Sex work, hate crime and policing

Published 24/02/2020
Author(s) Rosie Campbell and Teela Sanders

Research led by Campbell over the past two decades (2014; 2016; 2018; Campbell et al., 2020.; Campbell & Sanders 2021) has established that the hate crime approach adopted in Merseyside in 2006 for crimes against sex workers is greatly supported by both sex workers and the police. The adoption of the hate crime approach has contributed to an improved relationship between sex workers and the police, and a shift to protection-focused policing with the inclusion of sex workers in the force’s hate crime policy. This approach has now been adopted by North Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire police forces, who are slowly seeing improved crime reporting and a shift in policing culture and attitudes.

Early in the implementation of hate crime policies, Hall (2005:207) noted the difference between having a proscriptive hate crime policy, and its implementation and success in the ‘real world’, noting that ‘the transformation of police policy into effective practice is a complex and vulnerable process’. However, whilst the hate crime policy has not yet led to the full integration of sex workers into hate crime procedures in the Merseyside force, it has had some important and progressive effects. For example, the increased confidence and trust in the police that has been built up amongst sex workers, increased reporting of crime, and improvement in the quality of investigations of crimes. Also, the support demonstrated amongst police officers, and sex workers who took part in this research, gives the sex work and hate crime policy a level of legitimacy not generally found in studies that have examined police and sex worker attitudes to policing sex work in the UK (Klambauer, 2018). We are well aware that crimes against sex workers is competing for resources amongst many other safeguarding issues which the police must deal with on a daily basis. In all policing operations there is a constant readjustment for the most important priority of the day. If the hate crime approach was abandoned these positives may be lost as the hate crime framework would be disbanded in relation to crimes against sex workers.

Whilst sex and sexuality identities are outside the existing law on hate crime and are not monitored protected characteristics, the ‘Hate Crime Operational Guidance’ (College of Policing, 2014) reinforced the message that forces locally have the discretion to include victim groups outside the monitored strands if it will achieve community safety goals. Merseyside’s inclusion of sex workers was used as an example of this. More recently, the National Police Chief Council (2019) sex work guidance for all forces highlighted Merseyside’s inclusion of sex workers in hate crime policy as best practice. The Law Commission have asked in their consultation paper (due to conclude in 2021) whether sex workers should be recognised as a hate crime category: the experiences of this group certainly meet the criteria relating to vulnerability and discrimination as a targeted group. The outcomes of the Law Commission may not see a new category for sex workers, but we would urge police forces to continue to look to Merseyside for the best practice, learning from the challenges and barriers so other forces can avoid these and move to more positive, proactive hate crime led policing for sex workers.

Whether there is law reform which names sex workers or not, there needs to be improvements and there needs to be broader consultation with, and involvement of, the sex work community in the development of this approach. Such efforts could more proactively include people working in off-street markets, internet-based sex workers, and male and transgender sex workers. A fully-fledged hate crime approach, in which crimes against sex workers are monitored, investigated and prosecuted in the same way as other established other hate crimes – with the same multi-agency partnership capacity and oversight – could have further benefits for sex workers and enhance response to crimes against them. It also suggests an understanding of the roots of violence against sex workers. That sex worker victimisation is not a random act or a result of ‘risky behaviour’, but rather a result of discrimination, hostility, prejudice and the targeting of ‘perceived vulnerability’. This is all fuelled by archaic, outdated laws governing sex work which criminalise organising, relationships and this form of work. Conversations must be had about how a decriminalised model of sex work sits alongside the hate crime approach, to maximise access to justice for sex workers, and to ensure police adopt a clear public protection focus.



Cheryl Rhodes, Detective Superintendent and Tracy O’Hara Police Sex Work Liaison Officer Merseyside Police



Campbell, R. and Sanders, T. (2021) Sex Work and Hate Crime. Palgrave: London.

Campbell, R., Smith, L., Leacy, B., Ryan, M., and Stoica, B. (2020) ‘Not collateral damage: Trends in violence and hate crimes experienced by sex workers in the Republic of Ireland’. Irish Journal of Sociology, 28(3): 280-313.

Campbell, R. (2018) ‘Beyond hate: Policing sex work, protection and hate crime’, in Sanders and Laing (eds.), Policing the Sex Industry: Protection, Paternalism and Politics. Oxon, England: Routledge.

Campbell, R. (2016) Not Getting Away With It: addressing violence against sex workers as hate crime in Merseyside, PhD Thesis, Durham University, available at:

Campbell, R. (2014) ‘Not getting away with it: linking sex work and hate crime in Merseyside’, in Chakraborti and Garland (eds.), Responding to Hate Crime: The Case to Connecting Policy & Research. Bristol: Policy Press.

College of Policing (2014) Hate Crime Operational Policing

Hall, N. (2005) Hate Crime. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

Klambauer, E. (2018) ‘Policing roulette: Sex workers’ perception of encounters with police officers in the indoor and outdoor sector in England’. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 18(3): 255-272.

National Police Chiefs Council (2019) National Policing Sex Work and Prostitution Guidance