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Labelled forever: the policing tool ruining sex workers' lives

A 'prostitute caution' requires no evidence, merely suspicion - but stays on your record for a 100 years and blocks you from finding other work. 

November 16 2023, 10.29am
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Back in the 1980s, Amanda* worked as a sex worker in Blackpool, desperately trying to earn money for herself and her autistic son. Police were a constant menace. 

“Because I’m a Black woman, I was picked up by the police a lot more than the white women were,” the now 59-year-old tells The Lead. “I would be in the car with a man and the police would come up and shine a torch in the car. They knew exactly what was going on because they had followed me. I would get arrested, and the man would get off scot-free.”

Amanda began working in 1985 when her partner left, leaving her to pay the mortgage alone while acting as the sole carer for their young son, who needed extra support. Amanda herself, who grew up  in foster care after her mother took her own life, had no support whatsoever. She knew sex work had flexible hours that would pay relatively well.

“I was making £150 a day,” she remembers. “And that was in 1985.”

Soon after she started working, the police began cautioning Amanda, warning her to get off the streets or face arrest. She later learned the term for this type of caution was a ‘prostitute caution’, a non-statutory remand given by police for loitering and soliciting. 

These cautions which could later be used as evidence for a conviction, were established under the Street Offences Act of 1956 to demonstrate ‘persistence’ of loitering and soliciting in a street or public space for the purposes of prostitution.

“Prostitute cautions can be issued to anyone the police claims to have ‘reasonable cause’ to believe has committed an offence of loitering or soliciting - there doesn’t need to be evidence.”

Unlike ‘simple’ police cautions, prostitute cautions don’t require evidence of a criminal offence, sex workers don’t have to admit guilt, and there is no right to appeal them. Without any say, someone can be branded as a criminal, their life forever impacted by her decision of how they provides for themselves and their families. 

Those working on behalf of sex workers argue that prostitute cautions, and wider criminalisation of sex work, are deliberately used to keep women in poverty by penalising them for using sex work to escape it.

“The ECP started in 1975 and throughout the 80s, hundreds of women working on the streets were given these cautions and then convictions for loitering and soliciting,” says Niki Adams from the sex worker support group The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). 

Although Adams is not aware of any national records kept of the number of prostitute cautions given, she has worked with several hundreds of sex workers affected. These cautions for loitering and soliciting can come in a myriad of forms. Adams describes examples of police issuing them in passing, shouting a warning out their windows as they drove by a sex worker. 

“But generally, police approach women on the street, make the allegation that they are loitering and soliciting for the purposes of prostitution, and give them a prostitute caution,” says Adams. 

Prostitute cautions can be issued to anyone the police claims to have ‘reasonable cause’ to believe has committed an offence of loitering or soliciting - there doesn’t need to be evidence. In 2009, under the Police and Crime Act, the right of appeal against prostitutes cautions was abolished, (as opposed to a ‘simple’ caution). Although prostitute cautions had never required anyone to admit guilt, it was under the Police and Crime Act that it was formally noted that a sex worker didn’t have to admit guilt to be issued a prostitute caution.

“I don’t think prostitute cautions are just,” Alice Hardy of Bindmans Law Firm, who often represents sex workers, tells The Lead. “The behaviour leading to a caution might not even be evidence of an offence because the police officer doesn’t need to witness the behaviour persistently and therefore it isn’t an offence under the Street Offences Act. Additionally, there is no requirement for the women to admit guilt or consent.”

The Police and Crime Act also specifies that the caution will stay on a sex worker’s record for life, or until the age of 100. 

“What that means in practice, is that if women in our network come into contact with the police, sometimes as a victim of crime, the police take their fingerprints, check out their record and a prostitute caution will come up,” said Adams. 

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“I can’t get a job”

Most prostitute cautions lead to further criminalisation. Just two prostitute cautions provide enough  evidence to be charged with loitering and soliciting. 

“Then you go to court,” said Adams. “If convicted, you’re fined and can be imprisoned for non-payment of a fine.”

Over the course of the first eight years as a sex worker, which was when she was essentially working full-time, Amanda remembers being either cautioned, arrested, or going to court to then receive a fine, at least 70 times. 

“I had plenty of opportunities to get out of sex work and would have loved to have been able to have done them, but they would have done police checks and the sex work would have shown up and I wouldn’t have got the job.”

Paradoxically, for each fine (usually of £15 in the 1980s) she received, Amanda had to go back to work on the streets in order to pay it. 

In addition to years fearing the removal of her two children by social services as a result of her record, Amanda has never been able to secure any other form of employment. 

“I can’t get a job,” Amanda says. “It’s on my record. It’s horrible. I just walk dogs for a living now.”

The criminalisation put her in an inescapable cycle. Over the years, there have been several jobs Amanda would have liked to have applied for – one she said was ideal was working in an old people’s home. 

“They gave me the job, but then they said I had to do a DBS check,” she explains. “As soon as it came through, I got fired.”

With her two children now grown, her expenses are lower, but she is still feeling the pinch and has considered returning to sex work to pay her basic bills because she can’t get a job doing anything else.

“It’s impossible to get a job,” she says. “Even factory jobs want a DBS check.”

In their most recent report, the ECP interviewed several women who, like Amanda, couldn’t get a ‘normal’ job after sex work because their cautions and convictions would show on an enhanced DBS check needed for working in places like care homes, classrooms, and hospitals.

“This has influenced their whole lives,” says Adams. “Some women described being trapped in low-waged work or on benefits as a result. Many women said they would like to do jobs in the caring professions and felt that they had particular experience that would make them well qualified for that. But those are the jobs that have an enhanced DBS check, so they were kept out of what they saw as making an important contribution to society.”

Jenny, who asked for only her first name to be used, is now 70 and is still impacted by her decades of sex work in Manchester. In her late 20s, she started as a sex worker out of “pure desperation for money” after living in a homeless hostel with her young daughter. 

“My daughter is disabled, so she took a lot of time looking after her,” Jenny says. “It wasn’t feasible to get a normal job to allow me that time with my daughter. In my mind, either she went into care or I found a way to earn money.”

When police passed her working on the street and gave her a caution, she said it felt “degrading.”

“They would come up and just warn you if you were still there in five minutes, you’d be picked up or get charged,” she adds. “Going home wasn’t an option if you had to earn a certain amount of money. I was there to do a job and earn money I actually needed.” 

In her 30 years working on and off as a sex worker, Jenny was given 10 prostitute cautions and charged eight times. 

“It’s all on your record for life,” she says. “I had plenty of opportunities to get out of sex work and would have loved to have been able to have done them, but they would have done police checks and the sex work would have shown up and I wouldn’t have got the job.”

She was also afraid that in the course of applying for a job, if her prostitute charges were discovered, she would risk her daughter being taken by social services. 

Adams says that, like Jenny, one of sex workers’ greatest fears is that of losing custody of their children. 

“Many described how having a caution or conviction on their record would make them more compliant and undermine their ability to fight to protect their children from abusive former partners or from being taken by the state,” says Adams. “Women were also scared that their children and other family members would find out about their work and the devastating consequences this could have on family relationships. Police knew this and used it to terrorise mothers they came into contact with.”

Even though she felt she had no choice except to do sex work at the time she started, Jenny wishes she would have known the “big impact” it would have on the rest of her life.  

Forced into worse working conditions

Having a prostitute caution and/or a criminal record for a prostitution offence, also puts women at greater risk of exploitation, rape and other violence, according to Adams. 

“The threat of prosecution for loitering or soliciting for women working on the streets, and for brothel keeping and controlling for women working in premises, prevents sex workers reporting rape and other violence,” she says. 

Moreover, Adams says, street sex workers in her network who are afraid of the police are driven to work in more isolated and unfamiliar areas. Women working together in premises are constantly being closed and pushed from one location to another, dismantling any safety measures they have managed to establish. 

“Sex workers are being convicted under unjust laws. Convictions and cautions must be expunged and no-one should be convicted in the future.”

Iris* was working at McDonalds and in telesales in her 20s when she started doing sex work out of a massage parlour to cover her bills and college tuition fees. She met other women in the parlour who asked for her help posting ads and screening calls for clients they couldn’t understand. She wasn’t aware that by helping these women with these simple tasks, she was ‘controlling prostitution and trafficking’, an illegal offence.

In 2021 the now 40-year-old was arrested. “It was the worst day of my life,” Iris says. “I was locked up in a jail cell for so many hours.”

The police took her electronics, passport, and all the cash she had on her. She has been under investigation ever since. 

“My life was turned upside down,” she says. “I had to sell my house because I can’t afford the mortgage. I am homeless now. My child has to stay with his father in a different country because I can’t provide a home for my child. The worst was that the police confiscated my travel documents and I couldn’t see my child for so long. 

“It’s a disaster. I was thinking about suicide because I feel so useless.”

Unable to find work anywhere else with her record, Iris has started doing sex work again, but she was forced to work in “worse conditions” than before - ones that put her at risk of violence - to avoid the police. 

“I’m so afraid the police will come and arrest me again,” she says. 

The ECP continues to advocate for full decriminalisation of sex work in the UK, alongside ending women’s poverty so they have economic and social power to refuse prostitution or any other jobs considered exploitative. 

“It’s the most effective remedy to the harm caused to sex workers,” Iris adds. 

In the short-term, the ECP is working with lawyer Alice Hardy to try to get sex workers’ prostitute cautions expunged. 

“The impact on women given prostitute cautions is really significant,” says Hardy. “It’s evident from the women I’ve helped.”

Hearing from sex workers about the impact the cautions have had on clients, Hardy is committed to helping them get their records expunged.

Sex workers can apply to the Association of Chief Police Officers to have their prostitute cautions removed from their record, and if the answer is no, they can apply for a judicial review.

“Often in the case of prostitute cautions, there is very little evidence about why it was given in the first place, which may well be a strong reason for having it expunged,” Hardy explains. “The vast majority have been successful.”

As Hardy and Adams work for individual sex workers, they both hope for systemic change from the top.

“Sex workers are being convicted under unjust laws,” Adams adds. “Convictions and cautions must be expunged and no-one should be convicted in the future. What women did that resulted in a caution or conviction wasn’t a mistake. Far from it. To step outside of the law in order to ensure that your children are fed should be acknowledged as an act of heroism, not a moral or criminal flaw.”

*Names have been changed.

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