It is difficult to know how many people are sexually exploited in the UK, as sexual exploitation is a difficult area to research with accuracy. What we do know is that the legal and illegal sex industry is an ever expanding arena for sexual exploitation against women, children and men. Street prostitution, off-street prostitution, sex tourism, international/ domestic trafficking and pornography affect every town and city across the UK.
There is consensus that people in prostitution should not be criminalised i.e. fined, arrested or imprisoned, but there is strong disagreement about whether the purchase of sex should be criminalised, entirely decriminalised or regulated. The UK public’s understanding of prostitution is often disrespectful and judgemental, with many people not looking beyond the label of “prostitutes” and “sex workers”. Prostitution is commonly viewed as a choice that women have made, but many of these ‘choices’ were probably decided upon when they were under 18 .
A Home Office report entitled, ‘Paying the Price’(2004), states that nine out of ten people would like to exit prostitution but feel unable to do so. Although this is an old statistic, the majority of women who work in the sex industry do so in order to survive. This is not right.
Prostitution is not all about sex. It is often about inequality, lack of opportunities, poverty, homelessness, drugs/alcohol use, abuse of vulnerability and abuse of power.
People in prostitution feel constrained as there seems no way out. They often feel trapped in the dangerous, debilitating and exploitative situation.
Having entered prostitution due to poverty, marginalisation or other vulnerabilities, women exchange sexual services for survival as they need money, shelter or food to live. Many women have no accommodation, have lost their self-worth, or may have addiction or mental health difficulties. Often a number of these difficulties are faced at once.
It doesn’t take much to see why women feel they have no option but to continue selling sex acts even when they don’t want to.
Violence is usual in prostitution with high percentages of women having experienced some form of assault (81 per cent in one study ).
Prostitution has a negative psychological, physical and emotional impact for women, many of whom utilise substances to block out their experiences .
Those involved in prostitution that do get support, are often treated as passive victims rather than individuals who can be empowered to make life choices that are sustainable.
Beyond the streets is working to change all this.