BethMellor’s Weblog

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Prostitutes vs. politicians

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Cindy is a 38-year-old divorced mother of three. She supports her family singlehandedly and describes herself as a successful businesswoman.                                                                                   

But Cindy’s ‘business’ could come under threat if the 2009 Policing and Crime Bill passes later this year. She works as a prostitute from a small North London premises, and worries that she may be forced out of the relative safety of the brothel and onto the streets under the proposed bill, which extends closure orders to sex-work establishments.

The bill, which could become law within months, has proved extremely contentious. As well as the extension of closure orders – which were originally designed to deal with crack houses – it creates a new offence of paying for sex with a person ‘controlled for gain,’ punishable with a fine of up to £1,000, and provisions to reclassify lap-dancing venues as ‘sex-encounter’ establishments.

The Home Office argue that the bill, championed by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, will cut demand in the sex industry and help to reduce the trafficking of women to work as prostitutes in Britain.

But many prostitutes like Cindy believe that it would further stigmatise sex-work and make their lives more dangerous. “Forcing brothels to close would push prostitution further underground and we will have to take more risks to get work,” says Cindy. “I have lots of repeat clients who I have built up trust with, and criminalisation will scare these men away.”

The English Collective of Prostitutes says that women will face much greater risks if the bill passes.  Since the clients of sex workers were criminalised in Scotland in October 2007, they say, the number of assaults on prostitutes has soared, with 126 attacks on prostitute women reported to one project in 2007, compared to 66 in 2006.

English Collective of Prostitutes Protest

English Collective of Prostitutes protest

And according to Allan Gibson, head of the anti-trafficking unit at the Metropolitan police, criminalising clients would be very difficult to enforce because it is hard to know whether sex workers are actually ‘controlled for gain’ by a third party, or not.

Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality, claims that 85 per cent of women prostitutes in Britain are ‘controlled’ by pimps or traffickers, based on ‘anecdotal’ evidence, but the Collective say that this figure is hugely exaggerated. What is more, they say, it could lead to workers in the sex industry being falsely labelled as traffickers.

“The bill means that any sex worker who receives any kind of help could be considered to be controlled for gain,” says Sarah Walker, a campaigner for the Collective. “Women working from premises often have a co-worker or receptionist looking after their safety, and they could be prosecuted under this legislation.”

The Home Office claim that the legislation would not be used against receptionists or security guards working with sex-workers, and that the clauses referring to ‘controlling for gain’ are focused on deterring the clients of prostitutes rather than traffickers.

The Collective are not convinced. Sarah cites the case of 45-year-old Tina, a Brazilian woman who set up a small massage parlour in Manchester. Tina was convicted of trafficking and jailed for three years in 2005, despite the fact that the judge in the case accepted that all of the women working in her establishment had willingly consented to work there and had been treated well.

“Trafficking law in Britain does not require proof of coercion, just evidence that you helped someone come into the UK who is now working in the sex industry,” explains Sarah. “There are women who have been trafficked into the sex industry in horrible ways but the bill will not help them because it further stigmatises prostitution. More importantly, the bill does not include any resources or money to help these women to leave the sex work industry.”

Politicians are divided over the prostitution clauses in the bill. During the bill’s committee stage Liberal Democrat Evan Harris said that the move could “drive prostitution further underground,” and make it more difficult to help the women involved. Liberal Democrat shadow Home Secretary Chris Huhne also pointed out that the “unintended consequence” of similar laws in Finland was a “booming” internet prostitution industry.

But former Labour Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart said that the bill does not go far enough, and is campaigning for an outright ban on prostitution instead.

As the bill goes into its final stages, the Collective has vowed to fight all of these clauses along the way. “Women like Cindy and Tina are just trying to make enough money to live on, and if you criminalise clients you also criminalise the women,” says Sarah. “We don’t glorify or glamorise prostitution, but if women are doing sex work they deserve the same human and legal rights as anyone else. We will do everything we can to challenge the bill.”

 More information about the Collective’s campaign can be found at www.prostitutescollective.net

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