There has been a recent push to criminalise the clients of sex workers. Often, those in favour of this law cite poverty as a form of economic coercion that pushes people into selling sex, taking away their choice. This, they argue, means the consent of sex workers is not freely given, and therefore we should criminalise clients.
As sex workers, we know first-hand that poverty is a huge factor in why people sell sex. However, we cannot understand why criminalising the income source of people who sell sex is presented as a ‘solution’ to the economic coercion of poverty. If campaigners are concerned that poverty takes away people’s choices, we suggest that a real solution would be to tackle poverty, not to criminalise what is often the final option that people have for surviving poverty.
As such, we are calling for:
- Free twenty-four hour universal childcare. Many women who sell sex are doing so to support their children, often because they are single mothers. The flexibility of sex work fits around childcare responsibilities. If single parents – who are mostly women, or people read as women – could rely on 24 hour free childcare, they would have new flexibility to take work other than sex work. This would help people who wish to transition from selling sex into another form of work to be able to do so.
- Migrants to be able work legally. At present, refugees and migrants who are waiting to hear the result of their application to stay in the UK are not legally permitted to work. This means that when they do work, they are very vulnerable to exploitation such as employers not paying the minimum wage. Migrants who are awaiting the result of their application to stay are paid only 70% of the weekly jobseekers’ allowance, a figure which explicitly puts them below the poverty line. The UK government forces people to live in poverty, which means that women and LBGTQ migrants are making an understandable decision if they sell sex. If migrants were legally allowed to work – and therefore offered basic protections such as the minimum wage – the increase in options would mean that fewer migrants would feel forced by poverty into selling sex.
- End the part-time gender pay gap. 74% of those in part time work are women, and women of colour and migrant women (documented and undocumented) are more likely to be part of this workforce. Women who work part-time are paid an hourly rate 34% lower than than the hourly rate of their full-time male colleagues, and these figures are compounded for women of colour, who suffer a double discrimination. Women and people of colour, and especially women of colour, need equal pay for equal work, and the disparity is most stark in part-time work. Achieving this goal would mean that women who wish to stop selling sex could move into other flexible or part-time work without suffering a huge and illegal pay gap, and the poverty that that entails.
- Secure housing for all. Many women and LGBTQ people, including youth, who are homeless or suffer from insecure housing sell or trade sex. We are in solidarity with the Focus E15 mothers: social housing not social cleansing! Everyone should have access to safe, secure, affordable housing that treats their community ties as important. If, as a society, we chose to prioritise ending homelessness through the provision of appropriate resources and person-centred support (rather than through punitive approaches and the further criminalisation of homelessness), we would expand the options of people who are homeless and who currently sell or trade sex to survive.
- A universal basic income. Our society should agree to a basic standard of living below which no one should be able to fall. This should include the ability to afford housing, feed oneself and one’s family, buy clothes, and afford sufficient fuel to heat the house and cook. We would argue that this should also include access to public transport, a mobile phone and internet access, as well as access to leisure services such as libraries and swimming pools. A universal basic income would recognise that absolutely everyone should be able to live in dignity, regardless of what paid work they do or don’t do. It would acknowledge that a lot of fundamental work – often that done by women, such as child-rearing, housework, and caring for elderly relatives – currently goes unpaid. If every person in the UK was entitled to a universal basic income, no one would be pushed by absolute poverty into selling sex.
If any one – or all – of these policies were implemented, fewer people would be forced by poverty to sell sex. By providing people who sell or trade sex with additional options, these policies treat sex workers respectfully, as people who know best about their own lives. This is in contrast to the approach of criminalising clients, which is a punitive, patronising, one-size fits all policy that provides no new options, and that attempts to drive people out of sex work with the threat of renewed poverty (what else does criminalising our incomes do?) and worsening working conditions.
The commonly-seen argument that “it isn’t poverty that creates prostitution – its men’s demand” locates the problem not in poverty, but in the fact that some people respond to poverty by selling sex. When these arguments are marshalled in favour of “end demand” laws, they identify “prostitution” as the issue that should be tackled, leaving poverty untouched. So long as a person does not sell sex, her poverty is acceptable to these campaigners. Well, as sex workers, we have a moral objection to poverty. Poverty is objectifying, demeaning, and coercive. A society that accepts poverty or finds poverty inevitable does not respect women. Poverty is a form of violence, a violence that disproportionately affects marginalised people. Poverty cannot be made safe.