The Guardian, 07/04/2010.
Recent legislation is further criminalising prostitutes but doing nothing about the reasons why they choose this work
Sex worker in Soho, London. New legislation is further criminalising sex work. Photograph: Dan Chung
The Policing and Crime Act came into force yesterday. Its anti-prostitution measures were put forward by government feminists who advocate the “Swedish model”.
In 1998, Sweden passed legislation making it illegal for men to purchase sexual services. This was part of a package also covering stalking, rape and domestic violence, so few have questioned it.
Soon, the criminalisation of prostitution – not the neglect and exploitation of mothers, nor support for breastfeeding, nor the rape conviction rate, nor pay equity – became the measure of a government’s feminist credentials. On 26 March, Iceland’s feminist head of state banned stripping and lap-dancing. UK ministers, who have introduced repressive law-and-order measures – from Asbos to detention without trial – and put double the number of women in prison, have lapped up this criminalisation.
While attention has focused on criminalising clients (though less harsh than the total ban government feminists had advocated), the measures that target women remain hidden. Police powers to arrest women deemed to be loitering or soliciting have been reinforced, and women are coerced into “rehabilitation” under threat of imprisonment. It is also easier to close brothels (where two or more women can work together more safely than on the street), and to seize women’s assets and savings.
Sex workers’ warnings – that driving prostitution further underground endangers safety, as women will not report violence if they risk arrest – have been dismissed. In anticipation of the new law, raids have escalated. One woman faces brothel-keeping charges, which carry a seven-year prison sentence, for working at home with a friend. Another who reported a serious attack by two men threatening to torch her premises is being investigated; the men are not being pursued.
While ministers justified the act with discredited claims that most women in the sex industry are trafficked, the financial reasons driving many women, especially mothers and young people, into prostitution – debt, inadequate benefits, low wages, homelessness and high rents – have also been ignored.
In fact, the Welfare Reform Act, which pushes single mothers “out to work”, was passed at the same time as the policing act and is also coming into force this month. Entitlement is to be replaced with exploitation. If jobs aren’t available, mothers and others may have to work for their benefits – that is, for £1.60 an hour. Children who are already living in poverty may now be deprived of their mother’s care: in order to keep her benefits or find a job, she is no longer home with them.
Those who rage against prostitution have not a word for mothers struggling to feed their families. Yet mothers, on the lowest of women’s wages or on benefits, now face abolition of income support, the only benefit which has recognised their caring responsibilities.
This two-pronged attack on women has been led by women MPs in a parliament with a record number of women (128). In this, too, it follows the Swedish government – comprising 45% women – which is also waging a campaign against benefits. Reforms introduced in 2008 have had a terrible impact on single mothers and on people who are seriously ill or have a disability. A quarter of single mothers now live in poverty, compared to 10% seven years ago. People can be asked to show receipts of what they are spending their money on and are denied food stamps if their fridge is not totally empty. Opposition has been fierce: 100,000 people signed a petition against the reforms, and candlelit vigils have been held for people who committed suicide after their benefits were cut. Doctors have protested that people with terminal cancer should not be required to do paid work. Nurses in Britain have complained about the same pressure being put on patients here.
Women in Sweden are entitled to 18 months’ paid maternity leave. (It is half that in Britain, and for less than half the money.) But they must report for work immediately afterwards, or their benefits are cut. Sweden’s ministers for EU affairs, Birgitta Ohlsson, and for finance, Anders Borg, are demanding “more women in paid employment”. “Millions of women in the EU cannot work because they are responsible for their family. From an economic point of view, this does not make sense.” (Guardian letters, 25 March)
But does it make sense for children? Are they happier? Are mothers? Since only 12% of women with children in Britain want to be in full-time employment, the answer is likely to be yes.
Children’s right to the love and care of their parents is being sacrificed to the market. A job, any job, is more respectable than caring for one’s children. Except, of course, the job of sex work.
Yet benefit cuts increase the number of women in prostitution. Faced with no benefit or job, or only the lowest-waged jobs, many mothers will sell sexual services. (We estimate that 70% of prostitutes are mothers.) It pays the bills from more generous wages and affords more time with the kids. But those arrested end up with a criminal record, effectively excluded from other jobs – a life sentence.
Are we mothers less degraded working 40 hours a week for under £5 an hour than if we make three times as much working part-time in a brothel?
One lap dancer’s reaction is unanswerable:
Nine out of 10 women turn to prostitution or lap dancing to get money to survive. I work with students, mothers and all kinds of other women. Recently my mum couldn’t afford a pair of school shoes for my brother. When I worked a day job I couldn’t help her, but now I can. If the government is offended by the work we do, then give us the financial means to get out of the industry.
Women are not ashamed of what we have to do to survive. But we are furious that those who claim to know what’s best for us are ready to see us starve as long as we keep our clothes on, or put us in prison when we take them off.
Such feminism ultimately defends the market from women, rather than women from the market. Who else will benefit from the increased competition for scarce jobs, and the longer hours and starvation wages we are urged to submit to?