This is the script of a speech given in Tokyo by Ali Morris who is the coordinator for Wales of FiLiA, which is the UK’s largest radical feminist organisation. Morris spoke to feminist anti-prostitution activists in Japan in November 2022. Her speech covered the UK’s prostitution legal framework and circumstances, as well as FiLiA’s activities. After her speech, there was enthusiastic discussion among participants, which was interpreted.
Ali Morris (FiLiA)
Firstly, I’d like to say how honoured I am talking with you all today. Whereas I haven’t experienced the exact things you have, I have had my own trauma, sexual exploitation and abuse to deal with. You have hopefully read a bit about my history in the Biography I sent you all.
Today I thought I would talk about the situation around sexual exploitation in the UK and particularly what FiLiA is doing about it.
For those of you that don’t know who FiLiA is and what it does, I will tell you a little about it. FiLiA is a feminist women-led organisation with charitable status for its work on women’s human rights.
FiLiA’s mission is to contribute to the Women’s Liberation Movement by:
- Building Sisterhood and Solidarity (locally, nationally, globally)
- Amplifying the Voices of Women (particularly those less often heard or purposefully silenced)
- Defending Women’s Human Rights
It does this through many different ways including blog posts, podcasts, newsletters, campaigns, exhibitions and projects, and its annual international women’s rights conference which is the largest in Europe. Last month it was held in Cardiff the capital city of Wales and was the largest ever with over 1700 women attending. They came from all over the globe including the US, Canada, South Korea, Columbia, Israel, Japan, and many more countries. There were talks and workshops on prostitution, pornography, trafficking, the Iran uprising, motherhood, Lesbian spaces, and much more. Incredible speakers included Melinda Tankard Reist, Caitlin Roper, Julie Bindel, Hibo Wardere, and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who was held captive in Iran or 6 years. For 3 days women talked, listened, cheered and danced and made wonderful new friends and connections.
The situation in the UK with regards to the sexual exploitation of women is complicated. There are 3 key pieces of legislation that covers this area. The Policing & Crime Act 2009, The Sexual Offences Act 2003 and The Modern Slavery Act 2015.
In the UK, the exchange of sexual services for money ie. prostitution is legal, but a number of activities, including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel and pimping are crimes. Selling sex in private is legal.
The law states however, that it is an offence to pay for sex with someone who has been subjected to force or coercion. Trying to prove this can be quite difficult.
The age of consent for sex in the UK is 16, but it is illegal to buy sex from a person under the age of 18 as in UK law someone is deemed a child up until the age of 18. In 2015 the offence of Child Prostitution was finally removed to be replaced with ‘sexual exploitation of children’.
The UK has signed the United Nation’s Convention of The Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW. Article 6 of the CEDAW states that ‘State parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women’. This is legally binding.
With all these laws regulating prostitution, you would think that women and girls would be safe and supported, but unfortunately this has not been the case. The implementation of these laws has not been strong or enforced to any meaningful degree.
Many of the changes and introduction of new laws came out of the UK Government’s concern over the high number of women in prostitution who were from outside of the UK. There was also concern over the high number of women who were thought to be trafficked into the UK for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking then became a specific offence.
What was clear was that trafficking and sexual slavery were the overarching concerns, not concerns about the women from the UK who were involved in prostitution and exploitation.
In reality, the police do little to uphold any of the current laws especially in terms of prosecuting the sex buyers. The police usually only become involved if there is evidence of trafficking, immigration concerns or drug dealing, or if a brothel is causing too much disturbance within a community.
This means that for most women involved in prostitution, they get little or no help.
There are pockets of local areas in the UK where the police are supportive of the women and arrest the men. However, this isn’t the norm. This usually happens because there is a local violence against women partnership or a specialist support project working with women that have worked with the local police force.
Funding for support projects comes from numerous pots of money. These are usually from charity grants or local government councils. In the UK we do not have any central government-funded support for women sexually exploited. This is only the case for women who are trafficked from overseas. These women are referred onto special government-funded schemes which offer them support here in the UK, support to apply for residency, and support to return to their home country if that is what they want.
As I previously stated, there are no specific government policies or systems in place to support sexually exploited women. Any support is usually received through other channels, mainly health services. Sexual health services have a pathway in place where questions around prostitution and sexual exploitation are asked as part of an initial assessment. However, what happens when women say yes, is not clear, as this would totally depend on what is available locally. Which is usually nothing.
It is estimated that over 90% of women involved in prostitution and sexual exploitation in the UK are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol so many women also attend addiction services. Drug and alcohol services often have women only sessions, but these services would be for any woman in the community who needs them. As drug and alcohol services are financed and run locally, they may have links with other local support projects which will enable women to be fast tracked into the service.
Any services that support the common issues that women in prostitution experience such as mental ill health, homelessness, domestic abuse, etc would be accessed the same way as any other woman with no understanding of the extra trauma and specific difficulties these women face.
All specialist support for women in prostitution, sexually exploited, or other forms of the sex trade is run by charities or independent women’s groups. Funding comes from a wide variety of places, and every project is run differently, with a different idea of what is helpful. Often set up with no research and no evidence base.
Under UK law, pimping is illegal as is buying sex on the street or in a public place. However, pimps and sex buyers are very rarely prosecuted or penalised. The police usually turn a blind eye to them unless they involve trafficked women or drug dealing. Women’s lives aren’t high up on their agenda.
In 2020, feminist campaigners called on the Government to stop the UK being a ‘Pimp’s Paradise’. Trafficked women, especially those from Eastern Europe, are being sexually exploited on an industrial scale here. There is evidence that thousands of women are being coerced into sexual exploitation and slavery each year after being lured to the UK by criminal gangs intent on exploiting its relatively liberal prostitution laws. The Government says it is committed to ending sex trafficking, but it refuses to criminalise pimping websites and decriminalise women involved in prostitution. Currently, women who have been criminalised for being a ‘common prostitute’ will have that on their criminal record for 100 yrs, even if she was coerced or forced. We currently have a campaign going through parliament to have all criminal convictions wiped out. This is being run by one of our fantastic FiLiA volunteers – a survivor of prostitution and heroin addiction.
In 2018 there were 212 trafficking cases involving sexual exploitation. However, very few end in conviction, or when they do they receive relatively small punishments. Many only receive a fine and are not imprisoned. In South Wales where I live for example, no pimps have ever been prosecuted. This is unacceptable, especially as we have many brothels here which are illegal and where women have been coerced and trafficked.
In larger cities like London, around 80% of the women in prostitution are migrant women, coming from outside of the UK. Women from China, Eastern Europe (especially Romania) and some African countries are common. Even in a small city where I live, migrant women make up a large part of the women in brothels here, approximately 75 – 80%. The usual practice is to have a ‘menu’ of nationalities. Books like catalogues show the different nationalities on offer at different prices. Women are priced according to their desirable nationality. The racism entrenched in this practice is appalling, and deep-rooted. This is the same as in pornography so why would it be any different in prostitution? These women are even more vulnerable due to the language barrier of being unable to speak English and their often unstable immigration status. They usually have families back home in their native countries who are relying on the money they send home, so have no way of exiting without dire consequences for themselves and their whole families.
Most women in the UK start in prostitution at around age 14. Usually, they are from poor backgrounds and have often been in care and looked after by the government. Most have already experienced abuse and trauma during childhood so are easy pickings for pimps and buyers.
Research in the UK shows that the majority of women who enter prostitution or are sexually exploited in some way have similar backgrounds and experiences prior to entry. These are;
- They have been in care or come from dysfunctional and abusive families
- They have a drug or alcohol problem
- They have mental health issues
- They come from poor backgrounds
- They have low educational attainment
- They are homeless or in insecure housing
Women tell us that entry into prostitution happened because the abuse they had already experienced had made them think of themselves as worthless, and good enough for only one thing. Sex.
Women with this mix of vulnerabilities are already treated shabbily by services, and when it is discovered they are involved in prostitution or another part of the sex trade, they are often treated worse. They lead chaotic lives, often living day by day, waiting for their next fix of drugs to survive.
The attitude of many professionals in the UK is that the women have made their own choice to be involved in prostitution, so they are often put to the bottom of the pile, deemed not worthy of support. For example, they will be given early morning appointments to see support workers even though they may be out on the streets until the very early hours. As expected, when they don’t turn up for the appointment, they are struck off the waiting list. I have witnessed this kind of behaviour in my job as a social worker. The way women are talked about is awful, especially migrant women who are talked about with racial slurs.
Supporting women with vulnerabilities is very difficult because there are a number of factors that need to be addressed before any real work can be done. 100% of the women I have supported here in our project in Wales have drug addiction issues. Trying to get an appointment with a drug counsellor is almost impossible. There can be a 3 month wait in some services. Women are often in a catch 22 situation. Drug services won’t see them if they have mental health problems and mental health services won’t see them if they are still using drugs.
Patriarchy thrives on dividing and conquering women and encouraging them to fight amongst themselves. This also detracts from women being able to think about what prostitution actually does to them.
In the UK, women working on the streets are deemed to be at the bottom of the hierarchy of the sex trade. Women working as high-end escorts are seen at the top of the hierarchy. Within smaller groups, I have seen hierarchies develop according to age, attractiveness, or how long a woman has been involved in prostitution. It is sad to see, as these women are desperately in need of our friendships and understanding. Someone who knows what they are going through.
The Covid 19 pandemic has magnified how these hierarchies play out. Women were in lockdown for a very long time here in the UK and unable to go onto the streets or into brothels to earn money. This meant that women at the top of the hierarchy were pushing the women at the bottom out of the market altogether, as there were not enough buyers breaking lockdown rules and leaving their homes. In my opinion, pimps use this technique deliberately to further alienate the women from each other, so they have no peer support networks, and they blame each other for the situation they are in, not the men and the system that put them there.
This in effect has made some of the most vulnerable women in our society, even more vulnerable by taking away any possibility of mutual support and practical help and the ability to form friendships with other women of similar experiences.
The Covid 19 pandemic and the terrible financial crash that the UK is currently experiencing have driven many more women into poverty, which has in turn driven them into the sex trade. We have a huge problem with online sites such as Only Fans which the media is promoting as a positive and safe way for women and girls to make money. It is anything but this. It is fuelling the myth that the sex trade is a valid and harmless way for women to survive.
Here in the UK we are for the first time seeing a shift in the perception of women who have been sexually exploited. The recognition of the harms of the sex trade being acknowledged by those that have the power to commission services and make a difference is a huge step forward. The feminist movement has made a lot of noise and has been central to this change. Organisations such as FiLiA and Nordic Model Now (where I used to be the Campaigns Manager) are at the forefront. We are now seeing prostitution and sexual exploitation come under the ‘violence against women’ umbrella. This move will make a big difference to the women and girls needing support. The UK has ‘Violence against Women and Girls’ laws that state all local government councils must have their own violence against women and girls strategies. It is, however, up to each area how they interpret them and what support they want to offer. We are still seeing women who have been sexually exploited being offered unsuitable support from generic women’s services or specialist services who have no training or understanding.
Running alongside the feminist narrative that the sex trade is exploitative, dangerous, and harmful, we are seeing a vicious vocal counterargument by the ECP – The English Collective of Prostitutes. This is a pro-sex work organisation whose mantra is ‘sex work is real work’ and who peddles the idea that being sexually exploitative is empowering and a free choice. They advocate for prostitution and other forms of the sex trade to be fully legalised. This would give pimps and Johns the status of managers and business owners and leave women exploited with no support. Because of this scattergun approach to services, and misleading and incorrect narrative around ‘sex work is real work’, FiLiA has become the first organisation in the UK to develop a trauma-informed, evidenced-based, and survivor-led Toolkit. I have been lucky enough to be a part of the team working on this. The Toolkit will be an invaluable resource to local government councils and organisations who want to help women and girls in their area. The focus of the Toolkit is on exiting prostitution and the sex trade in a safe way. Survivors have been integral in developing this Project. FiLiA has a global network of survivors that work with us influencing our work.