Sex workers are facing increasing levels of violence (Picture: Getty)
‘Draconian laws’ and increasing poverty have exposed sex workers to soaring rates of rape and assault, according to a leading pressure group.
The English Collective of Prostitutes says two thirds had experienced violence within the last month alone.
It has also highlighted that poverty sparked by benefit cuts have led to a surge in recent years of mothers forced into ‘survival sex’.
ECP spokeswoman Niki Adams told Metro.co.uk: ‘There is a crisis of violence against sex workers at the moment.
‘Violent men will take advantage of a woman’s criminal status, making it harder to report an attack.
‘One woman was threatened by a gang in east London while working on the street. The men said if she wanted to work that area then she needed to give them money.
‘She went to the police station and said she was being threatened and even gave the gang’s car registration number.
‘The police just said to her, “Are you telling us that you are a prostitute?” How can it be that the police were so blind to the men?’
The ECP says it is purely a workers’ rights issue and no other industry would order someone to do their job alone, particularly if there are inherent dangers.
And the groups says the issue has become a political football at a time when the law urgently needs to be changed before more women are put in danger.
It is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex in the UK. But soliciting and working in brothels alongside other women are illegal, with hefty fines and jail terms.
The Home Affairs Select Committee has recommended decriminalising prostitution, with an interim report saying the ban on brothel keeping should be lifted.
This would allow sex workers to share premises — instead of facing up to seven years in prison if found working together.
MPs have been slow to catch up with public opinion on the issue, with 49% of British people are in favour of decriminalising brothels. And 44% feel sex workers should not face prosecution for street solicitation.
Only around a quarter of people are firmly opposed to changing the current laws, according to a Survation poll in August.
In 2016, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn backed decriminalising sex work, saying: ‘I want to be in a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people.
‘Let’s do things a bit differently and in a bit more of a civilised way.’
But there are differing opinions within the Labour party and the issue appears to have been quietly dropped.
Prostitution in the UK
The ECP says there are around 72,000 sex workers in Britain – half in London.
Two thirds work outside while the rest are indoors, often inside their homes.
There were 174 convictions for brothel keeping between 2015 and 2018.
There were 724 convictions for solicitation offences between 2015 and 2018.
The government’s work and pensions committee was told recently that Universal Credit – which replaced six benefits with one monthly payment – was a real factor in increasing numbers of women turning to survival sex.
MPs were told that the reduced level of benefits and long waits for payment meant they could not cover their basic needs.
Ms Adams said Sheffield had seen a 166% rise in the number of prostitutes on the streets since the changes and there were similar figures elsewhere in Yorkshire, for Doncaster and Hull.
She revealed: ‘We see women who haven’t eaten for days. The benefit changes have been horrifying.
‘There are women who had given up prostitution but have had to go back into it.
‘Women in their 40s who are left unable to pay the rent. If you leave a woman destitute, what do you think is going to happen? ‘
Even if they wanted to do other jobs, there is a lack of flexibility and the extortionate cost of childcare.
‘People concerned about the levels of prostitution attribute that to a man’s desire to have sex. Really, what it is about is a woman’s need for money.
‘Prostitution isn’t going anywhere, especially considering the levels of poverty.’
There are many different approaches to selling sex across the world. New Zealand decriminalised it in 2003 and the ECP wants the UK to follow suit.
However, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission released a report in July calling for the buying of sex to be made a criminal offence.
Known as the ‘Nordic Model’ after its introduction in Sweden, it aims to punish clients rather than prostitutes.
Ireland adopted the policy in 2017 and it is supported by female Labour MPs including Jess Phillips and Harriet Harman, putting them at odds with their male leadership and the ECP.
Ms Adams said: ‘Criminalising clients has been a disaster for sex workers. They are forced to work in bleak environments and to stay out of view of the police.
‘We have to deter this argument that criminalising men is being done in the name of gender equality.
‘Some women would never do the job but if you need money, you look at your choices and make a decision.
‘Sometimes there are a very set number of options and some people even like the job.
‘People need to take the lead on this issue from the sex workers themselves.’
The ECP highlighted the problem that once a woman had a criminal record, it was hard to break the cycle of relying on sex work.
‘Beth’, now 37, took up prostitution to pay off the ‘mountains of debt’ she accumulated studying drama at university.
She also ran educational Shakespeare workshops but is not allowed back in schools after a conviction for brothel keeping in 2012.
She told Metro.co.uk: ‘I was very naive. I didn’t realise I was breaking the law by working with others and selling sex.
‘I was working to pay off my debts and I was paying my taxes.
‘Then I received a 12-month conditional discharge and suddenly I have a criminal record for the first time in my life.
‘I can no longer do theatre education because I cannot pass the DBS [Disclosure and Barring Service] checks.
‘This completely stopped me in my tracks and turned me into a victim, which I never was before.’
Beth backs the ECP move to make the industry more legitimate, adding: ‘All anyone tries to do is give themselves a better life but criminalising women is stopping that.
‘I work on my own now selling sex and I feel very vulnerable.’
Read more: https://metro.co.uk/2019/12/05/women-forced-into-survival-sex-because-of-poverty-are-facing-crisis-of-violence-11271671/?ito=cbshare