Tiffany Jenkins: Improving life for sex workers is a moral must

Current laws ensure that sex workers are unable to adopt safer working practices. Picture: Adam Fradgley
Current laws ensure that sex workers are unable to adopt safer working practices. Picture: Adam Fradgley
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You may not approve but these women – and men – deserve the same working rights as the rest of us, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Jean Urquhart, an independent member of the Scottish Parliament, has proposed legislation that would improve life for thousands of women and men in Scotland, by making a certain kind of work easier and safer.

It’s everyday work (with quite a few nights) that women, mainly, have done for centuries and are likely to continue to do so for centuries to come. Urquhart proposes repealing laws that exist in Scotland that criminalise activities associated with the buying and selling of sexual services, laws that prevent prostitutes – though the preferred term is sex workers – from adopting safe working practices. Selling sex isn’t criminal in Scotland, but legislation makes it difficult. As a result, sex workers are vulnerable.

Scottish law means that two sex workers who want to work together, for safety, for support, for companionship, for business reasons, can be prosecuted for brothel-keeping, with a sentence of up to seven years in prison. This means they have to work as individuals, often on the street, where it is far more risky. It forces them to look over their shoulder for the police, whilst they try and quickly assess a potential punter. The proposals allow for sex workers to operate together in groups of four and under. Laws against soliciting and kerb crawling would also be scrapped.

Another suggestion is that, for the first time, sex workers would have access to labour rights, like the ability to sue their managers for unpaid wages. These rights have not before been available to sex workers, because such protections are legally and practically incompatible with criminalised workplaces. Sex workers would also be permitted to have joint finances with their families or flatmates. The law currently assumes that where a sex worker and any other person have overlapping finances, coercion is at work. But sex workers are mums, wives, and friends. Just like everyone else, sex workers have partners, a husband, children and flatmates. Only actual coercion should be criminalised.

HIV Scotland and NUS (National Union of Students) Scotland have said they support the bill, as do many sex workers, but there has been a predictable outcry of protest. According to Care for Scotland parliamentary officer Dr Gordon Macdonald, “this consultation is wrong in principle and would be a disaster in practice”. There was a similar reaction when Amnesty International recently supported decriminalisation. The voluntary sector organisations Women’s Aid, Zero Tolerance and Women Support Project accused it of “colluding with women’s exploitation”. Feminists and organisations campaigning against violence against women argued such measures would make things worse, that they legitimise the sex industry and give permission to the pimps, strip bars, escort agencies and clients to carry on as normal.

These proposals, if passed, would make it easier for those working in the sex industry to continue doing so – and rightly so. You may not approve of prostitution, and many quite reasonably do not. It raises serious, ethical questions. Having sex with people for money is degrading. It transforms an intimate and private act into a commercial transaction. It can pose a threat to those involved, especially women. But sex workers have made their own decisions about how they live and work. And there are plenty of other degrading jobs out there. There are also plenty of times when sex without the formal exchange of money is degrading and risky.

You don’t have to like it, but spare me the paternalistic attitude that suggests women are not up to making the choice to be involved in sex work, because, as campaigners so often suggest, they have practically been forced into it, or are too poverty stricken to be able, really, to actually choose, that sex workers are “exploited”, basically brainwashed.

It’s possible to disapprove of the decisions people make, but respect the fact that they are adults and therefore capable of making them. It may not be pretty, you may not like it, but sex work is done by consenting adults.

The women involved make choices about the work they do, as do the men who buy their services. Of course, we all make choices in circumstances that are not of our choosing, but that is the nature of life. We still make them and our ability to do so should be respected. It should not be undermined because the choices make others uncomfortable.

The consultation is comprehensive and well argued. It does not claim that the sex industry is free from violence and exploitation – far from it, it argues that criminalisation allows both to flourish. It suggests measures for making sex work safer. Drawing on extensive research, it carefully takes apart many of the convenient misconceptions and stereotypes about sex work. This is helpful because everyone tends to cherry-pick evidence and stories that fit their worldview and agenda, though no doubt that’s true about both sides, every issue, and isn’t always intentional. Like the common misconception about sex workers that they are all psychologically harmed by their involvement; that only poor women do it, because they have no other way to raise money, or that women don’t really want to do it, that they are made to do it. Unquestionably, those cases exist, but so do the women who simply want to be sex workers and see working in the industry as a job.

The proposed bill advocates the New Zealand model, a set of laws and policies which prioritise the safety, rights and health of people currently selling sex, which New Zealand adopted ten years ago, and has since been widely recognised to have worked. The proposals for changes to the law in Scotland are now in the consultation stage, which allows members of the public to respond to the suggestions. I urge you do to so. The changes should be welcomed and the Prostitute Law Reform Bill passed.