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A new law aimed at stamping out prostitution has left Britain's estimated 30,000 street prostitutes even more vulnerable to attack, says a Channel 4 survey.

In an unprecedented investigation that took almost a year and involved interviewing 110 street prostitutes in 18 towns and cities, a terrifying pattern of violence emerged. One that, until now, has gone unreported.

Dispatches: Sex on the Street exposes the scandal that makes Britain's street workers the most physically brutalised, and least protected, group in society.

Nearly three quarters of the women interviewed said they had been attacked by clients in the previous 12 months. Just under two thirds had been raped or seriously beaten, sometimes at gun point.

Three quarters of the women don't report attacks because they don't think the police will care.

The Criminal Justice and Police Act 200 introduced last October gave the police extra powers to arrest, detain and take the DNA of curb crawlers. The logic behind the law is simple: scare off the men and the women will go out of business.

The flaw is that men still want to buy sex, but they are far more nervous of the police.

Punters want to leave the red light area immediately, so the women don't have time to check them out before jumping in a car and also agree to ‘do business' in more isolated locations where no one can hear them scream.

Three quarters of prostitutes surveyed said they took more risks as a result of police crackdowns and over two thirds said they worked longer hours.

When punters were in short supply as a result of a high police presence, a quarter agreed to sexual services they'd normally refuse, like sex without a condom.

Only 2 women left prostitution altogether as a result of police crackdowns, since most are working to fund drug addictions. Over 90% of street prostitutes in many cities have heroin or crack habits, often costing over £500 a week.

"The police interventions really don't even have the major impact that they're suppose to have which is to clear the girls away; it's also clear that the consequence of the police activity is to make (the women) much more open to attack and indeed to suffer more attacks," says David Canter, Professor of Psychology, University of Liverpool, who analysed the research data.

The prostitutes said their attackers were largely ordinary, local men. 50% of the women surveyed were attacked by men in smart cars, with good jobs and incomes who seemed respectable.

"The people who are violent are not an unusual sample of the population of customers people in their 30s; often local individuals, who seem to be reasonably well dressed. (These) people can include senior army officers, businessmen, doctors, pillars of the community," reports Canter.

In the last 10 years, over 60 street prostitutes have been violently murdered. A third remain unsolved, making up the biggest group of unsolved murders in Britain.

When reporter and award-winning journalist Maggie O'Kane began to investigate, she thought that there might be a serial killer at large , but found something much more disturbing.

Lots of men were getting away with murder. Most of the street prostitutes she spoke said the prostitution laws were making it easier for men to attack them and kill them, by pushing them even further underground.

Glasgow is one of the few cities in Britain where the police have made the safety of prostitutes a priority after seven prostitutes were murdered in the city. Now Glasgow has a safe zone were street prostitution is tolerated within agreed hours.

The girls work from well-lit streets with a CCTV system that watches over them. Since the new policy was introduced, no prostitutes have been murdered. The whole CCTV system costs less per year than one murder enquiry.

Former Chief Inspector Nanette Pollock says "I'd love to eradicate prostitution but it does happen and we've got to be realistic. We don't condone the work they do. But they're part of the community and we've got to keep them safe like everyone else."

Nanette Pollock was one of several experts to take part in a special Channel 4 seminar to tie in with the series entitled Prostitution: the Laws Don't Work, chaired by Jon Snow on September 10.

You can watch videos of the conference and see the experts give their individual opinions on the subject here.

Participants included academics, magistrates, the police and a sex worker. They unanimously called for a national enquiry into the sex industry and the existing laws that govern it, particularly in the light of increased violence against street prostitutes.

Women interviewed in the Dispatches: Sex on the Street survey were between16-53 years and just under half (41%) first got involved in prostitution under the age of 18; 42% were homeless.

Presented by award-winning journalist Maggie O'Kane, Dispatches: Sex on the Street is part of a Channel 4 season Prostitution : “The Laws Don't Work. It was broadcast on Channel 4 on Monday, September 16 2002 at 9pm.


Read the Channel 4 Survey Results


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