Woman found not guilty of brothel keeping says law puts women at risk

A WOMAN found not guilty of running a brothel after the prosecution offered no evidence has called for the law to be changed to legitimise safe working environments for prostitutes.

Sheila Farmer worked from a flat with three others in Bromley, Kent, before police raided it in August, 2010, after complaints from neighbours and was subsequently arrested for brothel-keeping with a colleague.

After a long and stressful 17 months she was found not guilty at Croydon Crown Court on Wednesday and can think about getting on with her life.

But she has used the case to highlight the consequences of the government’s ban on brothels which forces women to work alone and put themselves at serious risk.

Assault, rape and murder are occupational hazards of the profession.

According to one report (Hard Knock Life: 2008) 63 per cent of prostitutes are physically assaulted during their working life, 20 per cent of street workers are raped and as a whole are 18 times more likely to be murdered than the general population.

Ms Farmer was viciously attacked herself while working alone when she was tied up and raped repeatedly by a client nearly 20 years ago; she has worked in groups ever since.

A 2002 report into street-workers (Client violence against prostitute women working from street and off-street locations: a three city comparison) said ‘the illicit nature of street prostitution means that the women tend to work alone and sell sex in dark, isolated places. This increases their vulnerability and makes it easier for clients to impose violence. Off-street women have the benefit of knowing their environment and they are often in the company of other women, managers or maids, who can monitor client activity’.

Since her health deteriorated , she suffers from diabetes and more recently battled cancer, Ms Farmer took to running a safe space for others to base themselves until her arrest in 2010.

She said: “The laws are antiquated. It’s legal to work on your own, but you subject yourself to all sorts of dangers. Now I’ve been forced to go onto benefits [since the arrest] because I’m not allowed to run a brothel. I should be allowed to work in safety. It’s my body. No other laws are being broken. I’m just trying to survive.”

But the government say the majority of the 8,000 off-street women believed to work in parlours, flats and saunas in London do not enjoy such an independent lifestyle as they have been trafficked, are controlled by pimps or both.

Many women’s groups agree suggesting that only high-end escorts could possibly choose to work in the industry with the majority that are not trafficked being victims of drug abuse or extreme poverty.

But given prostitution itself is not illegal groups such as the English Collective of Prostitutes and the International Union of Sex-Workers want the laws to be changed to give prostitutes the same rights as other workers not least the right to work in a safe environment and free from the risk of arrest.

The British laws on prostitution are a mess.

The Crown Prosecution Service’s own guidelines states prostitutes should be encouraged not to work on the street, but recommends the prosecution of anyone who manages the premises they use.

Ultimately the case fell through as the prosecution were unable to track down their witness, Ruby X, who also worked at the flat in Bromley, and Ms Farmer is free.

But Cari Mitchell, from the ECP who supported Ms Farmer throughout the case, said: “She, like many other sex workers, should never have been forced to choose between safety and legality. Why is it legal to work alone but not with others. The prostitution laws are endangering women and should be abolished. Why are police wasting time and money prosecuting sex workers while rapists and racists go free?”

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