Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Sex Workers' Safety

These are three letters (two from yesterday's Guardian and one from the same paper on May 22nd) addressing the government's continuing attacks on sex workers. The government-funded Poppy Project has previously earned condemnation for its falsified data alleging that 75% of all UK sex workers are trafficked, and its government-sponsored conclusion that the "Swedish model", i.e. criminalizing the purchase of sex, rather than decriminalizing prostitution, is the best thing for British sex workers.

Sex Worker Safety and the Poppy Project

If the Poppy Project is concerned about prostitutes being criminalised, where is it when the law raids, detains and deports women (Letters, 26 May); when mothers working collectively face closure, brothel-keeping charges, imprisonment and separation from their children; or when women driven out of premises risk rape or murder on the street?

While anti-rape organisations struggle to survive, the Poppy Project has received £9.5m from the Office for Criminal Justice Reform since 2003. Its research implying that most sex workers had been trafficked was condemned as flawed by 27 academics. The legal definition of traffiking for prostitution,
unlike all other trafficking, fails to mention coercion. So foreign accents alone can inflate figures, which are then used to justify laws criminalising both clients and sex workers. High figures lead to large funding, not to women's safety.

Cari Mitchell
English Collective of Prostitutes

The Poppy Project claims it is feminist. My feminist organisation in Turkey was approached by a group of sex workers after the police smashed streetlights where they worked, making them vulnerable to attack. Should we have refused to help on the basis that their job legitimises men's violence against women? No, we considered that sex workers knew best how to protect themselves, and supported them. Even if you are against prostitution, you should distinguish yourself from the Home Office - though this is harder if, like the Poppy Project, you are funded by it.

Filiz Gul


Double blow for poor mothers

The government is criticised for not criminalising prostitutes' clients enough (New law on forced prostitution weakened, say women's groups, 20 May). But what about their increasing criminalisation of women? Not accidentally, the crime bill and the welfare reform bill are going through parliament together. If passed, mothers, especially single mothers, will lose income support and must "progress towards work" or take a job; so will over-60s and people with disabilities and their carers, mostly women. If you can't find a job, you must "work for your benefits" ie for £1.73 an hour - the biggest attack yet on the minimum wage - or lose them.

Street workers will be rounded up and "rehabilitated". Those working indoors - 10 times safer than the street - will be raided and their earnings seized by police and prosecutors who collect their own expense claim: they keep 50% of all proceeds - a corruption of law and order which now determines priorities.

At least 70% of sex workers are mothers escaping poverty, homelessness, debt, low wages and domestic violence. Four million children live in poverty. What right has the House of ill repute to judge what mothers do to feed them? Feminists Josephine Butler, Eleanor Rathbone and Virginia Woolf would be horrified that a parliament with more women MPs and ministers than ever has launched this attack on mothers and others with the least, during a deep recession.

Butler campaigned against the criminalisation of working-class women. Unlike anti-prostitution feminists today, she never dismissed the effects of laws on mothers supporting families through prostitution. Rathbone fought for unwaged mothers, on whose work the whole society rests, to have independent money from the state. She influenced the Beveridge report which proposed family allowances. Virginia Woolf feared that women entering the professions could end up dancing "round and round the mulberry tree, the poison tree of intellectual harlotry". It is a man, John McDonnell MP, who has taken the lead in defending women against this injustice. Where have (almost) all the feminists gone? Briefings on both bills and an open letter to sign opposing them are at

Selma James Global Women's Strike
Cari Mitchell
English Collective of Prostitutes
Kim Sparrow
Single Mothers' Self-Defence