In January 2022, former counter-terrorism officer and Metropolitan Police Detective Inspector Neil Corbel was arrested¹ and sentenced to three years imprisonment for secretly filming models and sex workers without their consent.
19 women were identified and willing to give a statement, Frankie Miren was one of them. In her article published on inews², she discusses how the judge dismissed any link between Corbel’s job and his criminal behaviour. Miren writes about how intrinsic violence is to policing- “Stop and search is violent. Raids and arrests are violent. Deportation is violent”. Miren notes how rates of reporting for sexual offences, especially for sex workers, are low, and that Corben, as a police officer, was aware of this.
Sex work is currently regulated by means of a range of laws whereby selling and buying sexual services is legal, but associated activities are not — e.g. brothel keeping³. Enforcement, such as The Home Office’s ‘zero tolerance policies’ reflect the authorities need to show that they do not side with the ‘criminal sex worker’, and seldom offer the ‘victim neighbourhood’ any solutions, but rather heighten the vulnerability of sex workers³. Police officers tend to have a fairly serious and punitive attitude toward sex work; it’s common for this attitude to become more severe after some time serving in the police force⁵. The quasi-criminalised nature of sex work means that violence targeted at the sector is rarely monitored or registered by police, and in some cases is even perpetrated by officers⁶. Considering the high rates of violence sex workers can be subjected to, the criminal justice system and police force ‘should have a custodial role in sex workers’ protection’⁷.
However, the punitive, ciminalised, and marginalised environment created by the authorities leaves sex workers vulnerable. Out of 250 sex workers interviewed in Baltimore City, Maryland, 78% of them had experienced at least one abusive encounter with law enforcement⁷. Additionally, sex workers who had experienced physical or sexual violence perpetrated by police were incarcerated at 1.66 times the rate of those who hadn’t⁸. Incarcerations can lead to a higher exposure to violence.
Legislation that impedes reporting to the police — such as criminalising brothel keeping, and other safe working practices — restricts and aggravates the relationship between sex workers and law enforcement. The power that should protect is at the same time the state body empowered to arrest them, their customers, or others they work with.
“I’ve known sex workers that were prosecuted because they reported a crime that they were the victim of, but then when the police found out that they had been involved in street work […] they ended up getting arrested instead.”⁹
Globally, sex workers experience extortion and have been coerced into providing sexual favours, under threat of arrest, detention, forced registration, etc.- although they may still be arrested.¹⁰
“I work for free, just so they don’t take me in.”¹¹
As a result of accumulated negative experiences with the police, and the sense that they are viewed as criminals, sex workers are unlikely to believe the police will take them seriously, and perceived and anticipated stigma leads to their disengagement from the legal system.
“No wonder people don’t want to call for help, because there’s a stigma attached. That is a very “blue” ceiling.”⁹
“Yeah, like we are constantly reminded that we’re not valuable or not seen as valuable members of society and we’re not worth police protection or justice.”¹²
By criminalising sex work, the state is able to legitimise its actions against sex workers, and ignore the damage caused by the authorities. Sex workers are conceived as creators of crime- especially street workers- and therefore increased criminal measures are enforced and legitimised³. Sex workers are unlikely to report violence to the police because they don’t expect sympathetic treatment, or do not wish to risk facing legal consequences by identifying themselves as sex workers³. The buildup of traumatic experiences from law enforcement means that sex workers view police as prosecutors and perpetrators, rather than protectors¹².
“The only time I ever had a nine-millimetre gun put to my head was by a policeman,” […] “The exploiter is the exploiter. Sometimes the exploiter has a badge.”¹³
National Ugly Mugs (NUM), a UK-wide violence prevention and victim support charity working with sex workers, surveyed 88 active sex workers (just over 1% of NUM’s current membership) about their reluctance to report to law enforcement. Unsurprisingly, 72% indicated that ‘experiences or fear of criminalisation’ was the most common barrier between them and the police¹⁴. The decriminalisation of sex work in New Zealand has protections built into legislation to safeguard sex workers’ rights. Sections 16–18 protect them against use of bribes or threats to provide particular sexual services- this has led to police officers being convicted¹⁴. The UK government should consider the decriminalised model, as criminal laws perpetuate violent conditions of exploitation and marginalisation. The power law enforcement has by criminalising sex work gives them the “opportunity to surveil, harass and violate sex workers, and enshrining in law the meaninglessness of our consent”¹.
“You should listen to us and believe us and not victim blame us. Look how you go out in pairs and much more, like as much as six or ten police on one offender, as it’s considered to be “dangerous” to be out on your own, so why can’t we do the same? Everybody should feel safe at work, so why not us?”¹⁴
Many of Corbel’s victims were sex workers, a marginalised group who are already victims of police violence. Judge Edmunds said during court: “The revelation to your victims that you were a serving police officer has for many of them seriously undermined their trust in the police — something that those individuals, given their various lines of work, is a particularly serious matter”¹, however Corbel’s barrister claimed that “The fact he was a policeman has nothing to do with the execution of this offending.”¹ But were the women’s occupations considered irrelevant during sentencing? Or when Corbel decided to negate their consent by filming them?