By Gabriella Swerling
The sex industry like most others is feeling the effects of the credit crunch. But in a grim role-reversal, it’s not the booming industry that’s suffering but its workers. As the cost of living rises and wages remain ruefully stagnant, increasing numbers of women have turned to prostitution in order to support themselves.
I spoke to a member of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) which campaigns for the protection and decriminalisation of prostitutes, without endorsing or morally sanctioning prostitution itself. They told me that in light of Mr. Cameron’s cuts, “every time there’s a benefit cut, it forces women onto the game.”
The sucker-punch effects of the economic climate and the scathing cuts to welfare and benefits are even driving many women who had left the trade and turned their lives around to return in order to feed their families. As one travelling sex-worker who works with the ECP explains, “Prostitution is certainly not the worst job I have ever had. I have worked on the fish market and as a cleaner where I was working for people who didn’t care if we were cold or tired or how we were spoken to. I was fed up of being a cleaner, bar maid and shop assistant, often all on the same day.”
There is a gross misconception about prostitution in the UK; about what type of person a prostitute is, and who could never be one. Many have been thrown out of their homes, raped, and are not yet old enough to claim benefits. Many others are women who are forced to supplement their incomes. As the think-tank The Resolution Foundation reported in October 2011, more than one in five employees earn less than a “living wage”.
Another member of the ECP’s network, a part-time street worker, blames benefit cuts and job losses for driving women onto the game, along with negative stereotyping for the lack of awareness surrounding prostitution today: “Everybody has their own view of what a prostitute is. In reality it is your sister, your neighbour, your mother, that has struggled to feed, clothe, heat a home and provide a safe environment for the people she loves. This is becoming more apparent with all the benefit cuts and job losses. The reason it has been so well hidden is because of the criminality of it. That is it.”
Most sex workers are mothers who think “just this once”, “just this week” to cover a heating bill or make something a bit special to eat. Then we get stuck in something we can never get out of. I never thought the first time I went out that I would still be here at my age. Now I have a record so can’t get another job. It was because I care that I did go on the street.”
This sentiment of being trapped in the game is shared amongst women across all demographics. In December 2011, and in light of Mr. Cameron’s initiative to put a tax on knowledge and increase university tuition fees to £9,000 per year, the NUS released a shocking statement that many students were also turning to prostitution to pay for university.
Now that the competition to get a job pulling pints or stacking shelves is fiercer than ever, prostitution has become a viable alternative for students struggling to cover the cost of living and tuition. As soon as Education Maintenance Allowance vanished in a puff of black smoke and university grants metamorphosed into loans, the ECP reported an increase in the number of students who came to them considering sex as a means of financing their studies. Some even stopped studying to work in the sex trade.
But still, even with all Mr. Cameron’s cuts combined with the overarching effects of the recession, there is a much more sinister truth about prostitution in Britain: women are penalised instead of protected by the law.
In an ideal world, women would not be forced into prostitution at all, but British laws on prostitution prevent women from working together safely. The Sexual Offences Act 1956, criminalised keeping a brothel, which forces women onto the streets to be subject to the offence of the Street Offences Act 1959 where loitering or soliciting for the purposes of prostitution are illegal. Prostitution’s place in the British criminal law keeps women with criminal records trapped in this vicious cycle and approximately 200 street workers are arrested each year.
One immigrant sex worker who was trafficked into this country and criminalised for prostitution was able to find a lawyer through the ECP. Now a member of the ECP’s network, she recalls how whilst working as an independent sex worker, the police raided the flat where she stayed: “They say sex workers do bad things, and they threatened to deport me. They even threatened the maid, the lady who worked with me for protection. They said ‘if we find you here again we will arrest you and the girls and put you in jail’. This happens many times, sex workers are put in jail, even if they have been beaten up and raped by the customers.”
This has forced women to use alternative advertisement, such as in phone booths, because according to the ECP, “it’s 10 times more dangerous to work on the streets, and it’s not expensive to advertise.”
But from every corner of the ring, prostitutes are attacked instead of protected. Since the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 branded carding a criminal offence, the police have hunted down these women. They sometimes pose as prospective punters, track their addresses and ensure they are evicted – either on grounds of illegal immigration, or by informing their landlords that their premises were being used to sell sex.
In 1997 prostitutes fought a similar case against BT when they barred the phone lines of women who advertised in phone booths. The ECP cites such cases as just a few of too many examples where “the police refuse to take attacks on sex workers seriously.” They are devalued, second-class citizens and unequal in the eyes of the law and society.
Prostitution is symptomatic of these hard times in which we live. Criminalising these women shows the short-sightedness of the cultural stereotyping, economic reforms and current laws which punishes prostitutes instead of offering them protection from the streets. Lest we forget, such vulnerable women were the victims of the Ipswich serial killer, the Suffolk Strangler, or Steve Wright, who murdered five women who worked as prostitutes in 2006.
Prostitutes are not Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, who get a happy ending with Richard Gere, nor are they the stigmatised, stereotypical street crawler looking to fuel her drug addiction. Sex workers are women like every other woman. These are women looking to put food on the table for their families and to fund their education. These are women looking to just get by. Mr. Cameron’s cuts, combined with the British criminal laws and the poverty that the recession has brought, ensures that these women are forced to continue prostituting themselves in order to survive.