The recent brutal series of murders of women in Ipswich has brought the question of prostitution and violent crime to the foreground.
The police are keen to stress how seriously they take these murders, but police and government policy consistently make life more dangerous for prostitutes.
One of the main driving concerns of government policy is to clear prostitution off the streets. The home office strategy paper, published in January this year, states that “street prostitution is not an activity that we can tolerate in our towns and cities.” One of the four stated aims in the paper is to reduce street prostitution. Much of this policy translates on the ground into harassing women (who make up the vast majority of prostitutes) through Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos) and other criminal justice enforcement.
This means that much violence against prostitutes goes unreported. A survey of prostitutes in Glasgow found that 88 percent of women had experience at some level of the criminal justice system. Women who are worried about being arrested, have warrants out for them, or have had an Asbo served on them are much less likely to report assaults or come forward as witnesses.
Prostitution is notoriously dangerous for women. Estimates suggest that a prostitute is murdered somewhere in Britain around once every two months. Women working as prostitutes are 12 times more likely to be murdered than other women. On top of this prostitutes face a very high risk of assault and rape.
The increasing use of Asbos against prostitutes puts them in more danger. A report last year for the London Assembly was highly critical of the use of Asbos against prostitutes. It showed that Asbos simply shift prostitution from one area to another.
It also cited a case study which points out that when an Asbo excludes a prostitute from an area it cuts her off from vital local health and support services. Such exclusion also splits up groups of women who previously would look out for each other. Prostitutes who break Asbos are at risk of prison, whereas prison sentences for soliciting and loitering were actually abolished in 1983.
In some areas there has been a shift away from criminalising prostitutes to criminalising the people who use prostitutes – the kerb crawlers. The problem with this is that as it pushes men who use prostitutes to become more secretive, it pushes prostitutes looking for work into more secluded and dangerous areas, and often means women have to work alone and have less time to decide whether they want to get into someone’s car or not.
The government has rejected proposals for tolerance zones – areas where women could work more safely and with more support and access to health care and other services. There are debates to be had about how such zones operate in practice and they don’t necessarily deal with many problems that prostitutes face. But all the evidence suggests that such zones are safer for women.
Edinburgh had an unofficial tolerance zone for many years. In 2001, the last year of the zone, there were 11 reported attacks on prostitutes in the city. In 2002, after the closure of the zone there were 31 reported attacks. In the first half of 2003 that rose to 54 attacks in just six months.
Despite a current fashion for talking about “sex work” as if it is a career choice, prostitution is not a happy option for women. In reality, most women turn to prostitution because of poverty. Every survey in the last ten years confirms that the majority of prostitutes have a drug addiction. Many have suffered sexual abuse. Over 30 recent studies carried out in different towns and cities of England found that most women involved in prostitution got involved before the age of 20. Over a third of these women had been in care homes.
Socialists want a society without prostitution. We want a world in which sex is not a commodity and women are not forced through poverty or addiction to sell their bodies. But while prostitution exists we should support all attempts to make it safer for the women involved. This also means challenging the hypocrisy of the government and the police.