In the Olympic weeks of 2012, London will witness almost 6 million new day visitors jamming themselves down our arcane and groaning roads, tubes, pavements and waterways in order to witness the modern Olympian marvel that is a load of lycra-clad maniacs letting rip. What London won’t tell you, is that a number of these new sightseers will also be here to sleep with prostitutes.
Sport and sex. One person’s sweaty, ball-aching gymnastics is another person’s, well… It’s not unsurprising that swathes of sports marketing and sports-related gambling includes scantily clad women – the crass use of Imogen Thomas by Paddy Power in the wake of one footballer’s unimaginative infidelities were a dull reminder that if you want to increase the likelihood of thick men walking into your sports joint with some of the folding stuff, you just need to stick a pair of fake tits on the façade and the sweaty whiff of naïve expectation that their keeper might actually bonk you.
But on this occasion, I’m not talking about Sports Marketing 101. The Olympics is a part-taxpayer funded venture with a set of keystone, family-friendly sponsors who – unless someone has a total brain fart – will probably refrain from portraying frontal nudey women in their Olympic-sized advertising campaigns, or so help us God. No, this isn’t about ‘sex sells’, but rather ‘sells sex’.
Sorry to piss all over Lord Coe’s Self Congratulatory Countdown, but as I write, hundreds of women are selling themselves for £5, £10, £20 a pop in what are euphemistically known as our five ‘host’ Olympic boroughs. I rather feel that word, ‘host’, implies a certain warmth and accommodation – something these women see very little of. They’re selling themselves to men who live in the immediate area, men who live in other parts of London, and men who live in far flung enclaves of Europe and have been shipped over to build our mega-stadia. Next year, these women will also be sold to athletes, coaches, sports fans and media. Funny, I’d have thought these men would be rather preoccupied.
A review undertaken by the ‘End Violence Against Women’ (EVAW) Coalition has identified clear links between sporting events and increased levels of violence against women and girls. The bitter husband beating his wife and kids, because his football team lost, springs to mind. Furthermore, research into the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2006 World Cup in Germany provided such shocking statistics that the European Parliament concluded that: “experience has shown that any major sporting event at which large numbers of people congregate, results in a temporary and spectacular increase in the demand for sexual services“. So we must accept that although street-based prostitution in London may not be new, the Olympics will present a startling new prism by which we must view our attitudes to the sex-industry, to women who sell themselves on our streets, and to the services we purport to have in place to help them.
The push factors that force vulnerable women onto our streets to find customers are complex. They weave erratically and frustratingly through multifarious social problems, from poverty and education, to control, abuse and addiction – 95% of street prostitutes are on heroin or crack. Street-based prostitutes are there because they’re at a point of absolute crisis, and their mere presence means that families are uncared for, strangers to the area are more frequent, neighbourhood crime increases, local businesses move away and residents feel less safe. In many ways, and for many reasons, they are different to women who work in brothels – this is the important thing – because, by definition, they are often homeless or vulnerably housed. The charity Against Violence & Abuse (AVA) state that most teenage prostitutes are involved in street prostitution, which is estimated to be ten times more dangerous than working from houses or flats. It’s not just safety, but criminalisation which is a key differentiator: it is easier to catch and criminalise street walkers if a police officer is feeling particularly aggrieved, either through arrest for soliciting or by slapping an ASBO on them. Easy, because they generally work alone and loiter on busy, public roads.
This attitude around criminality is misdirected, and it distorts the approach previous initiatives to tackle prostitution in the run up to major sporting events have taken: they focus on those who sell, rather than those who buy. The term ‘street-cleaning’ is used all too frequently to describe the chilling ‘move on’ powers that police forces are often granted around major events. In preparation for their Olympic Games, the Australian New South Wales Parliament passed new legislation to afford them the right to physically remove anyone from the area surrounding the stadium who was considered to be a security risk, no questions asked – unrelenting for anyone who was homeless, begging or selling sex. For many women caught up, they were busily undertaking all three. This practice wasn’t new; it was copycat behaviour from other countries who had also tried to erase the pervasive fact that they had failed vulnerable women to such an extent that they were forced to give blow jobs to men they didn’t know, in a car they couldn’t possibly hope to own, for less than a Big Mac. ‘Street cleaning’ means that prostitutes are routinely displaced to another part of the city before they silently find their way back – nothing occurs in between which might help them find a way out of this merry-go-round farce.
In London, in 2012, we have a chance to respond differently. We have a chance to approach prostitution with the same dedication and commitment we have displayed in getting our snack-food shaped stadiums built in time. We have a chance to start a meaningful programme of support which acknowledges the grinding and complex needs of women who sell sex, and helps them exit prostitution safely. Starting in our Olympic year, and ending when all women who sell themselves on our streets have the chance – and the choice – to stop. What a legacy that would be.
This is where something like Safe Exit comes into play – a charity dedicated to helping women exit from street-based prostitution in the UK, safely. I have spent time with Miriam Merkova, Safe Exit’s manager, hearing about her tireless work with prostitutes in all five Olympic boroughs, running powerful diversion, assisted reporting, and re-education schemes on thruppence and a lollypop. When I go to bed at night, one of the women on Miriam’s team heads out and spends eight of the coldest, darkest hours driving around boroughs including Tower Hamlets and Hackney just trying to understand the scale of the problem – with no centrally agreed policy on tracking and responding to street walkers, we can only rely on anecdotal figures which range from tens to hundreds in one borough alone.
Miriam tells me that their diversion scheme has helped dozens of women in London safely move away from street-based prostitution, but because it relies on police officers referring the women to the programme upon their arrest, success is narrowly confined to the attitudes and wherewithal of the officers on duty. Tower Hamlets has recruited another 21 police officers in the build-up to 2012, but so far Miriam’s knock on their door to run a short but powerful awareness session about her intervention programme has gone unheeded. If ever there were a lesson about our need to reengage with British police about what they should, and shouldn’t, be doing with risky and at-risk people, surely the last two weeks was it.
Safe Exit asks big questions about British attitudes to prostitution, going boldly where bigger and more robust charities fear to tread. In partnership with Change Course, they have helped over 4,000 men better understand the negative impact their kerb-crawling has on the women they buy, and the communities they live or work in, honing in on places like East London and actively reducing the size of red light districts throughout England. But under the monolith of London 2012, these achievements will be dwarfed. Amplify 4,000 men over 6 years, by millions of builders, fans and athletes over 6 weeks.
Despite the complexity of these problems, the solution is remarkably simple: Safe Exit has devised a protocol, to be presented to – and agreed by – every official participatory body in London 2012. Its aim is to provide a framework for officials to respond to the needs of vulnerable women, by providing practical and simple referral guidelines. We don’t need to overcomplicate this – it states the agreed reasons for which a prostitute may be stopped by police, and lists the ways in which they can help her. Even Miriam is surprised that no one has thought to do this yet, in the UK.
Miriam has a vision: that every woman involved in street-based prostitution is able to exit safely. I have one too: that our Olympics will be the first modern sporting event where the level of local prostitution is reduced. Programmes like Safe Exit can do great things, if we give them the support and finance they require to scale up their delivery to better meet demand. Ask your local police force what they do to help street-based prostitutes in your area; ask your council; ask your MP – if they don’t have an answer, point them in the direction of people like Miriam who can make it easy for them.
But it strikes me that maybe we need another protocol, too. One for the men who shop for women from the window of their cars; one that addresses the consequences of their individual decision to roam the local streets looking for a cheap fuck, on lunch breaks, between filing stories, before the 400 metre final and after their team has crashed out of the cycling.
Sex sells; the women on our streets tonight will tell you that. But many of them would give it all back to give you a different answer. This is not about the demonization of street walkers, nor is it an attack on sex work which occupies other spaces, such as escorting or brothels. This isn’t even about the right and wrongs of sleeping with people for money. This is about an Olympic legacy we have a duty to create, in the boroughs we’re taking over, for the very people who need our help the most. Maybe, next year, we can draw the first, clear line between sex and sport, and stand on that medal podium with our heads held high.