Driven on to the streets

New proposals to clamp down on safer forms of prostitution will only push sex workers further underg

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What is so shocking about adverts for escorts in local papers? Why does Harriet Harman want to clamp down on the safer ways women have found to work?

Following the tragic Ipswich murders, we called together a Safety First Coalition of nurses, doctors, church people, probation officers, anti-poverty campaigners, sex workers and others, to ensure that women are not repeatedly placed in danger.

We believe that there can be no protection while sex workers are being hounded, and campaign for prostitution to be decriminalised and for proper economic alternatives for women who want to get out of prostitution. Whatever people may think about sex work, women’s safety must be the priority.

The government is using people’s widespread concern for women and children’s safety to clamp down on all sex workers. Yet most immigrant sex workers are not trafficked, and those who are, do not benefit from this approach.

Anti-trafficking raids such as Pentameter 1 and 2 have not resulted in vulnerable women being ‘rescued’ but in an increase in immigrant sex workers being deported. Women and children who are being kept in forced labour, whether in the sex or agricultural industry or in domestic work, have said repeatedly that the biggest deterrent to reporting violence is fear of arrest and deportation.

Surely, the best way to help victims of pimps or traffickers is to make sure they can report their persecutors and see them arrested and convicted. For this, a place of safety, ongoing protection, resources and the right to stay, are needed. But none of these measures are forthcoming.

Instead, women are being driven onto the streets by raids on premises where it is many times safer to work, and new laws such as Clause 72 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007, want to force street workers into ‘rehabilitation’ by moral police under threat of prison. Preventing advertising in local papers is part of this repressive trend which is pushing sex workers further underground.

Prostitute women who face so much discrimination, arrest and imprisonment have had little support from feminists, beginning with those in positions of power. The most vocal have often looked down on sex workers, promoting the moralistic view that sex work is uniquely degrading, and have backed police raids against us.

They have refused to hear what sex workers have to say, preferring instead to decide on our behalf what is ‘good for them’. As a result there are now NGOs which are taking millions in Home Office grants to ‘help’ victims of trafficking, while helping to deport ‘rescued’ women back to the poverty they fled.

Tackling women’s poverty has never been the priority. Ms. Harman was the spokeswoman for New Labour’s first measure to cut single mothers’ benefits – at a stroke forcing more women into the sex industry. Her government has promoted such obscenities as the war in Iraq which, in addition to causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, is forcing millions into destitution, exile and, of course, prostitution. If she abhors obscenity in advertising, what about abolishing arms fairs?

Since 1975, the English Collective of Prostitutes has been campaigning for the abolition of the prostitution laws which criminalize sex workers and their families, and for economic alternatives and higher benefits and wages. No woman, child or man should be forced by poverty or violence into sex with anyone. We provide information, help and support to individual prostitute women and others who are concerned with sex workers’ human, civil, legal and economic rights.