Austerity measures like benefit sanctions are pushing women in Sheffield to sell their bodies on the city’s streets, claims experts.
That is the view of staff at the Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project (SWWOP), who report that between June and August this year 51 ‘new’ women became involved with sex work in Sheffield.
Manager at the charity, Sali Harwood calls the figure a ‘massive rise’ considering that in the space of a year SWWOP would normally come into contact with between 180 and 195 vice girls in total.
She adds that while some of the 51 women may be new to SWWOP - the majority have been involved with some form of sex work in the past. In comparison, during most four month periods, the charity says it would see around 12 new women enter or re-enter sex work.
This means it estimates there was a rise of over 400 per cent in the number of women entering or returning to prostitution between June and August.
“It’s things like having their benefits sanctioned that are forcing these women back on to the streets,” said Ms Harwood. “Overcoming the many issues you need to in order to come out of sex work is extremely difficult, and so to see so many returning to it is very worrying.
“What else is worrying is the fact that some of these women may have been out of it for as long as 10 years and things are very different now. They’re a lot more dangerous.
Some women take drugs to help themselves cope with what they are doing on the streets, and Ms Harwood says some of those drugs are more dangerous now because they are stronger.
She said: “Women who have been out of sex work for a while may not realise that - which is very concerning.
“Quite a lot of women might only intend to come out for five or six weeks to make some money while they wait for payments to come through but once they’re in it again, it can be very difficult to leave.
“The mental health issues it causes as well are difficult to recover from.
“We know that some women come out just so they can buy food, and once they’ve raised enough they go home again.
“There are a lot of reasons that women turn to prostitution, but austerity has been one of the biggest factors we’ve seen in the recent rise,” she added.
SWWOP, which has been operating in Sheffield for over 20 years, offers help, support and signposting to Sheffield prostitutes - both on and off the streets.
Their evening mobile outreach service, which mainly focuses on the Shalesmoor and Neepsend areas of the city distributes free condoms, a satellite needle exchange, hot drinks and sandwiches
They also distribute information about clients who are known to be ‘dodgy punters’ - both in Sheffield and further afield. SWWOP also helps sex workers book health appointments, crisis intervention and much more.
They also offer a five day a week service providing support for benefits entitlement, housing issues, court appearances, drug treatment support and an individual worker to create a realistic exit support package.
The project works closely with both Sheffield Council and South Yorkshire Police to support sex workers and help them out of prostitution.
Despite the rise recorded by SWWOP, Sheffield’s Central Local Policing team told The Star they saw a 47 per cent decrease in the number of prostitution-related incidents reported to police between April and August this year.
But Inspector Neil Mutch from Sheffield’s Central Local Policing Team said they acknowledge the drop in the number of incidents reported to police may not reflect the true scale of sex work in Sheffield.
He said: “A reduction in complaints from the public does not correlate directly with a reduction in sex workers on the streets.
“Through working closely with partners, such as SWWOP, we monitor closely any emerging issues or concerns around this particularly vulnerable group of women.
“We encourage the work of SWWOP in particular around helping women to exit this lifestyle and access services and other agencies that will keep them healthy.
“The main focus of our patrols is around the safeguarding of women due to their vulnerability and we share information where possible to assist in keeping them safe.
“It would be speculation on our part to suggest the cause of any increase in figures gathered by SWWOP but they engage very closely with the women and spend a lot of time with them, so we would not seek to challenge their findings.”
Laura Watson, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes which collects data on sex work in England, said the rise in women turning to prostitution was a ‘pattern’ also being seen across the rest of the country.
She said: “We know that benefit sanctions are causing women to be forced into it in South Yorkshire and across England. Women, who may have children to look after, are having their benefits sanctioned and may have no other choice but to turn to sex work.
“The change in the benefits system is affecting a lot of people.
“We are also seeing women who have full time jobs becoming involved with prostitution because of loss of benefits like income support for working mothers.
“That is why we are calling for income support to be reintroduced for mothers.
“We are also calling for prostitution to be de-criminalised in order to make it safer, and because it can be a cycle women find it difficult to get out of if they get a criminal record for being involved with sex work.”
Following the shake-up of the welfare system the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) can apply sanctions to various benefits if they believe a claimant has not met the Government’s rules for claiming.
Having a sanction imposed means a benefit will be stopped or reduced for either a fixed or open-ended period of time.
Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions can last for four, 13 or 26 weeks, but can also last for up to a maximum of three years. Reasons for having benefits sanctioned include failure to attend or take part in a work-focused interview without good reason, failure to take part in compulsory work-related activity without good reason and not keeping to the Jobseeker’s Agreement and not taking enough steps to find work without good reason.