I’ve just returned from a conference in Rome called Prostitution: Is Italy ready for the Nordic model?. The event was the first of its kind to be held in the Italian senate and it has caused some controversy.
A new bill drafted by senator Alessandra Maiorino was launched at the event, which, if approved by parliament, would criminalise the buying of sex and decriminalise those in prostitution. Known as the Nordic model, this approach to tackling the harms of the sex trade was first introduced in Sweden in 1999 and has since been adopted by a number of countries, including the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, France, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Israel.
Outside the venue, a small protest group representing sex workers and allies accused the organisers of “talking about our lives and bodies without even inviting us to the discussion table”, despite the fact that the views of pro-legalisation individuals are in the evidence that is included in the bill. Perhaps more significantly, the voices of those women who have survived the sex trade and since left it are loud and clear in this debate.
The tide is turning in Italy about the sex trade. Maiorino, a parliamentarian in the Five Star Movement party, has garnered cross-party support, with speakers at the conference representing youth, violence against women and gender equality.
Evaluation shows that this Nordic model approach has reduced the number of women in prostitution and that it challenges the culture of acceptability of men paying for sex. There are calls from abolitionists, including many sex trade survivors, to introduce the law globally.
Italy has a history of legislating against the sex trade. In 1958, senator Lina Merlin introduced the Merlin law, which effectively abolished legal brothels. Before the law was introduced there were 560 state approved brothels. The law also abolished the keeping of records of prostituted women, freeing them from the stigma associated with selling (but not buying) sex and providing support to leave. The key aim of the law was to reduce the numbers of women being forced, coerced or exploited into prostitution. It is regarded by Italian feminists as the foundation for a human rights critique of commercial sexual exploitation.
The law periodically comes under fire from those in favour of legalisation. The most recent example came in March 2019 whenit was challenged by the court of appeal in Bari in relation to a case in which businessman Giampaolo Tarantini was convicted of aiding and abetting prostitution by recruiting “escorts” for the then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Lawyers argued that prostitution is organised differently than in 1958 and that women now have sexual freedom and therefore can freely choose to be sex workers. The appeal was rejected by the constitutional court and the Merlin law was upheld.
According to Maiorino, there is more violence, abuse and exploitation in the sex trade than in 1958. “There are increasing ways in which women can be coerced into prostitution,” she said.
In fact, as Ilaria Baldini from Resistenza Femminista, a feminist activist group, told me, prostitution across Italy was “totally normalised” and the police often ignored the criminal exploitation of women in brothels and on street, rarely targeting pimps or buyers.
In March, Roberto Saviano (whose book Gomorra exposed one of Italy’s most powerful mafia networks) wrote an article for Corriere della Sera, arguing that legalising prostitution in Italy was necessary, that prostitution was a “real profession” and that the only way that women can be protected within the sex trade is to “regulate” it.
The article caused huge controversy and the newspaper was inundated with emails from anti-sex trade feminists, demanding a right to reply. Monica Ricci Sargentini, a reporter at the newspaper, supported the call for a feminist response; as a result, she was issued with a written warning and threatened with a three-day suspension.
Despite the significant resistance from pro-legalisation activists in Italy and elsewhere, its benefits are clear. Everywhere it has been implemented, the number of women in prostitution has fallen, as has violence – including homicide – against them. Neither is it an overly punitive or “carceral” law; proposals within Maiorino’s bill for sex buyers are typically modest: for first offenders, a fine of €1,500 to €5,000 and a police caution. Those that reoffend more than once in five years can be fined up to €15,000. A prison sentence of between six months to three years can be avoided if the buyers participate in a perpetrator re-education programme.
On the other hand, legalisation is always disastrous, as I discovered during my research. Germany introduced blanket legalisation in 2002 and, as parliamentarian Leni Breymaier told delegates in Rome, it has since become one of the fastest growing destinations for traffickers of women and children.
“There should never have been the scandal of Berlusconi,” she tells me. “And nor should any Italian men be led by his example.”
Most parents approach children’s questions about sex with careful thought. We know that our period chat, puberty Q&A, our bleakly vital guidance on sexting and porn won’t just affect their present happiness and bodily ease, but future relationships too. We entrust schools to make up for our shortfalls or embarrassment, to further our conversations with sensitivity and fact.
We’d expect RSHE (relationships, sex and health education) lessons to be conducted by trained teachers, schooled in biology, alert to pornified and misleading internet content. We’d hope our kids learn not just where babies come from but that sexuality is diverse, that sex isn’t just about problems, like STIs and abortion, but a source of joy.
Instead your child may be taught by the School of Sexuality Education which asked kids to Google then draw masturbating animals. Or the Proud Trust, whose dice game asks 13-year-olds to speculate how various body parts and objects will pleasure their anus. Or Diversity Role Models, which promoted the message beloved of paedophiles: “Love has no age limit.”
Because any organisation can now teach RSHE, including activist groups with political agendas. Staff don’t need education or child development qualifications. There is no professional register or regulation of their curriculum. The Department for Education (DfE) says it is a school’s responsibility to oversee lesson content but many don’t have time, often entrusting outside speakers to address classes with no teacher present. And if parents demand to see teaching resources, groups often cite copyright law and refuse.
RSHE teaching, as Miriam Cates, a Tory MP and former biology teacher, noted in her Westminster Hall debate on Thursday, is “a wild west”. Indeed it is a deregulated, privatised, quintessentially Conservative mess.
The government’s response to criticism about inadequate sex education was to make it mandatory from September 2020 for both primary and secondary pupils. The DfE advocates a “programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the pupils”. But instead of providing funds to recruit or train RSHE specialists, it left schools often to outsource lessons to groups, some newly formed to win these lucrative contracts. Since then many parents have voiced concerns. First at the inappropriately sexualised content of lessons for young children: 11-year-olds asked to work out from a list if they are straight, gay or bisexual; ten-year-olds told to discuss masturbation in pairs. Compelling pre-pubescent children to talk about explicit material with adults transgresses their natural shyness and is a safeguarding red flag.
Many groups brand themselves “sex positive”, a confusing term which doesn’t mean “relationships are great” but that no sexual practice is off-limits and the sex industry, specifically pornography, is wholly liberating. BISH Training’s website entry on “rough sex” dismisses the notion that online porn is responsible for a rise in choking, hair-pulling and spitting as “annoying”. Although 60 British women have died of strangulation during sex, BISH simply tells young people to go slow “at first”.
Reading RSHE groups’ online material, and most is hidden from public scrutiny, none addresses the fact that boys and girls are fed different sexual scripts from increasingly violent mainstream porn. Those being choked, violently penetrated in multiple orifices are rarely male. Yet there is no feminist critique or much focus on female pleasure.
Such teaching is supposed to uphold the 2010 Equality Act in which sex is a protected characteristic, yet much of it blurs biology. The Sex Education Forum divides us into “menstruaters” and “non-menstruaters”. Just Like Us states that sex can be changed. Amaze suggests boys who wear nail varnish and girls who like weightlifting could be trans.
Researching my report on the Tavistock child gender service, I spoke with parents of girls on the autistic spectrum who’d always felt like misfits but after listening to outside speakers at school assemblies or RSHE classes now believed they were boys. Gender ideology, with no basis in science or fact, is being pushed in schools, as Cates says, “with religious fervour”.
In its carelessness and cheap-skatery, the government has enabled teaching that is well out of step with public opinion. More In Common polling of 5,000 people found that while 64 per cent of us are happy for schools to teach that some children have two dads or mums, only 31 per cent believe primary schools should teach about trans identity. Parents know it is confusing, unscientific and predicated upon gender stereotypes.
The government’s present hands-off policy also leaves schools vulnerable when challenged by homophobic religious groups, as in Birmingham when extreme Islamists stirred up parents to oppose teaching about gay parents. Head teachers then said they’d have welcomed more prescriptive government guidance so parents could hold elected politicians, not individual schools, to account.
At Thursday’s debate, the chastened schools minister Robin Walker noted that parents should have ready access to all RSHE teaching materials and said the equality and human rights commission is working out guidance on how gender identity should be taught in schools. Such lessons must include evidence of social contagion, the harms of puberty blockers, warning about irreversible treatment and the experience of a growing number of “detransitioners”.
But the government needs to go further, with a register of outside groups and close monitoring of misleading materials. It should also teach critical thinking, so children can evaluate the porn-suffused culture in which they live. There’s no point parents putting such care into how we teach children about sex if the government gives none at all.
Spain voted on Tuesday in favour of a proposal to draw up legislation to abolish prostitution, cracking down further on pimping and introducing tougher penalties for men buying sex in a controversial initiative that has split the women’s rights movement.
Until now, prostitution has been tolerated in Spain, with many brothels operating as hotels or other lodging establishments, although sexual exploitation and pimping are illegal.
The move is part of a progressive drive by the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to extend women’s rights, and would see sex workers treated as victims to be protected rather than criminalised as they would be under any outright ban on prostitution.
A total of 232 lawmakers voted for the proposal, 38 voted against it and 69 abstained. It now faces a lengthy process during which lawmakers can suggest amendments that can be approved or rejected.
At the end of the process, lawmakers must vote again and only then will the law be sent to the Senate.
The Socialists, who rule in a minority coalition with far-left junior partner Unidas Podemos, want to introduce longer jail sentences for pimping, removing the present requirement for police to demonstrate that an exploitative relationship exists with the sex worker.
The proposal would also punish anyone using a premises for prostitution, and men buying sex, with aggravated sentences if the victim is a minor or classed as vulnerable.
The proposal has sparked intense debate in the local women’s rights movement.
Some organisations who work with trafficked and prostituted women, such as Medicos del Mundo, view it as a step in the right direction, while others like Antigona, a group of academics who are in favour of legalising prostitution, say it risks driving undocumented migrants underground and leaving them more vulnerable to trafficking networks.
Natalia, a former sex worker now employed by sex workers’ union Otras, said the current legislation “infantilises” women in the trade.
“Obviously this work has problems, and we need help to obtain rights, but not from the point of view of victimisation”.
Trabe, which provides accommodation for victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, said any new laws should grant social protections to prostitutes, while Medicos del Mundo said the Socialists had to refine their proposal or risk organisations which help women being accused of facilitating prostitution.
Just read a Guardian piece on “50 years of Deep Throat’. The thinly veiled sneeriness at feminist critiques is predictable but what also gets to me is the pretentiousness. Like you’re not just a prude but a cultural ignoramus if you’re insufficiently appreciative.
It reminded me of the section in [Louise Perry’s] The Case Against the Sexual Revolution on ‘The Sadeian Woman’ – the urge to mystify and render edgy an ultimately unsophisticated exploitation that isn’t really new.
“You just don’t get it because you miss the broader cultural, political and intellectual context” is another of those Emperor’s New Clothes coercive narratives. No one wants to look stupid so it’s easy to scare people off stating the obvious about a glaringly obvious film.
(I remember this pressure – never EVER be the idiot who states the obvious – very vividly from being an arts postgrad in the late 90s, and it’s really dangerous when what you’ve decided to be an authority on is pornography and/or violence against women).
Amelia Tiganus is a sex-trade survivor, originally from Romania. She has been campaigning to introduce laws to criminalise demand – the men that pay for sex – for a number of years. This week saw her wish come true, when the Spanish parliament voted in favour of clamping down on pimping and introducing criminal penalties for men buying sex.
Until now, prostitution has been tolerated in Spain, with many brothels operating as hotels or other lodging establishments, although sexual exploitation and pimping are illegal.
Tiganus was prostituted in Spain, where she still lives. She has long been involved in a campaign to end the sex trade, working since 2015 with Feminicidio as coordinator of its online training platform and projects for the prevention and awareness of prostitution, trafficking and other forms of violence against women. She is currently documenting the number of murdered prostituted women in Spain.
Tiganus has published several articles on the sexual exploitation of women and girls. In the past two years, she has given more than 100 lectures and workshops throughout Spain and Argentina. I spoke to Tiganus about being trafficked and abused in state-sanctioned brothels, and about her life and activism after escaping prostitution. Here is her story.
France has taken the first step towards banning some of the most popular pornography websites, with the state regulator seeking a court order because of their failure to prevent access by children.
Roch-Olivier Maistre, head of Arcom, a new audiovisual and digital communication authority, acted after Pornhub, Xvideos, TuKif, Xhamster and Xnxx failed to respond to a final warning in December to act on a 2020 law that requires age verification to access their material.
If the judges issue the order, internet service providers must prevent access to the sites and search engines must ban them from listings.
Attempts by the firms, registered in Cyprus, the Czech Republic and the Portuguese island of Madeira, to open “mirror sites”, offering the same content with different addresses, also would be blocked, Arcom said.
Since the French rules took effect, Pornhub and other X-rated services that account for five of the fifty most popular websites in France have merely asked users to confirm with an anonymous click that they are 18 or over.
The French move is part of a crackdown across the European Union and in Britain against sites that give children access to free pornography and other damaging content. Three French-based porn sites, including the popular Jacquie et Michel, have complied with the government rule by requiring users to obtain passwords after providing credit card imprints to validate their ages. They do not have to confirm their identity by other means.
Earlier attempts to impose age verification have fallen foul of privacy rules in France, Britain and elsewhere. France’s data protection watchdog warned that age verification by publishers of pornographic content must not enable them to collect data on users derived from their identities such as their sexual orientation and tastes.
President Macron’s government has promoted a bill that requires the installation of parental controls in computers, phones, gaming consoles and tablets sold in France.
Over 80 per cent of children aged 10 to 14 say that they regularly go online without parental supervision in France. On average, 70 per cent of children of all ages say that they watch online videos alone, the parliamentary group of Macron’s République En Marche party said.
The bill, passed by parliament, could yet be rejected for breaching EU laws. This is because the mandatory controls could be deemed to breach single market rules since they impose French standards with which other EU manufacturers would have to comply.
TuKif, French for “You Fancy”, has contested the court action, saying that it would be ready to comply, but only if the state pursues 2,000 other porn sites that have not been targeted.
Child protection groups that began the legal action with the regulator said that they were starting with the biggest sites but legal action would reach all of them. “The idea was not to issue injunctions to all sites but to signal that the party is over,” Olivier Gérard, a spokesman for the National Union of Family Associations, said.
France is the sixth biggest user of Pornhub, the world’s most popular pornography provider. Britain is the second, after the United States. Pornhub said last year that the French law infringed the privacy of adults and “leaves large areas of the adult industry completely unchecked”.
Porn websites in the UK will be legally required to verify the age of their users under new internet safety laws.
The legislation, which is part of the draft Online Safety Bill, aims to give children better protection from explicit material.
The measures, to ensure users are 18 or over, could see people asked to prove they own a credit card or confirm their age via a third-party service.
Sites that fail to act could be fined up to 10% of their global turnover.
The Online Safety Bill is expected to be introduced to parliament over the next few months and is designed to protect users from harmful content.
Children’s safety groups have long been calling for age verification on porn sites, over fears it is too easy for minors to access publically available material online.
Similar measures were proposed previously but dropped in 2019.
Studies show that half of 11 to 13-year-olds have seen pornography at some point.
Experts who work with children say it gives them unhealthy views of sex and consent, putting them at risk from predators and possibly stopping them reporting abuse.
Announcing the age verification plans, Digital Economy Minister Chris Philp said: “Parents deserve peace of mind that their children are protected online from seeing things no child should see.”
As well as being able to fine websites that do not follow the rules, the regulator Ofcom could block them from being accessible in the UK.
The bosses of these websites could also be held criminally liable if they fail to cooperate with Ofcom.
Previously, only commercial porn sites that allowed user-generated content were in the scope of the Online Safety Bill, but all commercial porn sites will now be covered.
Andy Burrows, of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), welcomed the strengthening of the Online Harms Bill but said it didn’t go far enough.
“It’s right the government has listened to calls to fix one of the gaps in the Online Safety Bill and protect children from pornography wherever it’s hosted,” he said.
“Crucially, they have also acted on our concerns and closed the ‘Only Fans loophole’ that would have let some of the riskiest sites off the hook despite allowing children access to extremely damaging material.
“But the legislation still falls short of giving children comprehensive protection from preventable abuse and harmful content and needs significant strengthening to match the government’s rhetoric and focus minds at the very top of tech companies on child safety.”
Proposals to make people confirm their age before accessing explicit content online were first introduced under the Digital Economy Act in 2017, but the government never enforced them.
They were officially dropped in 2019, with ministers pledging “other measures” would achieve the same results.
When the first draft of the Online Safety Bill was announced last year, campaigners were shocked it did not contain these long-promised checks.
It will be up to companies to decide how best to comply with the new rules, but Ofcom may recommend the use of certain age verification technologies.
However, the government says firms should not process or store data that is irrelevant to the purpose of checking someone’s age.
Despite the widespread use of age verification technology in sectors such as online gambling, there are still fears it poses privacy risks.
Campaigners have warned that a database of pornography users would be a huge hacking target for blackmailers.
Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns to preserve digital rights and freedoms, said the rules would benefit age verification companies while offering “little practical benefit for child safety, and much harm to people’s privacy”.
“There is no indication that this proposal will protect people from tracking and profiling porn viewing,” he told the BBC.
“We have to assume the same basic mistakes about privacy and security may be about to be made again.”
But Iain Corby, executive director of the Age Verification Providers Association, said firms he represented had developed a wide range of methods to prove someone’s age online without disclosing their identity to the websites they visit.
“By using independent, third-party organisations which are audited and certified to comply with the highest standards of data protection and security, adults can be confident their own privacy will be preserved while their children are protected.”
It is dinner time on a Friday evening and a teenage girl is sitting in her bedroom facing the camera on her laptop.
On the other end of the screen, boys are telling her to take her clothes off. “Your tits look heavy, do you want me to hold them?” a boy says. “I’d still dog you darling,” another replies.
Later on a boy asks if he can call a girl, who is black, a “dirty little slave”. Another group livestream is titled “n***a lynching clubhouse”.
The conversations are all happening on a social media app called Yubo, which is known as “Tinder for teens” and allows children aged 13 to 17 to match with potential dates as well as to join “lives” where they are encouraged to interact with about 100 other teenagers.
An undercover investigation into the app, which has 3.6 million UK users, has found children are subjected to sexual harassment, racism and bullying.
Schools have sent warnings to parents telling them that Yubo may not be safe. Head teachers have shared a newsletter saying that “due to the nature of this app, your child may come across content that is not appropriate to them”.
James Loten, deputy head at Harwich and Dovercourt school, in Essex, told parents he was concerned it could be “exploited by adults for nefarious purposes”. Kingsley primary school, in Co Durham, said children should be stopped from downloading it.
Our undercover reporter spent ten days on Yubo, posing as a 15-year-old girl called Anne. No age verification was required, with the journalist able to use profile pictures of her 20-year-old self.
She was propositioned for sex and frequently asked to send nude pictures. A message from a 17-year-old boy said: “Let me rail [have sex with] you”, while others on a livestream told girls they would “strip you naked and rape you” and “choke you”.
A black 16-year-old was told by another user: “I’d let you pick my cotton any day.”
Self-harm and suicide were frequently discussed. Our reporter saw a group of boys trade explicit images of girls they knew while others chanted “get your wrists out” to a female user. Others were told to “f*** off and kill yourselves” during a discussion about feminism.
Many of the conversations happened as teens were finishing school and doing their homework, with some parents shouting up to bedrooms about coming down for dinner.
MPs and campaigners said the investigation raised significant safety concerns. They also questioned whether children would be sufficiently protected by the new Online Safety Bill, which could be presented to parliament within weeks.
The Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the education select committee, said the findings were “deeply shocking, both for the parents and children involved, and also for educators across the country”. “The Online Safety Bill is a welcome step in the right direction but much more needs to be done to keep pace with the ever-evolving technology,” he said.
Chris Philp, the minister for tech and the digital economy, said: “What I have heard about this site is sickening. Apps designed for and marketed at children should be safe for them to use. The government will not allow this kind of thing to continue threatening children and that is why we are strengthening the Online Safety Bill to put a stop to content harmful to children once and for all.”
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis, one of England’s biggest academy trusts, with 52 schools, said the site was dangerous and must be made safer “to stop lives being lost and futures ruined”.
Young people have contacted the charity Childline asking for help. “A guy saved my nudes on Yubo. I eventually got him to delete them but he said if I don’t send him stuff tomorrow he’ll get the pictures back and spread them,” one girl said.
Ian Critchley, in charge of child protection for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said sites such as Yubo were being used to “commit some of the most abhorrent acts”.
“These platforms are multimillion-pound companies. They take large profits and they have the moral and legal responsibility to make sure the communities they have created are safe communities. There is much more they can do.
“The findings from your report highlight the role they must play in being proactive in seeking to stop child abuse where perpetrators are seeking to groom children,” he said.
Sarah Parker, from Catch 22, an agency that works with police and schools to combat child exploitation, said Yubo had been mentioned in a “flurry” of recent cases.
The new Online Safety Bill is supposed “to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”.
Under the new rules social media companies will have to show a “duty of care” to users by removing illegal content and ensuring children are not exposed to inappropriate material.
If they do not meet these responsibilities, tech giants could face fines from the regulator Ofcom and senior managers may be held criminally liable.
Baroness Morgan of Cotes, a former education and digital secretary, said: “No teenager should be exposed to the harmful content that you found … just because Yubo or any other platform can’t properly police their sites. Those running Yubo and similar sites need to be held accountable.”
Yubo says its moderators check profiles and monitor messages for inappropriate content, yet chats with names such as “pissing on dead n**gs” appeared to go unnoticed.
Rules on the discussion and consumption of drugs, which it also claims to enforce, were consistently broken.
Our reporter heard a drug dealer telling a 15-year-old girl about ketamine and acid. As a teenage girl appeared to snort cocaine, a male user said: “Would you do a line off my wood [erection]?”.
Yubo, which is based in Paris and was previously called Yellow, has been linked to a string of criminal cases involving teenagers being groomed.
Last week Rhys Stone, 21, was jailed at Cardiff crown court after he locked a 17-year-old in his car and subjected her to a sexual attack as she screamed and begged him to stop.
He had met the victim hours before on a Yubo livestream.
Dewan Gazi, 22, was sentenced to 12 years in October 2019 for raping a 12-year-old and sexually abusing a 15-year-old. Over a period of 12 days, he had messaged 95 teenagers on the app.
Detective Sergeant Jinnett Lunt, from Greater Manchester police, said: “What this case showed was Gazi’s apparent intent on using Yubo with a view to making contact with as many young people as possible, before moving them on to other platforms where he would then commit his offending.”
Last month pupils at the Jewish Free School in north London revealed that younger children were using Yubo, where bullying and harassment were rife. The school was placed into special measures last year by inspectors after the death of a 14-year-old girl.
In a report Ofsted told of widespread “sexual bullying including via social media” at the school, which has 2,000 pupils and where three students are thought to have taken their own lives in the past four years.
Assemblies on sexting were held, with parents given advice on supervising their teenagers’ phone use. The school has since improved.
A spokeswoman for Yubo said the safety of users was “our foremost priority”, with safety practices developed on a “constant” basis. They added that the site cared “deeply” about the wellbeing of its users.
Yubo said it had an extensive range of safety tools in place to “safeguard our users at every stage of their journey within the app”, with moderators who “intervene in real time”, and has an age verification process.
A spokeswoman said: “We are saddened to learn of the journalist’s experience and can only apologise for the way she and others have been impacted during this time on our platform. We’re taking the investigation by The Sunday Times extremely seriously and have instigated an immediate review of the safety features and how they may have failed. Our users and their safety always have, and always will, come first.”
Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has just been forced to resign by Sadiq Khan. I first became aware of her when my partner, Harriet Wistrich was representing the family of Jean Charles de Menezes. He was an innocent man, but police shot him dead in London in a case of mistaken identity. Dick was the officer in charge of the operation, but did not face any consequences for her role in the tragedy.
During the case, I got to know some of de Menezes’ family members, including Maria Otoni de Menezes, Jean Charles’ mother, who I interviewed after the 2008 inquest. I still recall her distress at the fact that Dick had not just kept her job following her son’s death but had been promoted through the ranks.
Cressida Dick is an out lesbian and the first woman to rise to the top of policing ranks — an impressive accomplishment. That she has made monumental and catastrophic errors should not serve as an excuse for the offensive banter I often hear, including childish skits on her name. It is possible for a woman to be both the victim of bigotry and at serious fault herself. Both of these things can be true at the same time. It is possible that in order to survive and thrive in such a male-dominated profession, Dick protected her officers rather more vehemently than she should have done. But the fact is that her primary loyalty should have been to Londoners, not officers.
During Dick’s tenure, the public has been deluged with stories of sexual and domestic violence committed by serving police officers; a failure to police such crimes among civilians; and clear evidence of appalling racism, misogyny and homophobia among officers of all ranks. As a result, faith and trust in the Metropolitan police is at rock bottom. Why Dick did not use her tenure as Met Police Commissioner to begin the process of root-and-branch reform? Instead, under her command, whistle-blowers were either silenced or punished. Her most shameful moment surely was in her description of Wayne Couzens as a ‘bad apple’.
After the Savile scandal in 2011, victims and their families accused the Met of ignoring or covering up allegations of abuse, and in doing so failing to prosecute one of Britain’s most prolific sex offenders. In response, the Met instituted a policy of automatically believing victims who report sex crimes. But in 2018, Dick announced that the Met would be abandoning this policy. She has presided over mounting evidence of multiple allegations of abuse and police failures to tackle violence against women and racism, but nothing has changed.
Who will take her place? Is there anyone that has the genuine desire and ability to tackle the rotten culture at Britain’s largest police force, and to bring about real change in the institution? I can’t say that I’m holding my breath.
When Andrea, a Metropolitan Police constable, was summoned into a room by her inspector he stood up, she assumed, to greet her politely. Instead he lunged, grabbing her breasts and forcing his hands into her underwear. She froze, then aimed a kick at his groin and fled.
Andrea hadn’t intended to report him — “you shut up and put up with it. If you speak out, you’re finished” — but she confided in a colleague who did. Compelled to pursue a complaint, a 30-month ordeal began which ended in her dismissal for discreditable conduct in 2020. The inspector kept his job.
Speaking to Andrea about her 20-year police career answers key questions about the Met. Such as, why were no red flags raised about Wayne Couzens, nicknamed “the rapist” because he loved violent porn, used prostitutes, unnerved female colleagues and indecently exposed himself, long before he murdered Sarah Everard? Or why did Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis take selfies with the bodies of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman to share with colleagues for a laugh?
Why did a policeman feel entitled to have sex with a vulnerable woman in Charing Cross police station? The subsequent investigation has brought to light WhatsApp messages between officers of sickening misogyny. To a female colleague an officer wrote: “I would happily rape you . . . chloroform you . . . if I was single.” Others discussed how beating women keeps them loyal. One remarked about his girlfriend: “Swear to got [sic] I’m going to smack her.”
Such attitudes are shocking, but not for Andrea. The inspector lied to investigators that she’d given him oral sex in her car, that she was a stalker out to destroy his career and marriage. She was threatened with a charge of perverting the course of justice. Her union rep sat in silence as her character was trashed (she had an impeccable record) while senior officers referred to her assailant chummily by his first name.
A year into the inquiry, despairing that no one believed her, Andrea attempted suicide. Regardless, she was then brought back for another brutal seven-hour interrogation: “If my sister hadn’t been with me afterwards, I’d have thrown myself under the Tube.”
Almost daily in the Met, Andrea witnessed what in any other workplace would bring a visit from HR or even instant dismissal. She was paired with an officer who liked to park near secondary schools to ogle teenage girls’ breasts; colleagues constantly watched porn on their phones; a PC, convicted of gross indecency for masturbating on a train, kept his job; men would return from domestic violence scenes saying the victim was mad and deserved a slap.
If Andrea failed to laugh at such banter, colleagues would ask: “Are you on your period?” If she left her notebook lying around she’d find a penis drawn inside. Older women were “Dorises” or “white goods” (ie domestic appliances). When a young tourist disappeared, men gathered around the computer to gawp at her photograph, one saying: “She’s locked in my sex dungeon at home.” When the station carpet was treated for a flea infestation they joked: “It’s for Andrea’s crabs.”
Only a third of Met officers are women, well below the national average, and Andrea often worked in otherwise all-male teams. Having trained in a more diligent home counties force, she was shocked by the impunity in the sprawling, disparate, unaccountable Met. Above all, she knew that to report what she saw, even via the anonymous complaint line, marked you out as a traitor, a grass. “Even if you’re moved, everyone knows everyone.”
WhatsApp groups, she says, “are the worst thing to happen in policing”. Every station has one; officers can share things too gross to say out loud, entrenching, even amplifying, racist and sexist attitudes. Plus a group can deliberately exclude someone like Andrea and plan her demise.
When the Centre for Women’s Justice (of which I am a trustee) first lodged its super-complaint on failure to address police-perpetrated domestic abuse it had 19 cases, mainly wives and girlfriends of police, with some female officers like Andrea. The women found their menfolk were investigated by officers they knew: evidence was “lost”, cases dropped, the women themselves were threatened with arrest. “Who’s going to believe you?” one was told. “There are lots of us.” After the CfWJ went public, it was flooded with calls: it now represents 163 women.
The College of Policing and the police inspectorate will decide whether to take up its recommendations in April, which include abuse being investigated by a neighbouring force. CfWJ also asks the home secretary to expand an inquiry into Couzens to encompass the broader culture of the Met.
Let’s hope it does. After the Charing Cross revelations, Sadiq Khan has put Met chief Cressida Dick “on notice”. A poll shows women’s faith in policing has tumbled since Everard’s death. Soon another Met officer, David Carrick, will go to trial, charged with 23 sexual assaults including 13 rapes, with potential for even more reputational damage. Dick clearly lacks the strength or courage to take on the old boys, the locker room culture, the vested interests in her force. Only a tough, clear-sighted outsider will do.
Women are half the electorate, half the taxpayers funding police salaries. What a dismal service we receive. If we are raped, there is now only a 1.6 per cent chance our attacker will even be charged. It should be those police who think sexual assaults are a joke, that domestic violence victims had it coming, that they have licence to grope female colleagues who are forced to hand over their warrant cards in disgrace. Not women like Andrea.