Why Alex is working to end stigma in the sex trade

Alex Feis-Bryce
Alex Feis-Bryce

They say it is one of the oldest professions, but working in the sex industry can also be very dangerous.

Sex workers around the country can be targeted by dangerous offenders, with some even being raped or murdered.

Euxton-born Alex Feis-Bryce is doing his bit to change things and runs the innovative National Ugly Mugs Scheme (NUM), which is thought to be the first of its kind in the world.

Nearly 2,000 sex workers are signed up to the scheme to receive warnings about dangerous individuals who could pose a threat to them.

And sex workers who do become victims of crime can report incidents to NUM, building up intelligence for the police.

Alex, 31, said: “Sex work is highly stigmatised and nobody, irrespective of what they do, deserves to be raped or murdered.

“Sex workers don’t always get the help and protection they are entitled to as a human right.

“For me, the way some people talk about sex workers now, it’s how people used to talk about gay people in the 1950s.

“Sex workers are one of the most stigmatised groups of people that exist now.

“There are all sorts of groups of sex workers. Most of the sex workers on the streets don’t do that through choice, they have drug and alcohol addictions, but there are some people who work as escorts or provide services for lonely people or disabled people.

“A lot of the objections come from a moralistic point of view and don’t make a lot of sense.”

Alex, a former Parklands High School pupil, previously spent seven years working in Parliament, initially as an intern for Chorley’s MP, Lindsay Hoyle.

He is now director of services for NUM, which is based in Manchester but covers the whole country.

The organisation was set up in 2012 with Home Office funding after it was discovered that sex workers were being targeted.

Alex said: “Less than a quarter reported these incidents to the police.

“It was established by the Home Office that it was an issue for public protection that these crimes weren’t being reported to the police and the police weren’t aware of many of these perpetrators.”

It is estimated that NUM engages with around 20,000 sex workers in the UK.

More than 1,000 incidents have been reported to NUM, but while more than 95 per cent of victims are happy to share it anonymously with police, only 25 per cent wanted to make a formal police statement – meaning NUM is providing intelligence that the police would otherwise know nothing about.

Since it was launched in July 2012, the scheme has dealt with 50 incidents in Lancashire, including 16 violent incidents and eight rapes.

There are nearly 2,000 sex workers signed up to receive warnings from NUM, which could help them to avoid a dangerous situation.

Alex said: “Because sex workers are often in a community of their own, an offender might target a number of sex workers in one area.

“We put out warnings that don’t identify the individual, but provide enough information to warn other people that individual might target them.”

During a nine-month pilot of NUM, 16 per cent of sex workers using the scheme said they had avoided possible offenders because of the warnings.

“That’s one of the statistics that makes me feel most proud,” Alex said. “It shows we are potentially preventing crime and making a group of people who feel stigmatised avoid these offenders.”

And Alex believes that it is not only sex workers at risk.

“They are a danger to everyone. There are lots of examples of well-known people such as Jack The Ripper who didn’t only target sex workers, but started with sex workers,” he said.

NUM has already won the international Paolo Pertica Award, which will be presented in Amsterdam in November, and is on the shortlist for the Small Charity, Big Achiever award in the National Third Sector Awards.

And Alex is now being recognised individually, after being shortlisted as a finalist in the Inspiring Individual category in the National Personal Safety Awards 2014.

He was nominated by a number of sex workers, senior police officers and crime analysts who have benefited significantly from the pioneering work of NUM.

Deciding which one of the four finalists wins the award will be comedian Jo Brand.

Alex, who now lives in Manchester city centre with his husband, said: “It is quite an honour to be nominated for this. It is an honour to be nominated by senior police officers and other people, but for sex workers and the people we help to nominate me, is the biggest honour of all.

“I’m not going in with any great expectations I will win, but even just to be nominated is great.”

NUM is receiving more and more reports from sex workers, but Alex believes this is because more people are aware of the scheme, rather than an increase in incidents.

And it means he must continue to work hard to secure funding for NUM and help sex workers.

The scheme’s annual running costs are around the same as the cost for the police to investigate a single rape.

The Home Office funding ended after the pilot and NUM is now funded by police forces around the country, as well as donations from charities and some of the sex workers themselves. NUM is still a relatively new organisation and Alex has plans for how it could grow and more people could be helped.

He wants to eventually employ crime analysts to look at the information they gather, as it is currently sent to a national hub of analysts.

And he believes the NUM model could be used to make a difference for sex workers around the world.

Alex said: “In an ideal world, I would be happy to go over to Australia or America and teach people what we do.”