The conviction last week of Steve Wright for the murder of five women in Ipswich has highlighted the violence and abuse faced by women involved in prostitution.
Prostitution is dangerous – women working as prostitutes face a high risk of assault and rape and are 12 times more likely to be murdered than other women.
Government ministers have repeatedly expressed their concern for women involved in prostitution.
However, their policies criminalise women and put them at increasing risk.
Around 3,500 women each year are cautioned or convicted for soliciting. Prison sentences for soliciting were abolished in 1983.
But they have crept back under New Labour through the increasing use of Asbos. People can be jailed for breaking an Asbo relating to a non‑imprisonable offence.
Proposed legislation currently in the House of Lords would indirectly reintroduce prison sentences for soliciting.
It would introduce new measures to deal with “persistent soliciting” which involve mandatory “rehabilitation” and counselling with the threat of three days’ imprisonment for missing an appointment.
This turns the rhetoric of offering routes out of prostitution into a punitive recipe for locking up more women.
Talk of “rehabilitation” also falls flat when you consider the lack of funding for appropriate services.
Almost half of all London boroughs have no sexual health outreach service for women involved in prostitution.
The criminalisation of street prostitution is one of the major factors deterring women from accessing health and welfare services.
It also means much violence against prostitutes goes unreported.
Women who are worried about being arrested, have outstanding warrants for their arrest, or have had an Asbo served on them are much less likely to report assaults or come forward as witnesses.
The home office’s last major strategy paper, published in January 2006, states that “street prostitution is not an activity that we can tolerate in our towns and cities”.
This approach has driven the rise in Asbos against prostitutes.
A 2005 report for the London Assembly cited case studies showing that when an Asbo excludes a prostitute from an area it cuts her off from vital support services.
Asbos also split up groups of women who previously would look out for one another.
Women’s minister Harriet Harman has called for a move towards the “Swedish system” in which men are criminalised for buying sex, rather than the women who sell it.
The problem with this approach is that as it pushes men who use prostitutes to become more secretive, it drives prostitutes looking for work into more secluded and dangerous areas.
The government has repeatedly rejected proposals for tolerance zones – areas where women could work more safely and potentially with more access to support services.
There are undoubtedly problems with such zones and debates about how they operate, but the evidence suggests that they are safer for women.
For example, 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 zone was closed down, there were 31 reported attacks. In the first half of 2003 that rose to 54 attacks.
The issue of prostitution raises wider questions. Despite a current fashion for talking about “sex work” as if it is a career choice, prostitution is not a happy or free choice for women.
Most women turn to prostitution because of poverty or addiction. Every survey in the last ten years confirms that the majority of prostitutes have a drug addiction. Many have suffered sexual abuse.
Over the past few years we have seen a worrying increase in acceptability of men using prostitutes and other forms of sexual exploitation.
This is especially true of businessmen and other young men with money.
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 means challenging the hypocrisy of the government and the sexism of the society we live in.