The Prisma: Prostitution in the UK (I): Poverty, the driving force
César Amaya Sandino
It has become the only option for many women, but discrimination and prosecution are the only ‘solutions’ thrown at this problem of poverty and gender.
In the United Kingdom around 70% of women in prostitution are single mothers who do not receive social benefits.
Welfare cuts and the poverty they generate has a particular affect on women, who see their career options narrowing and forcing many of them to resort to sex work to cover basic costs for them and their family. An act of courage.
Around 80,000 women work in the sex industry in this country. This figure is generally considered to be quite low, but it is impossible to get real numbers.
Surprisingly, there are now more young women resorting to this type of work so that they can continue their university studies, or simply so they don’t have to sleep on the street.
It is not only the lack of data but also sex workers’ criminal status that has the weight of the law on their backs and that in reality, is denying them certain basic human rights.
This is the cause being fought by the English Collective of Prostitutes , an organisation founded in 1975 by two young immigrant women.
Since its foundation, the collective has continued to grow. Members describe themselves as an organisation of “sex workers, former sex workers and people who support them”.
Today, they are an international network in contact with women from China, India, Latin America and Africa. They also have a ‘sister’ organisation, “US Prostitutes Collective”, in San Francisco.
In their fight for decriminalisation and the safety of sex workers they have published a “Rights Sheet”, which includes information necessary for any sex worker, wherever she is, to know the law and protect herself if she is arrested, to know how to defend herself against charges and where to get help.
Cari Mitchell, a member of the collective spoke with The Prisma about the current situation, the main issues and the rights that they expect to have. The interview will be published in three parts, here is the first…
What is a prostitute?
A prostitute is someone who exchanges money for sex, sexual services.
What is the difference between the word prostitute and sex worker?
We use both words when you are speaking in relation to the work that has been done, and increasingly the word “sex worker” is used in relation to women who sell sex. But we also do use the word prostitute woman, because it reflects the criminality of the job and the stigma associated with the prostitution laws. But increasingly we use the word “sex worker” because that’s what people think, and how people relate to prostitutes as sex workers.
Do you consider prostitution or sex work is a profession?
Yes, sex work is a job, like any other. Sex workers have established that sex work is work and that people will pay for sex. But the difference is that it’s criminalised. Exchanging money for sex is not against the law, but most everything that women have to do in order to work more safely and a contact clients is against the law.
What are the main risks in this job?
The main risks, because of the stigma associated with the prostitution laws are widespread violence and discrimination. The violence is very common because most sex workers won’t report violence to the police for fear or being arrested and violent men know that they are almost certainly going to get away with robbing or attacking sex workers. And can attack with impunity. That is what makes sex workers vulnerable.
What are the most vulnerable?
The most vulnerable are women who work on the street, who have least protection from the police. If women go to the police commonly they will say “oh well what do you expect, you’re asking for it that’s the job that you are doing”… and the Police, instead of prioritising going after the offenders, will in fact come back and threaten to prosecute or to raid the premises where the attack has taken place and criminalise the women involved.
Criminalisation is a deterrent to women coming forward and reporting violent attacks and that not only makes sex workers vulnerable but it makes all women vulnerable because violent men don’t always know who is a sex worker and who isn’t a sex worker.
What kind of person is a sex worker?
Internationally, most women work on the street and most women are mothers supporting families.
In this country, we estimate that 70% are mothers supporting families. In this country, most women work indoors because they are able to, and women who work on the street are probably the tip of the iceberg but are most vulnerable, most stigmatised and are most stereotyped. But are women who are really refusing conditions of poverty, are extremely determined women, determined to deal with the problems life faces them and to work in prostitution despite the laws because that is one way they have found in order to survive.
So, poverty is a reason…
Absolutely. Poverty is the main reason. Because prostitution is about women’s poverty and lack of choices, lack of economic choices, lack of other ways of earning money. When it comes down to it, there are – especially in the present climate of the recession increasing poverty – fewer ways for women, especially women, young women and immigrant women.
That is why the authorities refuse to deal with prostitution. Back in 2004/2005, the government reviewed prostitution laws in this country and found that most women working indoors for instance, were there to pay for basic household expenses: rent, bills, and to pay for childcare. And they also found what threw women into prostitution were precisely, debt, homelessness, domestic violence, and being driven away from their homes, poverty of all kinds.
Have you ever received any help?
In 2006, in Ipswich, five young women were murdered. But, after those murders took place, in order to help women leave prostitution in that area, sex workers were offered help with benefits, with housing, with debt, childcare. They were helped with all the resources which sex workers had been saying we need in order to not to have to go into prostitution in the first place, or to get out if we wanted to. So, the government very well knows that it is about women’s poverty and lack of money and lack of choices for getting by. But as we all know, they don’t want to deal with poverty.
Does the crisis increase the number of sex workers?
Of course. For instance, we used to have grants in the country for students, but those grants have gone, and now students have loans, which they have to repay. And it used to be rare for students to work in the sex industry. A few would, it’s always been an area where you could earn a bit of money, and especially if you didn’t have a family that had money and could help you do a course. But now, there has been research which has found many more students… A woman called Kate Hardy has done some research which shows more students are working in the sex industry. They found quite a high percentage of those working in those clubs dancing have been undergraduates or graduates who are there to get through courses. You can go to dance clubs they are not unlawful places, you can go in there, and you can talk to women. It’s one area where you can show change quite dramatically, and we’re sure that it’s the same in every area.
What about single mothers?
We estimate 70% of sex workers are mothers, mostly single mothers supporting families and some are women who don’t have any recourse to public funds at all, having to turn to the sex industry to survive. Young people are too of course. And now, they’re not going to pay housing benefits until and you’re 25, and what are people supposed to do? What if you were in a violent relationship, and you need to get out?
(Translation Introduction into English by Grace Essex: email@example.com)
Prostitution in the UK (II) The Prisma: Prostitution in the UK (II): Criminalisation and stigma – English Collective of Prostitutes (prostitutescollective.net)