JEAN Urquhart knew very little about prostitution when she pitched up at a public meeting on fellow Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant’s Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill a few years back. Her only personal experience came from living in a flat in Glasgow, where her upstairs neighbour was a “working girl”.
Urquhart was a committed feminist and had concerns about the exploitation of those involved. She listened intently to Grant talking about violence, drugs and coercion and might have given the bill her backing, if one of the two sex workers present hadn’t got up to speak.
“The woman told Rhoda she didn’t recognise her portrayal of the industry,” Urquhart says. “She said that when she looked around the hall, she saw men who looked like her clients: disabled men, lonely men, old men, young men. That was the turning point for me. My sympathies were with the prostitutes. I realised there might be more to the issue than I realised and I said I would not be giving my support.”
From then on, Urquhart met many sex workers and came to the conclusion that their voices were being ignored. Where an alliance of Christian and feminist groups saw prostitution as inherently harmful and dehumanising, and was all for outlawing the purchase of sex, those who actually operated within the industry believed the measure – already adopted in Sweden, Norway and Northern Ireland – would place them at greater risk. Instead they wanted prostitution decriminalised and more employment rights.
Last week, Urquhart opened a consultation on a Prostitution Law Reform Bill. It seeks to reform and repeal existing laws which criminalise activities associated with sex work. Proposals include:
» Allowing up to four women to work together in a flat (and a higher number with an appropriate licence). At present, it is legal for women to sell sex from an apartment, but only if they work alone, which increases their risk.
» Scrapping existing laws against soliciting and kerb-crawling on the grounds these measures reduce the amount of time sex workers have to assess potential clients and agree services.
» Extending protection against coercion.
To Molly, who has worked in saunas and flats in Glasgow and Edinburgh, decriminalisation would represent a major step forward, allowing prostitutes to build up a relationship with the police and report those clients who are violent or exploitative. “I was attacked when I was working alone, but I never reported it,” she says. “I didn’t want to draw attention to myself because even if you are working legally there’s so many other laws they can use against you.”
Occasionally, she would receive a phone call from a “client” asking her if she was working alone. “It was a trap, because, if I said ‘Yes’ the person might come and rob me, but if I said ‘No’ – and the person on the phone was a police officer – then I might find myself targeted [for working in a brothel].”
Another Glasgow-based sex worker, Laura Lee, recalls her terror when a man who had seemed perfectly polite accused her of going to the kitchen to get a knife after their session ended. “He was shaking, clearly mentally unstable,” she says. “If there had been other women in the flat, I would have been able to call for back-up, but because I was forced to work alone, I spent two hours talking him down.”
The proposed members bill – which has already provoked a backlash – comes at a time of upheaval and conflict over sex work in Scotland and elsewhere. The World Health Organisation has called for the decriminalisation of prostitution as a minimum global standard, yet few countries have taken its advice. Indeed, in Scotland, the establishment of a national police force saw the country move in the opposite direction.
In 2013, saunas once tolerated by Edinburgh City Council were raided; although Police Scotland insisted they were attempting to uncover money-laundering and trafficking, the women felt they were being harassed. It didn’t help that the force made it clear they would treat used condoms as evidence. Relations with the police deteriorated and there was a fall-off in the number of sex workers using health services.
At the same time, the industry was changing; social media allowed women to move off the streets and into flats, making it more difficult for health services to keep track of them. But it also offered sex workers a platform, enabling them to campaign while retaining their anonymity. Molly tweets under the name Pastachips and, along with other sex workers, has become a powerful advocate for decriminalisation.
The result has been a split in the feminist movement, with those who believe prostitution, born of poverty and powerlessness, is inherently abusive, pitted against those who see it as a legitimate career choice; those who back zero tolerance as a means of eliminating demand pitted against those who would prefer to ensure its safe supply. The conflict between the two camps came to a head in July when Amnesty International’s backing for the decriminalisation of the sex trade was lambasted by Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson.
A politician would need nerves of steel to walk into this maelstrom. But Urquhart is not easily fazed. A slight and softly spoken woman, the independent MSP lacks the audacity of Margo MacDonald, who advocated tolerance zones to protect sex workers, but none of her character or conviction. Urquhart quit the SNP over its pro-Nato stance in 2012 and handed back her MBE this year. A bunny girl at the Playboy Club in London, for four weeks in 1967, she went on to develop the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool as an arts centre. Now, she appears to be taking on MacDonald’s mantle as a defender of sex workers.
Urquhart has tried to bridge the gulf between the two sides. “I reject the idea that sex work is inherently oppressive and I also reject the idea that it is inherently empowering – both are one-dimensional and inadequate representations of the realities of sex work,” she says in the consultation document.
“At the moment, [prostitution] is all happening underground and further criminalisation will just make that worse,” she says. “I realise there is a moral argument and that other people will have other reasons for objecting to this, but what I am asking people to do is entirely practical. I’m saying there will always be a sex trade and, if that’s a given, shouldn’t we at least try to protect those involved?”
While coming up with the proposals, she and the sex workers charity, Scot-Pep, drew on the experience of New Zealand, which decriminalised prostitution in 2003. Its bill passed by one vote, with the caveat that a review would be held in five years to see if the new law was proving successful.
Opponents believed decriminalisation would lead to an explosion in the sex industry. In fact, the review found there had been no real increase in prostitution since the law changed. Decriminalisation may have increased the administrative burden on some authorities and there had been some disputes over the location of brothels, but sex workers said they felt more empowered and that working conditions had improved. Today, violence has not been eradicated, but it is easier for sex workers to flag up mistreatment. The extent to which the landscape has been transformed can be seen in the case of a sex worker who was last year awarded $25,000 compensation after being sexually harassed by a brothel keeper.
Catherine Healy, national coordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), campaigned for the change in a similar climate to the one in which Scottish sex workers are operating now.
“The police would come in undercover and pose questions to the sex workers – and right up until the last moment, they were still getting search warrants and actively looking for condoms to help achieve a conviction,” she says.
The NZPC was able to garner support from women’s organisations and from the public health sector, which saw the existing approach as an obstacle to its HIV prevention campaigns. “The difference in the relationship with the police is the most striking aspect,” says Healy. “I have experience of what it was like before. Now sex workers report crimes and the police go all-out to solve them.”
In Scotland, many women’s groups remain unconvinced. They say that in Sweden, where buying sex is a crime, there has been a reduction in the number of girls trafficked for work in the sex industry, whereas in Germany – where prostitution has been legalised – it remains prevalent. They also point out that many sex workers in Scotland are migrant workers from Romania who do not speak English.
Earlier this year, groups including Zero Tolerance and The Women’s Project launched End Prostitution Now, which supported Grant’s amendments to the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, one of which was to criminalise the purchase of sex. Grant’s own bill failed to gain sufficient cross-party support.
Molly knows how much hate-mail calling for decriminalisation can generate from those who insist any support for sex workers perpetuates the subjugation of women. “Sometimes it feels like people leave their empathy or their feminist politics at the door of sex work discussions,” she says. She believes the intensity of the abuse puts politicians off getting involved. “You want to shake people and say, ‘Surely you got into politics because you believe the world could be better than it is?’”
Urquhart doesn’t appear to be someone who would back away from a fight she believed in. Although she is not standing for Holyrood next year, she hopes she’ll have put the issue on the agenda and someone else will take up the baton. “I haven’t changed my mind about prostitution, I still think of it as violence against women,” she says. “But in the meantime, as long as there are women, for whatever reason, in this trade, I think it’s incumbent on other women to make sure the law protects them as much as possible.”