Is The UK Government Creating And Turning A Blind Eye To Prostitution?

When 17-year-old Amanda* found herself pregnant she was determined to build a better life for her unborn baby. She made an oath to herself to give the child all the love and things that her own childhood had lacked. Fast-forward to 10 years and two children later, Amanda did end up carving out of a different kind of life for herself and her little ones. It was one that she could have never anticipated—not even in her wildest thoughts. Amanda belongs to a new generation of prostitutes born out of an economic austerity that has forced thousands of women in the UK into the sex trade.

‘Sometimes In Life You Don’t Have A Choice’

“This isn’t what a normal person wants to do. Sometimes in life, you just don’t have a choice – especially when all you are trying to do is the best by your kids when you don’t have many opportunities,” Amanda murmured. “But sometimes life isn’t fair like that.”

A combination of desperate financial circumstances, few resources, and limited work opportunities has not only propelled women like Amanda into the industry but also left them unsafe due to ambiguous British laws. Although prostitution itself is not against the law, many activities that surround the trade are deemed illegal.

“I have been robbed, sexually assaulted, and beaten up, but going to the police means I could get into trouble. If I go to jail, who will take care of my kids? The law isn’t set up to protect women like me, so how can I report crimes when they happen? We are treated like the criminals—not the victims,” Amanda said. Amanda further explained that clients knew this and some could use that to their advantage.

When asked if this did not make her afraid to go to work, she responded simply, “Every time I leave home for work, I feel scared. But what can I do? My children need to eat and I have no family or partner to help us. I left school with no qualifications. A minimum wage job won’t even cover the rent for the month. I have no choice. All I can do is pray and hope for the best.”

British Prostitutes Targeted by the Law

The biggest study ever on prostitution in the UK revealed that female sex workers often refrained from reporting incidents of violence due to fears of prosecution. The report, which was published and commissioned by the British Home Office and conducted by the University of Bristol said, “the combination of financial need and the legal and regulatory environment were identified as a ‘perfect cocktail of conditions’ for undermining safety.”

It highlighted a direct correlation between prostitutes and sexual and physical violence. Like Amanda, many women on the survey said that they did not report such crimes because they were too scared of prosecution. The study also revealed that a lot of female sex workers wanted to work with each other as a means of “enhancing safety, of sharing tips, saving on costs, of having a laugh and ‘off-loading’ emotionally between clients”. Under British law, however, this is illegal, as prostitutes are not permitted to work together as a group.

‘People Have Been Left With No Money. This is Particularly Devastating For Mothers’

A representative for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), Niki Adams, told The Independent:

“A big proportion of women are single mothers. It is also a lot of women in their twenties. Universal Credit has a massive impact on people coming to us. Having to wait five weeks before you get any benefits under Universal Credit is forcing women back into prostitution or into starting prostitution for the first time. People have been left with no money. This is particularly devastating for mothers – how do you get the money for the next meal for your children?

“This report shows sex workers are largely women struggling to get by in very difficult circumstances and goes against the stereotype of the poor victim and the happy worker. We see a lot of women who have suffered violence at the hands of male clients or male thugs who break into the premises where they are working. They are scared of reporting to the police due to the fear of going to prison.”

The Nordic Response To Prostitution

Some have proposed the Nordic Model, also known as the Sex Buyer Law, which decriminalizes the sex worker and instead, criminalizes the clients. In theory, it sets out to safeguard those who felt their only option was to sell sex while providing measures to assist them in leaving the trade. The model hopes to lead to an eventual decline in the demand that drives the sex trafficking industry.

Yet, campaigners against the model have claimed that there has been an increase in violence against prostitutes in countries that have adopted the Nordic approach.

In 2018—a year after it Nordic-style laws were passed in Ireland—the New Statesman reported that there were 900 incidents of violence against sex workers in the year preceding the change, and more than 1,400 since then, an almost 50 per cent rise.

*Name has been changed to retain anonymity