In the UK it remains legal to purchase sex from anyone over 18 years old who has not been trafficked for the purpose. I have spent just over 18 months running writing workshops at charity Eaves for Women, which supports women exiting prostitution, and believe, like many campaigners, that the law needs to be changed. All the women I have worked with have told me that the only reason they sold sex was for the money. For them, this was a basic matter of survival.
One-third of women enter prostitution before the age of 18, 50% are coerced into it, and 73% have experienced some form of childhood violence before entering prostitution, according to Eaves' 2013 reports "Capital Exploits" and 2012 report "Breaking Down the Barriers". Half of the women involved in prostitution also hold a criminal record for related offences.
While various TV shows and movies have spent millions over decades selling the myth of sexual empowerment, glamour and liberation through films from Breakfast at Tiffanys and Pretty Woman through to Secret Diary of a Call Girl, the truth has been hidden. The most beaten, raped and murdered people in society have been silenced. Prostitutes are 18 times more likely to be murdered than the general population, as revealed in the 2007 study "Hard Knock Life" (New Philanthropy Capital).
A massive 1998 study across five countries found 92% of prostitutes wanting to exit immediately. As they have to "entertain" men who view them as "like getting a beer", and someone "they can do things to that real women would not put up with", as admitted in interviews for the report "Men Who Buy Sex" (Eaves, April 2012) this is hardly surprising.
Services to support women exiting prostitution are becoming scarce however, and the centre based at Eaves where I started the writing workshops no longer exists. While there are other volunteers like myself who continue to run some sessions, the practical advice workshops and therapy sessions that are crucial to helping women change their lives cannot be run without funding that has been cut in recent months. It is especially telling to me that while a couple of women who had been using the services at Eaves for the past couple of years are now in full time college courses, others who only made contact in the weeks before the cuts have since been found to be back on the streets. This is the direct impact of funding cuts.
Women who have been involved in prostitution receive the worst kinds of prejudice and derogatory stereotyping that I have ever come across. Beyond even the most despicable examples of homophobia, racism and sexism, they are repeatedly scorned, shamed and vilified by society. These attitudes compound the difficulties that exiting prostitution already presents. Given the evidence that most will have been abused in childhood, have no formal qualifications, suffer from one or more mental health problems, been coerced or trafficked into prostitution before the age of 21 and beaten, threatened and raped by both pimps and punters, as revealed by Eaves 2012 study "Breaking Down the Barriers" the last things these people need are more obstacles to a safe future.
However, there are crucial preventative measures that have been proven to make a difference. In Merseyside in 2006, crimes against people in prostitution were reclassified as hate crimes, in recognition of the vicious aggression they endure. This has led to conviction rates 10 times greater than the national average for rape. It remains a mystery why this successful scheme has not been rolled out across the rest of the UK.
Significantly, in Sweden in 1999 (followed by Norway in 2008 and Iceland in 2009), the law was altered so that the purchase of sex was made illegal, rather than the sale. At the same time, the governments invested in programmes to support people exiting prostitution, equipping them with comprehensive access to social services. Not only has this halved street prostitution, but countrywide levels of rape and domestic violence have dropped. Respect for women appears to be contagious!
I have recently written and produced a film, Honest Lies, adapted from a story written last December by an exceptionally talented woman named Anita James, who attends the writing workshops at Eaves.
Funded 100% by pledges made on Kickstarter, and with help from some extraordinary industry professionals, the 11-minute film screened for the first time at Amnesty International Headquarters on Monday 14th October to an audience of almost 200 people.
Image by Sandy Greenway
Fiona Mactaggart MP, who has been tirelessly campaigning for prostitution laws to be reformed, spoke powerfully on the panel about the need for the UK to adpot the Nordic Model. UK Feminista founder Kat Banyard quoted statistics that prove the sex industry is driven by a demand that can be stopped. Meanwhile Cheryl Stafford, Exiting Prostitution Advocate from Eaves spoke with great tenderness about the need to treat women with care and non-judgement, listening to their voices and giving them practical support. Most compelling were the words of Ruth Jacobs, writer and campaigner who is presenting the BBC1 Inside Out investigation on the Merseyside Model due to air on 21st October. As a survivor of prostitution and childhood abuse she spoke with great passion and truth about the need for poverty to be tackled as it remains the driving force behind prostitution.
Image by Sandy Greenway
If prostitution rates are to be brought down, and women made safer, the laws around prostitution must be changed. Even the "punters" themselves confessed during interviews for research conducted by Eaves that the most effective deterrents for them would be being added to the sex offender register, publicly identified, or time in prison.
It is my sincere hope that the voices and stories of those who have been involved in prostitution can be listened to, and the UK can begin to take the practical steps towards recognising, as its Nordic counterparts do, that human beings are not commodities.
Gabriella Apicella is a freelance writer and tutor. Honest Lies is her first film as a Producer.