We spoke to Dr Raven Bowen, CEO of National Ugly Mugs, about their work tackling violence against sex workers, and how well the justice system responds to people engaging in this type of work.
How would you summarise the work of National Ugly Mugs?
National Ugly Mugs (NUM) was founded in 2012 to centralise the reporting of violence perpetrated against sex workers across the UK. NUM provides support to adults working in sex industries who desire to increase their safety and prevent violence. We run a national screening tool and a reporting and alerting system where members can share incidents of violence, which helps others to inform decisions about their work.
We also offer individualised, non-judgemental case work support provided by a team of Independent Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVAs) and sex industry experts. Our services range from providing emergency support, racial justice, mental health and well-being initiatives, to vocational exploration. With the consent of sex workers, we also facilitate their access to public and community services, the police and the legal system, and support them through healing and recovery, as well as co-developing harm reduction strategies to improve their well-being.
Our mandate is to 'end all forms of violence against sex workers', which includes the violence incurred by poverty, discrimination and exclusion. We broadened our mandate in response to research and lived experience of marginalised populations within sex industries, such as workers of colour, disabled workers, migrants, trans folx, and men who are speaking up about how policies and practice influence their decisions about participation and the harms they experience as a result.
My goal as CEO is to strengthen our working relationships with sex worker-led organisations in the UK and around the world, and co-develop wraparound services, that are by, for and with sex workers and consensual allies.
What is the legal framework around sex work in England and Wales? Are there any good international examples?
In England and Wales, the legal framework is one we refer to as partial criminalisation. While it is legal to both buy and sell sex, many surrounding activities are illegal. These includes some of the safety strategies used by sex workers, including brothel keeping, and the use of third parties (for example agents and managers who support the sex work to operate). Sex workers also experience what Klambauer refers to as “policing roulette”. Policies and practices vary from area to area, and officer to officer. The lack of a predictable and uniform response to sex worker victimisation also negatively affects their willingness to report violence.
I believe that everyone is entitled to their opinions about whether sex industries ought to exist - but sex workers are the experts. Law-makers must take the lead from those within these communities to implement policies that are proven to end violence, such as the full decriminalisation of sex work. We also need to increase social investments to end forced labour in sex industries, legislate against discrimination, and support labour organising and the regulation of sex industries by sex workers.
Globally, the most successful legal and policy frameworks have been those designed with sex workers as experts. New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003, a decision led by the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. More recently, Belgium has also decriminalised sex work, with the sex worker organisation UTSOPI treated as expert consultants in drafting the new legislation.
How well does the justice system work with and support sex workers? What role does racial disproportionality play in these issues?
Based on the feedback we get from our members, our service data, and case studies, I would say that the criminal legal system fails sex workers as it is not designed with stigmatised and criminalised survivors in mind. Sex workers, as intersectional populations with historically adversarial relationships with the police and the state, rarely receive the attention, resources, and investment necessary to achieve positive justice outcomes. Sex workers are often blamed for the violence that they survive. Working in sex industries is a constrained choice, just like any other work we do for survival. However, sex workers experience violence at 12 times the rate of non-sex workers, experience barriers to reporting this violence, and when they do seek support, they rarely receive it.
NUM engages with the government, police, National Crime Agency and the legal system. The 2023 National Police Chief Council’s guidance on policing sex work included NUM case studies where we offered insights from sex workers about what approaches work best for them. We also collaborate with sex worker-led groups on relevant inquiries, most recently the national Violence Against Women and Girls consultation.
The violence that sex workers are subject to is unprecedented. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers #IDEVASW. As part of our efforts to raise awareness we host a Memorial Map that currently contains information about the 189 sex workers murdered in the UK since 1990.
We encourage the community to learn more from sex worker priorities and organising through our quarterly ‘Under the Red Umbrella Zine’ and the Hookers Against Hardship campaign. Support impoverished workers by donating to the SWARM Hardship fund and to NUM, and join us in remembering, honouring and fighting for the lives of sex workers.