Statement on Universal Credit and ‘survival sex’

There has been considerable coverage in the media recently of benefit sanctions, and delays and shortfalls in Universal Credit, driving women into what is being called ‘survival sex,’ but which is in fact prostitution. We do not accept that prostitution becomes something different depending on what caused your engagement in it. This statement briefly explains Nordic Model Now’s position.


There are many factors that push women into prostitution and even when extreme poverty is the main or leading factor, other factors are always at play. That large numbers of men have the spare cash and sense of entitlement to pay a destitute woman to let him use her sexually is of course the other side of the coin – along with the economic inequality that leaves him with that spare cash and the wall-to-wall pornography that has conditioned him to get off on a woman’s suffering.

Our pornified culture misleads women and girls about the true nature of prostitution, and grooms them to accept sexual objectification and prioritising men’s needs. Childhood abuse and neglect, particularly sexual abuse, is clearly documented as a factor in many women’s engagement in prostitution. One woman told us:

“I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, something that will, without a doubt, make you feel that your body is both worthless and, paradoxically, the only object through which you can gain worth and approval.”

And of course there is peer pressure, and the ‘boyfriends’ and pimps who want to freeload off women’s prostitution, and use coercion and violence to keep her there.

It is a mistake to see the current problem of women being coerced into prostitution under the duress of extreme poverty as a completely separate phenomenon. Doing so obscures the fact that the solution requires tackling all the different threads and feeds right into the hands of the lobby that seeks to open up the sex industry to the free markets with women as the raw material.

From the beginning Nordic Model Now! has argued that the solution is a well-implemented and resourced Nordic Model approach, combined with real measures to address women’s poverty and inequality, along with a guaranteed minimum income for all.

Universal Credit and prostitution

The situation that we’re now in where large numbers of women have little, if any, choice but to turn to prostitution to keep a roof over their heads, food on the family table or shoes on their children’s feet is entirely predictable. The Women’s Budget Group, a group of expert economists, analyses every budget and has found that every single one since 2010 has impacted women much more harshly than men. Every single budget. They’ve estimated that overall 86% of the Government’s austerity measures have been borne by women – meaning that women and their needs have been underfunded and overlooked. We are the collateral damage of austerity.

It’s mainly jobs where the vast majority of the workforce are female that have gone from the public sector. Single mums have been particularly targeted by changes to the benefit system, including that when her youngest child reaches the age of three, she now has to go onto a ‘jobseeker’s contract.’ This means that if she’s late for a Job Centre appointment, because the bus doesn’t come, or her three year old has a tantrum, or she has to collect her nine-year old early because he’s had an asthma attack, she can get sanctioned – meaning her money is stopped for weeks at a time. And it might be for three months next time or even longer.

What exactly does the Government think she should do? What if, like many people living in poverty in the UK, she doesn’t have anyone she can turn to for a loan or emergency accommodation? What if her parents are themselves struggling to make ends meet?

And then our single mum gets transferred onto Universal Credit and instead of being paid in advance like the old benefits, it’s paid in arrears and she gets nothing for weeks. What is she meant to do? “It’s OK, kids, dinner will be in five weeks time when the Universal Credit comes through”?

Her debts are racking up. Her landlord is losing patience. So just like before we had the welfare state, she has no choice but to turn to prostitution. Just like Victorian Britain. Because many women, especially mums of young children, don’t actually have many options for making good money that fit around her responsibilities or that pay enough to let her afford childcare.

And the prostitution is worse than she imagined. She hadn’t thought of how those men would smell. How it would feel him groping her – and worse. The only way she can bear it is to get tanked up and that’s a slice out of the money. This wasn’t the life she’d expected. And somehow she feels it’s all her fault. She’s been ground down further than she ever imagined possible.

But it’s not her fault. It really isn’t. It’s the Government’s. What is happening was predictable from the beginning. It’s the end result of a series of policies that have disproportionately affected women, particularly those who are already vulnerable or raising children alone. And it’s having a knock-on effect on the very fabric of our society. We shouldn’t be surprised at the rise in young people’s mental health problems and youth knife crime when so many mothers are under such inhumane pressure.

Regardless what you call it, prostitution is a form of violence against women and has been recognised as a human rights abuse. It is both a cause and a consequence of the inequality between the sexes. For the Government to be complicit in large numbers of women having no recourse but to turn to prostitution is a violation of binding obligations under numerous human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

In March, the CEDAW Committee reviewed the UK’s progress in implementing the Convention and in its final report (Concluding Observations) it stressed that the Government “placing women’s rights at the heart of its deliberations and ensuring that women’s rights are strengthened will result in creating a stronger and more resilient society.”

It recommended that the Government undertake a comprehensive assessment of the impact of austerity policies on women and to take rapid measures to address their negative consequences. Other recommendations included strengthening the Public Sector Equality Duty and making sure that all public bodies use it properly to ensure that such a situation can never arise again.

The committee also said that women in vulnerable situations should never be placed in a situation where they have no recourse but to resort to prostitution or ‘sex for rent’ and they recommended measures to reduce men’s demand for prostitution, to decriminalise women in prostitution and to provide them with specialist services and genuine alternatives.

We call on the Government to act on these wise and measured recommendations without delay.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee’s inquiry

The Work and Pensions Select Committee is undertaking an inquiry into Universal Credit and ‘survival sex’. We sent a written submission to the inquiry and were invited to give oral evidence on Wednesday 22 May 2019.

Helen McDonald went along to represent Nordic Model Now! and she was quoted in an article in The Guardian that summarised the session:

‘Helen McDonald of the Nordic Model Now! group said women were not necessarily turning to prostitution to get cash. “It might be for somewhere to sleep … or to get food … They are expected to perform sex acts to get their dinner.”

The evidence of the consequences of nine years of brutal austerity policies that disproportionately target women, and the nightmare of Universal Credit, was harrowing.

Although we disagree with some of the other members of the panels about the best solution to prostitution legislation, we were unanimous in our opposition to both the criminalisation of the (mostly) women involved in prostitution and the harrowing consequences for women of nine years of brutal austerity policies, and cuts to services and benefits culminating in the rollout of the awful Universal Credit. Some of the evidence about the depth and consequences of women’s poverty is upsetting and disturbing but needs to be understood.

There were two panels. Helen was on the second one, which starts at about 44.05.

Watch the recording of the session

Further reading

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