Sex workers and allies marked the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers by hosting a gathering outside of the Houses of Parliament yesterday. Led by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM), they hosted a ceremony to commemorate the ones who’ve lost their lives to violence this year.
Worldwide, it is estimated that about 40 million people are prostitutes, amongst which 80% are women aged between 13 and 25. In the UK, there are approximately 72,800 sex workers – 88% are women, 6% men and 4% transgender. Violence against sex workers is endemic: a 2014 study found that 77% of street based sex workers and 17% of inside workers had suffered violent attack, and women who are prostitutes are raped between 8 to 10 times a year on average. Women working in prostitution experience more levels of violence against them than women working in other fields. In London, prostitutes are 12 times more likely to be murdered than other women. It would be much safer to work indoors with others, but this is illegal.
Research shows that the existing prostitution laws “make sex workers less safe and provide impunity for abusers, with sex workers often too scared of being penalized to report crime to the police.”
There is also evidence to indicate that violence from the police is a significant problem. A New York study found that 30% of sex workers had been threatened with violence by police officers, and 27% actually experienced violence at the hands of police. In the UK, the situation is worsened by the fact that the police profit from raids, arrests and convictions for prostitution: they get half of all assets and cash seized under Proceeds of Crime law.
The evidence that austerity cuts have increased prostitution must also be heeded: for instance, a 60% increase in street prostitution recorded in Doncaster is primarily attributed to destitution caused by benefit sanctions. Moreover, a quarter of young homeless women have engaged in sex work to fund accommodation or in the hope of getting a bed for the night. 74% of off-street sex workers “cited the need to pay household expenses and support their children” as their reason to take on sex work. 86% of austerity cuts have targeted women.
Apart of remembering the victims of violence against sex workers, the demonstrators gathered in front of Parliament yesterday called on the government to implement the Home Affairs Committee recommendations to: “ . . . change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and so that brothel-keeping provisions allow sex workers to share premises” and that legislation should be drafted to provide for the “deletion of previous convictions and cautions for prostitution from the record of sex workers.”
The representatives from ECP said:
“We protest violence from individual attackers but we also protest police violence. Who do we report to if our attackers are police? We protest sexism, racism and other discrimination which mean that migrant and trans sex workers and people of colour are the vast majority of sex workers who lose their lives. And we protest the violence of poverty; the majority of sex workers are mothers, standing between destitution and the survival of our families. Finally, we protest the violence of criminalization because it undermines our efforts to work safely and organise for our rights.”