The rise of ‘survival sex’ is a crushing reminder of the results of Britain's austerity-fuelled poverty

If the government insists on policies that directly lead to a phenomenon like this, then it also needs policies which mitigate that consequence. We should decriminalise sex work now

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Wednesday 22 May 2019 18:05
Shadow work and pensions secretary: 'Shocking poverty figures highlight the devastating impact of austerity on families across the country'

As if universal credit hadn’t already caused enough devastation, now the government’s attention has been turned back to another damaging consequence of the flawed benefits system: survival sex.

Instances of universal credit benefit claimants being forced into sex work in order to support their families will be debated in parliament today as part of a work and pensions select committee inquiry.

As a number of reports from charities and MPs like Frank Field have highlighted, many of the women who have been failed by the benefits system are new to the sex industry, having turned to it as a direct result of issues with universal credit.

The debate also comes following a report from the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty which has found – surprise, surprise – that austerity programmes from Conservative governments have been “ideological project[s]” that caused “pain and misery”.

Ministers too, were accused of being in a “state of denial” about the worsening situation. Which comes as no shock, considering the responses we’ve had from Tory MPs over the numerous failures of the system.

Last year, when the issue was raised in parliament, the DWP’s response was dismissive, at best. “No one has to face hardship on universal credit, and 100 per cent advances are available from day one of a claim.”

That ignored the experience of women like “Julie”, from Merseyside, who told the BBC she had an eight-week wait for her first payment after the system was introduced.

Having never considered sex work before, she had no choice but to sleep with a client for £30, adding that she had had to use food banks. “I’ve never been in that situation in my life”.

And when Field raised the issue in the Commons in October 2018, Tory MP Esther McVey, trivialised the situation, suggesting instead that these women should simply opt for another occupation.

“Perhaps [Mr Field] could tell these ladies … that now we have got record job vacancies 830,000 job vacancies and perhaps there are other jobs on offer,” she offered, unwittingly proving the UN’s point a year prior to its findings.

It is an attitude that smacks of a willful avoidance of reality. This is just another example of how the government has pushed women, hundreds of thousands of them, to the brink. Many of them are single mothers, with needs too pressing and resources too limited, to one day, possibly, find a “respectable” job that pays barely enough to survive on anyway.

Others, some of them single mothers too, are in abusive relationships in which their partners, boosted by the fact that benefits are paid into one bank account per household, can easily control access to their money.

These are people who are being punished for being poor, and when they enter the sex work industry, punished further still. If ever there was a time for the government to pull its head out of the sand regarding the decriminalisation of sex work, this would be it.

A couple of days ago, calls for that very move came from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), highlighting the dangerous repercussions from criminalising sex workers.

As the RCN voted to begin lobbying the government to change the law, Louise Cahill, a clinical nurse specialist in sexual health said: “Decriminalising prostitution is the best way to safeguard sex workers’ health.”

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In reference to the Nordic model, which by and large subscribes to the idea that ensuring the safety of sex workers is dependent on reducing demand by criminalising clients, the RCN highlighted the real issue at hand. Namely that “the majority of sex workers enter the sex industry for socioeconomic reasons”.

You see, as catastrophic as the universal credit rollout has been, it is only one of many reasons people turn to sex work. Socioeconomic conditions, particularly under the Tories, have starved people of financial stability for years. These decisions too, will have led to women pursuing sex work, in some cases for the first time, in others, to the point of taking on more clients as an existing sex worker in order to stay afloat. And all while punishments for doing so remain firmly in place.

With universal credit being such a huge part of this, you’d think the penny would have dropped by now. If you insist on policies which directly lead to a phenomenon like survival sex, then you also need policies which mitigate that consequence.

But that would depend on doing away with centuries of discrimination against sex workers. It would mean abandoning the notion all sex work must be dealt with without the involvement of the people who work in the industry. It would mean that issuing blanket punishments which have been proven time and again to be ineffective, or even more of a threat to sex workers (especially migrants), is still the best means of tackling the issues that plague the industry, more often than not, due to state cluelessness.

Regardless of why one may be a sex worker, further punishment at the hands of the law is not the answer. As much as I’d love for this to be what convinces the government of that fact, I suspect it’ll just be more of the same.

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