Following a series of murders, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers has been staged on December 17 every year since 2003. Alex Feis-Bryce, North-East academic and founder of the National Ugly Mugs scheme, is calling for more to be done to protect sex workers and fund those looking out for them. Joanna Morris reports

ON December 17, 2003 a memorial was held for the victims of the Green River Killer, Gary Leon Ridgeway, who murdered at least 71 women – most of them sex workers – in the 1980s and 1990s," says Alex Feis-Bryce.

"Ridgeway said he targeted sex workers because he believed he could kill as many of them as he wanted without getting caught.

“Sex workers are disproportionately targeted by violent offenders, many of whom are emboldened by the belief they’ll get away with their crimes."

As director of National Ugly Mugs (NUM) – a pioneering scheme which encourages sex workers to log crimes against them – Alex, pictured below, sees the impact of such attitudes every day.

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He says: “On a daily basis I hear of sex workers being told by their attackers that they’ll get away with it because it won’t be reported to the police and if it is, the victim won’t be believed because of what they do.”

In the UK, 149 sex workers have been murdered since 1990 – six of those in the last two years.

The Home Office agreed to fund the pilot scheme of NUM after acknowledging that sex workers are disproportionately targeted but rarely feel confident reporting incidents to the police.

NUM logs reports of crimes against sex workers in the UK, sends warnings directly to them about dangerous individuals and works with police to apprehend dangers offenders.

The scheme sees an average of 50 incidents a month reported – a quarter of which are sexual assaults.

“Selling sex is not inherently harmful,” says Alex. “But sex workers are made vulnerable by ill-considered legislation, aggressive police enforcement and so-called local crack-downs which entrench stigma and marginalisation.”

Legislation was recently introduced to criminalise the purchase of sex in Northern Ireland and Alex believes the UK may not be far behind in adopting a similar approach.

“Criminalising the purchase of sex may appeal to anyone who sees sex work as inherently exploitative and chooses to disbelieve the tens of thousands of people who made a conscious choice to sell sex”, he says.

“But the reality is that such legislation only serves to endanger sex workers, further stigmatise them and force them underground into riskier practices.

“From a human rights perspective, it’s objectionable to criminalise consenting sex between adults and, on a practical level - at a time when the police force is being reduced – such legislation would be impossible to police even if it were desirable to do so.”

In times of austerity, when severe cuts face the police and mainstream health and social care services, life-saving projects like NUM are “crucial” yet desperate for funds, he says.

“This scheme has prevented crime, challenged stigma and brought serial offenders to justice.

“Offenders who target sex workers are a danger to the whole community and – prior to the existence of NUM – the majority of crimes against sex workers went unreported, which is a real concern from a public protection point of view.

Despite being lauded by sex workers, police and health and social care providers – and collecting numerous national and international awards – NUM faces closure, due to a struggle for funding.

Alex says: “Despite our success, funding from the Home Office was not renewed after the pilot.

“We’re faced with a constant battle for funding and the real prospect of closure by April.

“I hate talking about lives in monetary terms but the cost for police to investigate a single murder is the same as the annual cost to run NUM nationally for a year.

“On this basis alone – aside from the clear human impact – there’s no doubt NUM has funded itself many times over in terms of savings to the police, NHS and tax payer.

“Despite having a huge impact, we’re still facing an uphill struggle to raise enough funds to keep fighting stigma and saving lives.”

As people gather across the world to fight discrimination and remember sex workers who lost their lives to violence, Alex is casting his eye forward, to a bleak-looking future.

He says: “As well as remembering all the sex workers who have been attacked, raped or had their lives taken because of what they do, I’ll be looking ahead with genuine foreboding at the very real prospect of legislation being introduced that will further endanger lives of sex workers in the UK.”

To support NUM, visit or donate through text, e.g. to donate £10 to NUM text “UGLY00 £10” to 70070.