This interview is with Phil Mitchell from the Leeds-based BLAST Project. The BLAST Project provides a range of support services to boys and young men across Leeds and Bradford who are or have been sexually exploited, or are at risk of being sexually exploited, including those who are involved in selling/exchanging sex. This interview is part of a series with agencies in West Yorkshire who support sex workers and liaise to some degree with West Yorkshire Police. The first interview was with the Joanna Project, the second with the STAR Project. All previous articles on this topic can be found here.
Q: How much work does the BLAST Project do with sex workers?
We’re currently working with two young men in the Bradford area, but we’re finding male sex workers difficult to identify and engage with at the moment. We have outreach workers who go out late at night and they work with a number of young men who appear to be begging or homeless. We know a number of them have offered sexual stuff in exchange for cash or drugs, but a lot of them won’t disclose it to us, so we’ve got to get to know them better and build more trust. We have worked with more sex workers in the past, although they tend to only talk to us once or twice and then don’t want to see us again. Quite often they are looking after themselves and their sexual health and don’t need support; they have friends and they say they don’t want to speak to anyone else. So we just let them know we’re here if they ever need us for anything. There’s not really any 1:1 work with sex workers at present, the bulk of that type of support is with boys under 18 who are being abused or are at risk of being abused.
Q: Do you have much interaction with West Yorkshire Police?
If someone from the ‘Vice Squad’ knows of a young man out selling sex they always refer them to us. But this rarely happens because either the boys aren’t out on the streets or some of the police don’t identify them as selling sex – they see them more as causing trouble, wanting to mug someone, or begging, and they move them along – some officers don’t understand that they could be selling sex. The police tend to make assumptions based on gender which isn’t helpful.
While we do work closely with WYP in some instances, we are very careful about how we associate with them. A lot of the boys and men we work with don’t like the police, so if we say we work closely with the police they won’t engage with us. If we become aware of something which is worrying and potentially a crime we’ll send the information to the police. But if the young person doesn’t want to speak to the police then that’s up to them.
Q: What are the interactions like between West Yorkshire Police, the BLAST Project and the people the Project is trying to support?
There are negative and positive aspects. There are some officers and individuals who are amazing, but there are others that tend to say one thing but do another. They deal with allegations and say to the victims they’ll keep in touch and let them know what’s happening, but 9 times out of 10 that never actually happens. A person can make a complaint and give a statement and it can be a year later before they find out what’s happened. In that year no-one has kept in touch, no-one has said what’s happening – has it gone to the CPS etc. – we have to phone and chase.
The Police have a tendency to criminalise boys and young men. All of the safeguarding guidance says you cannot label someone under 18 as a prostitute, but there have been instances where this has not been followed. Only this week we found out there was a 14 year old boy who’d been offered drugs for sex. We approached WYP about this and they said, “This is male prostitution…” – we had to challenge them – he’s a 14 year old boy, you cannot classify him in that way. The focus tends to be on prosecution, but there has to be more to it than that.
We’ve had reports from children and young people like “I’ve been online, I’ve chatted to what I thought was a girl and she’s got me to perform a sex act on a webcam but it turned out to be a middle aged man who’d recorded it. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the police but they said ‘there’s nothing we can do’…” So I’ve phoned the police and said “You’ve got a child reporting a child sexual offence to you, you can’t say ‘there’s nothing you can do’?” – then they try to bat it back to the voluntary sector saying, “Well, you do this and then if they want to speak to us phone us back.”, and we’re like, “They did want to speak to you – they spoke to you and you told them to go away.”
There was one young lad who came out as gay and went online looking for a boyfriend. All these older men said to him “Let’s have sex, it’ll show me that you love me” – he was groomed by lots of different men. Some of them had previously been in prison for sexual offences. He tried reporting this but the police told him he was wasting their time, that he was costing too much money – they told him they’d lock him up in a secure unit – again we had to challenge the police. Fortunately we managed to stop that happening on that occasion.
Some WYP officers don’t understand that boys and young men don’t go to the red light areas like the women do. The red light areas are used by male, heterosexual kerb-crawlers. The boys will hang around all the gay bars and gay venues and approach the gay guys. “I can let him watch me masturbate and get £20”, or “I’ll let him think I’m gonna suck him off but then I’ll mug him and run off.” But then sometimes they end up being raped. But because they’re often under 18 we wouldn’t call them sex workers – they’re sexually exploited young people. Unfortunately the police don’t always get that.
There are some officers on Vice that have been very good. They’ve spoken to victims and built a good relationship with them. But it depends on individual officers and their background. Maybe you could blame the cuts for some of this. Everyone’s got to do more for less. But that excuse can only go so far. It hasn’t helped that West Yorkshire Police have historically been reluctant to say they sometimes get things wrong or could do things better, but I’m hopeful that things may now be changing in this respect.
Q: Have you heard of West Yorkshire Police’s “Operation Topaz”?
I’ve heard of it, but we’re not involved in it. WYP didn’t consult with us about it. They have consulted with us on some things but not on a great deal.
Q: Do you work to change communities and societies views towards sex work?
We do, but the focus is on preventing sexual exploitation of under 18 males rather than on sex work. I spoke at a conference earlier today with the message that it doesn’t just happen to young girls, it happens to young boys too. We do national campaigns like the ‘Think Again’ campaign, and we do challenge – we challenge that you can’t use the term ‘prostitute’ for under 18’s for example.
Q: Have West Yorkshire Police offered to join forces with you in this work?
We are in discussion with WYP about doing an online web chat. WYP have previously worked with Isis (linked to Genesis but dealing with girls who are sexually exploited) and separately PACE (Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation who support parents who have children who have been abused) to do web chats, so we’re hoping to do one aimed at parents about boys who are sexually exploited and give people advice about grooming and sexual exploitation.
We’re very careful how we link up with the police as sometimes they say the right thing but they don’t do the right thing. I’ve got more negative experiences than positive experiences, and I think so have the boys and young men we see, therefore we have to be very careful about how we associate with WYP.
A few years ago we did some outreach with some PCSOs in one of Leeds’ main red light districts late at night. We approached the working women and said we’re looking for boys to give information and support to. Many of the women knew of boys but said they won’t be here; they’ll be around all the gay bars. Then the PCSOs, who were lovely, said, “We’re out and about, take care of yourselves, but look, if we see you here again we’re going to have to arrest you or move you on”. And that made us think – even though we got on, our approaches are very different, so we can’t do outreach again together.
Q: Are you aware of the ‘Merseyside Model’ which is recommended in the 2011 Association of Chief Police Officers’ guidance and centres on treating crimes against sex workers as hate crimes?
I think that anything that helps brings a prosecution is good, but anything that makes these people feel supported, and not judged, is also good. I’m all for anything that does that.
I’m not that familiar with the ACPO guidance, but it is not a big surprise that other forces have not adopted the approach of Merseyside Police. The police often let their morals get in the way. What they need to do is put their morals and views aside and just focus on the fact that you’ve got a victim. Some officers don’t seem to realise that you can sell sex legally in some circumstances – they think it’s all wrong, illegal. What really matters is that there is a victim.
I think there needs to be more general awareness about selling sex and the law – not just within the police, but in wider society. If I wanted to invite people to my house to sell sex then I’m not breaking the law. There are more students now who want to do that because they’ve got more debt – they think it’s quick and easy – obviously there are risks but younger people tend not to give the risks much weight. I never tell any of the young men that they shouldn’t do it – it is their choice. I advise them to be aware of the law – if it’s under 18 it’s a crime, if it’s in a public place it’s a crime, if it involves coercion it’s a crime, but otherwise you can sell sex quite legally, – and to be aware of the risks and make an informed decision, and get support if you need it. But the police are often very judgmental. I don’t think that criminalising prostitution solves anything.
West Yorkshire Police’s Operation Topaz and the Association of Chief Police Officers 2011 Guidance for Policing Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation are discussed in this article.
The BLAST Project recently launched their 2 minute My New Friend video to highlight the grooming and sexual exploitation of boys and young men.