Nick Ross: Chapter Twelve from CRIME on Sex Crimes

By Nick Ross, Tue 28th May 2013

This is Chapter Twelve of Nick Ross’s forthcoming book CRIME. It is published here to enable Nick Ross to put the sensationalist story in the Mail on Sunday in the context of what he actually wrote.

Despite a century of feminism, and perhaps partly because of it, women are still mostly portrayed in crime as weak. It is eighty years since cinema audiences first thrilled to King Kong abducting the hapless blonde Ann Darrow atop the Empire State Building; her only defence was her beauty. Yet the stereotype of a vulnerable female prevails. Even now when women feature in crime stories they are typically depicted as victims not perpetrators. And their demise is especially newsworthy if, like Miss Darrow, they are young and decorous and ideally middle class. How much of what we are led to believe is authentic and how much is superficial and deceptive? It is certainly true that women appear to commit less crime than men. Around the world, with remarkable consistency, women are about a fifth as likely as men to be arrested, and usually for less serious offences. But are they really sugar and spice or is it a cultural restraint; is there a glass floor as well as a glass ceiling? Many women are subject to domestic violence; but is it really as one-sided as it seems? Why, all things considered, do women suffer far less deliberate injury than men with only a third of the risk of being murdered? And who is to blame for rape? It is plainly objectionable to reproach a victim for her own misfortune; so why do so many women do it? Then what about those tales of date-rape drugs? It is common knowledge spiked drinks are a potent menace; but is it a modern myth? Is prostitution mostly victimisation; or emancipation? Sex trafficking is said to be a growing problem; but how much is voluntary rather than duress? And why, if equality is a goal, do women get much shorter sentences than men for similar offences? Or, paradoxically, if they cross a Rubicon of sex crime, why are they reviled much more than men? These are important questions that any sceptic ought to pose. Yet while challenges to orthodoxy were once scorned because of sexism, they now risk the wrath of feminists.

The established view of old was that females commit less crime because theirs is the fairer sex. In 1895 the ‘father’ of criminology (an aptly patriarchal sobriquet), Cesare Lombroso, confidently asserted in The Female Offender that women are low on the scale of evolution, with smaller brains than men, and are therefore passive, well adapted to a dull and unsuccessful life, and are less capable than men of guile. He noted sternly that female criminals are ugly, hairy and have big hands; in fact, they are strikingly like men.

And that, by and large, was criminology’s only major insight about women for nearly three-quarters of a century, though there were a few intriguing observations along the way. When researchers failed to find much ugliness, excess hair or lumpiness in fallen women, Sigmund Freud proposed that when women turned from innate passivity to crime it was because they were envious of penises. Sex also featured in a barmy way twenty-five years on, when in 1950 an American sociologist, Otto Pollak, opined that women are just as much involved in crime but generally don’t get caught because – wait for it – they are used to deceit on the grounds that they fake orgasm. Mark you, girls could be forgiven, poor dears, because they had to cope with all those hormones. He added for good measure that when women were found out, men tended to be chivalrous and let them off.

Given this history of patronising nonsense it is surprising how restrained early feminism was. Freda Adler, the first notable feminist on the criminology scene, rejected the thought that females are the weaker sex, innately programmed for nurturing, biologically predisposed to being good. In Sisters in Crime: The Rise of the New Female Criminal, she seemed determined to prove that women are intrinsically as nasty as men. Her ‘Liberation Theory of Female Criminality’ insisted that women’s passivity merely reflects their centuries of subjugation and predicted that as women’s lib advanced, women’s venal and homicidal tendencies would be seen to rival those of men. Just as more women would be doctors and lawyers, so ‘a similar number of determined women’ would become burglars and gangsters. Well, that was 1976 and it hasn’t happened yet.

There are signs that the gender gap is closing – we’ll see those in a moment – but women’s criminal emancipation has a very long way to go.
In fact, the gender gap may have been much narrower once than it is today. A liberal American lawyer, together with a feminist sociologist, trawled through Old Bailey records from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They reported that for the first 100 years or so almost half the defendants were female, three or four times the proportion we see now. Nor were theirs just stereotypical ‘women’s crimes’ like prostitution, infanticide or witchcraft, but often involved substantial theft and violence including multiple murders. The authors described modern failure to acknowledge female crime as ‘a monumental blunder’. Certainly a lot of women went to jail. In 1900 almost a fifth of all prisoners were female, compared to one-twentieth today. Several historians concur and a similar pattern emerges in other countries too. It seems that conviction of women declined for about a hundred years from the 1850s to the 1950s, and then began to grow again, especially among the young. By 2005 a survey of 30,000 primary and secondary school pupils in England and Wales revealed a third of girls indulged in vandalism, just the same as boys, and stole almost as much as well (with 25 per cent of girls admitting to theft compared to 29 per cent of boys), though boys were still twice as likely to truant and were four times more likely to carry a knife. Most other findings tended to confirm the dark side of female emancipation. A small but long-term study on the south coast of England compared schoolchildren’s behaviour in 1985 with that in 2005 and according to one of the authors: The good news, and perhaps unexpected, is that the 2005 youngsters we studied have less problematic behaviour than those in the 1985 cohort. The bad news, however, is that twenty years ago boys drugged, drank, smoked, truanted, stole, vandalised and fought more than girls. Today it is very different. Girls now significantly smoke and binge-drink more than boys. They truant, steal and fight at similar rates to boys but engage in under-aged sex earlier than boys. Arrest rates corroborated the trend. In the US the FBI reported a significant rise in bank raids led by women and in 2007, for the first time since the war, more women were detained for violence in England and Wales than for shoplifting. But let’s not get carried away. Women still commit only one murder for every nine perpetrated by men and they remain conspicuously
absent from most big-league crime outrages. Only one in sixty of America’s mass shootings like Columbine, Virginia Tec or Newton was committed by a woman. And if there is a long-term trend towards more gender-neutral criminality, it seems to have stalled. As crime rates tumbled, girls and women began to lead the downward trend. Arrest rates for women began to drop twice as fast as those for men, and supervision orders for girls dropped much faster than those for boys.

So what are the lessons; and how do they help us cut victimisation rates? First, on the evidence so far Freda Adler was wrong to think if women could only cast off cultural chains they would become just like the boys. Anyone who has had children will know that boys and girls really are quite different: boys usually prefer more rough-and-tumble and taking risks, behaviours which translate easily into antisocial acts. Clever experiments with children have shown that this is instinctive, not culturally superimposed, and the evolutionary psychologist Anne Campbell has convincingly proposed why prehistoric females forged their own successful strategy for survival, allowing them to live long enough to suckle and raise infants, leaving men to fight for higher if riskier rewards. In this Darwinian view, women steal less for the same reason they tend to earn less: they are as competitive as men but with different priorities. And it does seem to be true that while girls may not have superior morality they do have different tactics. Thus a woman who would not take part in a robbery might provide a false alibi, hide the weapons and spend the ill-gotten gains. Even with the recent upsurge in ladette culture, the only offences where women have typically outnumbered men have been in killing their own babies, prostitution and evading TV licence payments.

On the other hand Professor Adler was right that we need to watch where we’re going. What’s bad for the gander can also be bad for the goose. We can see this – if we look properly – where we are so often told we should least expect it: domestic violence. In 1989 the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science published the results of a survey that was celebrated as a classic expose of the problem of ‘battered wives’. It was taken up as proof of typical male perfidy, and a parliamentary report made almost 500 recommendations to change attitudes in the police and other agencies. But two years later the Journal acknowledged a different side to the story: the data had been re-analysed and appeared to
have been censored. While 10.8 per cent of the men surveyed had pushed, grabbed or thrown objects at their spouses, 12.4 per cent of women had done so too; and though 2.5 per cent of men used serious violence, so did 4.7 per cent of women. Marilyn Kwong, who exposed the expurgation, examined eight other studies too, and found the pattern was universal.

Feminism did a vital job putting domestic violence on the agenda – the police now take it seriously and in some force areas it represents one in six emergency responses. But the very success of feminism and its flattery by mainstream authority caused the politics of dissent to become institutionalised. The politics soon came to define the problem, and for decades professional interventions assumed that men were always the aggressors and if women were violent it must have been in self-defence. However, as so often happens when dogma powers research, evidence got fixed around the theory. One researcher complains that we have been bamboozled by ‘nothing less than the rejection and devaluing of the scientific method, in favour of politically acceptable interpretations of discursive material’. Despite all this, officials continue to use exaggerated claims, and many agencies, including the police, help propagate the propaganda. It is widely claimed that one in every four women is subject to domestic violence though, depending on the source, the figure might include feeling afraid, mild psychological abuse as well as minor physical assault, and any of this at some stage in their lives. It would be more surprising if three-quarters of women went through their lifespan without ever once fearing some form of mental or physical attack, however inconsequential. Many such reports also ignored the thought that women can
be violent to men. Erin Pizzey, the feminist who founded one of the world’s first women’s refuges, has been trying ever since to set the record straight: I will never forget one woman, who was staying in my refuge, telling me, in chilling tones, ‘knives are a great leveller’. That is the reality of domestic violence. It is far less clear-cut than the ideologues like to pretend, with their neat division between female victims and male oppressors. The truth is that much of the violence takes place in squalid, tortured relationships, often involving drink and drugs, where both partners are guilty of verbal and physical assault. In the refuge I opened in 1971, for example, of the first 100 women through the door, sixty-two admitted that they had also perpetrated violence against their partners.

Eventually more and more testimony emerged to challenge the feminist agenda but it failed to resonate with mainstream criminology or with the media. As early as the 1980s, large-scale US research began to endorse Erin Pizzey’s view: women often initiated violence and could give as bad as they got. In Britain a big Home Office survey in 1995 found that 4.2 percent of men said they had been physically assaulted or injured by their partner within the last year – precisely the same figure as for women. A subsequent trawl through over eighty studies, mostly from America, came up with a similar verdict: there was little difference between men’s and women’s perpetration rates. Even so the terms ‘domestic violence’ and ‘wife battering’ continued to be used interchangeably. Again and again successive BCS and other surveys showed how strikingly the prevailing view was incomplete, yet still none of this made much impact on popular or political consciousness. When fifteen years of British findings were put together in 2012, they told an essentially consistent story: between 30 and 40 per cent of those assaulted were men and they suffered a quarter of all the attacks. Although in many cases neither men nor women reported injury or emotional effects, about one in ten in both genders had suffered bleeding or broken bones and 3 per cent of men and 2 per cent of women had attempted suicide.

Not that most men would confess how they were injured. Females are twice as likely as male partners to confide in a professional, five times more likely to tell a doctor or a nurse and three times as likely to go to the police. Bear with me on this because the women-as-victims view is so entrenched the evidence does need spelling out. And if anyone could still be unconvinced, the same pattern emerged more or less by accident from a landmark health investigation in New Zealand. In the early 1970s about a thousand children born in Dunedin’s Queen Mary Hospital were chosen for regular checks on their well-being as they grew up. The idea was to see if there were paediatric indicators of what would happen in later life. When the cohort reached the age of twenty-one, the researchers became interested in the relationships that were being formed, and were intrigued to find that violence between couples was quite common. What was even more surprising, and was crosschecked by interviewing partners separately, is that the women generally hit out first and ‘engaged in serious woman-to-man domestic abuse that was not explained by self-defence’. The researchers point out that because women are usually physically less powerful they tended to come off worse but ‘naively’ believed that if they hit their partner he would not hit back.

The Dunedin study shows, along with other studies, that women’s overall rates of partner violence perpetration are similar to those of men. This is not an isolated finding. Many studies have found that substantial numbers of women self-report abusive behaviours toward male partners, and epidemiological studies show that although males are more likely than females to engage in almost every type of violence, the single exception is family violence.

The fact that males as well as females are victims does not diminish the horror of domestic abuse, especially when it is repeated, severe and one-sided. Women do tend to come off worst, and a small proportion of them suffer relentlessly, staying out of low selfesteem or fear, out of stoicism or because, as more than one has told me, they find themselves ‘attracted to the rugged ones’. But we should not underestimate the extent of mutual aggression that takes place within the hurly-burly of mundane human discord. Nor should we forget the extent of emotional bullying, where the wounds don’t show, or the effect on children, with the demonstrable likelihood that they will grow up to be violent themselves. Mothers as well as fathers must take much of the blame. Incidentally, feminists, criminologists and journalists have paid scant attention to violence in same-sex relationships. Claire Turner, who founded a British support group after her female partner tried to strangle her, said:

You end up thinking that society will not think it serious enough because it was another woman who perpetrated the abuse. I did not report it. I really believed that women were great and incapable of being anything but nice to each other. But you come to realise that anybody in society has the potential to behave badly.

The good news is that the government has finally acknowledged the problem of female violence and has funded men’s support groups similar to those that have long been there for women. The much better news is that on all measures domestic violence has fallen as dramatically as any other crime: according to the BCS it fell 70 per cent between 1995 and 2010.

So let’s now turn to the other crime with which women are almost exclusively identified as victims: rape. Here too we need to challenge assumptions while avoiding the flying fur which purports to be rational debate. Rape is one of the most violating crimes. Victims tend to feel dirty, embarrassed, wracked with revulsion and self-blame. And, since it almost always involves a male assailant, rape is one of the defining issues for radical feminism. But have the red mists of politics and emotion clouded reality here too?

Again we owe much to advances brought about by feminist campaigning. For centuries women were belittled and held responsible if they let themselves be ‘ruined’. Until quite recently it was perfectly acceptable for sons to sow wild oats while daughters’ purity had to be protected – and in some cultures that remains the case. Until at least the 1970s and ’80s the institutions of the state were steeped in prejudice. There was tactless condescension from judges and, as a seminal TV documentary showed with shocking candour in the 1980s, police officers sometimes treated rape complaints with crass insensitivity. There was a widely held assumption that victims had probably been asking for it or at least had rashly encouraged it. Conviction rates were said to be a risible 10 per cent.

Reforms in court procedure and changing public attitudes brought improvements to the way rape victims were treated in the 1990s. Several police forces set up dedicated sex crime facilities, with officers selected and trained for sensitivity; complainants were allowed anonymity when giving evidence in court; judges began to frown on cross-examinations which implied promiscuity. When that failed to raise conviction rates, England’s Solicitor General announced packages of targets and ‘guidelines’ for judges and juries which would shift the presumption of innocence towards a presumption of guilt. Yet conviction rates appeared to fall. The figure of 6 per cent was widely quoted in the media.

As so often, the politicians and the media misunderstood the problem. In this case they were suckers for politicised advice powered by a desire to push rape higher up the political agenda. On cool analysis it is not that prosecutions fail; they just don’t happen. So far as we can tell, roughly 4 per cent of women are raped at some point in their lives, some repeatedly, and about 0.6 per cent of women (and 0.1 per cent of men) are victims of rapes and other serious sexual assaults each year. Yet despite the fact that reporting rates have soared, fewer than 20 per cent go to the police. When they do, about a sixth of rape complaints are rejected (rightly or wrongly) by police as implausible, a third are abandoned for lack of evidence, and a third are dropped because the complainant withdraws. Bear in mind that some of the allegations are made weeks or even years after the event took place and the average rape case takes nearly two years to get to trial. Officers have sometimes pressured women to abandon complaints – if they have no crime it improves their detection rates – but there is no evidence that police fail to prioritise sex offences in general. In fact the detection rates for sex crimes are comparable with many other crimes including robbery, burglary and fraud. For rape specifically the conviction rate is around 33 per cent with a further 23 per cent of those accused found guilty of lesser charges such as sexual assault. The real issue is that hardly any rapes ever get before a jury in the first place.

Is that such a bad thing? The implicit assumption is that any woman who chooses not to pursue a claim is being let down by the state or is acting irrationally. But could it be that she is right? What if she feels partly responsible for what happened? What if she realises there is no evidence other than her word against his? What if her life is bound up with that of her assailant? What if she feels humiliated as well as violated? Should she be expected to disclose all this in public and then put her life on hold for the greater good? Do we want a justice system that overrides the victims’ sense of what is in their own best interests, or one that, in order to accommodate them, ceases to be just? Indeed, before we complain about the failure to get more convictions it might be sensible to ask women themselves whether a formal prosecution process is always the most rational way to deal with rape.

Not that logic ever has an easy time with sex crime. In November 2005 Amnesty International published poll findings which suggested one in three people believe that women who are drunk or who are flirtatious are at least partly responsible if they are raped, and a quarter feel the same about rape victims who dress provocatively. There was little gender difference in the findings, and the poll was widely publicised as reflecting widespread misconceptions. Amnesty’s UK director described these attitudes as ‘shocking’ and several women’s groups were reported to be outraged by the ‘prejudice’. Vera Baird QC, who headed the Fawcett Society’s Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System, said, ‘The attitudes in this survey are glib and outdated. They implicitly mean the guy can’t help himself.’ Of course she was right that ‘no means no’, which is fine as a finger-wagging exercise, but being justifiably indignant is not the same as being prudent or pragmatic. In any other crime we take account of provocation and contributory factors. Even in murder.

Why not with sex? Even to raise the question tempts claims of sexism. But a key theme of this book is that we can aggravate crime by tempting fate and curb it by playing safe. We have come to acknowledge it is foolish to leave laptops on the back seat of the car. We would laugh at a bank that stored sacks of cash by the front door. We would be aghast if an airport badly skimped on its security. No amount of incitement can excuse rape, or any other crime, but it is inane to confuse explanation with justification, let alone vindication.

Yet for some it is heresy to suggest that victims should ever be held responsible at all. There was a further outcry when Britain’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority cut recompense to rape victims who had ‘contributed’ to their plight through ‘excessive’ drinking. The decision had to be reversed, provoking front-page news and a thunderous editorial in The Guardian: ‘Notions of provocation have no place in sexual violence.’ Yet for any other crime, compensation can be reduced according to ‘the conduct of the applicant before, during or after the incident’. Incidentally, nobody seems to have noticed the irony that on the very same day the Foreign Office blamed excessive drinking for a rise in arrests of Britons overseas, an announcement which also made front-page news but which was received as a welcome warning.

The long view

Plainly the old mantra that all men are rapists isn’t true. Nor is the even older myth put about by mothers to make their daughters behave demurely: that men cannot help themselves. In fact our forebears might be astonished at how safe women are today given what throughout history would have been regarded as incitement. Not even in the licentious days of the Charles II Restoration in the seventeenth century was it acceptable for women to dress as provocatively as they have done in Western culture since the 1960s. Equally they would be baffled that girls are mostly unescorted and often stay out late and get profoundly drunk. Getting legless isn’t new – think of Hogarth’s classic satire, Gin Lane – but nowadays it is perfectly acceptable for respectable teenage girls and women in their twenties to dress as street prostitutes might have done in times past and to roam our cities, foraging bars and clubs for a good time, sometimes behaving loudly and lewdly, and occasionally vomiting and collapsing into drunken stupors. Yet so-called stranger rapes, the sort most often reported by the newspapers, make up a small proportion of rapes that women divulge through surveys. Some assaults occur after short acquaintance (‘I met him in a bar’) but most are carried out by someone the victim knows, often within families.

In 2011 Ken Clarke, then Justice Secretary, was called upon to resign by the Leader of the Opposition for using the words ‘serious rape’. The transcript of the interview makes it clear that Clarke meant aggravated rape but it is sacrilege to suggest that there can be any gradation: rape is rape. Yet the real experts, the victims, know otherwise. As we saw in Chapter 9, half of all women who have had penetrative sex unwillingly do not think they were raped and this proportion rises strongly when the assault involves a boyfriend, or if the woman is drunk or high on drugs: they led him on, they went too far, it wasn’t forcible, they didn’t make themselves clear … For them rape isn’t always rape and, however upsetting, they feel it is a long way removed from being systematically violated or snatched off the street.

One of the sadder aspects of sex offences goes beyond the physical defilement and past the violation of peace of mind: it is the tendency to self-blame. But it does no service to victims, or to crime prevention, if we have to pussyfoot around political conventions rather than tell the truth. Which brings us to another vexatious issue: drug rape.

One Saturday afternoon three weeks before Christmas, two young Lithuanian women went out for a drink in a west London pub and got talking with a group of men. One of the girls went home; the other woke up in an unfamiliar room with a stranger having sex with her. She assumed she had been drugged, was understandably distressed, and the police, quite properly, took her claim seriously. We appealed about it on Crimewatch in September 2005.

Hers was the sort of case which gets a lot of publicity. It is known as DFSA, or drug-facilitated sexual assault. But had she really been drugged? What about thousands of other women who made similar assumptions? The answer is probably no.

That same year the Forensic Science Service published a study into DFSA – the largest of its kind. Over three years samples were taken from over a thousand women who had complained of being sexually assaulted after being given drugs surreptitiously. The FSS checked their blood and urine with a battery of sophisticated tests – and found most of the women were drunk. In 98 per cent of cases there was no evidence of drugs other than selfadministered alcohol, cannabis or cocaine. This is in line with other studies in both the UK and the US, one of which was trenchant in its conclusions: ‘Detailed examination of the testing results does not support the contention that any single drug, apart from alcohol, can be particularly identified as a “date rape” drug.’

Yet science has not got in the way of scaremongering. The media were so credulous that several TV soaps as well as BBC news and newspapers warned about the growing menace, creating a household name for an obscure pre-anaesthetic sedative called Rohypnol. Fears about Rohypnol’s use in rape became so widespread that some bars stocked up with special beer mats that are supposed to give a tell-tale sign if they come into contact with the stuff, and the original makers, Roche, reformulated their pills so they turn dark drinks cloudy, light ones blue and dissolve into visible clumps. Yet there was always an implausibility about widespread drug-facilitated rape. Every assailant would need to control the dosage of a dangerous medication to allow extraction of his chosen victim from her social setting without complaint from her or from her friends. (In the one proven case of drinks spiking in Britain, in which a doorman was sent to prison for tipping the anaesthetic GHB into a woman’s drink, the victim collapsed and had to be rushed to hospital.) Perhaps it was little wonder that the Forensic Science Service could find ‘no evidence that Rohypnol has been used in the UK for this type of crime’.

Critics suggest evidence was missed because samples were not taken early enough, and the media repeatedly reinforce the impression that Rohypnol is almost undetectable. Not so: some of the studies were on samples taken within hours and in any case some of the metabolites of hypnotic drugs can be detected for days or even weeks. Perhaps the drug rape story has such a grip on our collective imagination because it fits so well with the time-honoured horror story: the insensible woman at the mercy of the wicked male. And no doubt women who say their drinks were spiked mostly believe it. The man who took advantage was undoubtedly to blame for most of it, even if he too was high on drink or drugs.
Certainly it is easier to blame him for your amnesia so far as friends and family are concerned. But police should be sceptical even if the media are not.

We should not forget, of course, that women can sometimes turn sex to their own advantage, which occasionally has other implications for crime.
Prostitution might or might not be the world’s oldest profession – as Ronald Reagan said, politics bears a striking resemblance. But even in these days of sexual liberation it continues to be secretive and frequently reviled, as was homosexuality a generation back – with clients as reluctant to admit to paying for sex as prostitutes often are to providing it.

But there are starkly different versions of the trade and every now and then there is a scandal or a tragedy which provokes an argument about which is better, or less bad. The middle-class variety tends to be tolerated: the courtesans who operate from but usually make little secret of what’s actually on offer, and the high-street massage parlours where eroticism and ‘personal services’ masquerade among the therapeutic and spa treatments. Small working-class brothels were more or less endured for many years until a scare about human trafficking, since when they’ve faced periodic crackdowns from local authorities and police – as we shall see in just a moment. But most of the fuss is generated by the open-air sex workers: the traditional street prostitutes. Contact with health workers suggests the overwhelming majority are dysfunctional and at risk of multiple health problems, so the response of the authorities tends to be ambivalent, torn between protecting their safety and protecting community sensibilities. But what concerns us here is how vulnerable they are to violence. Street prostitutes are twelve times more likely to be murdered than other women. And one spectacular tragedy had a big effect on public attitudes.

Late in 2006, five sex workers were strangled and dumped around the Suffolk town of Ipswich. Instead of the traditional reaction to a dead prostitute – ‘and then the silly girl went and got herself murdered’ as one magistrate famously remarked – the Ipswich killings evoked national soul-searching. There was an almost self-conscious exoneration of the girls’ line of work. In the media circus that accompanies any mass murder they were portrayed as real people with hopes and failures, as daughters and sisters and deserving of compassion and entirely worthy of the massive police inquiry their deaths inspired. If there were criticisms they were levelled at the authorities: prostitution should be legalised, we were told. Safe houses should be provided. Girls with drug problems should be given free prescriptions to keep them off the streets. Or we could copy New Zealand, Australia and some European countries which have licensed bordellos so that girls can work together and be regulated.

The question is: would it make much difference? Perhaps more liberal laws could bring mainstream prostitution out of the black economy and have the better-organised sex workers paying income tax. But no one needs a change in the law to go for STI check-ups (for what used to be called VD). And liberalisation will not resolve the problem that stirred the introspection: it will not diminish the vulnerability of women like those who were murdered in Ipswich.

Street girls are not your average ‘escort’ or ‘masseuse’, nor the student who finds a lucrative way of paying her way through college, the hard-working female who prefers having sex to sitting at a factory bench, or the self-employed businesswoman who has a call-girl venture rather than going into hairdressing. Street walkers are at the bottom of the heap. They are often heavily drug addicted and prepared to accept degradation, and danger, to get their fix. They are frequently self-destructive – why else would they self-inject heroin or smoke crack cocaine? It would be hard for a law reform to tempt them into a more wholesome lifestyle. Allowing brazen importuning in certain streets or districts is unlikely to lessen the danger that punters will drive off with them and beat them up. Supplying a safe house where they can take their punters will not appeal to all of them and will not create a refuge unless someone staffs it with a guardian. Putting up CCTV cameras may well drive away their customers and simply displace the problem. The proven way to prevent street prostitution is relentlessly visible policing, removing the prostitutes and deterring the kerb-crawling johns. Even then, it will never eliminate the problem of damaged girls – and incidentally sometimes equally damaged boys who work the streets – some of whom will find their way back to business as soon as they can.

Typically, given the yo-yo fashions of politics, calls to liberalise the law were soon followed by plans to make things far more punitive. As memories of the Ipswich murders faded, a new horror seized the headlines: it seemed that hundreds, maybe thousands, of naive girls from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Far East had been smuggled into Britain and, through violence and intimidation, forced to work in brothels and massage parlours. Not surprisingly, headlines about the return of the white slave trade caused alarm, especially when government spokesmen were widely quoted saying that of 80,000 working girls in Britain, ‘the majority are working under control from traffickers, pimps or brothel owners’.

The Home Secretary leapt into action and an extraordinary law was introduced. Instead of targeting the pimps who were supposedly persecuting the girls, Section 14 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 targeted the clients. It placed the onus on them to prove their innocence; it also made it almost impossible for them to do so. From 2009 onwards any man who paid for sex would have to make sure that the woman was not ‘controlled for another’s gain’. Police chiefs and the chairman of the Criminal Bar Council warned this might be unenforceable, but as far as Parliament is concerned a moral panic is a moral panic and demands firm action whether or not it will work.

The larger question is: was there such a problem to begin with? Where had the statistics for prostitutes come from, and how could anyone know that most of them were sex slaves? ‘The government figures are completely fabricated,’ said one sex worker, ‘they just make them up.’ That wasn’t far off the truth. Because of stigmatisation and the furtive nature of the industry, the only number available, 80,000, had been extrapolated from a small survey compiled twenty years previously by a health outreach worker tackling HIV and AIDS in Birmingham. She described the constant quotation of the figure as ‘bizarre’. As for the alarming idea that most of the women were trapped by violent pimps – a figure of 80 per cent was cited by a former minister – that really does seem to have been invented.

Nonetheless the Met set up a dedicated Human Exploitation and Organised Crime Unit called SCD9 and police around the country set up Operation Acumen to investigate the crisis and try to tackle it. Their estimate was that 30,000 women were working as escorts or from flats and brothels, of whom almost 12,000 were vulnerable to violence or debt-bond and of whom 2,600 were definitely trafficked.

How did they know? They asked the women themselves. Or at any rate they asked about 250 of them and generalised from the results. Excluding forty British women from the sample, that left 210 who came from abroad, of whom fewer than twenty indicated they were not working entirely of their own volition. Leaving aside the statistical stretching that this exercise required, how meaningful are the results? The researchers reasoned that their trafficking figure might be an underestimate because some of the women would be too frightened to divulge. True. But what about the other possibility? If you were raided by police while working in a brothel, if you were an illegal immigrant, if you may have to go to court and if your mother might find out, what would you say when asked if you were duped or under duress? It would hardly be surprising to say yes. To paraphrase one of Britain’s most famous call-girls, you would say that, wouldn’t you – especially if that is what everyone half-expected. And even more especially if you knew that not one illegal immigrant who has claimed to be exploited has been deported.

Perhaps the proof of the pudding is what happened next. Despite big, some said heavy-handed, police raids on sex establishments, there were very few unambiguous cases of women who had been forced into sexual servitude. One series of 822 raids found only eleven victims who asked for police help. Two intelligence-led sweeps involving fifty-five forces found 250 people who might have been trafficked, though many were in domestic service. When a London borough had a big clampdown on brothels, only one out of hundreds of women interviewed claimed to have been trafficked – and bear in mind there is no agreement on what ‘sex trafficking’ or even ‘coercion’ is. There were more proactive raids in the run-up to the Olympics but the predicted surge in victims failed to materialise – just as it had in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup, when not one of 40,000 expected sex slaves was encountered.

In fact the most reliable figure we have for people brought to Britain on false pretences and exploited for sexual purposes is approximately 250 a year. This is half the number of people ‘conclusively’ recognised as ‘victims of trafficking’ by the national reporting scheme coordinated by the police. The other 250 or so recognised victims are thought to be exploited for labour or domestic servitude. Undoubtedly this is not the whole story. All sex crimes are hard to get at, and advocates like the Poppy Project, which works with trafficked women, point out there may be a much larger and heart-breaking problem of people in horrible conditions hidden away in private houses or closed immigrant communities. But it
is a far remove from the headlines and the parliamentary ballyhoo that gripped everyone’s imagination.

Let’s go back to Hilary Kinnell, the woman who first tried to quantify prostitution in modern Britain and whose estimate of 80,000 became the bedrock for all that has happened since. She has become utterly cheesed off. She protests her original figure was no more than a guess and that the trafficking scare that followed was based on wild exaggeration, elision and invention. It’s worth hearing at length her exasperation at the scare:

Firstly, there was a critical mass of female parliamentarians eager to be seen to be doing something for women, and who used trafficking rhetoric and inflated trafficking figures which exploited migration fears … Secondly, these were conveyed by a news media dependent on ‘client journalism’ and news agencies producing ‘churnalism’ from government press releases. Third, there were significant vested interests of politicized senior police officers who, using pseudo-scare tactics lobbied for more power and pressure groups influenced by USA prohibition research who supported the rise of ‘spin’ as an integral political tool. It was easy to spin material on sex work to a public who have little experience of or access to research material on sex work.

All in all, much of the news and comment about women and crime tends to smack of sexism and stereotyping, some of it promoted by radical campaigners perversely keen to portray the sisterhood as ready victims. Women are far less prone than men to suffer homicide or wounding; and females are quite as capable as males of making decisions on whether to work in an office, a factory or a knocking shop. In relationships with partners, most of them do not conform to the role of docile, submissive butt of violence; they often hit first or hit back. They do not need the courts to be prejudiced against men accused of rape and nor do they have to be sheltered from alcohol or drugs any more than the men they go out drinking with. The only question about women’s emancipation is not whether they need ever more protection, but whether in time they may perpetrate more of the crimes that society needs protection from. That, self-evidently, is equality of a sort we could do without.

But what about that other fertile ground for prejudice: what about race?