Saturday, December 16, 2006

Women or prostitutes?

The horrific murders in Ipswich have led to a debate in the media about how the people killed should be described. Many people have said that the newsreaders shouldn’t say ‘5 prostitutes have been murdered’ because the word ‘prostitute’ labels them negatively. The word ‘women’ should be used to emphasise that these people had homes, families and cares just like everyone else. Others have argued that the fact that the women were prostitutes is a central part of the story – it is prostitutes that have been targeted. Both are right: there is a temptation in all of us to strip people of their humanity by using derogatory labels (gypsies, commies, niggers etc), but the press need to communicate the story. Perhaps ‘five women working as prostitutes’ should be used?

This formulation is also problematic. Should prostitution be described as ‘work’? Work implies that society recognises prostitution as a valid way of making a living. Could someone working as a prostitute be one of Tony Blair’s ‘hard working families’ receiving working tax credits and the minimum wage? The International Union of Sex Workers wants to see prostitution classed as a proper job with employment protection. I have heard a number of contributions in the news recently from groups representing or supporting sex workers who have implied that women have to work the streets to provide and support their children in the same way that others go to work.

This is nonsense. It can never be beneficial for any child to have a mother working in prostitution. Working as a prostitute is physically dangerous, chaotic and destroys your sense of self-esteem and self-image. It is not a freely taken life ‘choice’ and should not be seen as a ‘job’ in the normal sense. No UK national has to work in prostitution purely for financial reasons – the government provides child benefit, child tax credit and maternity grants as well as housing if you have children. The majority of UK women working as prostitutes are there because they need to sustain a crack or heroin habit – a dependence that unscrupulous dealers or family members may have encouraged. Women may feel they are stuck, fearful of pimps or family members or unable to escape their addiction.

The housing charity Shelter found in their report on sex workers that: “While society may view prostitution as the biggest problem for these women, the women themselves relate it to their homelessness, drug use, and lifestyles characterised by poverty, chaos, and desperate choices.” We should be supporting women working as prostitutes to escape their chaotic, dangerous lives. This is never easy as women may need years of assistance to escape the cycles of fear, dependence and poverty. There are many voluntary organisations that do work with women on the streets such as UTurn in East London, Streetreach in Doncaster and Real Choices in Manchester and these need extending and funding. It was heartening to hear that Suffolk Police are now working with the local Council to house women on the streets, voluntary organisations who offer harm reduction and support and have themselves set up an emergency fund to deal with basic living needs and so are ‘slowly dealing with the reasons that women need to be on the streets in the first place’. It is sad that it takes five murders to produce such a well-coordinated response.

The media and society at large must avoid labelling women who are prostitutes as if they are a ‘dirty’ sector of society - different to us or unreachable. Through voluntary organisations at local level we must support women stuck in prostitution and help them recover their sense of freedom and self. Prostitution should not be described as work. It is life driven and marred by dependence and abuse.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Perfect Daily Express.

It's just a pity they didn't try a bit harder and get the migrant scare story in earlier than page 7.