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How National Ugly Mugs Technology is Saving Lives of Sex Workers

Mon, 22 May, 2017

A student named Robin who is also a sex worker signed up to the National Ugly Mugs in 2013 where he reported that he was raped by one of his clients. This was a similar case that was reported to the National Ugly Mugs a few weeks earlier, the difference being that the other person managed to avoid sexual harassment. If Robin had signed up for this technology a few weeks earlier, they could have helped him by sending an alert warning against the man who reportedly raped him.

The National Ugly Mugs deal with similar incidence on a daily basis, with an average of 60 incidents of crime against sex workers in any given month. According to a survey in 2015, about 47% of sex workers have been victims of crime which includes robbery and rape. 36% percent of the total respondents have received threatening calls, texts and emails and almost half of them fear for their safety on a daily basis. 

It is common for sex workers around the world to be targeted by predators and most of these remain unreported because of the stigma of work associated with this profession. Most of the victims do not report the crime to the police. Among the 2,000 reports that National Ugly Mugs have received since 2012, only about 25% have filed a formal complaint. The charity aims to end the stigma against the sex workers and encourage them to fight against the predators and report crimes against them.

In Australia, the first such practice to warn sex workers against predators started in the early 1980s. During that time, the sex workers used to share handwritten descriptions of dangerous individuals, called ‘ugly mugs’. Using the same method, many other such practices sprung up around the world and in many cities in the UK where hand drawn pictures and descriptions were passed from one sex worker to another.

As sex workers and the offenders become more mobile; passing on such information became difficult. The case of Matthew Byrne showed the limitations of such localized scheme in the modern world. Matthew was convicted of abusing four women in the Liverpool area. It was after a telephone conversation between the manager of a sex worker in Conventry and another counterpart in Liverpool that showed that the same man has been targeting sex workers in both cities. This led to the search for the man, and he was finally caught. It was in 2012 that UK Network of Sex Work Projects started the National Ugly Mugs, a one of a kind in the world.

National Ugly Mugs is an online reporting system that connects sex workers with each other and many other support services through emails or texts. They take reports directly from the sex workers throughout the UK. They take consent to share the information with the police and also supports sex workers to make full reports to the police against predators. They aim to enhance the security of the sex workers and also encourage them to report crimes so that the predators can be identified and caught. They send alerts to sex workers to help them avoid repeated offenders, and they are working towards making this service to as many sex workers as possible.

Natyional Ugly Mugs

National Ugly Mugs shows how using technology and charity together can have an impact on people to whom these matter. The charity is also piloting a project where the sex workers will be able to share safety information among themselves using just their smartphones. The charity also recently won the Community Impact Award at the 2016 tech4Good Awards. They are researching the technology used among sex workers, language barriers and other challenges so that their new technology can be refined so that the sex workers can use it with ease.