Results of ECP survey of women working in the sex industry

Introduction and methodology

In May 2009, the English Collective of Prostitutes and Women Against Rape conducted a survey of women working in the sex industry.  We distributed a total of 125 questionnaires, mainly by women enthusiastically passing them onto friends and workmates, and received 77 replies (all women with one exception) – a remarkably high response rate of 62%.  Women who helped circulate the questionnaire were glad to be asked about their own experiences in such a direct and respectful way.  We asked a range of questions about their working situation, previous jobs, health and family, violence, obstacles to getting out of the sex industry and the likely impact of criminalising clients.

Who the respondents are

  • Almost all the respondents worked in flats in London (92%).
  • 61% were sex workers and 27% were receptionists.  The remaining 11% included dancers and two brothel owners.
  • We didn’t specifically ask women’s age but many of the sex workers offered the information and are in their 20s.  Receptionists are older, typically in their 50s.
  • 36% of sex workers are mothers compared to 90% of receptionists.
  • 95% of respondents had worked for over two years; some for as long as 30 years.
  • 70% of sex workers were immigrant from (in descending order): Romania, Albania, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Africa, Spain, Italy, France, Jamaica, Venezuela, Kosovo, India, Greece. All the receptionists were UK nationals.
  • 6.5% of respondents described themselves as women of colour, and one woman was publicly out as a lesbian.
  • 5.2% of respondents had mental health problems and one woman had physical disabilities.  Other health problems described included: heart problems, depression and post traumatic stress disorder from rape.

Women had had a varied work history with previous jobs listed including: bar-work, care assistant, chambermaid, childcare/nursery nurse, cleaner, hairdresser, housewife, nurse, shop assistant, waitressing.

Why they started working in the sex industry.

Women gave a variety of reasons: “To support myself . . . children . . . my family”; “pay the rent”; “to get a better life”; “to earn better money”; “in previous jobs I encountered racial discrimination”; “someone offered me a job”; “lack of money and bad English”; “to pay off debts”.  44.2% of women said they were now working to support families. One woman was supporting a child with a disability.  9% of women said they worked to support themselves while studying.

What they needed to leave the sex industry.

53% replied “better paying jobs”, and 20% “higher benefits”.  Others said “housing”, “needing more education or skill-training”, “childcare”, “lower rent”.  Discrimination was mentioned as an obstacle: “make it illegal to sack someone exposed as a former sex worker”; “lack of checkable work history . . . I could not get a CV or find another job because of being a prostitute.” Others spoke of “health problems” stopping them doing other jobs and “fear of being outed particularly by ex-husband”.

Despite the omission of a question on the impact of criminal records two women raised that criminal records stopped them getting other jobs: “I got convicted for brothel-keeping in 1985 after working for only a year and when all I did was answer the door of a flat.  I was held for 48 hours in a police cell and then fined £90.  I went for other jobs in Marks and other shops but that record always haunted me.”

Experience of rape and other violence, and police response

17 women had experienced rape or violence: five5 receptionists, seven working girls and five others.  All five receptionists and three of the others had reported it to the police.  Only one of these attackers was convicted.  Of the seven working girls, four reported it: in two cases the man was convicted; in the other two police and/or CPS refused to prosecute.

One woman said she was happy with the police response: the case went to court but the man was acquitted.  One woman took a private prosecution against her attacker who was convicted.

Two women described what they suffered and the police response in detail:

“I was raped by four men who broke my nose and imprisoned me in the flat.  Two of the men were arrested but the police told me it would take nine months to get to court and within a few days took back the mobile phone they had given me for protection.  The CPS then refused to prosecute, saying I would be an unreliable witness.”

“The woman I was working with and I were attacked by a client while working in a sauna. I think he brought in alcohol that was spiked.  We reported it to police who told us that if we wanted the man picked up, we would be charged.  They made us sign to say we wouldn’t press charges.”

Were women forced to work?

100% of respondents said they were working through choice and that no-one was forcing them to work.  9% said they knew of women who had been forced by “pimps” – partners who were making women work and taking their money.  4% had helped women escape by taking them to the police, offering them a place to stay.

One woman complained about lack of financial support: “the welfare and benefits system doesn’t support a woman and her children, therefore she is forced to prostitute herself in order to feed and clothe her family”.

The impact of laws criminalising clients

All were worried.  They said: “It will become more underground”; ”drive away better clients, make it harder to advertise [and] work from premises”; “would have to work alone and would not be safe”; “it would push me on the street.”

The impact of decriminalisation

Asked whether women would be more likely to report violence if prostitution was decriminalised, women said: “Yes because I wouldn’t be in fear of being criminalised”; it “would stop the police looking down on us”; “give us the same status and rights as every worker”; “definitely, because as a working girl I’m not counted and considered nothing”; “I would not have to worry about the consequences of being a prostitute, hence will report violence and this will definitely help decrease crimes”.  Some women said they “would report violence anyway.”

Street work

Although street workers are under represented in this survey, a number of women who work on the street contacted us with information about their situation.  We also called some sex worker outreach projects in and out of London.  Three women from different areas described how the numbers of women working on the street had reduced, not because women had left prostitution, but because they had been dispersed to other areas or were working on the edges of the red-light area, especially where there had been a police campaign against clients.

A Nottingham project described how numbers had gone down because many street workers have “gone to prison for breach of an ASBO or a drug order”.

Women arrested for loitering and soliciting were facing compulsory drugs testing.  If the woman tested positive she would be compelled to attend an assessment.  If the woman didn’t turn up or didn’t stay for the specified time she would be taken back to court for breaching the order – a criminal offence – and could face a year in prison or a £2,500 fine.  Along with ASBOs this had led to many more women being imprisoned, some of whom had lost custody of their children.

The project also said that sex workers were given no priority when it came to housing and other resources, and often faced systematic discrimination when trying to access some services.  Some refuges discriminate against sex workers, refusing to take them or giving spurious reasons for turning them away, such as “it would upset the balance of occupants”.

Women who were trying to get off drugs described being turned away from rehab.  They said it was crucial to get a good drug worker who is flexible to their needs.  Punitive, straightjacket ‘rehabilitation’ doesn’t work.  All said that it was almost impossible to have a trusting relationship with the worker when that person had the power to get you locked up.

In some areas the police did a big campaign of arrests several times a year.  Some projects had arrangements with the police not to charge women and instead refer them to support services.

One woman in particular was outraged at the idea of ‘rehabilitation’ especially considering there was already compulsory rehab for drug users so that measures in the Bill were specifically aimed at ‘rehabilitating’ women out of prostitution.  She described the three meeting to discuss why you are in prostitution and how you can get out, as “insulting and humiliating,” “I know why I’m working this job and what I need to get out . . . they aren’t offering me a lower rent or childcare, they aren’t offering to get rid of my criminal record so I can get another job.”

For more information:

English Collective of Prostitutes
020 7482 2496 

Women Against Rape
020 7482 2496