites.

Women and men offering services range from 18 to 62 years old – and just under half were listed as British, with the second and third most common nationalities listed being Romanian and Brazilian.

While the act of exchanging money for sex is not in itself illegal, many related activities are.

Magdalene Group chief executive, Suzi Heybourne. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYMagdalene Group chief executive, Suzi Heybourne. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

One former Norwich sex worker said the online platform allowed her to work independently from pimps and that she felt safer thanks to a feature on the site allowing women to leave their clients public reviews.

She said: “I definitely felt empowered working independently because everything was on my terms and I didn’t have to justify my decisions to an agency. I would not have that without the site.”

But according to Jonna Barry, from Norwich charity The Magdalene Group, the increase in easily accessible adult websites means vulnerable street workers are taking bigger risks.

She added that ‘sugar daddy websites’, which encourage young women to form relationships with wealthy older men, were acting as a gateway into the sex industry.

“The financial side can become quite addictive – and even when they realise it’s not easy money the idea is still there,” she said.

The charity’s chief executive Suzi Heybourne (inset left) added: “Some women we work with have been in sex work for more than 25 years.

“Most have mental health problems and often you find in order to be that intimate and have sex with that many people they use drugs and alcohol.”

Police and crime commissioner Lorne Green said: “I appreciate how important this issue is to those involved as well as the wider community of Norfolk.

“My office is working to develop plans to address the complex issues raised and will announce full details in due course.”

•What the law says

Sgt Mark Shepherd.
 Picture: Nick ButcherSgt Mark Shepherd. Picture: Nick Butcher

Laws on prostitution exist in a kind of grey area and have long confused and divided the UK public.

While the act of exchanging money for sex is not in itself illegal, many related activities are.

Brothels, defined as more than one person selling sex from the same premises, are illegal and those running them, including the workers themselves, are liable to prosecution under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act.

However one person selling sex in those premises is not against the law.

A condom found in Old Library Woods, off Rosary Road. Photo: SubmittedA condom found in Old Library Woods, off Rosary Road. Photo: Submitted

Along the same lines, it is not illegal to buy sex but kerb-crawling, soliciting or loitering for that purpose is.

Adverts placed in phone boxes have been banned since 2001, but advertising online is still legal in the UK.

It is also illegal to profit from someone else selling sex if it can be proved you have encouraged, caused or forced the person to do so.

What police are doing to tackle sex work on the streets

Police have warned their powers are limited in a battle against street sex work in part of Norwich.

Complaints from people living around Rosary Road about paths littered with used condoms and needles, late-night rows and sex on the street pushed tensions to a high in 2017.

Following a public vote, tackling prostitution on the road was made a police priority.

The Norwich East Safer Neighbourhood Team, led by Sergeant Mark Shepherd, stepped up efforts to disperse sex workers.

They used a combination of warnings, Community Protection Notices, increased patrols and criminal prosecution.

Sgt Shepherd said although the system appeared to act as an effective deterrent, the grim reality was that the problem had simply moved to nearby Cannell Green.

National police guidelines on prostitution state police action should not put workers in greater danger by forcing them to move to more isolated areas, but Sgt Shepherd said this was a difficult issue to avoid.

He added the police were stuck in the middle between protecting sex workers, whom they recognised as victims in their own right, while keeping the public on side by visibly enforcing the law.

Jonna Barry, who works for sex worker support charity The Magdalene Group, said she had seen an increase in risky behaviour by sex workers since the 2017 crackdown.

She said: “Whereas before the increased police presence, women would take their time and use intuition to suss out a punter, now they are making snap decisions because they’re in a rush to avoid being seen by police.

“They avoid standing in groups to attract attention, which obviously makes them more vulnerable.”

Although Sgt Shepherd accepted the less than ideal result, he said the police had a responsibility to visibly address residents’ concerns.

Sgt Shepherd said: “We can’t be seen to turn a blind eye to prostitution. It’s a criminal offence and we have to use the powers we’ve got to tackle it.”

Despite daily interaction with sex workers, the sergeant said the police were limited in what they could do to solve the problem.

“As police we know the women need help but we don’t have the power to refer them to social services without going through the criminal justice system and making it a condition of a criminal behaviour order,” he said.

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