The discovery of five murdered female sex workers in Ipswitch, eastern England, triggered not only a massive police investigation, but also renewed debate on the nation's attitude towards women who earn their living by selling sex and the need for legal reform.
Steven Gerald James Wright, 48, has been arrested on suspicion of the five murders and remanded to custody. As he awaits his next court appearance, pressure is mounting for reform or abolition of prostitution laws. There have also been pleas for the press - which, at its most tabloid, has referred to vice girls, hookers and tarts - to take a more progressive attitude.
"I was struck by the dehumanizing way the women were constantly referred to as prostitutes," wrote one blogger. The blogger acknowledged it was a relevant fact, but said, "If a headline is an epitaph, then 'Prostitute murdered!' is pretty demeaning and judgmental."
The left-leaning Guardian is considered to have delivered some of the more measured coverage of the murders. Its columnist Catherine Bennett took aim at less high-minded competitors. "The murders of - as the Mirror (a tabloid newspaper) would put it - Hookers Nos 1-5 has exposed attitudes towards prostitutes which seem, in some cases, scarcely to have progressed since they were stalked by Gladstone." (Victorian Prime Minister William Gladstone sought to rescue and rehabilitate London female sex workers by actually walking the streets to encounter women whom he encouraged to change their ways.)
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) says the general public today is often far ahead of Britain's authorities and newspapers. "What came out of the Ipswitch murders was that public opinion was miles ahead of the government and media," said Carrie Mitchell of the ECP. "The first thing the families and community wanted to establish was that the women were not just prostitutes. That was just what they happened to be doing."
The ECP, whose motto is "no bad women, just bad laws", is campaigning for the abolition of prostitution laws, which, it says, criminalize women. Prostitution is not formally illegal in Britain, but activities surrounding it are, including soliciting and owning or running a brothel.
The ECP is opposed to the government's 'Coordinated Prostitution Strategy', published a year ago in January 2006, which Mitchell described as "extremely draconian". "It has been used as an excuse to crack down on premises all over the country," Mitchell said.
The government, however, says the strategy aims to prevent prostitution by tackling the root causes, such as poverty and drug use. Its ultimate aim would be to eliminate prostitution, which is believed to be on the increase. "It is crucial that we move away from a general perception that prostitution is the 'oldest profession' and has to be accepted," the strategy document said.
The government has estimated Britain has 80,000 female sex workers. The ECP said it was impossible to know precisely, but that the introduction of fees for students, rising levels of debt and high property prices were "anecdotally" increasing the reasons to turn to prostitution.
When prostitution cannot be prevented, the government said it aimed to improve the safety of those involved. "We are making good progress but we recognize there is still a lot of work that needs to be done," a spokeswoman for the Home Office, United Kingdom, said. "The best way to ensure the safety of those on the street is to address the reasons behind their involvement and support them to leave."
The strategy includes a number of initiatives to improve the safety of those involved whilst they seek routes out, she said further. "Tackling demand is a key element of the strategy and kerb-crawling will not be tolerated. Men who choose to pay for sex are indirectly supporting drug dealers and abusers, and cause misery for local communities."
Other steps the government is taking include introducing early this year a "Sexual Violence Action Plan", which includes measures to address sexual violence against people involved in prostitution, and the setting up of the UK Human Trafficking Centre. Set up last year, the centre is a hub of expertise to combat human trafficking, which, in many cases pushes women into prostitution, the government has said.
The most liberal regime in Europe is the Netherlands, where female sex workers pay taxes, are unionized and where brothels are legal. The British government has mooted the possibility of making small brothels legal and it has also suggested Britain should follow the example of Sweden where legislation targets those who use female sex workers.
Speaking after the Ipswitch murders, Minister for Justice Harriet Harman cited the example of Sweden "where they support young women who have drug problems and who are vulnerable for other reasons, but they actually have a criminal offence of buying sex - they make prostitution illegal, by taking on the issue of the punters rather than the young women".
But the example the ECP wants to follow is that of New Zealand, where a 2003 act totally decriminalized prostitution. "What we want is to take a more detailed look at what they have done in New Zealand," Mitchell said. "We want decriminalization as opposed to legalization," she added, with reference to the Dutch system which, she argued, created another set of inequalities. For instance, legalized brothel-keepers exercise huge power over those who work for them, Mitchell said.
In Britain, she said the problem was that prostitution was "criminalized". "It's the criminalization that puts women outside the law and causes widespread discrimination by the authorities and widespread violence."