Council could step up support for those involved in street prostitution by recognising it as exploitation

There are calls for street prostitution in Southend to be recognised as adult exploitation so women involved can be given greater support.

Councillor Helen McDonald (Lab) of the Kursaal ward is leading a call for the council to class street prostitution as similar to child exploitation and warned it has become a major factor in Southend crime.

The councillor submitted a motion to a full council meeting next week which states women who sell sex are “at significant risk of psychological, emotional, physical and sexual harm” and the council needs to change how it approaches the issue, including improved access to sexual health services.

She said: “Most people understand the term child sexual exploitation to mean that a child is coerced or forced into sexual activity they are unable to consent to but, legally, when someone turns 18 they cease to be child.

“Often, turning 18 means that support services are withdrawn so, a vulnerable child is not automatically recognised as a vulnerable adult and a child who was sexually exploited may well come to be seen as an adult who is making a free and informed choice to sell sex.

“Recognising street prostitution as a form of adult sexual exploitation means that the council acknowledges that many women who sell sex are coerced and are not in a position to make a free and informed choices – for example due to drug dependencies or trauma responses impacting their mental health – so they are also vulnerable to physical and sexual violence and exploitation.

“Currently, the commissioned services for sexual health in Southend do not meet the needs of women engaged in street prostitution.

“For example, condoms can be collected from the clinic at Victoria Avenue or the hospital but these locations are not central enough, the opening times do not fit with the women’s lives and women have told me they feel uncomfortable having to repeatedly ask for more condoms.

“The same issues exist for accessing sexual health testing.

“To properly address the sexual health risks inherent in selling sex, provision needs to be made to enable women to access sexual health services in a way that suits them.”

She explained the reason she focussed specifically on support given to women is because none of the outreach teams have “ever seen a man selling sex on the street” in Southend.

She further warned the side-effects of selling sex in the community are “high levels of anti-social behaviour” as the men who are acting as pimps for the women or buying sex are also often involved in issues such as drug-dealing.

This was backed by Cllr Martin Terry (Ind), who oversees community safety.

Cllr Terry compared street prostitution to “modern day slavery” and said most women are involved only because of an addiction.

He continued: “Pimps will use that addiction to coerce them into doing what they are doing so I have a lot of sympathy toward this.

“There are all sorts of risks from this including the health risk and the spread of disease, which has only become a bigger issue with the pandemic.”

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter