Call to decriminalise sex work and support women in need rather than labelling them ‘unfit’ because of their work
Lauren Crosby Medlicott
25 July 2022, 2.06pm openDemocracy
Every Wednesday, picketers meet outside the Central Family Court in London to protest against the unjust separation of mothers and other primary carers from their children.
Among those who faithfully show up each week are the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), who demand an end to a perceived labelling of sex-working mothers as being ‘unfit’ to parent because of their work.
“Until 2021, only one or two women a year would ask for help fighting a custody case in the family courts,” said Niki Adams, a spokesperson from the ECP. “Since 2021, we have counted 16 women who have gotten in touch.”
Adams thinks this rise could be due to an increase in social-service involvement with mothers in recent years. Earlier this year it was reported that social workers’ caseloads have grown in the past year, with more than a third of those surveyed saying their workload is now “completely unmanageable”.
Over the past four years, between 1,210 and 1,840 children in the UK have been adopted each year without the consent of their parents.
When mothers are victims of domestic violence, Adams says police and social services often fail to provide protection and support – instead starting proceedings to take away their child on the grounds that she isn’t protecting them from a violent man.
She added: “Social services are prejudiced and sexist in their treatment of women and mothers generally, and this is compounded when women are immigrant[s] and doing sex work.
“We have seen this with sex-working mums, who despite their massive efforts to escape violence, are judged, with social workers implying the woman was putting her child at risk.”
Adams claimed staff from social services have accused sex-working mums of leaving their children unattended to work, prioritising men and money over children’s welfare, and putting their children at risk with their sexual history.
“Social services’ starting point is that mothers who are doing sex work are bad mothers or suspicious or irresponsible. They are deeply disrespectful and dismissive of the bond between mother and child,” said Adams.
“The trauma of losing your child leaves an indelible mark. Women never really recover. Women describe thinking of their child every day of their life, every time they sit down to eat they wonder if their child has eaten, whether they are clothed, whether they are in danger, whether they are happy.”
Social Work England, which regulates social workers in the country, declined to comment when approached by openDemocracy.
Tanya Pratt began working as a sex worker in massage parlours more than two decades ago, while studying philosophy at Cardiff University. Struggling to balance two measly paid part-time jobs and her studies, Tanya found she could make more money in one night in the parlours than in a fortnight at her previous jobs. Unable to find any other employment after university, she continued sex work as a means to survive.
In 2000, Tanya gave birth to a daughter and continued sex work while her partner took care of their baby. Two years later, Tanya split with her daughter’s father and started dating a man who became severely abusive. “He was more of a pimp than a partner,” she said.
Tanya asked social services for help when her daughter was four. “They came and did an assessment, but they refused me. They said I was quite capable, had a university degree, and that I wasn’t the typical person in need. I honestly believed they turned me down because I was a sex worker.”
A couple of weeks after the social worker’s visit, a man armed with a gun entered her house, looking to shoot Tanya’s partner. Police were called and social services stepped in as a child was involved.
“My daughter and I were put in a hotel that night, but the next day, social services took my daughter away,” Tanya recounted through tears. “I had asked them for help, they didn’t give me any, and then they took her away.”
When the case went to court, Tanya underwent a psychiatric assessment to evaluate her capabilities as a mother. “My dad took me to the appointment and told me how smart I looked,” Tanya said. “But when I got the typed version of the assessment written up, I was horrified because in the first few lines, the assessor said I was dressed provocatively. I was astounded. He knew I was a sex worker and I think it is one of the reasons he noted I dressed provocatively.”
She asked for support but received none – she felt that social services had written her off because she was a sex worker
In a Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC), a meeting held for agencies to discuss the risk of future harm to people experiencing domestic abuse, it was highlighted that Tanya was a sex worker. It was eventually decided that Tanya’s daughter was in danger, and she was removed from Tanya’s care.
“I had a nervous breakdown,” Tanya recalled. “I just sat in my house and rocked. Just rocked. The salt from crying was burning my cheeks. Social services are supposed to help get your children back but they didn’t do anything.”
Five years after the removal of her daughter, in 2009, Tanya gave birth to a son. “His father was incredibly abusive – mentally and physically,” she said. “He was using heroin and cocaine too. I was clean.”
When her son was a few months old, Tanya left his father. They had joint custody but her ex-partner often disappeared with their child and wouldn’t let Tanya see him. When she did see her son, the father wouldn’t leave her alone; he had to be in complete control at all times.
Tanya said that at this point she asked social services to help her to see her son. But she felt that instead of receiving support she was treated like “she wasn’t worthy”, like social services had written her off because she was a sex worker.
She turned to drugs to cope with the trauma of abuse and the loss of her son, and became involved with another man who abused her. Tanya needed help, for domestic abuse and for her drug use, but said it felt like her vulnerabilities just strengthened social services’ resolve not to support her to see her son. “I felt like I had nothing to live for,” she said.
In 2017, when Tanya had not seen her child for three years, she submitted an application to take her former partner to court for full custody of their son. The case was adjourned because her ex-partner didn’t show up.
The following year, a court case finally began – it would last for the next four years. By its end, Tanya’s son had turned 12, and she had not seen him for more than eight years, despite having had joint custody the entire time. She blames her ex-partner and a lack of action from social services.
“The family court is useless,” she said. “Now that my son is 12, he is allowed to make up his own mind about whether or not he wants to see me. His dad has been telling him since he was two that I was a prostitute… Told [him] that I was a naughty, naughty lady.”
In recent years, Tanya has remained clean from drugs and has been proven to be a capable mother. Though she still technically has part-time custody of her son, who remains in the care of her ex-partner, she has been told he doesn’t want to see her, perhaps due to what he has been told by his father.
“I strongly feel if the court case hadn’t taken four years, I would have had a much greater chance of seeing him. There has been no help to reconcile me to my son,” said Tanya, who is currently writing her story.
Mothers blamed for male violence
Like Tanya, many sex workers have complicated and painful experiences of motherhood. Sex work is often tangled tightly together with poverty, exploitation, domestic abuse and drug use – leaving workers vulnerable.
Sex-working mothers are afraid of judgment from social services, fearful that if they ask for help, social workers will see their profession as an immediate reason to have the children removed.
“We see that sex workers who experience crime, harm and violence are less willing to report these incidents to the police, and therefore less able to seek justice and healing through the criminal justice system, due to the fear that social services may become involved,” said Rosie Hodsdon, of the UK-wide charity helping sex workers, National Ugly Mugs.
“In our own research, 42% of sex workers said that they would not report a crime against them to the police for this reason. Penalising mums who share information about harm they experience makes everyone in our communities less safe.”
Support not Separation, a coalition of organisations and individuals who have witnessed the damage caused by the forced separation of children from their mothers, agrees with Hodsdon. Spokesperson Anne Neale said the coalition has seen abusive fathers go through the family courts to try to take children away from sex-working mothers like Tanya, and use their sex work against them.
Neale said: “Sex work isn’t the only reason that sex-working mothers have their children taken off of them… The main reasons children get taken are because of domestic violence, when instead of getting help to leave violent men, mothers get accused of causing children ‘emotional harm’ and because of ‘neglect’ – when poverty is labelled neglect.
“But refusing poverty is labelled neglect. Sex workers are blamed for being poor and punished for refusing poverty.”
Hodsdon has seen that the vast majority of people who do sex work do so out of financial need.
“Those who have children not only need to support themselves but ensure that their children are able to thrive: to have food, clothes, stable and safe shelter, healthcare, school supplies, and other opportunities,” she said. “Parents turning to sex work to provide these do so because of a failure of society to provide a good quality of life for everyone. Mothers need support.”
If one of the root reasons for mothers doing sex work is poverty, then the solution is surely to make sure mums have enough money to support their children.
“With money and financial independence, mothers’ status would rise, and they would be better able to resist abusive treatment whether from former partners, neighbours or from social services and the family courts,” said Niki Adams. “Having financial independence means mothers could refuse sex work and any other exploitative, low-waged work.”
Calls for decriminalisation
Gemma*, who has worked as a sex worker, struggled to cope when her children were young. When she told a doctor how she was feeling, she was placed on ever-increasing doses of antidepressants.
“I loved being around my children,” Gemma said. “Most of the time, it was OK. But then there are times when the pressure just becomes too much, and you’re looking in the cupboards and there’s nothing in the cupboards. You’re thinking, ‘how am I going to get a meal on the table?’ I felt like I was failing as a mum.”
If I had been supported, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in a situation where I went into total crisis and had my kids removed
Gemma didn’t feel she could tell even her kids’ teachers that she was struggling, in case it was decided that her children should be removed. “That fear can be crippling,” she said.
Social services eventually became involved with the family. “They took one look at me, saw I had been arrested for prostitution and decided I was a bad woman, a bad mum,” recalled Gemma. “Like I was neglecting my children when I was trying to save them.
“The social worker told me to stop working. I stopped but it made no difference. She questioned me about who took care of my children when I was working, which is ridiculous because I was the only mum [I knew] that could afford to pay someone to take care of my children when I was working.
“Don’t they know that women’s wages are too low to cover childcare? Of all the other mums I knew, it was only if the grandmother or a friend could care for their children that they could take a job.”
Gemma ended up losing her children, who were taken into the custody of social services.
“Everything went wrong,” she said. “I lost the belief that I was a good mum. And when I lost custody of my children, I just spiralled because the pain and the shame and the guilt were all-consuming. My life spiralled. I didn’t feel capable of fighting for my children, because I was in such a bad place.
“I knew if it went to court, it’d be a straight ‘no’. Looking back, if I had been supported, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in a situation where I went into total crisis and had my kids removed.”
Gemma thinks her situation could have been different if sex work was decriminalised.
“For sex working mums we have to end criminalisation. I can’t understand why, when women want to feed their kids, pay their bills, put a roof over their head, that they should go to prison for that. The police literally persecute and prosecute. And local councils enable that.
“If it was decriminalised, then the stigma would be less. We’d be less fearful. Instead, we get a conviction and it’s on your record for life.”
Adams agrees, saying the ECP will continue fighting for sex work to be decriminalised. “All the evidence shows that [decriminalisation] improves sex workers’ safety, health and welfare,” she explained.
“Women shouldn’t be criminalised for refusing poverty. It’s at the root of the stigma and discrimination sex workers face, so abolishing it would mean that sex workers would be more able to insist on their rights and organise to keep themselves safer.”