THE DISCOVERY of the bodies of five young women in Ipswich, all brutally murdered, shocked and touched people all over the country. It also lifted the lid on the violent world of street prostitution, raising the question of what can be done to prevent such horrific events happening again.
Over the last 10 years around 60 prostitutes have been murdered in England and Wales but only 16 arrests have been made. There are four unsolved murders of prostitutes going back to the mid-1990s in the Norwich and Ipswich areas alone. A report by the Economic and Social Research Council found that two thirds of sex workers had been violently attacked by their clients, with street prostitutes at greatest risk. 28% had suffered attempted rape.
Sex workers, especially street prostitutes, are especially vulnerable to violence and abuse. One study found that they were 40 times more likely to be murdered than other women. But these terrible figures reflect a society in which violence against women in general is endemic. One in seven women will be raped and one in four women will experience domestic violence at some time in their lives. Two women are killed by their partners or ex-partners every week.
Violence and abuse of women are rooted in the centuries old idea that men have control and authority over women, including their sexuality. Prostitution is itself a form of abuse against women, reinforced by the capitalist profit system which reduces everything to a commodity for sale.
Prostitution is not, as some would argue, a ‘lifestyle choice’ which women freely enter into. Women are coerced and forced into selling their bodies by pimps, traffickers and economic necessity. All five women murdered in Ipswich were drug addicts, forced to prostitute themselves to get their next fix. Surveys show that over 90% of street prostitutes are hooked on drugs. One carried out in Ipswich in 2004 found that 93% were addicted to heroin, and 82% to crack. The majority of street prostitutes have experienced violence or sexual abuse earlier in their lives.
It would only be possible to move towards eradicating prostitution and violence against women in a society which was free from poverty and where the inequalities of power and wealth, which breed violence and economic and sexual exploitation and abuse, are replaced by economic and personal relationships based on equality and co-operation. Socialism would lay the basis for this to happen. But in the meantime existing legislation, attitudes and government policy are reinforcing and exacerbating the risks that street prostitutes in particular face.
The Suffolk police have gone out of their way in their press conferences to be sympathetic to the murdered women. Attitudes in society towards women involved in prostitution have moved on since the time of the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ in the early Eighties and the police have reflected this. But The Sun still had headlines calling the women ‘hookers’ and ‘vice girls’, giving the impression that because they were involved in prostitution their lives were somehow not as important as those of other women. The fact that so many murders of prostitutes go unsolved would seem to suggest that prejudice is still deeply ingrained.
A survey of murder cases where convictions were secured found that in half of cases the men had previous convictions for violence against women, including murder, manslaughter, rape and assault. But the Three-City Comparison report found that only 32.4% of crime against sex workers is reported to the police. Many women think that they won’t be believed if they report violent attacks – or that it will be dismissed as just an ‘occupational hazard’.
The idea that it’s impossible to rape a prostitute is still quite widely held, including by the police. It was only 15 years ago that the law was changed to recognise rape within marriage. Previous to that, the law assumed that on marriage women became the property of men and that they could do what they wanted to them sexually. While not all men who use prostitutes are physically violent, paying for sex is intrinsically linked to the idea of property and control.
The laws relating to prostitution also make it difficult for women to report violent crime and abuse. The government’s own consultation paper ‘Paying the Price’ states that “many of the laws relating to prostitution are outdated, confusing and ineffective”.. But New Labour has been governed by moral considerations and the right-wing media, and have made no significant changes to existing law. Instead, they have encouraged police ‘crackdowns’, especially through the use of Asbos, which place women involved in street prostitution further at risk.
Prostitution is not illegal, but activities associated with it such as soliciting and ‘brothel keeping’ are. Fining women for soliciting simply means that they have to sell their bodies even more to pay the fines. Women who have outstanding fines are unlikely to report violent attacks to the police if they fear being arrested. Similarly, women that are illegal immigrants run the risk of being deported if they go to the police. Breach of an Asbo is a criminal offence which can mean hefty fines or even prison.
Understandably Asbos, which are used to move prostitutes away from residential areas, are often welcomed by the residents themselves who may have had problems with kerb crawlers, syringes etc. But while an area might temporarily be cleared of prostitution through the use of Asbos, the women concerned are likely to move to isolated and rundown areas where they are placed at even greater risk of violent attack and even murder.
So is it possible to put forward measures which protect women involved in street prostitution while at the same time taking account of the concerns of local residents? Some people argue that the men who use prostitutes should be targeted rather than the women themselves. This is a policy that has been pursued in Sweden and street prostitution is now virtually nonexistent. However, in Britain street prostitution has always been more prevalent than in Sweden and far more involved with drug addiction and abuse. Where crackdowns on curb crawlers have been implemented they have actually increased the risk for women who have not had the time to assess whether the men buying sex appear to be dangerous or not.
Legalisation of prostitution is also put forward as a solution, so that women can work legally and more safely in brothels, massage parlours etc. However, in those countries where prostitution has been legalised, street prostitution has continued to flourish. There has also been a massive increase in off-street prostitution, particularly involving trafficked women.
Some of those most vociferously calling for legalisation do so because they can see a huge market for legally making profits out of running brothels as part of the ‘entertainment and leisure sector’. Legalisation effectively turns big business, or in some cases local authorities, into pimps, making money out of selling women’s bodies and legitimising abuse. There have even been cases in Germany and the Netherlands of women being told by local job centres that they must take up work in the sex industry because it is now a ‘normal’ area of work, or lose their benefits.
Decriminalisation, as opposed to legalisation, would mean the abolition of all laws which criminalise prostitutes without institutionalising and legitimising prostitution. This would enable women, for example, to work together from a premises where they themselves could control who they saw and when and under what conditions they worked.
However, in and of itself decriminalisation would not eradicate street prostitution, especially where drugs are involved. It would need to be combined with outreach work with women involved in street prostitution. The Ipswich murders revealed how drug addiction and street prostitution are intimately linked. A massive expansion of drug rehabilitation schemes, aimed at getting addicts off drugs altogether, is necessary. Such schemes should be able to legally supply class A drugs such as heroin through the NHS as part of a rehabilitation programme.
Other support services such as counselling, safe houses, help with housing, training and jobs would also be necessary to provide a route out a prostitution. But these should not be at the expense of other vital services to local people which are already underfunded and facing cuts . A huge increase in public funding is needed in health, housing and other services and working-class people should be united in campaigning against cuts and for extra resources to meet the needs of local areas.
‘Tolerance zones’, where street prostitution is managed in designated non-residential areas are promoted as a means of protecting prostitutes while at the same time removing the problems experienced by local people. But there is a danger that these will be viewed as a quick and easy solution which sweeps the ‘problem’ away. Tolerance zones in rundown areas or isolated industrial zones can themselves become dangerous ghettos unless they have proper security, facilities and support for the women concerned. If areas outside tolerance zones become ‘zero tolerance zones’, with crackdowns and criminalisation of prostitutes including through the use of Asbos this will solve nothing. They need to go hand-in-hand with decriminalisation, and the designation of zones should be democratically decided involving representatives of the residents and prostitutes aswell as local councillors.
As socialists our aim is a society where no woman is forced to sell her body to survive. But as long as this unequal and profit driven capitalist system remains in place prostitution will carry on. While some measures can make life less dangerous and harmful for women involved in prostitution, there will be no lasting solutions while poverty, inequality and sexual exploitation continue to exist.