Scotland: Should prostitution be given the red light?

Published on 20 Sep 2009

Plans are afoot to make it a crime to buy sex in Scotland. Is this the way forward? Ahead of a major debate on the proposal, we present five spirited arguments

The feminist campaigner

By Julie bindel

The laws on prostitution are not working. Currently, women are criminalised, making it more difficult to leave prostitution, and the men who pay for sex, at least in brothels, remain unchallenged. Not surprisingly, demand for sexual services has increased. Why does this matter? That depends on whether you believe in equality between men and women. Prostitution creates and maintains the sexual subordination of women. As long as men can buy women’s bodies we can never be equal. So Labour’s expected amendment to the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill (Scotland), which would make it a crime to buy sex, would be welcome.

Why should brothels be seen as an accepted and respectable part of the leisure industry, knowing the abuse and misery involved? The women are seen as merchandise and marketed as though they are sub-human. Look at the following “offers” available in London brothels: “House special – £80 for 20 minutes with two girls”; “Voucher for first-timers: 50% off next visit”; “£150 for as many times as you can”.

Why would anyone, aside from pimps and other profiteers, support this vile industry? Many do so under the guise of claiming to represent women involved in prostitution. The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) behaves far more as a lobby group for the sex industry than an organisation focused on labour rights. In calling for the criminalisation of demand I am more interested in deterrence than punishment. Laws can change attitudes. Legalisation and decriminalisation lead us to believe that buying and selling bodies is acceptable. In countries such as the Netherlands and Australia, removing legal sanctions from pimps and brothel-owners results in a dramatic increase in the number of women and girls trafficked into those countries and an increase in the legal and illegal aspects of the sex industry.

The Netherlands is a perfect example. Half of Amsterdam’s prostitute windows have now been closed down to protect the city from gangs of traffickers, drug dealers and peddlers in child pornography. A report by former prostitute Karina Schaapman, now a member of the city council, described a police file of 80 violent pimps, of whom only three were Dutch-born. She says more than three-quarters of the city’s 8000 to 11,000 prostitutes were from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.

The sex industry lobbyists have recently gone silent about the Netherlands and instead are hailing New Zealand – where the sex industry has been decriminalised – as the perfect model. The NZ government’s own report into the effects of decriminalisation reveals that all is not well since the policy shift. When interviewed, most of the women in prostitution said they felt that the law could do little about violence. Some 35% reported in 2007 that they had been coerced to prostitute in the past year, and most felt decriminalisation made no difference to the violence of punters. And allowing brothels to operate without hassle from the police did not reduce street prostitution. In Auckland it more than doubled in just one year.

Men will not experience harm if they are prevented from paying for sex, and don’t believe that those unable to find a “release” for sexual frustration will be forced to rape. But a new argument, thought up by sex industry lobbyists, markets prostitution as a social and charitable service. Disabled men, the argument goes, can’t have sex the usual way, or find a partner, so have to engage the services of “sex workers”. An organisation called Tender Loving Care is campaigning for wheelchair-accessib le brothels “to meet the demand” and says hospices should provide for “visiting sex workers”. How insulting to suggest that disabled men can only find a sexual partner by paying for it.

Men who pay for sex need to be educated about the harm it is causing. Some will only stop if they are frightened of the consequences. Others are able to justify what they do, because it is not against the law. One regular punter told me: “It’s like going for a drink. You are not doing anything illegal.” He is right. Let’s hope we can change this.

Julie Bindel is a journalist and feminist campaigner who has written extensively about prostitution

The sex worker

by Catherine Stephens

It may seem morally satisfying to say “let’s attack the men”, but criminalising those who buy sex has harmful consequences for women on the street. Kerb-crawling crackdowns always lead to increased violence against women, who avoid the police by working in unfamiliar, more isolated and dangerous places. Fewer clients means greater competition so women must spend longer on the streets to earn the same money, and are less likely to support each other, for instance by taking car numbers. Some end up working in crack houses, exchanging sex for drugs rather than money.

All this has knock-on negative effects for the communities of which these women are a part. I want to see policies that prioritise the safety and human rights of people in the sex industry, and solutions that actually challenge social exclusion. Politicians bewail our social exclusion as a harmful consequence of our work, but perpetuate it themselves. In Sweden, the consultation about criminalising men explicitly excluded women who sell sex, on the basis that anyone who is comfortable about doing this job is so profoundly psychologically damaged that their opinion shouldn’t be listened to. As a lifelong feminist, I think it’s dangerous to use a woman’s sexual behaviour to undermine the validity of what she says about her experience.

It’s said that women who have sex to earn money for drugs don’t have a choice over what they do, but you wouldn’t say that about somebody who ripped off your car stereo to pay for heroin. To suggest that certain groups of women don’t have the right to choose when they consent to sex, and that their consent is invalid, is extremely dangerous and anyone saying that isn’t listening to people who work in the sex industry. Certainly, there are some who don’t want to be doing this job, and people who are only doing it for the money. And it’s true that it can pay really well. In any other job, I’d be lucky to earn a tenth of the hourly rate that I charge.

But my own experience after 10 years in the industry has been really positive. I’ve worked in brothels, for escort agencies and independently. I’ve never experienced violence or had a client who didn’t respect my boundaries in terms of what I’ll agree to do. The disrespect I’ve experienced has been from people who say my work is disgusting, and who question my right to consent to it. Being stigmatised has a negative effect on people’s mental health, and recent research showed that many within the industry feel threatened not by clients, but by exposure to stigma. (Partly for this reason, the International Union of Sex Workers campaigns to have violence against sex workers classified as hate crime.)

Criminalisation already denies women any protection under the law. Article 20 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights says everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, but we don’t. If two of us are working in a building, the building’s owner can be arrested for running a brothel. Violent gangs target brothels on the basis that they’re unlikely to be reported, because victims are scared of being arrested.

Decriminalisation does not mean a complete absence of regulation. In New Zealand, brothels are categorised into different sizes, and there are regulations about how close they can be to schools or churches.

All we want is the same human, civil and labour rights, as well as the same protection under the law, as everyone else. We also want to be consulted on the decisions that affect us. It’s considered acceptable to exclude and marginalise people in the sex industry in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated with any other occupation or minority. That’s immoral.

Catherine Stephens is a sex worker and an activist with the International Union of Sex Workers

The academic

by Roger Matthews

Most street prostitutes are victims: usually drug-users who have health and housing problems and have been seduced, coerced and pressured into prostitution at a young age: about 50% became involved aged under 18.

We must also develop effective exiting strategies. A large percentage of women say that, given the chance, they’d like to get out, but prosecuting women for soliciting ties them up in the cycle of fines, courts and perhaps prison, which works against the objective of trying to help people move out of prostitution.

A decade ago, between 1200 and 1400 women were reported to be working in prostitution in Glasgow. The guestimate now is around 150. That’s a massive drop, partly due to various agencies helping women to leave the trade. Those strategies have been effective.

In Sweden, criminalising the purchase rather than the sale of sex has led to a moral shift in attitudes and values. Young teenage males in Stockholm will tell you it’s not acceptable to buy sexual services. Obviously Swedish norms and social structures are different from ours, but there is a growing mood north and south of the Border that some problemetisation of demand must take place.

The argument that prostitution is “the oldest profession” and will never be eradicated is often used as a rationalisation for doing nothing. But the parallel argument – that we’ve always had violence so it’s pointless trying to reduce or remove it – wouldn’t be tolerated. In Glasgow, we could, through effective exit strategies and decriminalising soliciting, pretty well eradicate street prostitution, a reasonable and desirable objective.

Most street prostitutes are not having a good time. Terms such as “sex worker” and “working woman” are euphemisms and avoid the reality of prostitution. It is very different from being a lapdancer or talking on a telephone sex line.

My book, Prostitution, Politics and Policy (Routledge-Cavendis h), includes a quote from a working woman who says engaging in prostitution is like being paid to be raped. That’s a salient phrase.

It’s misleading to represent prostitution as a career choice. Choice plays little part. Many came in through drug addiction, one-third have been in local authority care, a large percentage come from broken families, often with sexual abuse or neglect. These young women are very effectively targeted by pimps and people who exploit their vulnerability. In fact, women get involved in street prostitution when they’ve run out of choices.

Tolerance zones become magnets for drug dealers, users, exploiters, and provide no protection for the women because they still go to parks to actually have sex, and so are still vulnerable.

The answer is to decriminalise soliciting, while ensuring that the exploiters are subject to more intense criminal sanctions. Women who work on the street are more victims than criminals. We need to help them to get out of prostitution and turn their lives around.

Professor Roger Matthews is director of the Crime Reduction and Community Safety Research Unit at London South Bank University

The Politician

by Margo MacDonald

There’s a lot of confused thinking about this subject. Understandably, people don’t want to think of anybody being in the position where that’s all they’ve got to sell. But it’s wicked of legislators to simply pretend it doesn’t happen.

It’s worth asking what “selling sex” actually means. What constitutes a sale? Does money have to change hands? What if someone is taken for a nice meal then afterwards there’s an exchange of favours – is that sex for sale? Does barter come into it? Legislating for human behaviour on this level is impossible.

Criminalising those who pay for sex sounds good, because it was always inequitable that women were punished and men weren’t. When the Swedes outlawed the purchase of sex, the women went underground and everybody worried because they didn’t know what was happening to them. There was also a lot of trafficking into Sweden at that time, and now the women have drifted back on to the streets. Criminalising men who purchase sex won’t work and wouldn’t necessarily be desirable if no third party is being adversely affected.

The argument that prostitution can’t be tolerated because it’s paid-for rape is nonsense. If someone joins an escort agency then decides to sell extras after the evening’s escorting, agrees a price and sex is purchased discreetly so she goes home and pays her bills, that is not rape.

Despite all the praise for the work Glasgow has done in helping people “exit” prostitution, I’ve seen no statistics to show they actually assisted many women to move on. To genuinely help, you must accept that they may take several years to decide to change their lives, meanwhile building up a relationship of trust by providing non-judgemental support. In Edinburgh until last spring, SCOT-PEP – the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project – was contracted to provide that kind of service. So if a woman came in for a cup of tea at the drop-in centre near the red light district where she worked and said, “I want out of this”, someone could say, “Well, here’s some information about pre-employment training, because you’ll need skills to get back into work.”

The frightening thing about this debate is that we don’t actually know what’s happening to the women involved. Organisations like SCOT-PEP worked with health authorities and police to ensure everyone knew what was going on. We don’t have that sort of contact now, so vulnerable women who are forced to sell sex – about whom everyone is so worried – have been made a lot more vulnerable.

I’d love to think that nobody had to sell sex, but I know that some people will want to do so and some people will want to buy. It’s the way they do it that we should concern ourselves with, and if they’re discreet and not harming third parties, what is the legislation for?

Margo MacDonald is an independent MSP

The police watchdog

by Bill Kelly

We don’t need more legislation – there are plenty of existing laws on everything from brothel-keeping to soliciting, kerb crawling and trafficking. Criminalisation is not the answer – either for those who buy or sell sex, and I wouldn’t support the Swedish model. Instead, society has to recognise that there is a sex industry that needs to be regulated. Traditional thinking on sex work is outmoded, being focused almost entirely on street prostitution when, in fact, the transaction takes place in many different ways and is a huge commercial enterprise.

The escort agency and sauna sector alone was recently valued at a £0.5 billion, which is similar to the cinema industry. So the commerce involved is huge. You have to ask what the net gain of criminalising this industry would be, and how you would enforce it.

The public needs to make choices about where it wants police energies to be focused. Introducing an unworkable criminal statute would simply divert resources away from protecting the vulnerable, and from pursuing other more pressing demands.

Having led the Operation Pentameter investigation into sex trafficking in Scotland, I know that there is a serious problem around enforced prostitution. But you can’t assume that everyone in the industry is there because of coercion, and moralising the argument by saying that no-one working in the industry could be doing so of their own free will detracts from efforts to protect the vulnerable.

Research into men who buy sex shows that in the sex industry, there are those who are oppressed and vulnerable and those who are not. In human rights terms, you have to be careful that you don’t lose some rights to try and support others.

It’s far better to simplify this debate by taking out the moralising and asking who’s at most risk of harm, then targeting your efforts in helping them. By and large, the most vulnerable tend to be those working in street prostitution, who are often involved in drug addiction or oppressive relationships, and those trafficked into off-street brothels.

Within the past decade, there have been more than 100 murders of street-walkers, and if you take the view that protecting vulnerable women is a priority then you have to support anything that would provide them with more safety: so tolerance zones should be tried.

As for the argument that people simply shouldn’t be allowed to trade in human misery, well, that’s certainly relevant where trafficking is concerned, so that’s where policing should be concentrated.

People are already being brought to justice and I don’t think creating another offence would add any value, so no, I wouldn’t support any move to criminalise men who purchase sex. As far as I am concerned, it is about protecting the most vulnerable from harm.

Bill Skelly is HM Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland

See original at Herald Scotland


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