Only rights can stop the wrongs: sex workers organise in Scotland

We’re in the middle of Glasgow’s Sex Worker Open University event (5-10 April 2013). Unfortunately I was only able to attend yesterday’s panel sessions, much as I would have liked to attend other things. So, with yesterday fresh in my mind I’m going to write up a few thoughts right now. Follow the link above to find out more about upcoming events, or follow them on Twitter at hashtag #SWOU13 or the event’s Twitter feed @SexWorkerOU.

International Union of Sex Workers logo

If you are a feminist who is swithering about what the issues are and where you stand, maybe this post will help you. If you want women to be safe, sane, respected and valued, please fight with me for decriminalising sex work in Scotland.

Supporting Sex Workers in Scotland: Kill the Bill

We were fortunate to hear about some solid and grounded research into the effects of criminalisation, and conversely, of de-criminalisation of sex work at the event yesterday. It was pretty clear that the Private Member’s Bill ‘ The Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex’, soon to be brought before the Scottish Parliament by Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, is ill-conceived at best, and callously indifferent to its likely consequences at worst.

Let me just note here: the evidence against any benefits to this type of legislation, as presented at the event yesterday, is extensive and convincing, and the evidence for the benefits of de-criminalisation likewise. I cannot do it justice here so please use links and references to do your own research.

Rhoda Don't Erode Our Rights banner from SWOU13 protest at STUC office, Glasgow.

SWOU13 protest at STUC office, Glasgow, 6 April 2013

When I first heard about this Bill, it was framed for me as ‘end demand’. I was pretty naive at that point about the current rhetoric and framing of sex work at the nexus of radical feminism and the religious right. I had fluffy thoughts about the concept of ‘end demand’ like “yes, it would be nice to live in a world where sex work wasn’t necessary”. I didn’t think it through. I genuinely believed that this ‘end demand’ thing was about bringing about an ideal society where noone wanted to buy access to sexual services, because everyone would be perfectly happy and fulfilled with the intimacy and sex in their lives. This is not what ‘end demand’ means.

End demand? Doublethink

‘End demand’ is a euphemistic doublethink phrase referring to the criminalisation of buying sex, that is, the criminalisation of clients but not sex workers. Apart from anything else, this won’t end demand for sex work any more than criminalising abortion ends demand for abortion, or criminalising alcohol ended demand for alcohol during prohibition. It will, however, have other disastrous consequences, and some of the people (mostly, but no means all, women) on the receiving end of those consequences are some of the more vulnerable members of our society. Criminalising clients can only serve to keep sex workers at risk, and there is ample evidence of this from places that have already tried it.

Parallels for feminist thinking (1): abortion framed as abuse

I will take a side-step here to emphasise that, much like my thinking on abortion, my thinking on demand for sex work has evolved in another way. I no longer subscribe to the view that an ideal, post-patriarchal society would include no demand for sexual services, or for abortion. Even in a world where the perfect contraception had been invented allowing women to 100% plan their pregnancies or lack thereof, there would still be circumstances where things would change for a woman post-conception. I am pro-abortion as a wonderful thing, which, if I believed in god, would be a clear sign to me of god’s kindness. Imagine if it was as difficult and dangerous to perform an abortion as, say, to replace a heart valve? It is in fact one of the safest medical procedures around.

The perfect as the enemy of the good: utopian diversions

I digress from my own digression. I am also pro-sex work. Even in a world without money, where everyone’s needs were fully met, there would no doubt be some people who wished to achieve sexual intimacy or pleasure somewhere outwith the realm of a personal relationship. How might an exchange happen that is not directly “I love/like/fancy you, let’s do it”, but “I’m really horny/lonely/incapable of finding a partner, will you help me out if I do X for you?”? Who knows: an excellent premise for a science fiction novel no doubt.

My point is, that utopia is a long way off and may never happen. We live in this world, and in this world, sex workers in nearly every country are denied basic human rights, basic rights as workers, and the respect and dignity they are owed as human beings and members of our societies. These denials have terrible consequences for them, and for the rest of us as we stand by and let it happen. We cannot make human rights and workers’ rights be contingent on meeting certain conformity expectations.

Scot-PEP logo

Before I go any further, for those with no desire or need to read further, please support Scot-PEP in their fight against the Bill. Their Briefing Papers in particular are a good place to start to get an evidence-based overview of the issues. Oh, and they are purely supporter-funded: please donate.

But Isn’t All Sex Work Abuse?

I have never done sex work (I did try to dip my toe in once in my teens, but I am just too socially inept). I have had friendships and acquaintances with sex workers since I was 15 (I am now 47). I’m not talking only about hipster middle class student sex workers, so often deemed “unrepresentative” (and calling any sex worker “unrepresentative” who expresses a view outwith the narrative of abuse and coercion is one key abolitionist silencing tactic, hence my sardonic scare quotes – and thanks Jay Levy for listing these tactics so helpfully at SWOU13).

I am talking about young women and men I knew in the punk scene in Auckland, usually from working class or underclass families, many of them survivors of sexual abuse of various kinds (as were many folk I know, myself included, who don’t do sex work). I am talking about working class and middle class sex workers in Scotland, including drug using sex workers. I have known women (including trans women) and men in New Zealand and Scotland engaged in different forms of sex work. This is not just theory to me.

Sex work as work?

Having said that, about a year ago I had trouble with one aspect of sex work as work. I couldn’t get my head round having a job as a sex worker (whether employed by someone else or self-employed), where, even when you have your full rights to sick leave, health and safety at work, proper recompense, access to grievance procedures, etc., you just don’t feel like working one day. Maybe you are feeling blue, or especially tender and vulnerable. Maybe you could force yourself into an office to do some filing, or lose yourself in the scrubbing of floors or the coding of software. But to let someone near your body for sex? Nuh-uh. What happens on those days? If you have to force yourself to do your job in this situation, is that not, in fact, coerced sex: abuse?

I guess that one case rests near the border between agency and coercion. More and more, we *all* live near or straddling that border in our working and personal lives. How much power any given sex worker has over what they do with their body, is utterly contingent on how comprehensive their human and legal rights are. Just as we must have provision for airline pilots or surgeons to opt out of work if they are not capable that day, so must there be particular contingency plans for sex workers. But only if they are workers fully empowered with their rights can this happen.

Parallels for feminist thinking (2): marriage framed as abuse

Once upon a time, marriage existed on the spectrum of abuse. Women were chattel, and had no rights to refuse sex, or pregnancy, or to own their own assets, or to leave if being abused. Various waves of feminism have had strands that decried marriage as a patriarchal system of ownership, hence rotten to the core. This goes back before even Second Wave Feminism: during the early suffrage movements, there was a strong Free Love movement also.

Did we ban marriage, decrying it all as abuse or rape? No we did not. We set about ensuring women had equality and full civil and human rights. That has been a long hard slog and we aren’t at the end of it by any means. But few people today would see heterosexual marriage as inherently abusive. Instead we understand the nuances of abuse a lot more: where a woman has no autonomy or financial resources or access to support with childcare, she is so much more vulnerable to abuse. A sociopath like Mike Philpott will do anything in his power to put and keep women in that position.

Agency and coercion in our current dystopia

But as we approach the border between agency and coercion, how many wives in the UK this weekend are submitting to sex they kind of don’t really want, but it’s better than the alternative? How many of them will feel they have been raped, how many brush it off as all part of a long-term relationship? How many are making an internal adjustment: “Oh, now maybe I can get him to do the dishes”. It’s highly personal at that level, and the abusiveness thereof is contingent on so many factors. I know I certainly felt raped, and experienced the long-term psychological consequences of rape, from a long-term relationship where I ended up giving in, over several years, just to get some sleep and avoid his anger. Yet, at the time I was consenting and even fully participating.

So, my point is, sex work is not inherently rape or sexual abuse. It is no more inherently exploitative than any other form of work *or* sex in capitalist society (which, OK, is still quite exploitative: I work in a mostly enjoyable, fairly cushy, well-paid job that never-the-less feels like it is killing my soul and my physical health on a regular basis).

Sex workers are, however, like other women (and men) vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse. How do we ensure maximum safety and maximum justice for *anyone*? By ensuring they have access to all the services, legal remedies, information and support they require, without undue repercussions (i.e. social stigma, physical danger and criminal records).

De-Criminalising Sex Work: The Evidence

I would go further than just stopping Rhoda Grant’s Bill. I want to campaign for de-criminalising sex work in Scotland, similarly to the legislation in my home country New Zealand (and I hope we would improve on some of the lessons they have learned too).

I’ll begin with a shout-out (with links) to those whom I have learned much from, including yesterday’s SWOU13 panelists. This will be followed by an evidence-based summary of the benefits of de-criminalising sex work.

The Scottish Context:

Scot-PEP: see the link above to their Briefing Papers. Excellent resources for getting started and for putting everything else in the Scottish legal and social context. This is a battle we need to fight here in Scotland, and, for me, it has so much bearing on my ideas about what an independent Scotland could be like: we have already fought off the religious oppression here in achieving gay rights, and avoided the radfem approach to excluding trans women in particular. Here’s hoping we follow the excellent example of one small nation (New Zealand) over another (Sweden). Both of these nations have a proud history of women’s and LGBTQ rights, but we need to look at the evidence.

A Glasgow Sex Worker: Awesome blog, bristling with intellectually rigorous, humorous, scathing rants and analyses about sex worker activist issues in Scotland, from someone who knows. The author was involved in SWOU13 also.

Sex work and trafficking around large sporting events: There was an interesting presentation at SWOU13 by a sex worker support organisation from London called X:Talk  on what happened to sex workers around the London Olympics, and how they campaigned and resisted. Relevant in the run-up to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games next year. In short, don’t believe the hype, and don’t allow a damaging crackdown based on anti-trafficking propaganda. Hopefully their presentation will be made available by SWOU13.

The STUC rescinded a room booking for SWOU13 so yesterday we protested outside their office in Woodlands Road, Glasgow. Nice day for it! Trade unions in Scotland, join us!

The STUC rescinded a room booking for SWOU13 so yesterday we protested outside their office in Woodlands Road, Glasgow. Nice day for it! Trade unions in Scotland, join us!


Feminist Whore and Feminist Ire: These two blogs have done an incredible amount to educate me over the past year or two. Please allow them to do the same for you- these bloggers have put so much work into researching, digesting and reporting back on the evidence around the harms of criminalised sex work (and related topics). The latter also covers a range of feminist issues in Ireland: strap-line: “Not your fluffy feminism”.

Jay Levy: A researcher from the University of Cambridge whose talk ‘Swedish Abolitionism as Violence Against Women’ was based on three years worth of in-depth investigation and interviews. Jay lived amongst sex workers in Sweden for the entire three years of his research, and shared some astounding conclusions about the exact type of legislation and policy that Rhoda Grant’s Bill proposes. Until they get his talk up online for SWOU13, here is a paper from a previous conference.

Morgane Merteuil of STRASS: Fantastic presentation from this trade union for sex workers in France. Was delighted to note, in this week of the fauxminist group FEMEN attacking both sex workers and Muslim women, that STRASS explicitly state their solidarity with Muslim women choosing to wear the hijab or other coverings. Morgane certainly confirmed many of the findings from other countries where sex work is largely criminalised. Hope to see her presentation online soon.

English Collective of Prostitutes: This group rocks. Such depth of experience and analysis after nearly 40 years of collective action and mutual support. Excellent emphasis on the need to fight all of the attacks on our society from cuts in welfare to increasingly draconian laws, to saving the NHS, to ensuring a strong economic base to keep people pout of poverty. It’s all connected. Also, some good stuff on avoiding the trap of thinking that paid support professionals and academic researchers can lead the way: self-organising is the key, and unionisation follows from that. NGOs in particular can sometimes become more about sustaining their own funding than actually changing things. Also, kudos to any English activist group that comes to Scotland and *doesn’t* try to impose its knowledge and ideas without acknowledging or understanding the Scottish context. I for one appreciated that.

De-Criminalisation: New Zealand and Australia

Anastacia Ryan, a Scot, is working on a PhD at Glasgow University comparing the experiences of sex workers post-decriminalisation in New Zealand with the experiences of Scottish sex workers. Felt incredibly proud of my homeland after her presentation: it was clear that the situation for Kiwi sex workers has improved beyond anything we can imagine currently in Scotland. She was followed by Zhara Stardust from the Scarlet Alliance in Australia, presenting rich evidence from the various states and territories in Australia which each have differing degrees of criminalisation and decriminalisation. Watch out for their new, inspiring video which we got an early peek at.

De-Criminalisation: 10 Reasons Why

This is the main headings from a booklet by Open Society Foundations. The booklet has the detail and references.

  1. Decriminalisation reflects respect for human rights and personal dignity.
  2. Decriminalisation reduces police abuse and violence.
  3. Decriminalisation increases sex workers’ access to justice.
  4. Decriminalisation promotes safe working conditions.
  5. Decriminalisation increases access to health services.
  6. Decriminalisation reduces sex workers’ risk of HIV.
  7. Decriminalisation challenges stigma and discrimination and the consequences of having a criminal record.
  8. Decriminalisation does not result in an increase in the population of sex workers. Nor does criminalisation result in a decrease in sex workers.
  9. Decriminalisation facilitates effective responses to trafficking.
  10. Decriminalisation challenges state control over bodies and sexuality.

For further evidence, including relevant quotes from the Washington College of Law Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law; the UNFPA/UNAIDS Conference and other UN bodies, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon; the Global Commission on HIV and the Law; the World Health Organisation; Baroness Kennedy QC of the Equality and Human Rights Commission; the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland; and the Law Society Scotland, see the Scot-PEP Briefing ‘Rhoda Grant’s Proposed Private Members Bill on ‘The Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex’.

Kill the Bill Redux

This is what it comes down to for me:

  • Criminalising clients means clients want to hide and avoid arrest. This means more furtiveness, hence far less safety for sex workers on many levels, including taking enough time to suss out the dangerousness of the client, finding safe physical spaces, negotiating price and terms (e.g. condom use).
  • This pushes sex work to unsafe spaces where help is not at hand and violence can ensue unseen.
  • How do police gather evidence of the crime? They need forensic evidence- think about what that means for invasiveness of the life and person of the sex worker.
  • Reporting crimes against themselves by sex workers then becomes highly problematic, and research from Sweden has shown that often the sex worker is targeted as “proof of the crime of buying sex” rather than having the crime against them investigated.
  • Making something a crime means that only those comfortable with crime will do it: many more clients will be dodgy in some way, and sex work will be prone to enmeshment in other criminal activities and cultures such as organised crime and drug dealing, making it generally more dangerous and harder to leave, plus attracting ongoing stigma.

I am a feminist. I want women to be safe, empowered and treated respectfully, with their human rights inviolable.

Therefore, I want sex workers (women and men) to be safe, empowered and treated respectfully, with their human rights inviolable.

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Genevieve Gilbert
    Apr 08, 2013 @ 11:23:34

    Morag Eyrie, I am sorry but you haven’t done your research on the Swedish Model of Sex Work. The last paragraph of your post have no scientific standing and is not grounded in cited articles or publications! You write: ‘ I am a feminist. I want women to be safe, empowered and treated respectfully, with their human rights inviolable. Therefore, I want sex workers (women and men) to be safe, empowered and treated respectfully, with their human rights inviolable’. JUST REMEMBER THAT THE SWEDISH MODEL ACHIEVES JUST THAT!


    • Morag Eyrie
      Apr 08, 2013 @ 12:13:28

      Genevieve, thanks for taking the time to comment on a post you disagree with!

      To anyone else in disagreement with the post: I will from here only let through comments which present arguments based on actual evidence. I am not interested in an intra-feminist bunfight.

      In any case, I *have* done my research, as the post makes clear. There are a number of links in the post to resources from many reputable agencies, which themselves link to peer reviewed research in support of my position. I have also seen the poor quality research often cited by the Swedish government dismantled by more informed brains than mine. I would recommend Feminist Ire as one place for detailed rebuttals of the so-called evidence for the Swedish model.

      I have been looking at this issue for several years and have seen not a shred of good quality reliable evidence that the Swedish model is anything other than damaging and increasing of risk to women (and men) in the sex industry.

      I have also been back to New Zealand several times in the past few years and seen with my own eyes the positive outcomes de-criminalisation has had in increasing the safety and well-being of sex workers there. Kiwi sex workers absolutely feel empowered to report crimes against them to the police and have them taken seriously. They achieve convictions of men who rape or otherwise abuse sex workers. They are not harassed by the police, they have health and safety rights, and they can access any and all health and welfare services like any other human being without fear. They can take their employers (when not self-employed) to task through the usual workers’ processes for rights violations. This is supported by the in-depth research done by Anastacia Ryan as noted above, which I saw a presentation on, on Saturday.

      My final points are my own summary of the research I have read and also the common sense, logical conclusions about criminalising clients that I have heard from many sex workers and which my own sense tells me are true: if you criminalise clients you push sex workers further into the margins in every sense and magnify their vulnerability many times over. I am *very afraid* for those women and men already at risk through sex work in Scotland, I am afraid for the direct, damaging effects the proposed Bill will have on their lives. I cannot understand why so many feminists want to push so many women under the bus: to whose benefit?


  2. Wendy Lyon
    Apr 08, 2013 @ 22:59:12

    Even the Swedish government admits that sex workers hate the law and feel stigmatised by it. It’s the furthest thing from making them feel “safe, empowered and treated respectfully, with their human rights inviolable”.

    Thanks for the great post Morag, and the plug for FI :)


  3. jemima101
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 21:46:45

    Thank you so much for writing this, it makes me feel that all the wonderful activism people are doing is working!


  4. glasgowswou
    Apr 11, 2013 @ 16:10:15

    Fantastic blog, really captures the content and spirit of our International panel. Podcasts from SWOU will be available soon! Thanks again and please keep in touch xxx


  5. Ariane
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 22:09:21

    thanks for this awesome blog! uups I mis-target my tweets #swou2013 German coverage with almost no feedback as ever.


  6. Trackback: Feminism and Sex Work? | Tantrachick
  7. Morag Eyrie
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 12:35:08

    Good news on Friday (28 June 2013) – Rhoda Grant’s Bill failed. Now onwards and upwards to decriminalise sex work:


  8. Trackback: Feminists letting the side down | village aunties
  9. Trackback: A feminist analysis of the potentials and pitfalls of Scottish independence | village aunties

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