Degraded, exploited and undermined … all of these words spring to mind when thinking about the treatment of employees in the workplace.
Whether as a server, bar tender or receptionist, working class women are consistently selling themselves – and short for that matter – for the benefit of corporate greed, but more generally to pay off increasing overdrafts, late payment fees and interest rates.
Minimum wage increased by a measly 20p or 3.7% last year, and the country rejoiced. UK chairman Simon Collins explains the reality is that “more than five million working people in the UK only earn enough to ‘get by’ and cannot enjoy the standard of life so many of us take for granted.” MPs also treated themselves to a pay rise. Over a nine month period between 2015 and 2016, their wage increased by 11.3% which caused uproar amongst the general public and even some MPs themselves.
With these figures in mind, it comes as no surprise that some women have turned to desperate measures to make ends meet. One of which is sex work. The recent movie I, David Blake depicts the life of a single mother who resorts to sex work when she and her children are forced to starve after they arrive late to their benefits appointment. The conversation itself causes much debate and divide, and the topic is often reduced to a debate between sex worker safety and sex work being seen in the same light as any other profession.
Women in this line of work are stigmatised, and reduced to an image of a fallen women that has resorted to this extreme to feed an incessant drug addiction. The truth is, sex workers are those unfavourable to the powers of society. Single mothers, that can’t juggle the financial strain of having a child whilst being there to raise them. Migrants who travel from war torn countries in hope of aid but have to sleep in doorways and beg for spare change. Disabled women who cannot function in a typical job and then struggle to feed, clothe and house themselves on the benefits they are provided.
A 2016 report from the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) who campaign for the decriminalisation of sex work, claims that financial cuts are to blame for a 60% rise in prostitution in Doncaster, UK. A continuation of the current economic situation, cuts and discrimination will only push people further into the arms of underground business.
A protest was organised by the ECP in September alongside Sex Workers Open who offer support for sex workers. Four women were arrested in a London brothel raid which caused anger amongst activist organisations. Laura Watson from the EPC explains that “we are living in very harsh times with more women, particularly mothers, having to sell sex to ensure their children are fed” and that “police resources are being squandered on raiding women working together in the relative safety of flats.” This is just one in a 50 strong list of premises raided between April and September 2016.
So the question lingers… what is being done by the government to protect the women that clearly need it most?
UK law deals with prostitution in a ‘brush it under the carpet’ type approach, in hope that if it’s ignored, it will go away. The legal boundaries are unclear and dangerous for the people involved. Whilst sexual transactions between two people are completely legal, the operations that surround them are not. The Sexual Offences Act states that it is an offence to keep, manage, act or assist in the management of a brothel, punishable by fine or up to seven years behind bars. Any premise in use by one of more people for the purpose of sex is considered a brothel, even at different times. Kerb crawling, or soliciting is also punishable under the same act with a price tag of £60. This is comparable with the decision to fine homeless people for sleeping on the streets. These women become trapped in a crippling cycle of working to repay debt. This law frustratingly neglects the safety of women that choose to work in prostitution. It’s ironic how much this system fails to allow women to work in protected environments. Because of this, sex workers see clients alone, leaving them vulnerable to rape, violence and sometimes worse. Various speakers have confirmed research that women that sell sex in London are 12 times more likely than the general population to be murdered, with an estimated 152 sex worker murders since 1990.
These laws manage to empower male clients further. If women choose to work together for safety, attacks can’t be reported because they will become the offender in the situation. Marianna Poper was a sex worker who was stabbed to death in 2013. A clampdown on sex work in the area forced her and others to work alone that night. It is believed that Poper was at work later than usual that night in order to pay off a fine that she had received for soliciting.
The law does vary across the globe however, which means that there are alternative models available to pursue better conditions for women in sex work.
Norway, France, Finland, Iceland and Northern Ireland have implemented the ‘Nordic Model’. Women that sell sex are decriminalised and the buyer is punished. The model has gained praise and is being pushed in the UK, but there is no research to show that this improves working conditions. With an aim to reduce the demand for sex, this law actually lends a hand to potential abuse. It comes as no surprise that when the tables are turned, men are much less inclined to pay for sex and those that continue to do so, become overly cautious due to the risk of being caught. Sex workers will often take the details of a client before they meet, to ensure that they can be found if they cross the line. Women will now blindly accept clients in order to protect them from prosecution, which leaves the client untraceable. Sex workers are more likely to offer lower prices or more explicit services in order to continue to earn money, and make the risk for the client worthwhile. Preventing men from buying sex, does not prevent women from selling it, it only leaves them with no alternative choice but to look for work in new places – brothels and agencies. These services generally cost money and so, the cycle continues where women have to cough up extra cash, that can only be made one way.
Legalisation has been enforced in Austria, Germany and The Netherlands to contain exploitation within sex work. It is sometimes confused with the decriminalisation model, but it is important to know the differences. Legalisation allows sex work to take place, but only under strict government policies. These include zoned areas, registration – for which brothel owners will be accountable to police checks – and regular health checks. This doesn’t help to remove sex worker stigma or prevent violence against women. It merely creates what Amnesty International – who aim to protect the human rights of sex workers – have called a ‘two-tier system’, where sex workers are pushed even further from the eyes of justice. Dr Levy, conducted three years of research which concluded that ‘criminalising the purchase of sex has had a devastating effect on the rights, health and safety of sex workers in Sweden.’ Conditions are less safe and more controlled. Controlling the industry does very little but limit it and act as a guise for the harsher, deeper issues.
We have yet to question what sex workers themselves want, and this is so important.
According to sex worker and activist Toni Mac, in an insightful Ted Talks, The Laws That Sex Workers Really Want, the answer is decriminalisation. There is a global mass movement of people fighting for the model which include Hampshire Women’s Institute and Women Against Rape. Decriminalisation means that women can work safely with co-workers and empowers them to confront people that try to victimise. The symposium ‘Decriminalisation of Prostitution: the Evidence’ took place on 3 November which is a conference discussing potential decriminalisation at The Houses of Parliament. This shows that we are making progress towards decriminalisation. A huge 54% of British people voted in support of decriminalisation in a 2015 YouGov poll, with many people arguing that it ‘reduces stigma, making it easier to go to the police in cases of abuse.’
Currently, the model is only in place in New Zealand. In 2003, all laws targeting the sex industry were removed, and as a result 96% of street workers reported that they feel their rights are protected. By removing the laws that control the sex industry, the stigma eventually dis-attaches. Tim Barnett, a member of the New Zealand House of Representatives claimed that “dangers in the sex industry relate to health and the abuse of power. That is why this bill places safer-sex obligations on brothel owners, bans coercion, gives sex workers the right to decline a commercial sexual service, and sets an age limit of 18.”
I’ll let you come to your own conclusions about what is right, but let us bare in mind that there will be sex workers across the UK tonight, that will be beaten, raped and abused because the system will not allow them the basic rights they deserve as human beings trying to make a living. If that doesn’t make you sick to your stomach, then I don’t know what will.
You can join the movement by following the English Collective of Prostitutes
Watch Toni Mac’s inspiring TED talk here