Bradford murders and prostitution

The murder of three women in Bradford once again draws attention to the plight of women who take up prostitution. Money for rent, to pay off debts, sometimes a better income than many jobs pay and often addiction to drugs and alcohol are some of the reasons that women (and men) turn to prostitution.

A man has been charged with the murders of Suzanne Blamires, Shelley Armitage and Susan Rushworth (whose body has still not been found). All three worked in Bradford’s red light district and all three were trying to break drug or alcohol addictions which led them to sell their bodies for another fix.

62% of women involved in street prostitution say that they are doing so to fund an illegal drug habit; 81% of women in street prostitution were under 18 when they first became involved in it.

These tragic events bring back memories of the Ipswich murders in 2006 when five young women were murdered. Like the Bradford women they were also addicted to drugs. The Ipswich events marked a change in the way prostitutes were widely viewed – as women (mothers, daughters and sisters) and not just as prostitutes. It triggered much discussion on how to reduce the dangers associated with prostitution and how they could get out of prostitution.

It would only be possible to move towards eradicating prostitution and violence against women in a socialist society free from poverty, where the inequalities of power and wealth – which breed violence and economic and sexual exploitation and abuse – are replaced by economic and personal relationships based on equality and cooperation. But in the meantime, government policy is worsening the risks that prostitutes face.

Since the Ipswich murders, the amended Police and Crime Act 2009 has made some changes to the law regarding prostitution. It is now a criminal offence to “pay for sexual services of a prostitute subject to force”, ie those women who are controlled by or forced to have sex by another person. However this partial criminalisation of men who buy sex can have the consequence of pushing prostitution further underground to avoid arrest, making it more dangerous for women.

Where prostitution is illegal, such as in Sweden, there can be a tendency for prostitutes to go underground. On the other hand legalisation of prostitution would legitimise prostitution, making it easier for big business to further expand the sex industry.

The Act still criminalises those found “loitering or soliciting in order to gain money for sex”. Those convicted can be fined as previously but an alternative now open to the courts is for women to attend meetings where they can be helped to find a route out of prostitution through rehabilitation.

However, insisting that someone attends three meetings is unlikely to work. Voluntary engagement is more beneficial but there is unlikely to be enough resources. Criminalising these women only makes matters worse as they struggle to pay fines or end up in prison.

The Act also gives the police powers to close down brothels which some believe are a safer environment than working on the streets. However, violence against prostitutes takes place in all settings.

Prostitutes in Bradford were moved from a built-up area to a more isolated run-down part of the city which made it easier for them to be attacked. However, while not wanting any measures that worsen the plight of prostitutes, socialists would sympathise with local residents who did not want prostitutes working in their streets.

Instead of being criminalised they should have access to drug rehabilitation, decent housing, education and jobs that pay a living wage. If the draconian cuts promised by the new government are not defeated by mass movements then we will inevitably see more women and men taking the road to prostitution instead of people being offered routes out of prostitution.

We live in a society where we are exploited by the strong and powerful. But women have been and continue to be exploited as an ‘inferior’ sex and are often subject to violence from their husbands, partners and boyfriends. Over two women a week are killed by current or ex-partners while one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Rape within marriage only became illegal 22 years ago in Britain and currently rape convictions are still very low. Many men who use prostitutes do so primarily to assert control over women.

We need a society without exploitation – a socialist society where no-one would be forced to sell their body by pimps or traffickers or by the need to survive.

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