Tackling the permanent social exclusion of sex workers

Tackling the permanent social exclusion of sex workers

By Sarah Talbot-Williams for Developing Health & Independence's Vision Project

I am told regularly, normally by men, that women have gained equality. But in so many ways I know they are wrong.

You don’t have to look further than Caroline Criado Perez’s book “Invisible Women” published yesterday. It gives example after example of the gender data gap. Did you know that most offices are five degrees too cold for women? It is because the formula to determine their temperature was developed in the 1960s based on the metabolic resting rate of a 40-year-old 70kg man; women’s metabolisms are slower. Or that women, here in the UK, are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack? Heart failure trials generally use male participants. You might not be surprised that cars are designed around the body of “reference man”. The impact is that, although men are more likely to crash, women involved in collisions are nearly 50% more likely to be seriously hurt.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day today on March 8th, let’s look a little deeper into our communities where the impact of inequality is stark and much harsher. This really shows us how far we haven’t come. I don’t claim to highlight all the issues which challenge us in society but I want to highlight just a few examples of where women are excluded from our society and our systems – where they struggle in our society to be heard, helped or acknowledged; where they are vulnerable, forgotten, hidden and ignored.

320,000 people were counted as homeless in 2018, a 4% rise from 2017, which is the equivalent of 36 new people a day. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, some say more than 62% of single homeless people are hidden and do not show up in official figures. And many of these people are women. Women make up at least 20% of the estimated homeless population, hidden from the statistics because the dangers on the streets drive them to literally hide in gardens and parks to avoid violence or because they are not officially homeless, as they are forced to live under a roof in uncertain, violent and abusive housing – often being made to undertake sex work. With no money, no support networks and often an addiction, they will stay in a “home” where there is sexual exploitation and domestic abuse rather than sleep rough. What kind of choice is that? It is no “home” at all.

Bristol charity, One25, who work with vulnerable women who are involved in street sex work, report that more than 80% of the women are homeless. Lack of housing is one of the biggest obstacles for these women to move on and move into more safe and secure environments. Without a safe place to stay, women will struggle not to go back into the cycle of abusive ex-partners, into their addictions, into being pimped into street sex work, and often end up in prison again.

Although buying and selling sex is not illegal in the UK, some of the associated practices are – such as loitering and soliciting to sell sex on the street. And even here we see such inequity and gender bias. Figures show that between 1984-2016, there were 138,947 convictions of women soliciting to sell sex, while only 125 convictions of men soliciting to buy. Women are deemed responsible for prostitution in spite of the fact that the women are often there through male coercion in the first place. That also doesn’t take account of the large numbers of women who have received ASBOs and other orders and have been further criminalised for breaching them, often through little fault of their own. And if you believed that our society and our criminal justice system was committed to driving people away from re-offending, think again.

Prison sentences for soliciting to sell sex ended in 1982 in favour of fines. Far from fines having a deterrent effect, many women simply return to selling sex in order to pay the fines. This puts women at further danger of being rearrested and could leave them being trapped in a continuous cycle of fines and prostitution. The accumulation of fines can also result in women having extensive financial problems, posing another obstacle to exit street sex work.

And even when women are able to restart their lives away from street sex work and addiction, their lives are overshadowed by the fact that their ‘sexual offences’ will follow them throughout their lives. When a woman who has left sex work is trying to get employment that requires a DBS check (Disclosure and Barring Service), their ‘sexual offence’ is shared with prospective employers, often leading to rejection. And this will continue to impact their family life too. I often hear that women don’t take part in school activity with their children because they have to have a DBS check and can’t risk their past coming out into their children’s lives. Imagine your child’s school being aware of the fact that you had a caution or fine for soliciting to sell sex in your past.

So our world, our society still holds fast to prejudice, discrimination and inequality for women. We can of course see it all around us. But I hope that this small focus on the more vulnerable women in our communities makes us all think and feel outraged that women who are often abused as a child – not their fault; who are trafficked or coerced into prostitution – not their fault; who have suffered such trauma mainly at the hands of men – their family, their pimp, their punters; who are hidden from our homelessness statistics and most of our services; are made to live each day for their rest of their lives with the stigma which will never cease which comes with their criminal record.

This article was written for The Vision Project by Sarah Talbot-Williams. Sarah is the former Chair of Trustees at DHI, and past Chief Executive of Bristol’s NHS Charity, Above & Beyond. She is now a charity strategy and governance consultant, a non-executive director and a trustee for a number of charities including One25.

DHI has invited the author to write the above article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies or otherwise of DHI.

The Vision Project is DHI's way of marking its 20th anniversary, not by looking backwards but by looking forwards.

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