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.


  1. I see why you don't think prostitution should be viewed as a proper job. But should it be legalised? I think it should be legal and regarded as a proper job irrespective of whether people not in that situation think it's a good thing to do because:

    Safety: It's possible that no-one except the murderer will ever know why these women were killed, but no-matter whether it was because they were prostitutes or just convenient victims, I'd be willing to bet that they wouldn't have been such easy victims if they'd been working legally out of their own premises, shared with a few others. They'd be safer if they knew they could report any violence to the police without fear of prosecution themselves and that someone would have noticed quickly if they'd gone missing. If recognising prostitution as a legal job would result in better conditions and less risk of violence then surely there are pragmatic reasons for it, regardless of moral hang-ups.

    Consistency: I'm not convinced that it is all that different from other work. It certainly must be an unpleasant and dangerous job that seriously interferes with normal family life. But I read somewhere that 70% of prostitutes in the UK are mothers. Lots of women throughout the world do hard, humiliating and degrading work to support their children and try to give them a better life. Things like back-breaking labour and working 18 hour shifts in sweatshops. Our response to these jobs is to try to regulate them, improve conditions and give people the opportunity to move on to better things. Saying that prostitutes could survive on benefits alone is not quite the point. For women, admittedly the minority, that aren't drug-addicts, human-traffiked or victims of aggressive pimps it seems perfectly possibly that they might freely choose this sort of independence over struggling to get by on benefits, or relying on support from some unreliable man.

  2. "Lots of women throughout the world do hard, humiliating and degrading work to support their children and try to give them a better life. Things like back-breaking labour and working 18 hour shifts in sweatshops. Our response to these jobs is to try to regulate them, improve conditions and give people the opportunity to move on to better things."

    Surely our response has been to outlaw sweatshops etc? It's illegal in the UK to force people to work under the minimum wage for 18 hours a day with no breaks, precisely because to do so is intrinsically immoral (i.e. damaging to the person forced to do the job). When the job isn't intrinsically damaging then we regulate to minimise risk through health and safety and employment law.

    Safety and harm reduction for sex workers does need to be improved, but I'm not sure legalising prostitution will solve this. Many women already work out of 'massage parlours' or as escorts, but some still end up working from the streets. Putting our resources into engaging with women working as prostitutes to help them rebuild their lives can go hand in hand with harm reduction and safety and this still seems like the best way forward to me.

  3. Would prostitution ever be an appropriate career choice? I kind of think it is an impossible question to answer in the current climate because of our prevailing attitudes to sex and the assumptions we bring to any sexual transactions. Feminists (and others) often find prostitution instrinsically undesirable because of the suggestion of commodifcation - prositutes both male and female become objects to be bought, and the act of buying is often then used to justify other abuses.

    In real terms it is clearly an incredibly dangerous, often degrading and unpleasant occupation and the most practical thing we can be doing, is, as you both suggest, seeking to improve the lives of prostitutes, whether by steering them into less hazardous occupations or making prostitution itself less hazardous.

    Personally, I think the Swedish model which decriminalises being a prostitue whilst criminalising buying a prostitute may well be the way to go. I think there are good reasons for arguing that prostitution is damaging to all parties involved but ultimately it is women who run the risk of violence, murder, rape and slavery when they become sex workers. If you are willing to face such possibilities then the threat of prison is unlikely to be much of a deterrant and the question becomes what exactly are we punishing these women for? Your sweat shop comparison Jon is an interesting one, because at no point were the workers who were systematically mistreated under such a system blamed for their situation in the same way that we hold prostitutes accountable for prostitution.

    In response to the inherent dangers of working in the sex industry you will still find people who declare 'well they don't have to do it, do they?'as if the act of beoming a prostitute is a tacit acceptance of any of the abuses that go with it. Why are we still so willing to blame women for men's transgressions?

  4. On what basis do we legislate?
    Firstly, there's the principle of 'freedom to' do anything that isn't prohibited. We should be careful that we don't unnecessarily infringe on people's liberty.
    Secondly there should be some consent from the governed, although this doesn't mean that everyone has to agree.
    Thirdly, there is a correlation but not an exact one between law and morals. Murder is immoral and we legislate against it, but most people would agree that jealousy or lying to your friend is, but we wouldn't want to legislate on these.
    Finally, we legislate to protect those who are vulnerable in our society - we legislate on door step sellers and against gang masters.

    In this light the Swedish example you raise Kate makes a lot of sense (I hadn't heard of this solution) and should definitely be considered, because although I agree that prostitution is damaging to all parties it is clearly the women involved that are more vulnerable.

    During the Ipswich murders I was listening very closely for signs of the 'well they don't have to be there' mentality in between the lines of what people said. I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard in the media and from the public. I don't think women were even implicitly blamed for men's transgressions in this instance.