A young collective of sex workers has successfully opposed the attempts of the Scottish parliament to introduce the Swedish model. Although the Swedish model decriminalizes sex workers, it prohibits the buying of sex and renting of room for the purpose of sex work. The law aims to protect women from violence however it has rendered sex workers more vulnerable to violence, stigma and sexually transmitted infection. In June 2013, parliamentarian Rhoda Grant filed a bill calling for the Swedish model, arguing that sex workers must not regulate themselves.
But the Sex Worker Open University (SWOU) has consistently lobbied against the proposed measure, bringing with them their own experience on the ground as sex workers and their collective learning as a movement. They emphasize that the Bill conflates sex work and sexual exploitation, and in the process, increases stigma against and denies any agency to sex workers.
As one female sex worker connected to SWOU explains:
“The criminalisation of our clients serves only to make our work more difficult and risky. We as workers are flung into a buyers market, with less ability to negotiate safety and safe meeting with clients – who would be taking a much bigger risk if they were criminalised – on OUR terms. Sex workers who rely on their clients will be forced to let crimes go unreported, lest they harm their income by drawing attention to their other clients. Sex workers under this law would be far more vulnerable and isolated from police in the event of violence”.
“Lawmakers must listen to us, not speak over our heads. We are the experts on our own lives and to ignore the knowledge we have on issues such as harm reduction and safe working conditions is completely appalling.”
SWOU is a UK-based collective comprised of current and former sex workers that aims to challenge the taboos surrounding sex work, primarily using public events to advocate against prejudice and discrimination. Since its inception in 2009, SWOU has actively created a safe haven where sex workers of all genders and backgrounds can gather, socialize, exchange, learn new skills, build their confidence and self-esteem as workers and develop joint events.
SWOU organized effective campaigns that made Scottish political parties consider the mounting evidence that highlights the dangers of the Swedish model. Contrary to what promoters of the Swedish model claim, international research has proven the Swedish model to be counterproductive and ineffective in protecting sex workers from exploitation and violence. On the contrary, both sex workers and researchers report an increasingly unsafe environment for sex workers as a result of the criminalisation of clients. Condoms, for instance, are not as accessible to buyers who will be engaged in a supposedly illegal act. Meanwhile, sex workers feel discouraged to report abuses to the police.
“Members of the Sex Worker Open University, in collaboration with SCOT-PEP and the support of many activists, worked tirelessly to create a sex workers’ rights festival in Glasgow in April to give voices to sex workers that would have been directly affected by such a law: loss of income, raids by the police, increased difficulty in screening clients, and increased stigma would have been just a few of the consequences of the criminalization of our clients. We are very proud of what we have achieved and we hope this victory will inspire our comrades to keep fighting such law in other countries,”
shares Luca Stevenson, one of SWOU’s founders.
With pressure from SWOU and other like-minded groups, who have also made substantive interventions, the bill was dropped.
“Achievements like these are pivotal to the struggle of sex workers against policies that purport to protect them but do more harm than good. Groups like the Sex Worker Open University make us understand that sex workers are the ones best placed to judge their position and decide on solutions to their problems,”
Nadia van der Linde, Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund points out.
Just recently, on 9 October 2013, SWOU sent an open letter, signed by 30 other organizations, calling on the Nottingham Women’s Conference to stop excluding sex workers from the conference, arguing that feminism needs sex workers. The letter provided sharp critiques against the widely held misconception that sex workers are not capable of engaging in a thought-provoking debate. In its response, the Nottingham Women’s Conference apologised and promised to be taking the concerns seriously and to be “continuing to look at the inclusivity of the event”.
Their fierce communication and recent success in policy advocacy makes SWOU a great example of an innovative self-led sex workers’ initiative. Through its communications work and trainings, the group has given a voice to sex workers and makes sure that this voice is heard in decision-making spaces. SWOU’s projects range from organising debates and workshops on sex work in public spaces and universities. It organizes public film festivals portraying the lives and struggles of sex workers around the world and engages in academic research on the effectiveness of national policies on sex work. SWOU is one of the grantees of the Red Umbrella Fund.
By Cherise Balentin and Eva Cukier, Red Umbrella Fund
International Sex Workers’ rights Festival in Glasgow:
In April 2013, SWOU, together with the Scottish sex workers’ collective SCOT-PEP (http://www.scot-pep.org.uk/), organised an international Sex Workers’ Rights Festival in Glasgow. In this five-day event, sex workers from various European and international sex workers’ organisations (such as STRASS from France, Scarlett Alliance from Australia and the NSWP) came together to discuss and share experiences, to show films, documentaries and art exhibitions produced by sex workers, workshops sharing information on the sex workers’ rights movements, and peer learning sessions by and for sex workers. The event was a great success and contributed to public awareness of sex workers’ rights in the UK.