Poverty and crumbling social care have driven vulnerable people into sex work. You wouldn’t know it from this inquiry
When Conservative MP Fiona Bruce chairs an inquiry into sex work, you don’t hold your breath for a triumph of progressiveness. This is a politician who is anti-abortion and has repeatedly voted against equal marriage. And yet the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission report, The Limits of Consent: Prostitution in the UK, published last week, still shocked in its lack of impartiality.
At least the authors were upfront about their commitment to ideology over evidence, claiming decisions around public policy “cannot be resolved with reference to evidence alone” and instead undertaking a deep-dive into “the ethical questions around prostitution”.
“The entire system of prostitution is built upon the exchange of money for sexual consent,” reads the report. “Without the money, there would be no consent.” Well, sure. Sex workers would agree. But, the report continues: “The Commission believes that it is therefore accurate to characterise our system as allowing for the purchase of sexual consent, and believes that this undermines the principle of sexual consent itself.”
This is an age old argument – one that sex workers have been battling against for many years. There are many reasons people consent to sex; money is one of them. But claiming that the UK’s more than 70,000 sex workers are, essentially, being raped every time they go to work makes it impossible to call out real violence when it happens.
Tens of thousands of people (mainly women) pay their rent, feed their children, cover university fees and earn a living around disability by selling sex. And here lies the glaring omission in the Tory report, conspicuous by its absence but smouldering away behind the public school debate-club moralising: it is poverty and lack of social care that drive the most vulnerable into the most exploitative parts of prostitution.
Throughout the whole 20,000 word report, austerity is not mentioned once. The word “poverty” appears just a single time. If the authors really believe that all sex work is coercive, perhaps looking at the reasons women do this might have been useful.
Omitted from the report was last month’s admission by the Department for Work and Pensions that poverty caused by universal credit is a major driver of prostitution. Likewise the fact that, under the Tories, food bank usage has skyrocketed. “Homelessness” is mentioned zero times, despite an irrefutable link between Tory policy and rough sleeping. Discussion of trafficking is divorced from immigration policy, quotes about student debt are used to moralise about consent rather than highlight the need for an end to tuition fees and a frontline worker’s statement that the “present housing model is a poor fit for women experiencing multiple and complex needs” triggers no self-reflection on the fact that women shoulder 86% of the austerity burden. Not one sentence is dedicated to the link between brutal disability benefits failings and prostitution.
Admittedly, wading through the available evidence around prostitution is a huge task. It was undertaken by Amnesty International in 2016, resulting in the organisation’s call for the full decriminalisation of sex work, a legal initiative also backed by the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS and sex worker-led organisations around the globe. In the UK, groups such as Decrim Now, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (Swarm) call for the same: full decriminalisation for safety’s sake.
The Tory report sums up the evidence and decides otherwise, suggesting that “the most effective way to safeguard sexual consent while reducing the market for prostitution … is to legislate to make paying for sexual services an offence”. Criminalising clients – the so-called end demand or Nordic model – is all that Bruce and her team have to offer.
It’s telling that, throughout the report, quotes from current sex workers float free from any input they have on legislation, functioning only to provide lurid detail or harrowing testimony. And so the dots remain unconnected. Descriptions of poverty and illness sit in a vacuum and, free from responsibility, Tory party members can moralise about the obscenity of prostitution while the horror of austerity slides from sight.
• Frankie Mullin is a freelance journalist. She is part of the English Collective of Prostitutes, and the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement