English Collective of Prostitutes protest in 2011. msmornington/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)
We welcome Jeremy Corbyn’s public statement in support of the decriminalisation of sex work. He, more than many, will have in mind the austerity cuts, 75% of which have targeted women. These cuts are responsible for massive increase in prostitution that we have seen in the UK as of late.
With 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK and 176,000 people surviving on food banks, no wonder that women are turning to prostitution. The northern English town of Doncaster reported a 60% increase in prostitution in 2013, with charities saying, “women are being forced to sell sex for £5 because of benefit sanctions”. Sheffield reported a 166% increase in 2014 while charity workers in Hull have gone on record saying “we have started to see women who are literally starving and they are out there to feed themselves”.
As poverty and prostitution increase so does criminalisation. We are currently fighting legal cases with women imprisoned for brothel-keeping because they worked in a flat with friends – obviously much safer than working alone. We are also working with women street workers, who are having their IDs confiscated by police before being told that they can only get them back if they show plane tickets back to Romania. This is happening despite these women having the right to reside in the UK. We are even helping a woman fired from her public service job because she worked part-time in pornography to supplement her wages.
We see daily the injustice of the prostitution laws which force sex workers to work in isolation and danger. As a woman working in Leeds said recently, “the laws are pointing at us and saying, ‘nobody cares about you’”. That is the view of every killer who has targeted sex workers.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to abolish the laws is because illegality and stigma hides who sex workers are – mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties and wives –all women (and men and trans people) trying to survive in increasingly harsh economic times. Those feminist politicians who claim to speak for us but who misinterpret, lie, distort and disparage our experience take advantage of our illegal status knowing that it is harder for us to speak publicly to set the record straight.
Approximately 85% of sex workers are women and the majority are mothers, mostly single mums. If prostitution policy and law was framed by these facts we’d get support for mothers and anti-austerity policies not more criminalisation. So thank goodness for Corbyn and his close political ally John McDonnell MP, whose principled support for decriminalisation has meant that groups such as the Safety First Coalition (which includes the Royal College of Nursing), Hampshire Women’s Institute, and Women Against Rape have had a voice in parliament.
The evidence of the success of decriminalisation is compelling. At our evidence gathering symposium on prostitution last November, Catherine Healy, founding member and coordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, reported on research from the Prostitution Law Review Committee that found, five years after the decriminalisation in New Zealand, that there had been no increase in prostitution or trafficking. In contrast, sex workers are now more able to leave prostitution and secure other work because they aren’t registered and convictions have been cleared from their record. The law decriminalised sex workers on the street and in premises, which has made it easier to report violence and has allowed sex workers to work together, increasing safety.
An independent review by the Christchurch School of Medicine in New Zealand found 64% of sex workers found it easier to refuse clients – a litmus test of whether women are being forced or coerced.
Yet the Home Affairs Committee is studiously ignoring this compelling evidence. Instead it appears to have a pre-determined outcome to recommend the criminalisation of clients – a proposal backed by an “unlikely union of evangelical Christians with feminist campaigners”. As one of the women who gave evidence to the inquiry said, “politicians who claim to want to save us by banning our work should first of all say how else we are to survive”.
Corbyn and John McDonnell’s support for decriminalisation puts sex workers of a par with others who have been unjustly criminalised – young people, people of colour, immigrant people. And that is right. Women picked up for soliciting have long said that the prostitution laws are to women what the sus laws are to young Black men – a tool for the police to persecute and harass, with Black and other women of colour as their first targets.
Corbyn and McDonnell take their lead from sex workers who, like other workers, are striving to improve our working conditions. If the Labour party wants an anti-prostitution strategy they should get behind their leader’s determined campaign against benefit cuts, sanctions and an end to zero hour contracts.”