A lecture hall at London Metropolitan University fills up to bursting point before a meeting to discuss prostitution in collaboration with the Anarchist Bookfair. A joint campaign between LGBTQ organisation Queer Strike and the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) is announced, and Laura Watson from ECP, an organisation made up of current or former sex workers, kicks off the discussion: “Police crack-downs, arrests, raids and prosecutions, all of which have pushed sex workers much more underground and into more isolated areas. As a result, rape and violence has increased massively.”
Prostitution has been a small but hot topic in UK politics for the last couple of years, and the central question is its legal status. An all-party parliamentary group on prostitution has investigated whether or not the law – which today allows prostitution as long as it is not ‘organised’ – should be reformed. Their report, issued in March this year, recommended that the UK follow the so-called Swedish model, in which buying sex has been criminalised, but selling sex remains legal.
The ECP, which campaigns for complete decriminalisation, objects to the report. Watson says: “Criminalising sex workers’ clients won’t stop prostitution, but it will make it much more dangerous for sex workers to work.”
One of the main problems with criminalisation is that it makes it difficult for sex workers to come forward to report violence, because they are afraid the police will arrest them for prostitution offences. Decriminalisation, on the other hand, allows women to work together for increased safety.
Watson says decriminalisation is supported by the Royal College of Nursing, sections of the Women’s Institute, Women Against Rape, and the Lancet Medical Journal and some UN bodies. “Amnesty International also have a draft policy on decriminalisation, so we now feel like the tides are turning.”
The joint campaign has drafted an open letter to the government to urge them to consider decriminalising prostitution and to point out a range of problems with the parliamentary group and its report. The campaigners argue that women should have the right to chose whatever job they wish and have the freedom to decide what they do with their own bodies and that “consenting sex is not a crime”.
Watson says that LGBTQ people are particularly susceptible to police harassment and stigma, hence the joint campaign. The majority of sex-workers, gay or not, are mothers and grandmothers trying to provide for their children, she adds.
Hannah from LGBTQ group Queer Strike says that women should not be criminalised for doing any work which helps provide for their families, including selling sex. “As a lesbian and non-biological co-mum, I have experience of how difficult it is to make ends meet when you don’t have recognition [as a mother] or access to financial support.”
New Zealand decriminalised prostitution in 2000. The ECP says that a five year official review of the change showed that prostitution hadn’t increased or decreased and sex workers were better able to report rape and violence to the police.
Figures are difficult to compile, as much of the prostitution goes on underground. A 2009 report by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour estimated there were around 100,000 people engaged in prostitution in the UK. In London alone there are an estimated 1,500 brothels.
Lisa Longstaff from the organisation Women Against Rape agrees that safety is the key issue. She has seen many sex workers seek help at their centre. She says the Swedish model will not solve these problems: “That is an absolute lie and a total cover up. Swedish women have said in public events: ‘My rights are much diminished under this criminalisation’.”
She finishes off by saying that getting accurate information out is crucial to be able to make changes that can protect women in the future. “If prostitute women aren’t safe, no woman is.”
FACTS ON PROSTITUTION
- Buying or selling sex in the privacy of your home is legal in the UK. However, as soon as two or more women work together, it becomes a brothel, therefore organised prostitution, therefore a criminal offense.
- According to a 2004 Home Office investigation, more than half of women in prostitution have been raped and/or seriously assaulted, and at least 75% have been physically assaulted at the hands of the pimps and punters. 74% of women in prostitution identify poverty, the need to pay household expenses and support their children, as primary motivators for being drawn into prostitution.
- Women in prostitution are 18 times more likely to be murdered than the general population.
- People are much less likely to be convicted of murdering a prostitute than of any other murder. The conviction rate of 75% for murder drops to 26% when the victim is a prostitute.
This piece was published in print in Smiths, Goldsmiths Student Magazine, in February 2015