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National Ugly Mugs: Keeping sex workers safe

Rosie Hodsdon

If you were a victim of crime, what would you do? For many people, that answer might be going to the police, and placing their trust in our criminal justice system. They might reach out to their support networks, lean on friends and family, and hope that the harms they’ve faced will be righted. But what if the police refuse to help you?

  • Health inequalities

What if they tell you that what happened to you is your fault? What if they might arrest you if you tell them the full story? How about if your friends or family don’t know the circumstances around what happened to you, and would push you away if you did?

This is why National Ugly Mugs exists.

About NUM

Sex work has existed in various forms for millenia, with sex workers building communities with one another to share information about dangerous individuals and keep each other safe. This was first formalised in Victoria, Australia, in the 1980s as an “ugly mugs” scheme. In 2012, National Ugly Mugs (NUM) was formed out of a pilot project with the UK Network of Sex Work Projects and funded by the Home Office, creating the first ever country-wide service for sex workers to share information with one another.

NUM aims to end all forms of violence against sex workers, and eliminate the conditions which lead to survival sex. Our work is guided by three core principles: sex workers first; quality support, and learning and innovation. We have a membership of almost 9000, including individual sex workers and practitioners working alongside them.

We recognise that sex workers face additional barriers accessing the criminal justice system, which we explored in our Why Report? study, and we provide options for sex workers to access justice and healing on their own terms. Our casework team of ISVAs supports sex workers who have experienced harm and violence, and we send out alerts to warn other sex workers about dangerous individuals who may target them, helping them to make informed decisions about their work.

Alongside this, we provide checker tools for sex workers to screen potential clients. Our mental health support includes a directory of sex worker-friendly therapists and funded therapy packages. Our in-person space in Glasgow, NUMbrella Lane, provides wellbeing and community support. We are also developing resources to help sex workers leave sex work if and when they choose to do so. Our work is guided by the needs and experiences of sex workers within and outside NUM’s team.

How can you help?

So many of the barriers that sex workers face in accessing criminal justice stem from myths, stereotypes and misconceptions about their work. In 2022, NUM received 11 reports from sex workers involving incidents of sexual assault or rape. The way that the law interacts with stigma and discrimination means that sex workers are often blamed for their own victimisation. Perpetrators know that sex workers are less likely to report harms against them – this is why they target them in the first place.

We can picture a day when NUM no longer needs to exist – when sex workers are valued members of our society, who are not exceptional targets for violence, who are protected by the law, can access workers’ rights and where everyone is given the resources they need to survive.

Join us in this. If you work with sex workers, consider becoming a member of NUM. Listen to sex workers and allow them the space to be the authorities on their lives without fear or stigma; actively include them in your work as valued experts. Keeping sex workers safe helps to keep our whole communities safe.


Rosie Hodsdon is the Marketing, Education and Advocacy Lead at National Ugly Mugs. She is also an assistant tutor at the University of Sunderland. Her role involves spreading the word about NUM’s work, and ensuring that sex workers’ voices are heard within NUM and beyond.