Since 2010 the United Kingdom has been continuously subjected to austerity economics, introduced on the pretext that it would help cut the deficit and manage the shockwaves caused by the 2008 global financial crisis. In this article, the ramifications of these austerity policies will be looked at from a relatively under discussed topic: that of sex workers.
In the United Kingdom laws around sex work are complex and fraught with legal danger, but despite this, prostitution has and will continue to thrive in Britain’s major cities. Traditionally interpretations of the sex industry include theories around addiction and dependency, grooming and trafficking and professional escort services. These are all contributors to the reason an individual may work in the sex industry, but in recent months it has become increasingly evident that to some extent prostitution is being fuelled by austerity. This article will look at how austerity is contributing to the numbers of sex workers on the streets of Britain, and what options there are to tackle this issue.
Austerity politics is not just limited to the United Kingdom. The standout European Union country suffering most from economic crisis is Greece, where the European Union and IMF have imposed harsh economic policies to secure bailouts. Worryingly, research indicates that prostitution in Greece has has increased by 150% in recent years (National Centre for Social Research, 2015). Tough economic conditions and the policies enforced by the Greek government have resulted in professionals, students and mothers taking on a second job. But this is no ordinary second job; an estimated 20,000 Greeks have entered the profession of prostitution in recent years. This rise and evidence presented is significant because, while Greece is at the sharpest end of the scale, austerity politics and the rise of prostitution is likely to be mirrored in the United Kingdom.
As far back as 2012 The European Women’s Lobby produced a report on the impact of austerity. The report found that women are more likely to suffer negative consequences from austerity than men. The reasons for this relate to the type of employment women are likely to be in, which largely falls in the public sector. Austerity has reduced the number of public sector jobs available across Europe and this has particularly impacted women as they face job losses, pay decreases and difficulty in finding a new position. Thinking about the evidence posited above in Greece, it is tenable to believe that there is a link between the politics of austerity and the increase in sex workers.
Let us turn again to a specific case in the United Kingdom. In 2016 the Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project (SWWOP), began to argue that there is a direct link between austerity policies and prostitution. Due to a steep rise in prostitution in the city, outreach workers began to establish that a key reason for a return to or starting out as a sex worker was due to austerity. In particular policies such as benefit sanctions created a need for women to seek income desperately needed to pay for everyday essentials.
Across England, the English Collective of Prostitutes reported a steep increase in the number of women they supported and helped on the streets of our cities. Sarah Walker from the group argued that government cuts had pushed women into sex work because they simply can no longer make ends meet. Particularly hard hit are young people, with cuts to support and increased tuition fees forcing students in to sex work. Additionally, new, and single mothers are increasingly being identified as new sex workers, to afford to heat their homes and feed and clothe their children.
The English Collective of Prostitutes state that in the United Kingdom there are close to 80,000 sex workers, with 88% being women. A huge 74% of those are working mothers, using prostitution as a final means of earning money to survive. They go on to state that: “Prostitution is increasing because of austerity. A 60% increase in street prostitution recorded in Doncaster is primarily attributed to destitution caused by benefit sanctions. A quarter of young homeless women have engaged in sex work to fund accommodation or in the hope of getting a bed for the night. 86% of austerity cuts have targeted women”
From the evidence laid out in this article it is apparent that there is a clear link between austerity and a rise in prostitution. There are of course other reasons why individuals enter into sex work, but across Europe and notably in the United Kingdom, austerity politics can be identified as a root cause of the increase in prostitution. This article does not discriminate about whether prostitution should be legalised fully or not, but it does point to austerity as a cause of this social problem.
It is time for many reasons to reassess austerity, and the policies that go with it. Reports have indicated that women are by far the most negatively impacted by such policies, forcing them into jobs they would not have wanted to do. Making sure a real living wage is paid to all employers, bringing in supportive policies to help students, young women, and single mothers, and removing punitive benefit sanctions are a good place to start. And for those working on the streets now, help to the organisations that work with them both financially and practically will benefit both the women and their families. For while austerity continues, so will the worrying rise in prostitution.