Evening Standard: Q&A with ECP’s Cari Mitchell
Plans for the biggest overhaul of laws on prostitution for half a century have been put forward by the government. The proposals include licensing brothels and compulsory health checks for prostitutes. Will they really help? We put Cari Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes in the hotseat.
How many prostitutes are there in Britain – and what percentage of them belong to your organisation?
Nobody knows how many prostitutes there are as most operate underground. There are certainly many more than the 80,000 cited in the government report. None belong to our organisation as we don’t have members. It is difficult to have a membership organisation for an industry that remains criminalised.
How is the Collective of Prostitutes organised – do you have regular meetings and, if so, how many women attend?
We act as a network with a core group in London and branches throughout Britain. We are a fluid organisation, meeting when we need to – recently about 60 prostitutes from Soho came together to discuss what to do about the Compulsory Purchase Orders that Westminster council are issuing on the brothels there. We offer support to the women who contact us and work to highlight the issues and injustices which pervade the sex industry. Above all, we campaign to see prostitution decriminalised.
How much do prostitutes earn – and do any pay tax?
Very few women are earning thousands of pounds per day. Earnings vary hugely. Some women earn £30 for a job – they may do a couple of jobs a day or ten in a day. They might work every day or a few days a week depending on how desperate they are. Many street workers say they end up paying 80pc of their earnings in fines to the state who they say is the biggest pimp. As for tax, we believe that if you have no civil rights, you shouldn’t have to pay tax. However many sex workers do, either because the taxman has caught up with them or they want to play straight. Tax inspectors often make outrageous assessments of women’s earnings so that many prostitutes end up paying an unfair rate of tax.
Having prostitution legalised and regulated can’t be good news for your members, can it – you’d all have to pay tax on your earnings?
Our main objection to legalisation isn’t tax – many prostitutes already pay – but with licensing specific brothels and official ‘red light zones.’ No women wants to work in an official red-light area: you’d get put on a police register and then your chances of getting a job outside the sex industry are virtually zero. Police aren’t interested in protecting sex workers from violence and harrassment – they positively turn a blind eye. This policy would force more women underground, outside official zones, where they are even more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Official red light zones don’t destigmatize prostitution. They are an excuse not to decriminalise the industry.
Who’s exploiting who when a man pays for sex?
Nobody is exploiting anybody. All you are doing is paying for consenting sex. Prostitutes often get more respect from their clients than their boyfriends or husbands.
Wouldn’t the decriminalisation of prostitution give an acceptable face for what is a wholly unacceptable activity?
Paying for sex isn’t unacceptable – men have done it for thousands of years. But keeping prostitution criminalised is unacceptable. It keeps women vulnerable and powerless. Prostitutes face daily discrimination from police, who very rarely pursue complaints of sexual assault or rape. Under the current loitering and soliciting laws, a woman can be
convicted on the single word of a policeman. Magistrates automatically rubber-stamp Antisocial Behaviour Orders, which if contravened lead to a custodial sentence, in which a woman is sent to prison and her children taken into care. Many children taken into care, end up on the game. If decriminalised, sex workers would get recognition and respect in the eyes of the law. Their issues, including assault and rape, would be taken seriously. They’d be able to work discretely from their own premises with established networks to help them screen out violent men.
You oppose compulsory testing for HIV among prostitutes. With the high risk of HIV infection in the business – and the chance of passing it on – isn’t your stance highly irresponsible?
Along with health care workers, we agree that such a policy would be discriminatory. All women, including prostitutes have access to health screenings on the NHS. Research shows that heterosexual sex isn’t the main route of transmission for HIV. Besides, the overwhelming majority of prostitutes use condoms. This is indicated by the fact that men will pay up to four times the going rate for unprotected sex. Nobody, by the way, has suggested testing men.
In your opinion, have the licensed brothels already operating in Australia and the Netherlands been a success?
Not in the way we want. In Australia, women can work in more safety. But the brothel owners who know women must work on their premises, use this to their advantage. Women – who were previously working independently – often have to pay a large percentage of their earnings to them. Generally, the licensing of brothels is used by police to crack down on immigrant women who have fled war-zones or are supporting families back home. As they can’t get a license, they are forced underground and become easier targets for deportment.
Many prostitutes are illegal immigrants brought from abroad and controlled by organised crime gangs. Aren’t authorities right in thinking it is best to trace these women and deport them, so they can be reunited with their families?
No. Authorities are guilty of grossly exaggerating how many immigrant sex workers are ‘trafficked.’ Most work independently and have come here because they are fleeing war, famine or desperate poverty and need to support their families. In this case, returning them from where they fled is absolutely brutal.
Wouldn’t most prostitutes leave the industry given the choice?
Yes. Single mothers often turn to prostitution because it pays better than the average women’s wage which virtually disappears after paying for childcare. The fact that so many women, teenagers and single mums end up trapped in prostitution is a damning reflection of our society. We need better welfare payments and benefits, and shelters to help women escape violent husbands. Once a woman is convicted for a charge related to prostitution she is classified as a sex offender along with paedophiles and rapists. After that, you have no chance of leaving the industry.
As it is men who feed the prostitution industry, isn’t it about time that they, as clients, faced the prospect of being named, shamed and fined in court?
No. We don’t want that sort of equality. If clients were criminalised, prostitutes would be pushed further underground. We’d have to use middlemen and women in the street would have less time to check out clients before getting into a car. We’d be more vulnerable and face a lot more danger.
Westminster Council says that prostitution is a bligh to the local environment and quality of life for people in the area. Given that prostitution attracts drugs, organised crime and encourages sexual promiscuity, wouldn’t you agree?
Absolutely not. The police exaggerate the link between prostitution and organised crime. Many prostitutes are not drug users and most don’t have a pimp. Sex workers are decent women who work in the industry because they have to. According to government, 74pc of women are in prostitution to support their family.
Given that prostitution involves the serious exploitation of adults and the abuse of children, can it ever be ‘cleaned up’?
The only way to clean up prostitution is through decriminalisation. Women must also have access to resources that would prevent them from going on the game. These would include better benefits, refuges from violent homes, and rehabilitation for drug addicts.
Don’t Westminster council have a valid argument in issuing compulsory purchase orders on Soho brothels to turn them into desperately needed housing for the homeless?
A public enquiry into the Compulsory Purchase Order made on a brothel in Peter Street exposed the fact that the council had not offered it to the Housing Association for social housing at all. It was very likely they were going to offer it to property developers. Women have worked in brothels in Soho for generations: a good network has been established making it one of the safest places to work. Women driven out by the council, end up in new areas, away from regular clients. Violent men know this. A prostitute driven out of Soho, was recently found murdered.
How would you tackle the problem of underage prostitution?
Some years ago, a group of kids from the Children’s Society went to the health minister asking for more refuges for those wanting to escape from violent homes or prostitution. They were too busy to be met. This attitude needs to stop. We need more refuges as well as a minimum wage and welfare benefits for under-18s. They might then have a better chance of escaping violent homes without ending up on the streets or in prostitution.
By ANASTASIA STEPHENS