Prostitution is one of the most divisive issues in politics
The debate about prostitution is increasingly polarised between advocates for liberation and protection of the vulnerable
Dani Garavelli - Nick Grigg/Holyrood
In early autumn, I spent several weeks sitting in on a pioneering sex workers’ clinic in Edinburgh. During my time there, I spoke to many women who sell sex outdoors, in saunas and in private flats, and the doctors, nurses and Sacro staff members who try to keep them safe.
The feature I wrote in the wake of these visits was not overtly political. I wanted it to be dominated by the experiences of the women involved and the majority of those I encountered weren’t interested in discussing the pros and cons of different policies; they were focused on earning enough money to get by.
Since then, however, many people have asked me if the experience altered my views about how the law should deal with the sex industry; and the answer is, yes. It was an eye-opener.
Prostitution is one of the most divisive issues in politics today. At one end of the scale, there are those who see selling sex as a legitimate choice; they tend to support the decriminalisation or legalisation of the industry. At the other end, there are those who see all sex work as violence against women; they tend to support the criminalisation of the purchase of sex (the so-called Nordic model).
In Scotland, between 2012-15, MSPs Rhoda Grant and Jean Urquhart put forward rival bills – Grant’s backing the Nordic model and Urquhart’s backing decriminalisation – but both failed through lack of support.
At the last SNP conference, delegates voted in favour of criminalising the purchase of sex, but there is still no consensus. A cross-party group, led by Grant and SNP MSP Ash Denham, is trying to mobilise opinion.
For a long time, I have felt torn on the issue. There is something compelling about the argument that opposition to prostitution is rooted in an old-fashioned sexual morality and that women should be allowed to do what they like with their own bodies. Some high-profile sex workers are powerful advocates for this position. Thus, when Urquhart was promoting her bill, I wrote a broadly positive piece about her efforts.
But soon after, I began to feel uneasy. It’s all very well saying, “Listen to the sex workers”. But what if the most vocal sex workers are not representative? What if the ones who have social media platforms are drowning out the less articulate and more vulnerable?
At the clinic, the doctors and nurses had no doubt about the exploitative nature of prostitution. Consultant gynaecologist Alison Scott, who set it up, told me of the multiple traumas, domestic violence and mental health issues suffered by those who attend.
As for the women, with one exception, they seemed ambivalent. A few said the risks should be theirs to take, but most went on to talk about the downsides and their dreams of a better future.
Those who had exited the sex industry were more forthright in their condemnation; as part of the exhibition Inside Outside, former prostitutes gave harrowing accounts of the abuse they had suffered.
Even if you accept prostitution is almost always exploitative, however, framing legislation is still tricky. Laws exist not to make grand moral statements, but to protect individuals from harm. So the question remains: which approach – decriminalisation/legalisation or the Nordic model – is better placed to do that?
In Germany and the Netherlands, legalisation has led to a burgeoning of the industry with no evidence that it has become less oppressive. The government and owners of the mega-brothels are making lots of money, but the much-mooted sex workers’ co-operatives are thin on the ground; meanwhile in some of the ‘flat-rate’ brothels, an entry fee of between €50-€100 buys you unlimited sex with as many women as you want.
In New Zealand, some say decriminalisation has led to safer conditions, and yet former prostitute Sabrina Valisce, who campaigned for it to happen, believes it has benefited only pimps and punters.
And so to the ‘Nordic model’. One of the main arguments against the criminalisation of the purchase of sex is that ‘good’ clients will be scared off, while ‘bad’ clients will stay.
But you only have to look at the review site punternet.com to see how much contempt many of those currently paying for sex have for the women whose services they use.
It has also been suggested that if buying sex is illegal, clients will be more reluctant to go to the police if they fear a prostitute is in danger. But existing punters show little concern for the welfare of sex workers. They will pick up girls who have wasted away through heroin addiction and will offer more cash for sex with no condom. How many times do any report their suspicions of domestic abuse or trafficking?
Maybe we should start by deciding the kind of society we aspire to, and take it from there. Do we want to live in a country where the sexual exploitation of women is not only normalised but enshrined in law? Or do we want to try to change the culture so prostitution becomes socially unacceptable?
If the latter, then surely the right thing is to criminalise the purchase of sex; to send out a message that it is not OK to treat the bodies of often-troubled women as commodities (while supporting those involved to find less perilous ways to earn a living).
It is true that doing so may infringe the liberties of those ‘high-end’ prostitutes for whom selling sex is an active choice. But sometimes the rights of the privileged few must play second fiddle to the protection of the majority: those driven by external factors into a lifestyle that feeds on and compounds their misery.
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