The Kings Cross area of London is renowned for prostitution. The girls stand on street corners waiting for punters to come looking for their services. And the Irish are well represented among this number. The Irish Post recently reported that the New Horizon Youth Centre believed 20 per cent of the girls working in the area were first or second generation Irish.
Mercy Sister Lynda Dearlove, the director of the Women@theWell centre in Kings Cross, confirms that many of the girls do come from Ireland. The causes are varied. Some come because of simple poverty. “I’ve met girls who are over to earn money to pay for first communion dresses back home. The grandmother is at home looking after the children while the mother is raising money for the whole occasion over here,” said Sister Dearlove, who quotes other cases of traveller women fleeing forced marriages or domestic violence. “There are those who drink that come from pioneer families and those who come over for an abortion and become estranged from their families,” said Sister Dearlove, who points to a lot of denial in some areas of Irish society.
Denial though is a common currency when it comes to prostitution. While the women forced into the trade are vilified, there is no such condemnation for the men who create the demand for their services. “When I was doing outreach work in east London, men came out of offices in suits, there would be cars with children’s seats in the back and they’d be picking up girls,” said Sister Dearlove, who recently received an MBE for her services to vulnerable women. “Compare the attitude to a son paying for sex to a daughter selling sex – one is shrugged off with ‘boys will be boys,’ the attitude to the female is altogether different.”
Those working on the street with the women see poverty and underlying causes like mental illness driving them toward prostitution. Drugs and alcohol are often used to block out some other problem. “They have often been in care, then their children go into care. There are high incidents of sexual abuse. Many didn’t finish school and don’t have jobs. They then get into drugs and prostitution to feed the habit,” said Sister Dearlove.
The main thrust of national and local government is to seek to criminalize the women. So they get arrested finish up in the courts, then remerge from prison to start the cycle again.
There is a particular problem in the Kings Cross area with the liberal use by Camden Council of Anti-social behaviour orders (ASBO) to keep the women out of certain areas. This really just shifts the problem around.
When an ASBO is breached it can mean 17 weeks in prison. “It is a vicious circle, they then come out of prison with nowhere to stay. They have lost their hostel place and have problems getting a methadone prescription, so where do they then go but the crack house,” said Sister Dearlove.
Convictions for prostitution have the added stigma of coming under the category of sex offences so they cannot be spent. When an offence is spent it comes off an individual’s record. So if a woman goes for a job, a Criminal Records Bureau check will show a sex offence. That often leaves them no chance of getting the job. This is a major reason why prostitution needs to be decriminalised.
It is important to note here that soliciting or to use the dictionary definition “to entice in a public place” is illegal, not prostitution. Exchanging sex for money is not illegal, so escorts or single women working from flats are ok. What is illegal is soliciting and procuring sex for money in a public place.
A growing number of groups support decriminalisation including the English Collective of Prostitutes, Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking Across Europe and Mercy Sisters. “We don’t approve prostitution as a life choice, it is the sexual exploitation of women. I’ve never met a woman who felt good about being a prostitute,” said Sister Dearlove.
It is the market driving prostitution that really needs to become the target. “The men who pay women are someone’s husband, father and son. They sit in offices and go to the churches. There are judges, police and lawyers all represented amongst the customers,” said Sister Dearlove. “The majority of men using women are not scruffy oiks but straight out of the ranks of middle England.”
In Sweden, the law has gone further with criminalisation of the men. It has worked effectively and the approach seems to be getting growing support here. It could certainly mark a move forward.
Prostitution has been described as the oldest profession, it seems unlikely that it can be totally eradicated. It is something of a barometer of society. Women, often damaged in some way, forced into the work to survive. The market driving the trade being fuelled by men who live totally separate lives as husbands and fathers elsewhere.
Decriminalisation would be a first step toward shifting the balance away from the woman toward the man who is the perpetrator. Criminalising the men is probably an approach worth taking. But beyond the criminal law, there need to be other steps taken. The routine use of prostitution by so many men needs to become stigmatised. The true nature of the suffering caused to the women also needs to be highlighted with those working to keep the women safe and off the streets getting the requisite support needed.
One such support is Women@theWell which enables the women to get off the street and receive help in building a new life away from prostitution. The work fits well with the mission of the founder Catherine McAuley, who 180 years ago established the order to help young women in Dublin.
There is much that needs to be done to address prostitution, decriminalising it and moving the problem out of the criminal justice arena would be a good start.