The murder of three women working as prostitutes in Bradford has shone a light on what is, for much of the establishment, an uncomfortable subject.
While the tabloids compete for headline space, the deeper questions at the heart of the story go unanswered.
The murdered women—Suzanne Blamires, 36; Shelley Armitage, 31; and Susan Rushworth, 43—had all turned to prostitution to feed their heroin addiction.
One of Susan Rushworth’s children works as a prostitute.
Suzanne Blamires began using heroin in her early 20s. Shelley Armitage had problems with alcohol and drug addiction, and was trying to support two children.
Research shows that drug addiction is the most common cause of prostitution—along with dire poverty and previous experiences of domestic and sexual abuse.
Over 70 percent of women working as prostitutes were in care as children.
Life for prostitutes is fraught with danger. They are 12 times more likely to commit suicide than women who are not. Prostitutes work in unsafe conditions and are at risk of physical and sexual violence, and sexual disease.
Current government policy is based broadly on the Swedish model, which targets men by making it illegal to pay for sex.
Prison sentences for women selling sex were abolished in 1983.
But experts warn that by targeting men who “curb crawl” or pay for sex, women are effectively driven underground—into back streets and placed in dangerous circumstances.
Targeting men therefore targets the women who sell sex. It does nothing to deal with the reasons women turn to prostitution.
Women know they are in danger—those who work as prostitutes in Bradford have spoken in the media about the risks they face. But they also fear the police and rarely report attacks, or threatening men on the streets.
As Georgina Perry, an outreach worker in east London, told BBC’s Newsnight programme last week, “The police cannot enforce the law on one hand and protect on the other... it is prosecution that drives women underground. It is that fear which oppresses women.”
The situation is made worse by the economic crisis.
Homelessness and poverty are on the rise. Where prostitutes often think of selling sex as a temporary measure—to pay for drugs or buy food, for example—it soon becomes a way to survive.
And cuts in drug services, and the “not in my backyard” attitude in many areas mean that it will become harder for women to escape it.
While some excellent work is being done by NHS services—like the east London Open Doors project that runs clinics for women working as prostitutes—it is precisely these sorts of services that are first in line for Tory cuts.
The issue of prostitution is not just one of safety. Prostitution is symptomatic of a system that thrives on the oppression of women.
And the debate has been muddied by an increase in sexual exploitation—the rise of lap dancing clubs and the “sex-as-entertainment” industry.
This week, 40 years after the implementation of the Equal Pay Act, we find that women are still paid 17 percent less than men.
Women earn the lowest wages and bear most of the responsibility for childcare, and care of sick and elderly relatives, without pay.
The fact is that women’s oppression benefits capitalism. And, prostitution will continue as long as women remain unequal and sex is commodified.
As socialists, we are committed to fighting for a different kind of society—where women are not forced to sell their bodies and where men do not know what it is to buy them.
But while prostitution exists we should support all attempts to make it safer for the women involved—that means challenging the hypocrisy of the government and the sexism of the society we live in.