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17 December – International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

December 17th, 2007

Dr Petra

Today is the ‘International day to end violence against sex workers’. It coincides with the first anniversary of the murders in Ipswich of five women – Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol, Annette Nicholls, Anneli Alderton and Paula Clennell. Our thoughts are with their families and friends at this difficult time.

Gemma, Tania, Annette, Anneli and Paula are sadly just a few of the large number of sex workers harmed or killed by violence every year. In our discussions about legalising prostitution, or glossy coverage of high class hookers we tend to overlook the problems faced by sex workers. These may be physical violence and intimidation, or could include emotional or verbal abuse – from the general public – not just from punters.

You may be interested to read this press release from the English Collective of Prostitutes and the Safety First Coalition:

Sadly, a year after the tragic murders which took away five precious lives, and despite the unprecedented public outcry which demanded that ‘never again’ should women in Ipswich or anywhere face such violence, women are no safer. The crackdowns which force sex workers further underground making women more vulnerable to violence and exploitation and deterring them from reporting attacks, have returned.

Increasing numbers of people have been pressing for an end to the criminalisation of prostitution. Together with the Royal College of Nursing, Women Against Rape, National Association of Probation Officers, church people, residents from red light areas, anti-poverty campaigners, drug reformers and others, we have formed the Safety First Coalition. But the government continues to target sex workers and increase criminalisation.

Clause 72 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill (CJIB ) now in parliament, introduces compulsory rehabilitation under threat of imprisonment. Clause 72 requires anyone arrested for loitering or soliciting to attend a series of three meetings with a supervisor approved by the court “to promote rehabilitation, by assisting the offender to address the causes of their involvement in prostitution and to find ways of ending that involvement.”

Women will be asked to demean themselves by revealing their most intimate circumstances while no resources are being made available “to address the causes”. Yet lack of benefits, debt, homelessness, low wages, loss of child custody, domestic violence, drug or other addiction and a record for prostitution offences which prevents women from getting other jobs, are known factors in driving women into prostitution. Failure to attend the meetings results in a summons back to court and a possible 72-hours imprisonment. If the CJIB is passed, magistrates will have powers to make subsequent orders so that women may end up on a treadmill of broken supervision meetings, court orders and imprisonment. Magistrates will still have the power to impose fines and send women to prison for non-payment of fines. Even the Magistrates Association has expressed concern.

The government and particularly women ministers claim to be concerned with women’s safety. But since 1997 they have:

· Deterred women from reporting attacks with increased criminalisation.

· Increased maximum fines for loitering & soliciting to £500 for a first offence and £1000 for subsequent offences.

· Promoted the use of ASBOs which have reintroduced prison sentences for street offences by the back door.

· Doubled the number of women in jail. Most are there for ‘crimes of poverty’ including offences related to prostitution.

· Dropped the proposal that women should be able to work together from premises – which is 10 times safer than working on the street.

· Increased the penalty for running a brothel – two women working together often with a maid who provides security – from six months to seven years!

· Used anti-trafficking legislation to increase deportations of immigrant sex workers. Women ‘rescued’ in police and immigration raids are not given resources and helped to apply to stay, but deported.

· Widened the gap between rich and poor. Most sex workers are mothers, mainly single mothers are supporting families. While benefits for children have gone up the benefits for mothers and single people have not: a single mother with one child is expected to live on over £16 a week less than the government poverty threshold; a single woman is on half; debts and sanctions are imposed for truancy and proposed for lone mothers who cannot take up work, make their poverty even worse. The Home Office has reported that survival is the overriding motivation for prostitution.

· Introduced asylum legislation which deliberately makes women, including mothers, destitute.

Safety? What safety?

Discussions about the safety of sex workers is difficult as many people take a moral view and complain that people involved in prostitution deserve all they get. Frequently conversations about psychological or physical safety of prostitutes are taken as evidence of why sex work should be banned – or to further justify criminalising clients. Debates quickly degenerate into stereotypes where all prostitutes are forced or trafficked into sex with abusive clients by violent pimps.

It would be remiss of me not to say that prostitutes do face violence, and that some of that violence can come from pimps or clients. But it would be equally remiss of me to paint a picture of sex work that presents all prostitutes as female victims, and all clients as potential abusers.

On this day to end sex worker violence we need to move beyond the polarised debates on the rights or wrongs of sex work, and beyond the tired stereotypes about prostitution that sadly many activists are all to happy to cling to. We need to look at the evidence about what is happening to sex workers and consider ways in which we can campaign to challenge violence and ensure prostitutes have safe and easy access to healthcare and psychological support where needed.

The whole time we focus just on debates of trafficking, immigration and blame we tend to reinforce the idea that violence is an inevitable part of prostitution. The point of today is to say that violence is not acceptable.

You can find out more about prostitution and the 17 December from Michael Goodyear’s page, and SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project). The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe have information on activism to mark the 17 December. Information about sex work can be found at The Internet Escorts Handbook and a number of safety strategies and resources can be found here.

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