Why Sex Workers Deserve Protection

photography by Jannica Honey

Selena Jackson
Features Editor

The debate surrounding the decriminalisation of sex work in the UK is rapidly heating up, with the home affairs select committee recently making the unprecedented recommendation that the current laws which prohibit soliciting and brothel-keeping should be reformed. With are an estimated 3,000 sex workers operating in Scotland alone, Features Editor Selena Jackson spoke to Nadine Scott, Co-Chair of Scottish charity Scot-Pep to find out more about the issues with the existing laws, and what is being done to assist sex workers.

Glasgow Guardian: What is Scot-Pep? Who do you represent, and what are your aims?

Nadine Scott: We’re a sex-worker lead charity. We’ve been in operation in Scotland since the late 80s when we were set up in response to the HIV crisis. For about 20 years we did service provision, but for the last six years we’ve moved to advocacy campaigns. We represent everyone who trades or sells sex and sexual services in Scotland, and we advocate for the rights and safety, in particular, of full-service sex workers, who are the most criminalised.

GG: What projects are you currently working on?

Scott: During the last Parliamentary session we introduced a bill with MSP Jean Urquhart that was based on the New Zealand model of sex work legislation, which we think is currently the best in the world. Our medium-term aims are to continue pushing that bill forwards, because we think that is the single biggest thing we can do to improve the lives of people who sell sex in Scotland.

GG: What proof is there of the New Zealand model working, and why do you think it would be effective in Scotland?

Scott: The New Zealand model removes the tangle of 19th century and early 20th century laws that target sex on the street. UK law at the moment is very concerned with policing the accessibility of sex work, so for example, soliciting is criminalised, as is kerb-crawling, and we would like to see the repeal of both those laws because, in our experience, they drive street-based sex workers into working in dark, isolated places, and means that they have less time to talk to and suss out a client before having to get into his car, which massively increases violence against street-based sex workers. We’re also working for a reform of the “brothel-keeping laws”, because at the moment, any flat where two sex workers work together for safety fall foul of the brothel-keeping law, and Police Scotland actively enforce this. A couple of times a year we’re approached by pairs of women – generally migrant women, which we don’t think is a coincidence – who have been busted for working in this way and who are being prosecuted for brothel-keeping. We’d like a provision where small groups of up to four sex workers can work together in a cooperative way, and the state can trust you to look after each other and you’re allowed to just get on with it.
Where sex workers do work for a manager, we want that manager to be subject to labour laws regarding employee protection. At the moment, being a manager of sex workers is also criminalised, so working in criminalised environment places that workplace outwith any form of employment protection. Because of this, workers aren’t protected against sexual harassment; they aren’t protected against being made to work illegally long hours.

Photograph by Jannica Honey

Photograph by Jannica Honey

GG: You mentioned the issue of migrant sex workers. Do you think that they are subjected to even worse conditions than other sex workers in Scotland?

Scott: I definitely think so. I think that migrant sex workers are subject to tougher and more punitive policing, for example Police Scotland recently operated a scheme of “welfare visits” which they claimed was for the health and safety of indoor sex workers. What they wanted to do was to find out where people work, and to pay unexpected visits to them which Scot-Pep was very critical of. Crucially, one of the things that they were doing was asking people’s neighbours to identify who they thought were sex workers and to tip the police off, and sex workers in our network were really freaked out about this because they felt that, particularly as migrant women, that they would be targeted and watched in this way. The same applies to trans women and women of colour – all these women felt that because they looked a certain way, or were in fact migrants, that Police Scotland were encouraging this surveillance of them.

GG: There’s a lot of people for whom prostitution isn’t a choice, they might have been forced into it or simply have seen no other option. What do you do to protect and to help those people?

Scott: As a wider theoretical answer, I think there’s a misconception that pushing for the rights of sex workers comes from people having really good experiences in the sex industry, and experiencing it as a choice that they made. In fact, in my experience of working with Scot-Pep, people who want there to be more workers’ rights very often have had shitty, exploitative experiences in the sex industry, and that’s where that desire comes from. If you thought the sex industry was perfect, why would you bother with activism to make it better? The more practical answer is that Scot-Pep does a lot of stuff for sex workers across Scotland, for example, we heard from women in our network that they were really worried about these Police Scotland health and safety raids – and that includes people for whom sex work certainly isn’t their first choice. That definitely isn’t helped by the prospect of the police turning up on your door and telling social services that you’re a mother and you’re also a sex worker, or potentially putting your name on a database even as someone who “might be working with a friend”. In response to that we’ve produced cards for indoor sex workers, so that if the police turn up on someone’s door unexpectedly, they have more power and more information in their hands to turn them away or at least so that they have a strategy and know what to tell them. We also support women going through prosecutions, or we help them to draft letters to their lawyers, or we go with them to the court to provide some support. We also get people asking us if we can ask the court whether or not they will release the names of people who have been accused of being a sex worker. There’s a couple of women who had very distinctive Polish names and they were worried that their families back in Poland would see their names in press coverage and find out that they were sex workers.

Protesters at SlutWalk 2011

Protesters at SlutWalk 2011

GG: Finally, what successes have you seen so far based on the work that you’ve done already?

Scott: We successfully helped to block MSP Rhoda Grant’s Swedish-model based bill that she brought forward in 2012/13. The Swedish model purports to reduce the sex industry by criminalising the clients rather than the sex workers. In our experience that really disrupts sex workers’ safety measures, so as I’ve already mentioned, the kerb-crawling law which already criminalises clients on the street in Scotland means that street-based sex workers have much less time to talk to the client and suss him out before they have to get in his car. Before the kerb-crawling law, sex workers could lean in the window and have a conversation about services, prices, condom use, and work out whether the client seemed drunk or coked-up or aggressive, but now the client is more jumpy; he’s nervous; he wants to drive away as quickly as possible because he’s worried that he’ll get caught, so it’s more a case of “let’s not have this conversation now, get in the car and we can have this conversation when I’m already speeding away”, so obviously it’s then too late for sex workers to make those basic safety judgements. Rhoda Grant’s rhetoric implied that you’re decriminalising sex workers by definition; criminalising the clients, without any additional criminalisation of the sex workers themselves. She deliberately didn’t remove the “soliciting law” which is the most direct form of criminalisation aimed at sex workers on the streets. It wasn’t just down to us that this bill was blocked, but we were certainly very relieved that it wasn’t passed.

To find out more about the work that Scot-Pep do, and for more information about the current proposals to reform the laws surrounding sex work, visit www.scot-pep.org.uk.