On 11 May I spoke in a parliamentary debate about government support for domestic violence refuges.
Specialist support services for women, such as refuges, are a lifeline for women and girls escaping domestic violence. But women’s domestic violence services are in crisis. Crude housing benefit cuts hidden away in the Autumn Statement are set to force the closure of tens of thousands of supported homes for vulnerable and older people.
This comes after women’s services have seen their funding shrink rapidly since 2010 – a third of local authority funding to domestic and sexual violence services was already cut by 2012.
Other speakers in the debate asked ministers to exempt women’s refuges and other specialist accommodation from these housing benefit cuts, and put forward a proper plan to fund these essential services.
Here’s the full text of my speech, which focused specifically on the need for better support for women involved in prostitution. At the end you can watch me give the speech, which inevitably differs a little for the written version.
Mr Chair, thank you for inviting me to speak. Thank you also to the Honourable member for Burnley for securing the debate, affecting the safety of thousands and thousands of women and children daily.
In my own constituency of Bristol West, Next Link – who provide help, advice and refuge to women and children across the city, and also to men who need protection from domestic abuse – have had to respond to a 15% cut in funding from Bristol City Council and are effectively being expected to do more for less.
Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support – who offer support through a telephone helpline and counselling to victims of rape and sexual assault in Bristol and beyond – have had slight cuts from the Ministry of Justice and from the local council, but demand is far outstripping supply and they have a huge waiting list for counselling.
Bristol City Council has done its best to protect funding for support for victims and survivors of violence, but Safer Bristol has had to make some cuts (politely described in the budget as ‘reshaping’ and ‘efficiencies’) and cuts to policy development for licensing and regulatory functions such as taxis, pubs and clubs.
Mr Chair, my previous experience before becoming a member of parliament was partly in music but I also spent most of the previous 26 years working to end violence against women and girls and other gender violence. I worked on virtually every aspect of this: support for survivors; policy; help for children; prevention work with young people; work with perpetrators; as well as research and training locally, nationally and internationally. I worked most recently at Respect, the national organisation for work with perpetrators, young people and male victims of domestic abuse.
I want to focus on one very specific group of women who are often ignored in debates and policy-making for refuge funding and other support for victims of violence: those who work in the so-called ‘sex industry’.
Mr Chair, this is not ‘a job like any other’. Yes, women working in it often (though not always) describe what they do as a job and I respect that. However, there is no other job in which the risk of physical and sexual violence is so high, and in which the very nature of the work provides the setting and opportunity for physical and sexual assault and for impunity for the perpetrator. This is a job in which the men who pay for sex can misuse the financial and other power they have to force women to do sexual things they don’t want to do and to hurt or threaten them to get what they want.
There are no health and safety regulations in prostitution.
80,000 people in this country are involved in prostitution at any time, mostly women and girls, but also some men and boys. Around half of all women in off-street prostitution are migrant women, often trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation.
There has been a marked increase in demand from men who want to pay for sex in this country. During the 1990s demand almost doubled from 1 in 20 men paying for sex to 1 in 10. Since the rise of the internet I would suspect that this has increased still more.
- Half of all women in prostitution have been raped or sexually assaulted.
- They are 18 times more likely to be murdered than other women.
- Almost all women involved in street prostitution have problematic drug use.
- Many have mental health problems or face homelessness or separation from their children.
- Many will be criminalised by a system which usually penalises the women selling sex, not the men buying it.
- Women are often coerced into prostitution by someone they see as their boyfriend or partner but who becomes their pimp. They will often face violence from this partner.
Notable murders in Ipswich in 2006 highlighted the severe risks women in prostitution face daily. It was noticeable, however, that we have made progress as a country from the 1970s, when Peter Sutcliffe was murdering women with barely any media or police attention, until he moved from murdering prostituted women to other women. At least in 2006 there was public and huge police concern for the safety of women and the perpetrator was caught much more quickly.
Trying to negotiate safe sexual practice in a room or car on their own with someone who wants to do something sexual to them which they don’t want, and who believes that they are entitled to enforce it because they are paying – that’s not realistic.
Violence against women in prostitution and the policing, health and other costs associated with it cost the public money and tackling the demand side of it saves us money. New Philanthropy Capital has estimated that the cost of this violence and trafficking women for prostitution cost the country £2.11 billion per annum. And following the Ipswich murders, the Suffolk police’s new focus on ending the demand side of street prostitution revealed that for every £1 spent on this intervention, there was a saving of £2 for the public purse.
Mr Chair, if you work in a bakery, your boss can tell you to bake bread and that’s part of your job. If you work as a bus driver, your boss can tell you to drive the bus. If you don’t perform your duties, your boss can do many things and ultimately sack you. That’s very different for women in prostitution. If their boss or client tells them to do something sexual that they don’t want to do, when they then insist on it or use force or threats to get compliance, that’s rape or sexual assault. There is no other job in which this is such a daily and present possibility. There is no other job in which, when this happens, the women’s work is held to be the factor – her so-called ‘lifestyle choice’ – rather than the perpetrators of rape, physical and sexual violence: the men paying for sex or the pimps renting out women’s bodies. She may then face further violence from her partner or pimp if she tries to get away or get help, or for other reasons. The threat of violence and sexual assault is a daily reality for these women.
This is not a job like any other. It is little wonder that research finds that the majority of women involved in this work want to leave. But most of them will struggle and the violence is part of the reason.
Women in this work need our help and support.
Here we have 80,000 people, mostly women and girls, all vulnerable to rape, sexual assault and physical violence, often in and out of the criminal justice system or homelessness, often dependent on drugs and often involved with an abusive partner. Many of them will have grown up without parental protection and ended up in local authority care.
We need to be providing these women with help and protection, not criminalising them. And we need to be tackling the demand side.
There have never been many specialist services for these women. Why? They have complex needs as I have described. They may be unwilling to engage with traditional services. They may be ineligible for support from refuges because of funding restrictions or for other reasons. They may be seen as difficult or hard to help. Hard-pressed public and voluntary sector organisations may not be able to prioritise them. Attitudes towards their involvement in prostitution may lead some to dismiss their vulnerable situation as a lifestyle choice. Decades ago, there were similar public attitudes about domestic abuse – that women were choosing to remain with an abuser. We have thankfully shifted that responsibility much more towards the perpetrator (although there is still a great deal to be done, particularly in the family court system). But we have not shifted it for women in prostitution. We need to start seeing what is happening to them as violence and abuse for which they are not responsible. Just as we try to support women who feel that they have to remain with or return to an abusive partner (but at the same time we condemn the violence and abuse), so too should we provide this support for women in prostitution, often at risk from both partner and clients.
In London, Eaves – one of the few organisations providing specialist support and refuge for women in prostitution – has had to close.
In my own constituency the organisation One25 does brilliant work supporting, advising and helping women in prostitution. They have partnerships with St Mungos to help with homelessness. They are pleased that Next Link, who I mentioned earlier, are now setting up a service for women with complex needs which should include these women. However, One25 have said that they expect this service to be hugely over-subscribed.
This is difficult work with no quick fixes. Women in prostitution usually arrive there via other bad situations and usually end up in worse situations as a result of the prostitution. This means careful, thoughtful and patient work.
If we don’t do it, there is a cost to pay – an economic cost as I highlighted earlier and a human cost to the women involved.
But also this is a measure of a civilised country that believes in gender equality as a principle. What does it say about us that we allow a group of our citizens to go unprotected from rape, sexual assault, physical violence and the ever-present threat of murder, just because it is too difficult?
We should remove those laws which criminalise these women and leave men unaffected. We also need to tackle the demand side.
This can be done. We’ve made huge progress in protection for survivors of domestic violence. During the last Labour government we started the first ever national strategy on violence against women and girls, as well as reforming the law on sexual consent, homicide and on the impact of children witnessing abuse. We need to enforce all these laws for women in prostitution and do everything we can to protect them from violence.
This must include everything we can do to end demand. But without the support this is not enough. One25 is always trying to ensure a wide range of funding sources so they aren’t dependent on one major source and they do have funding from Bristol City Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner. But charitable grants and trusts who are also vital for supporting this work require organisations to be able to demonstrate secure core funding. That’s getting harder and harder.
Mr Chair, finally, the most important thing for these women is that we recognise the violence being done to them, the complexity and fragility of their lives and the need for us to protect and support them and ultimately prevent the harm from happening.