English collective says laws forcing women to work alone expose them to violence
Prostitution should be decriminalised in the UK to make it safer for vulnerable women, a sex worker organisation has said.
The English Collective of Prostitutes is calling for the removal of laws relating to consensual adult sexual behaviour, arguing that the legislation forces sex workers to operate alone, leaving them vulnerable to crime and reluctant to report violence to the police because they fear arrest.
Niki Adams, a spokeswoman for the collective, said female sex workers were forced to work in isolation. “One woman working alone was viciously attacked, raped and beaten. The case went to court and the man was convicted but the woman then thought: ‘I never want to work alone again.’ She started working from another woman’s flat, and within a few months the place was raided by police … The women were arrested for brothel-keeping. That woman spent months and months before the case came to court and was dropped at the last minute due to a big campaign by us highlighting how outrageous [it was] that women working together were prosecuted.”
She said the pattern was common and, while working alone was dangerous, working together put women at risk of arrest.
Adams said it was something police were increasingly cracking down on. “We get complaints over and over again, sometimes individually and sometimes using collective examples in the media, and there are implications for safety.”
She said the phenomenon of “pop-up brothels” was caused by the forced closure of existing ones as a result of police actions.
Adams said the number of women involved in sex work had increased under austerity, although there were no official figures on this. “In Doncaster there has been a 60% increase since benefit sanctions hit [according to local charities]. In Sheffield it’s been 166%, which is massive … and this is from outreach workers, who are not likely to be sensationalist,” she said.
She noted that some charities had reported women starving on the streets, unable to eat for several days, and others who had previously given up prostitution calling the helpline to say they had been forced to go back.
“One woman was stripping but was about to move on to universal credit, which means her income would drop by a third. She was crying on the phone and working out [what to do].”
The announcement comes ahead of International Sex Workers’ Rights Day, an annual event on 3 March. The government is about to publish research it commissioned on sex workers in coming months.
In 2016, the home affairs select committee recommended decriminalising prostitution. The interim report on prostitution said the Home Office should immediately change the legislation so that soliciting was no longer an offence, and change brothel-keeping laws to allow sex workers to share premises without losing the ability to prosecute those who used brothels to control or exploit sex workers.
Jeremy Corbyn has previously said he is in favour of decriminalising the sex industry. On the campaign trail for the 2016 general election, the Labour leader said: “I don’t want people to be criminalised. 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 civilised way.”
The Labour MPs Harriet Harman and Jess Phillips both criticised the comments.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have no plans to change the law around prostitution, but we recognise the need for more evidence in this area.
That is why we are funding research into the scale and nature of prostitution in England and Wales … The government is also providing £100m in funding to tackle all forms of violence against women and girls.”