… On Road to End Violence Against Sex Workers
For the first time in the history of the sixteen-year-old Scottish Parliament, a bill developed in conjunction with sex worker led organisations is being discussed. On November 10, 2015, eight panellists, three Members of the Scottish Parliament and over fifty other interested activists, constituents, and community members gathered at the Scottish Parliament for a public meeting on the Proposed Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill.
In recent years, the political scene has been dominated by attempts to bring the Swedish model, which criminalises the clients of sex workers but not the act of sex work itself, to Scotland. The current official government policy toward sex work, “Safer Lives, Changed Lives”, views all sex work as violence against women and degrading to the position of all women.
Legal but Restricted
The actual exchange of sex for money is legal in Scotland, but criminal laws against soliciting, brothel-keeping and kerb-crawling make it almost impossible to sell sex without breaking the law. The ways these laws are enforced endanger and marginalise sex workers. Kate Hardy, a panellist at the public meeting and lecturer at Leeds University, recalled that when she first came to Scotland, she found that sex workers were more hidden and isolated than perhaps anywhere else she had done research previously.
The ultimate goal of the proposed bill is to decriminalise sex work by repealing laws prohibiting soliciting, kerb-crawling, and brothel-keeping and to begin regulating sex work in the same way as other forms of labour. The recent public meeting at Parliament was an important step in this process, and towards ending the stigma surrounding sex work.
SCOT-PEP has been around since 1989, originally as a service provider funded by the government-backed local health board. However, their recent push for decriminalisation was not ignited until after the organisation lost this government funding and developed a new identity as an advocacy organisation. After successfully preventing the most recent attempt to introduce the Swedish model in 2013, the organisation was galvanised by an influx of new activists and established its sex worker led Campaign Group to direct its decision making process. As experts in their own needs, sex workers themselves are the most important voices in determining policy that will remedy the effects of years of policy and regulation that has been damaging for sex workers created by people who have silenced the voices of sex workers by speaking on their behalf.
Embarking on the Path to ‘Decrim’
SCOT-PEP activists came together to formulate the next goal of the organisation: decriminalisation. Even for the board members, at the time decriminalisation seemed like an impossible goal. Nonetheless activists submitted their plan to the Red Umbrella Fund to conduct a public campaign for decriminalisation and challenging of the stigma, community outreach, community-based research, and alliance building, all of which would eventually culminate in a bill.
SCOT-PEP then gathered as many sex workers as it could reach for a “Decriminalisation Day” to discuss what a bill decriminalising sex work could look like. From that day, all its activities would contribute to this central aim. Some of the ingredients to success have been the focus on creating a series of evidence-based briefing papers, identifying a strong ally within the Scottish Parliament (in the form of Jean Urquhart) who provides access into the parliamentary system, and activating the support of peers and allies (including the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective to the English Collective of Prostitutes). Board members of SCOT-PEP describe the Parliamentary meeting as a marker representing the empowerment of sex workers’ voices inside the walls of Parliament that shows the shift in public perception and stigma. Historically, such stigma would have prevented SCOT-PEP from getting a foot in the door in the first place.
Effects of the Law on the Lives of Sex Workers
Decriminalisation represents a harm-reduction approach to sex work. While activists recognise that a bill in itself will not end the violence and stigma against sex workers, they also recognise that the current regime of criminalisation and regulation surrounding sex work is detrimental to the health and safety of sex workers. Laws prohibiting soliciting and kerb-crawling force sex workers to spend less time negotiating with their clients and work in isolated locations away from the police. Brothel-keeping laws prohibit sex workers from working with even one other person for safety and other laws criminalise relatives for living off income made through sex work. After the passage of the kerb-crawling law in 2007, SCOT-PEP identified a 95% increase in violence against sex workers. Furthermore, sex workers have become less likely to report crimes to police for fear of being prosecuted or not being taken seriously. Violent offenders against sex workers are aware of the stigma and know that sex workers are vulnerable targets.
Interestingly, panellists before the Scottish Parliament at the public meeting rarely even mentioned sex work. They identified more pressing issues in the lives of sex workers, such as their inability to find work that can pay bills and feed their children in a state that is consistently reducing benefits due to austerity measures. Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes directed attention to policies related to students trying to pay for school, single mothers, and migrants who face racism and discrimination in other forms of employment as being key to addressing prostitution policy.
Time for Evidence-Based Policy
Evidence-based research has reached a consensus that decriminalisation is the logical step to end violence against sex workers. Legal structures that criminalise sex work have little impact on the number of people working in the industry but rather displace sex workers and make them invisible. This makes it much harder for them to access healthcare and other services. Nadine Stott, a panellist and co-chair of SCOT-PEP, argued for legislation that will allow sex workers themselves to make the determination of what is and what isn’t violence against sex workers and empower sex workers to hold managers accountable to laws designed by sex workers themselves. Until pragmatic, progressive proposals developed with sex workers at the center of the decision making process are adopted, legislators risk adopting policy that further marginalises the most vulnerable groups of sex works and increases the violence against sex workers.
SCOT-PEP’s efforts to build coalitions, navigate the legal process and bring awareness to the situation in Scotland have been an important step in eliminating the everyday violence that sex workers face.
About the Author
Seth Lauer is a student researcher who volunteered with the Red Umbrella Fund during his Fall 2015 semester abroad through the School of International Training. He researched and documented the techniques, strategies and experiences of SCOT-PEP volunteers to determine which advocacy practices are most effective for creating social and legal change. He studied the work of SCOT-PEP through archival research, attended the public meeting before Parliament, and met with SCOT-PEP board members in November. His thesis will be linked here upon completion.