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Prostitution in the UK (II): Criminalisation and stigma

There are more English women than foreigners working in the sex industry, although the Government and the Police say otherwise.  However, public opinion polls show that people think women should be able to work in the sex industry without being persecuted. The Prisma’s Memoirs. July 2012


Cari Mitchell

César Amaya Sandino


This argument is used institutionally to justify the rejection of immigration, on which a large part of the UK’s economy depends on, and in this way they are able to exert impunity and criminalisation on sex workers and immigrants.

However, and according to the English Collective of Prostitutes, prostitution is a situation that affects mainly native women (and men on a lower scale), and whose roots are a severe social and economic problem, and the result of stigmatisation in society.

The Prisma continues to discuss this situation and prostitution in the UK in the second part of our interview with Cari Mitchell, a member of the collective.

How many women are currently working in the sex industry?

Figures on the number of women who are working at any one time are almost impossible to find, because most women are underground. Many women even those who work on the street, not all are known to the police, and not all women are known to local projects. Women often go out, earn some money when they need to pay a bill, and then get back home as soon as they can.

They may have regular customers who they meet in various places on the street and then do their business and don’t go- and don’t work in particular areas where women usually work. So, there is a lot of work that goes on. Also, women who work indoors are working at home. Not everybody is working in a parlour on high street or in flat that is known to the projects or the police. Women are extremely careful about their security and to keep what they do absolutely private, hidden. The media puts about figures that there are around 80,000 women working in the sex working industry in this country. We think those figures are low.

Are former sex workers returning to the industry?

There are women who have come to us and given up prostitution, but they realise that they are going to have to go back to work in the sex industry in some way. They are in desperate straits and are wondering how they are going to keep a roof over their heads, and are thinking about how they are going to survive. So, we do know anecdotally that there are more and more women who are working.

Are there many foreigners in this line of work?

Well, not at all. But, again, figures are very skewed and it’s very much in the interest of the police and the government to push around the story that immigrants are coming into this country and working in the sex industry. In London, a lot of surveys find immigrant women working in the sex industry, but then there are immigrant women and men working in every service industry in London, and in many big cities, but particularly in London.

The whole city survives  on immigrant people in service industries. So that’s not a surprise. Overall there are many more women from this country working here than there are immigrant women.

Who are the clients?

Any man with extra money in their pocket, from teenagers to pensioners.

An specific social class?

Every social class. As long as men have a little bit more money than women, that extra £50 or the £30 in the pocket. It is much more common in a man than in women… That’s why men are buying sex., and women are selling it because they need the money and men need the sex, so it’s straight forward.

What about male prostitution?

It’s much less common, of course, because men have more choices. But it seems this is also increasing because of a lack of jobs, lack of choices, particularly for young men, but not only young men, who go into sex work. They are prosecuted less and judged much less than women.

Is government doing anything to help or prevent people going into prostitution?

Far from it. They are putting in place the very conditions that will then force more women into prostitution. Every welfare cut forces more women into prostitution.

How do sex workers contact the English Collective of Prostitutes?

It’s really word of mouth. We’ve been around since 1975, as an organisation campaigning to get rid of the laws and for money and resources so that no one has got to work in the street if they don’t want to. So, we’re quite well known. We used to be referred to as the girl’s union. But we are also very public. We do public campaigning on various issues, many women come to us who have been prosecuted and we work with them, defending themselves in court in some cases, so in that way the word gets around. We also do lots of work in the media, so people hear about us that way.

What about legalisation?

We are for decriminalisation, not legalisation. The two terms are often conflated so that people are not clear about what the issues are. Decriminalisation is removing prostitution – sex work from the criminal law. In New Zealand they have decriminalised successfully, and it is not an offence to buy sex, but all offences of violence, any force or coercion is rape, or assault, and under-age, under 18s can’t sell sex.

Certainly since we were formed, the public opinion has changed completely. The media has been really forced to take sex workers more seriously. Back in the 80s when we were first formed, the media used to refer to sex workers as ‘vice girls’ and ‘seedy’.

But now, the media in general have been really forced to respect them more.

One example of that is when the murders in Ipswich took place in 2006, the media went in there really expecting the local community to be disassociated from women who were working in the sex industry and found completely the opposite.

And of course we feel that the work we have done over the years has been part of that change in the attitude, and public opinion. All public opinion polls taken recently, have shown that around two thirds think that women should be able to work together without being criminalised. We feel the public opinion is really on our side.

(Photos Pixabay)

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