When discussing prostitution and sex work with friends, I found that bringing up “well what do you think about sex work in Norwich?” saw them glare back at me like I was mad. I guess people do not really associate sleepy Norwich with what is presumed to be a ‘dark back alley’ profession. When most think of sex work, their minds go straight to the Red Light District in Amsterdam or circa sixteenth to eighteenth century Covent Garden, and the glamorisation of prostitution. Or when we think of the darker side of sex work, we automatically presume that it resides in bigger cities like London or Manchester. Norwich almost seems too ‘pure’ and ‘untainted’.
In Great Britain the law on Sex Work states that prostitution itself is legal but what is illegal is: owning or managing a brothel, soliciting in a public space, kerb crawling, and pimping and pandering. A brothel is technically a premise where two or more people engage in sexual work.
As much as many brothels advertise themselves as ‘massage parlours’, ‘saunas’ or ‘Soho walk-ups’ these are still illegal, but police turn a blind eye to it. This means that only sex work as an individual is legal. If there are two or more people working together, only then does it become illegal. So sex workers can only work by themselves? Ethically, working with and having the support of at least one other person would arguably be safer than working by oneself.
In August 2016, police exposed a group who had been smuggling Romanian women to Norwich to work as prostitutes. A raid of eighteen houses saw the identification of fifteen suspects, seizure of fifteen cars, almost £10,000 of cash and 5,700 Euros. They were able to function by changing the rooms they rented for women to work in every month, making them difficult to expose. Between 2012 and 2015 there had only been two arrests in Norfolk for the crime. This case shows how some people turn to sex work in order to get out of their original country, but as sex work is unregulated and most tend to turn a blind eye to it, sex workers often get blackmailed to staying in the business. However, there are organisations in Norwich which look to protecting and helping sex workers. The Matrix project was founded in 2000 and is a Norwich-based NHS service which specialises in health screening, contraception, emotional support, safe sex information and safe working practice of local sex workers.
There is also The Magdalene Group which more directly gives support to exploited and trafficked sex workers and finding routes for women wanting to exit sex work.
Ultimately, the law stating that prostitution is legal but working in a brothel is not almost makes sex work more dangerous than it needs to be. Decriminalising brothels has the potential to help regulate prostitution and protect the women it involves. It would make it less of a taboo subject to discuss which would make it less dangerous as people are less likely to turn a blind eye to it. With brothels estimated to earn between £50m and £130m a year, it is understandable why some people turn to them for employment. A spokesperson for Norfolk Police told Concrete: “We will pursue prosecutions against those who persistently commit offences surrounding prostitution. We will also continue to work with partners and residents in a bid to tackle the issues.
“In October 2017, we issued warning letters to owners of vehicles seen to be acting suspiciously in the Rosary Road, Norwich area after community concerns. It meant that if the vehicles were seen in the area after a warning letter was issued, we had the ability to charge suspects straight to court, saving time and money in the process.
“We are always trying different ways to tackle ongoing issues and are particularly keen to hear the public’s views.
“If you see any suspicious behaviour in your local community, or have information, please contact Norfolk Police on 101.”