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What You Don't Know About Sex Workers

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Artwork by Anna Jay.
It's not often you read or hear the words "motherhood" and "prostitution" in the same sentence. The former being a byword for warm, unadulterated love; the latter often considered – even in 2016 – as something shameful that shouldn't be discussed in polite conversation.

For many people, the mere mention of the two things together will seem incongruous or even "immoral".

In reality, however, they are intertwined. In the UK, nearly three quarters of sex workers are mothers, doing their jobs to feed, clothe and house their children as well as – and often instead of – themselves.

Now, the intersection between these rarely associated issues is the subject of a powerful new short film. Written and directed by Meriem Adib and produced by Claire Cottrell, Mum encourages us to consider sex workers in a new light, not as a stereotype or a statistic, but as real people with families and the same rights to safety as the rest of us.
The two-minute film, shot earlier this year in south-east London, portrays a loving relationship between a child and a mother who puts herself in desperate, dangerous situations in order to make ends meet. Her depiction as a life-sized sex doll that doesn't speak acts as a poignant warning against dehumanising sex workers.

Adib was motivated to make the film by her own experience of single motherhood and money worries. Upon learning that most sex workers are single mothers, she says she "felt a huge surge of empathy".

"If we don't want women to turn to prostitution, let's address poverty. Let's look at why we have allowed the government to push more women into dire straits since the austerity cuts. Let's talk about why, in Doncaster, prostitution rose 60% in 2014. Let's not punish prostitutes because their work offends our sensibilities."
There is ample evidence showing a positive correlation between the prevalence of sex work and the government's austerity cuts, which have disproportionately affected women. Just last week, an analysis by independent think tank, the Women’s Budget Group, found that women will have shouldered 85% of the burden of the government’s changes to the tax and benefits system by 2020.

"What happens when mothers run out of money and there aren't any jobs, or the jobs out there barely cover the bills, and their benefits are being cut? They turn to sex work," says Adib. "We need to talk about this, rather than slap a fine on them, arrest them, marginalise them, or sometimes deport them. The law needs to protect them and not force them into more vulnerable situations."

Adib stresses that, while her film focuses on mothers and aims to raise awareness of the issues facing sex workers with children in particular, "We fully support sex workers from all backgrounds and with different motivations. Sex workers are like everyone else – diverse."

Mum is part of #MakeMumSafer, a wider campaign to decriminalise sex work in the UK. Adib and Cottrell have garnered support from organisations such as the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), which has been campaigning tirelessly for decriminalisation for over 40 years.
At present, selling and paying for sex isn't against the law in England, Wales and Scotland but many associated activities, such as brothel-keeping, kerb-crawling and soliciting sex in a public place, are illegal.

Treating soliciting as an offence can dissuade sex workers from reporting abuse and violence, and from seeking help to leave sex work, while the law against brothel-keeping can prevent them from working together at the same place, meaning they are put at risk by having to work alone. Furthermore, having offences associated with sex work on their records can blight sex workers' lives by preventing them from getting jobs outside of the industry.

Adib and Cottrell, along with many campaigning organisations such as the ECP, and even the cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee of MPs, believe decriminalising sex work would enhance sex workers' rights, thereby making them safer.

And there are signs from other countries that decriminalisation works. In New Zealand, which decriminalised sex work in 2003, 90% of sex workers said they had additional employment, legal, health and safety rights. Around 65% said they found it easier to turn down clients and 70% said they were more likely to report incidents of violence to the police, according to research by the University of Otago.

The Make Mum Safer movement has also won the support of high-profile celebrities including Michael Sheen, who is among a group of actors to lend his voice by reading out a sex worker's transcript on the website; and Bridget Jones's Baby actor Sarah Solemani, who was already working with the English Collective of Prostitutes to decriminalise sex work.

Adib and Cottrell's campaign has found allies in Parliament, too, with Labour MPs including Dawn Butler and Tulip Siddiq, and Labour peer Lord Alf Dubs, attending the film's launch at the House of Commons earlier this week.

Butler, who hosted the screening, said supporting the rights of sex workers is non-negotiable if you purport to believe in equality. "When it comes to equality you either believe in it or you don't, and believing in it means you have to believe in everybody's rights. I think women deserve to have a voice," she told Refinery29.

"My issue in regards to prostitution is that the safety of women is paramount. Some people naively think you can eradicate prostitution – but that's never going to happen. So what can we do to make women safer? Every woman deserves to have a voice and those women working in the industry deserve the biggest and greatest voice."
One woman, who has worked in the industry part-time for 30 years, told the audience at the film's launch how she was forced into sex work because government benefits have never stretched far enough to enable her to care for her severely disabled daughter, and recent austerity cuts have led them to be slashed further.

Another woman, who has been a sex worker for three years, said she does it for her son and family. Having a "normal job" alone simply wouldn't be enough to pay the rent and support her family in London.

Even if you're not convinced by the arguments surrounding the decriminalisation of sex work, watching Mum and listening to sex workers' testimonies, it's hard not to identify with the women (and sometimes men) who find themselves in these desperate situations.

If you'd like to back the cause, there are ways to show your support for the campaign, along with watching and sharing the film. You could start by signing the ECP's online petition. "The ECP is always grateful for any support anyone can give to the cause," says Cottrell, the producer of Mum. "They're based in London but organise lots of events elsewhere in the UK, which need volunteers to help organise and run them.

"They're also in need of professionals who can offer legal advice and qualified counsellors. Go on their website and contact them if you can help. It’s been an amazing experience working with them."

The struggles many sex workers now find themselves facing, given the current government's cuts and the economic climate, couldn't be more desperate.

"We need to educate ourselves and listen to sex workers. They are the experts," says Adib. "Women are out in the streets in their thousands, and working alone in their thousands, because the law is not protecting them as it should."

Watch the film here.
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