Thursday March 21st 2019
We have been shouting from the rooftops for years that women are being pushed into prostitution by rising poverty
The recently announced inquiry by the Work and Pensions Committee into the link between Universal Credit and ‘survival sex’ is welcome. We have been shouting from the rooftops for years that more women, particularly mothers, are being pushed into prostitution by rising poverty.
Of the estimated 72,800 sex workers in the UK, 88 per cent are women and most are mothers working to support families. Austerity cuts have targeted women, particularly single mums.
In some cities around the UK, reported rises in prostitution have been directly attributed to benefit sanctions. In 2014, Doncaster reported a 60 per cent increase in prostitution. The next year, charity workers described some women being on the streets “to get £5 for gas or electricity, because they’d been sanctioned”.
Sheffield reported a 166 per cent increase on the previous year in the number of reports of sex workers in the city centre in 2014, while charity workers in Hull in 2013 warned these women are “starving and they are out there to feed themselves”.
A devastating impact on women
Universal Credit, with a built-in delay before you the first payment and an even harsher sanction regime, has had a particularly devastating impact on women’s lives.
The English Collective of Prostitutes has heard from single mothers who have struggled financially after having initial claims rejected or experiencing delays to their payments. One woman told us: “My daughter has learning disabilities and needs a lot of extra care and attention. I was crying to my friend and she told me about one of the mums at the school who looked like she had a bit more money than the rest of us. I got friendly with her and she got me a couple of shifts in a local massage parlour. I was very reluctant but so stressed I couldn’t think straight. The money has been a life-saver. I’m not splashing it about, but I can pay the rent and keep the heating on.”
She plans to keep working to support her family, but adds: [I’m] keeping my fingers crossed that we don’t get a visit from the police.” Working with another woman in a flat is illegal and women who do so risk being raided and prosecuted for brothel-keeping.
Another single mother told us she is considering advertising online and doing outcalls to men’s homes and hotel rooms. “I’m already struggling to make it to the end of the week with the money I have.”
Women in our network gave evidence to the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty during his recent visit. They told him about being destitute, homeless and being forced into exchanging sex for somewhere to live. His scathing report condemned the Government’s “‘punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous“ austerity policies which could have been designed by a “group of misogynists” in the way austerity affected women.
Pushed onto the streets
Esther McVey, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, callously responded to reports of women being driven into sex work by Universal Credit by suggesting there were “other jobs on offer” to these women. A Department of Work and Pensions spokesman also commented that “no-one has to face hardship” and the Government is “committed to tackling the harm and exploitation that can be associated with prostitution.“
Yet they are the ones pushing women on to the streets. Research by the ECP comparing sex work with other jobs traditionally done by women found endemic low pay, exploitative working conditions and workplace injury, discrimination and abuse across the board. The biggest difference was that sex workers earned more per hour than women working in the other jobs, and that criminalisation undermined their ability to work safely and deterred them from reporting violence or exploitation.
Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said austerity was a “political choice, not an economic necessity.” We agree. The harm caused by the introduction of Universal Credit isn’t a mistake. Whatever cost impact assessment was done could have predicted that if you take money away from mothers who are already living below the poverty line, many will turn to prostitution to feed their children. So, while we welcome this inquiry, we hope that swift action results, that Universal Credit and sanctions are abolished, and austerity cuts are reversed.
A spokesperson for the DWP said:
“On Universal Credit, no one has to wait five weeks to be paid. Your first payment – an advance – is available on day one meaning people are paid 13 times in a 12 month cycle. “Less than 3 per cent of those subject to requirements for their benefits are under sanction, and only when they have not met them without good reason.”
Niki Adams is a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes. The ECP’s #MakeAllWomenSafe campaign is petitioning the Government to change the law so that women on the street and in premises can work together