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by Margaret Taylor
19 October 2021
A question of choice: Finding a way forward for prostitution in Scotland

Source: Holyrood

A question of choice: Finding a way forward for prostitution in Scotland

When it launched its Equally Safe consultation on commercial sexual exploitation last year, the Scottish Government was very clear on the outcome it intended to achieve: “We want to challenge men’s demand for prostitution, work to reduce the harms associated with prostitution and support women to exit.”

Having 10 years previously adopted the position that prostitution is a form of violence against women, the government’s ultimate aim in conducting the consultation is to create a policy that reflects that stance. “We need to make the legal framework match up to the political aspirations,” says community safety minister Ash Denham, “this is a strategy the government has had for 10 years and that’s the context we’re working from.”

Not everyone sees things from the government’s point of view, though, and, while the whole point of a public consultation is to canvas a range of opinions so a solution that satisfies the majority can be found, such consensus seems an unlikely outcome on this occasion. Indeed, not only can the 4,000 responses to the consultation be split broadly into two distinct camps, but those camps’ views are so diametrically - and vehemently - opposed that a middle ground will almost certainly be impossible to find.

Community safety minister Ash Denham says the government's legal framework on prostitution needs to "match up to the political aspirations"

On the one hand there are those, including advocacy group Scottish Women’s Convention and Christian mission CARE for Scotland, who support the view that prostitution is a form of both sexual exploitation and of violence against women and girls. They want it to be eradicated and believe the only way to do that is to create a system that completely decriminalises and supports the women involved in prostitution (currently they can be prosecuted for crimes such as brothel keeping or soliciting) while criminalising or otherwise punishing the men who pay for it (in Scotland, the exchange of sexual services for money is not currently a crime).

First instituted in Sweden in the 1990s, this system has been replicated in countries including Norway and Iceland and has come to be known as the Nordic model.

“The Nordic model is one of the only models that centres prostitution as a form of violence against women - it’s taken us decades to get to that position,” says Ali Morris, deputy chair of campaign group Nordic Model Now.

“It decriminalises women so they don’t get a criminal record. Most, if not all, women who enter prostitution are there because of vulnerabilities in the first place and to prosecute those is madness. The Scottish Government wants to disrupt the buying of sex and the only way you can do that is by prosecuting the men who buy it or by sanctioning them in whatever other way seems appropriate.”

On the other hand, there are those, such as sex workers’ collective Umbrella Lane and sex worker-led charity SCOT-PEP, that believe Scotland should follow the lead of New Zealand, which decriminalised both the buyers and sellers of sexual services close to two decades ago and has reported positive results since.

“The law changed 18 years ago,” says Catherine Healy, founder of New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. “At the time the debate was really close - it went through parliament by one vote. Some of the naysayers said in retrospect that they had thought the sky would fall in, but it didn’t.

"One of the fantastic outcomes has been to see the strengthening of the relationship sex workers now have with the police. You’re not going to reach out to the police and report a crime, or a potential crime, if you or your clients are at risk of being charged.

"There were also arguments that it would increase violence, but that has not been our experience. In fact, sex workers feel far more able to come forward - and do come forward - and there have been compelling results from court, where sex workers have brought forward cases of sexual harassment.”

Both sides are convinced theirs is the only way by which the safety of women involved in sex work can be assured, with the Nordic supporters wanting to take them out of prostitution completely and the New Zealand supporters wanting to give them the safeguards and rights that come with a legitimised form of work.

The views of both sides are not just well articulated, they are strongly held and, crucially, clearly evidenced too.

Gail Dines is professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston and specialises in the study of pornography. She says the Nordic model is the best way forward because “the research shows that when you decriminalise prostitution you create a haven for traffickers because it becomes legitimate”. 

“That in and of itself legitimises the buying and selling of women’s bodies,” she says. “Police are less likely to care. You get huge brothels like in Germany, where so many of the women are trafficked. What other system was based on the buying and selling of human bodies? Slavery. Either you make a decision as a civilised society that you are outlawing slavery in all its forms or you go down the slippery slope of saying some people can be bought and sold.”

Lynzi Armstrong is a criminology lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand whose work focuses on sex workers’ rights. She says there is a solid body of research that supports the opposing view.

“A lot of the Scottish Government’s approach is hung up on people who don’t want to be in the sex industry going to do something else,” she says. “A big barrier if they want to do something else is discrimination and having a gap on their CV and having to explain that. We need to destigmatise prostitution.

"In New Zealand, a lot of people I’ve interviewed have said they feel much more able to disclose what they do to friends, family and medical professionals because it’s not a crime - they are doing a job. It definitely provides a more open environment. There’s still stigma and I don’t think any legal system can get rid of that – a law can’t undo stigma - but it can send a message.”

Opponents of the Nordic model say it will drive prostitution underground and put women's safety at risk

When it published its initial response to the public consultation in June, the Scottish Government acknowledged the polarised nature of the debate around prostitution, though Denham says that some of the arguments put forward are unhelpful, in part because they view prostitution as a single, homogenous thing.

“We know that there are different sectors of prostitution,” she says. “You used to see a lot on the street and that seems to be a lot of Scottish women. A lot of them have been sexually abused or in care. Off-street seems to be more around international sex trafficking and typical source countries are Romania and Vietnam. We need to look at that.

“In terms of position, there’s often this idea that sex trafficking is terrible and we’ve got to stop that, but that prostitution is a choice and it can be empowering. I think that’s a false dichotomy right there. To me prostitution is the market that sex trafficking is feeding. It’s part of this harmful system and it’s a symptom of women’s gender inequality.”

In spite of the disparity in consultation responses - and the strength of feeling displayed in them - the government has, perhaps unsurprisingly given its starting point, pledged to “consider how aspects of international approaches which seek to challenge men’s demand for prostitution would best be applied in Scotland”.

For Armstrong that - and the fact the government’s long-held position is that prostitution is a form of violence against women - is problematic because it gives the impression that adopting some form of Nordic model is a foregone conclusion. 

“They’re imposing their interpretation and saying ‘this is what we believe this to be, how should we respond to this?’ rather than having a conversation that’s more open to a diverse range of views and experiences,” she says. “That’s been one of the long-term problems in Scotland – talking over sex workers.”

Despite its position, the government has nevertheless committed to engaging with people engaged in sex work before a way forward is agreed, with Denham noting that her department is putting together a “lived-experience forum” to learn further from those involved in the industry. The aim is to amalgamate those experiences with the international approaches thought to be most effective in order to come up with a bespoke strategy designed specifically for Scotland.

If the aim of the government is to find a solution that is robust enough to achieve its stated aim but nuanced enough to make all sides feel their views have been addressed, it has its work cut out.

Armstrong is clear that if the Scottish Government is committed to protecting the rights of women involved in prostitution it must “abandon this idea that it’s a form violence”. Dines is equally clear that it must not. “Either you’re going to stand up for women or you’re not; half-measures don’t work,” she says. “The government needs to grow a pair of ovaries and get on with protecting women.”

One point on which the sides are in agreement is that poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity are the key drivers for the vast majority of women who become involved in the sex trade. The government acknowledged that in its response to the consultation and noted that the situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

But for the women pushing for some form of change in the way prostitution is viewed and legislated for, no policy will be worth the paper it is written on unless it comes hand in hand with a recognition that much more needs to be done to address the societal factors that lead some women to earn money by selling sex.

“For the women we work with, it’s poverty that forces them into it; its drug and alcohol addiction; it’s about survival; it’s about being able to put food on the table and to meet the needs of their children,” says Heather Williams, national co-ordinator of the Women’s Support Project, a feminist organisation focused on raising awareness of the causes and effects of male violence against women.

“Women need to be in higher-paid roles. No one should be forced by coercion or circumstance to sell or exchange sex. Universal Credit isn’t enough to live off, but women can make money by selling sex or images of themselves. There’s something fundamentally wrong with society if that’s the choice women have.”

It’s not right to say it’s all about choice or all about coercion - there’s a whole mix in there. A sex worker might say ‘I chose this’, but they didn’t choose their shitty conditions

Dines says in order to give women other choices there has to be a “full social welfare system in place to support these women for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, good day care, good therapy to treat their PTSD – these women have more PTSD levels than ex-military personnel – and they need access to good jobs, to good training”. She adds: “You can’t just throw the women out – you have to make sure there’s a good safety net. That’s where it falls apart.”

Armstrong, who has interviewed hundreds of sex workers as part of her research, notes that they have “diverse motivations”, though she agrees with Williams that “the overarching one is to earn money”. She also agrees with Dines that, while it is all very well for the government to want to stymie men’s ability to buy sex, it cannot do that without ensuring the women selling it have access to support and other sources of income first.

“If you’re not going to replace the income with something else then people are still going to do it,” she says. “Everyone has done other jobs so the motivation to leave isn’t having other jobs. People have worked in hospitality or retail roles and have felt really exploited – they worked long hours, were often treated badly by customers and didn’t have time to do much else.

"Sex work might not be their dream job but it provides flexibility and allows them to earn more money in less time and that enables them to spend more time with their children. [If the government wants to end prostitution] it will have to do something quite radical in society like provide a universal basic income.”

Ultimately, as Healy puts it, centring the debate on trying to decide whether sex workers are helpless victims in need of rescue or empowered women in need of greater freedoms rather misses the point. 

“It’s not right to say it’s all about choice or all about coercion - there’s a whole mix in there,” she says, “a sex worker might say ‘I chose this’, but they didn’t choose their shitty conditions.”

In its consultation response the government acknowledged the general consensus that “more holistic, person-centred services which meet the underlying needs of many women” are required. But that, ultimately, is a problem that no amount of challenging men’s demand for prostitution, and no amount of criminalising men’s behaviour, is going to fix.

If women are being forced to make choices the government feels leaves them exposed to men’s violent behaviour, the lack of alternatives available to them is just as problematic as the violence itself. Perhaps if the emphasis shifted away from modifying men’s behaviour towards improving women’s socioeconomic status, the market forces of supply and demand would do the government’s job for it.

Read the most recent article written by Margaret Taylor - In Context: Miners’ Strike Pardons Bill

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