Seeing the sex trade from the other side

Caroline HoughtonMy job involves me heading a ‘pod’ called Exit, so-called as we attempt to help street sex workers from Luton ‘get out’ of the difficult cycle they find themselves in.

Prostitution in Luton has long been an issue, not only for residents, law enforcement and support agencies, but also for the vulnerable women the trade attracts.

Part of my role involves me putting these vulnerable women in touch with a variety of support agencies, who can help with health, drug and alcohol addiction, housing, benefits and general rehabilitation, which eventually leads to women exiting the on-street sex trade.

Another part of my role is to target ‘pimps’ and drug dealers who associate with sex workers, as these groups are often the reason the sex workers are on the streets.

My role helps to identify brothels and drugs dens, and with the help of the community team, we work hard to get them closed down.

I recently assisted in closing a brothel in Luton town centre, where several young women from Europe had applied for what they thought was a beauty therapist job.

It was not until they had travelled to the UK that they discovered the job role was far from what they expected, but they were trapped financially and so felt forced to sell their bodies.

Thankfully the brothel was closed, the owner arrested and the women given financial assistance through a partner agency to return to their own countries and their families.

Despite this, pimps and drug dealers are a constant thorn in my side. No sooner do you close a brothel or drugs den, another one springs up within what seems like minutes.

With some women, their behaviour is so ingrained that they can’t see a way out, and don’t think they are worthy of anything other than sex-working – so for me, changing this mindset can be extremely challenging.

Another challenge I face is people’s perception of street sex workers – it’s sometimes misguided, and it can be very difficult to suggest a non-judgmental approach.

As a police force, we strive to take a proactive approach to offending and attempt to stop it before it happens – rather than just reacting to it once it has already taken place.

That’s why our Integrated Offender Management scheme (IOM), is so important.

IOM aims to reduce reoffending and increase social inclusion of offenders and their families, by working with identified offenders to challenge their behaviour and address the underlying issues that lead to reoffending.

We achieve this by assessing the needs of the individual, and helping them with access to services across vital pathways to prevent reoffending. IOM is important because it pulls all of our relevant partner agencies together, and concentrates their knowledge and expertise on the rehabilitation of each person in the scheme.

Many of you reading this may not realise we have a surprisingly small percentage of offenders who create an alarmingly high percentage of the crime in Bedfordshire. So identifying, intensely managing and rehabilitating this type of offender can have an enormous effect on crime reduction.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, and sometimes re-offending does occur.
In that instance, the IOM team will switch to becoming enforcers, and will act swiftly and concisely in arresting those offenders

By far the most rewarding aspect of my job is seeing the progress of the women I work with, and helping to restore some sort of normality in their lives.

I am currently working with a female who had been sex-working for a number of years. After almost two years of intensive support involving partner agencies, she has now stopped taking class A drugs, finished working the streets and is about to be housed in her own flat.

This will be the first time in years that she will have a safe and secure home to call her own, where she can continue to recover.

Sometimes we all take our ‘normal’ lives for granted, but it’s not until you work closely with a group like these women that you realise how lucky we are – and what some people would give for that little bit of normality.

I feel proud of being able to offer the women a choice, and try to give them a way out.

PC Caroline Houghton first joined the police in 2000. Her role is as an officer within IOM team based at the Probation Service in Luton.

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