Time will tell if the introduction of the first UK nationwide Ugly mug scheme will be good news for sex workers or bad, or more likely indifferent. An ugly mug, for non sex worker readers, is a client of a sex worker who has been violent or abusive.
Ugly mug schemes are nothing new. Although in this “article” it is claimed that local sex work projects have operated ugly mug schemes for twenty years, real sex workers, however, have operated them for as long as there have been sex workers. In the north east where I work, local agencies have shared information for the last fifteen years, and most agents/brothels have lists of hundreds, if not thousands of clients who have either, in the worse case scenario, been abusive or violent, to repeat, no shows clients. (Clients who book appointments, in call and out call, but who never show up, or, who/and, send sex workers to the wrong address deliberately).
These schemes work very well on a local basis and in theory should work nationally. There are however flaws in this system which are being ignored in the enthusiasm to welcome it.
The scheme relies on local projects. Local projects are social work groups who provide out reach to sex workers. The effectiveness and the usefulness of these projects is a post code lottery. Most work only with women, usually, street workers or sex workers who are socially disadvantaged. Most projects have little or no contact with the vast majority of sex workers who work indoor, ie in brothels, through agencies or who work independently. Often, not only are projects selective in terms of whom they support, ie, only street women, but they often have age restrictions, especially gay projects, who only work with so called “rent boys” or very young boys, men. Effectively, most sex workers never, or rarely, have any contact with any outreach project.
The scheme also relies heavily upon the co operation of the police. Sex workers do not trust the police, with very good reason. The police, as sex workers know to their cost, are more interested in persecuting sex workers than in caring for the safety of sex workers. Brothels and agencies, representing consenting adults, are still being raided across the UK and sex workers prosecuted and their assets seized. This is one recent “example”.
Before any national scheme can be truly called successful the relationship between the police and sex workers must improve. Although the new national Ugly mug scheme promises that sex workers can report crimes anonymously through their local project, the real advancement would be if sex workers were able to report crimes against them, just like every one else, to the police directly, with out fear of arrest or harassment. One is tempted to suggest that the first ugly mug listed on the scheme should be the police themselves, or perhaps the government, who empower and encourage the police to target sex workers. This important point aside, the ability to report crimes to projects, depends therefore, largely upon the relationship, if any, that exists between any projects and the sex workers, and often, as I have explained, there is no such relationship.
The NUM (national ugly mug) scheme also promises sex workers and agencies etc the ability to share and access telephone numbers. The problem is that the law prevents the sharing of full phone numbers. So sex workers, if wanting to check a client, will only be able to access part of a phone number. Better than nothing one may think, but hardly fool proof and unlikely to replace or improve on existing, local, sex worker run, ugly mug schemes. It is of course these very important local schemes, already established within sex worker communities, that are so often destroyed by the police, our new protectors, when they raid brothels and agencies (yes I am being ironic). The same also goes for car registrations and names. If the police were truly interested in creating and maintaining a comprehensive list of ugly mugs then they already have a valuable source to tap into. Sadly the lure of easy convictions and lucrative proceeds of crime confiscations are currently however, more important than the safety of sex workers.
Sex workers have told me personally, when discussing this scheme, that the sharing of incomplete phone numbers is pointless. Mobile phones do not pick up ugly mugs by imputing incomplete numbers and sex workers, often in a hurry to organise and confirm appointments; do not have the time to troll through hundreds, if not thousands of phone numbers or car registrations. The reality is that this is a pointless exercise for most sex workers. It is an exercise for the police and for projects. As one sex worker said, “It makes them look like they are doing something”.
So we sex workers have to ask if this is a good idea, will it be helpful to us in our work?
My answer, as a sex worker, is that it probably is a good idea, although, its real worth is not to sex workers as a practical tool in their work, but rather it is an aid to projects and the police, who hopefully, will now more easily coordinate the sharing of information about ugly mugs, especially those who target street workers.
If I were to be cynical I would also argue that it will also certainly provide monies and opportunities for projects regionally, and probably, will also be helpful in creating a whole new tier of administrators. If this is the case, it will be nothing new. Sex workers have always provided lucrative opportunities for saviours on both sides of the debate, those who persecute us and those who live off us by, erm, helping us.
There is however, a danger, not yet mentioned, that the scheme may, at some point, also be used against sex workers. Any future anti sex worker government, like the last labour government, for example, may use the information gathered in a national ugly mugs scheme, to justify further persecution of the sex industry. The information, they may claim, of hundreds, possibly thousands, of ugly mugs, wanting to rape and murder, poor, abused, sex workers, could, if wrongly interpreted by moralists, (of any governing party) be used, to justify for example, the criminalising of all clients, which is what the Labour party, when last in government desperately wanted to do. Information is dangerous in the wrong hands.
In conclusion, as an ordinary sex worker, I give this nation wide ugly mug scheme a tepid welcome and wait to see how it develops. It is up to sex workers to comment and inform projects and the authorities in general, what we, British sex workers, really need. What we really need is a discussion about decriminalisation and a trusting relationship with the police. I don’t think that this is it. I may be wrong.
It will be interesting to read comments from other sex workers and also from projects.