Prostitution and Poverty in the UK

In Britain, the recession has left many people struggling to make ends meet, but reports have shown that some young people are turning to prostitution in pursuit of financial security.

Gregory Pichorowycz is a philosophy undergraduate at the University of Sheffield and Editor-at-Large of Canvas

In Britain, the recession has left many people struggling to make ends meet, but reports have shown that young people – young single mothers in particular, are feeling the worst of austerity, and many are turning to prostitution in pursuit of financial security.

Things are likely to get worse. In 2013-2014, a lone parent would receive on average £46.80 a year less in benefits due to governmental changes, while a couple with children would miss out on £52 a year. In 2014-2015, the projected figures are £260 less for single parents and £156 less for couples with children. In short, single parents – often the most financially vulnerable – are facing the harshest cuts in benefits.

This has led to an increase in prostitution, which has affected the industry’s economy; many sex workers are reducing their charges (sometimes as much as 50 per cent) in order to beat competition from other sex workers. This contributes to a viscous circle; more single parents – usually women, enter prostitution out of financial desperation. Due to the increase in sex workers, they need to engage in the industry more to acquire the money they need. This in turn leads to a further increase in active sex workers and a further devaluation of prostitution ad infinitum.

One thing is clear – tough policing and stricter legislation is not the solution. Ukraine’s capital – Kyiv has struggled with high prostitution levels since it gained independence in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2005, it introduced more rigorous legislation to try to combat the problem, to little effect. The country co-hosted the Euro 2012 football tournament with Poland and prepared itself for the explosion in sex tourism. Kyiv alone has an estimated 50,000 sex workers, twice that of the whole of Holland, despite prostitution being illegal in Ukraine and legal in Holland. And some suspect that this figure is even higher, with many young Ukrainian sex workers not wanting to come forward due to fear of shaming and imprisonment.

The only way to tackle the exploitation of young women is to tackle its root cause – poverty. To do otherwise would be like treating a disease with tissues instead of medicine. This can be achieved without reversing the entire austerity program (which no UK government is realistically likely to do).

Firstly, the government could take up Ed Miliband’s living wage proposals. The introduction of this policy – providing tax incentives to companies who pay a living wage instead of a minimum wage to their employees (£7.45 per hour outside London and £8.55 in London, compared to the £6.19 minimum wage) would save the taxpayer £2.2bn, according to the thinktank Resolution Foundation. It would also help to minimise in-work poverty, which would help single parents make ends meet without turning to prostitution.

Another step would be to reintroduce the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), as many of the hardest hit are young people – this includes students. The Women’s National Commission (a UK women’s issues pressure group) claim the shocking statistic that “50-75% of women in prostitution entered before they were 18” and that many of these had been absent from education throughout this time. Reconsidering the £9,000 tuition fee would also help to reduce the number of students turning to the sex industry out of fear of mountainous debts.

Of course, this article does not intend to argue for or against sex work as a career choice. There is a persuasive case made by libertarians and some sex-positive feminists that willing engagement in prostitution is a matter of personal liberty for those involved and not the concern of third parties. Without divulging into a philosophical discussion about such liberties, it is worth mentioning the statistic that in a study on feminism and psychology, 92 per cent of sex workers said that they wanted to leave prostitution “immediately”. In a different study, 74 per cent of women cited “poverty”, paying “household expenses” and supporting children as a “primary motivator” for involvement in the industry. It should be clear by now that the vast majority of European sex workers are exploited out of economic desperation and are not pursuing a career that they necessarily consider legitimate, empowering or advisable – whatever one’s position on such political theory.

“She was too ignorant as yet to know that the chances of her finding work unaided were practically nil; but the next four days gradually enlightened her”, read the pages of A Clergyman’s Daughter – George Orwell’s understated and second novel. The book is an exploration of poverty in the 1930s, in which the protagonist, Dorothy, is swept away by the cruel realities of homeless men and women, some of whom become sex workers for mild reprieve. She is bailed out by a rich relative while being “on the very verge of becoming one” – a prostitute. Unfortunately – even in the 21st century, not everybody is that lucky.

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