Edinburgh Council's decision to allow lap-dancing bars is out of step with Scotland’s new approach to prostitution – Susan Dalgety
Sometimes the Scottish Government gets things right. Amid the headlines about resignations, reshuffles and resets, an important piece of policy slipped out on Tuesday, one that should have a positive impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the country.
Community safety minister Siobhian Brown announced plans for a national hub to support women out of prostitution and to challenge the normalisation of men buying sex. Starting in Edinburgh and the Borders, the hub will offer women access to services such as housing, health and social security.
The plan is very clearly influenced by what is described as the Nordic Model – a three-pronged approach to prostitution, which decriminalises people who are prostituted, provides support services to help them exit, and, crucially, makes buying people for sex a criminal offence. It has been adopted in several countries, including Sweden, Norway, France, and Israel. Northern Ireland adopted the approach in 2015.
Campaigners have urged the Scottish Government to follow suit, and while this week’s announcement falls short of legislation to make buying sex an offence, it is a big step in the right direction. The UK-wide grassroots campaign group, Nordic Model Now, welcomed Siobhian Brown’s announcement, saying: “It has taken a long time, but perhaps it was worth the wait. While it doesn’t go as far as introducing legislation to make buying sex a criminal offence, it includes most of the other key elements of the Nordic Model, and there are good arguments for introducing these first.”
A form of violence
The Scottish Government hinted that legislation may well follow. In her foreword to the strategy, the minister says its implementation will help inform any future legislative considerations, “including whether to criminalise the purchase of sex”. Central to the Scottish Government’s approach to eliminating prostitution is the recognition that it is a form of violence against women and girls, and that no society can consider itself truly equal while women and girls are the victims of commercial sexual exploitation, in all its forms.
A point reiterated by Linda Thompson, national coordinator of the Women’s Support Project, one of the groups that helped develop the strategy, who earlier this week said: “We hope that national and local leadership, with commitment, partnerships and specific resources, will disrupt this industry and hold to account all those who benefit and profit from the exploitation of inequality and vulnerability.”
Are you listening, Councillor Neil Ross? The former tax adviser, now a Liberal Democrat councillor for the leafy suburb of Morningside, is the chair of Edinburgh City Council’s Regulatory Committee. On Monday, just 24 hours before the Scottish Government published its prostitution strategy, Councillor Ross – with the support of the Scottish Greens, the SNP and the sole Tory councillor on the committee – tabled an amendment to allow Edinburgh’s three lap-dancing clubs to continue in business. Only the two Labour women councillors on the committee voted against the move.
Two years ago, the council voted to introduce a “nil-cap” on the number of sexual entertainment venues in the city – effectively closing them down – but the move was later successfully challenged in court. Councillor Ross took the opportunity on Monday to secure the future of the city’s sexual entertainment venues, where women are paid to strip off in front of an overwhelmingly male audience.
Send a message to society
In considering his decision, Councillor Ross posed a question: “…should this committee be using this policy to send a message to wider society? Or instead, should we be regulating venues to protect women who choose this line of work?” He decided to back the club owners. Edinburgh’s ‘pubic triangle’ will remain open for business, thanks in no small part to a man who I suggest has no experience of the poverty and abuse that forces women into the life-destroying world of commercial sexual exploitation.
As to his question, there is only one answer. Of course, he should have used the policy to send a message to wider society – that Edinburgh will not tolerate the sexual exploitation of women. He only has to go to the Women’s Support Project website to find out for himself about the link between lap-dancing and prostitution.
Its report, Money and Power, highlights research by the renowned campaigner and journalist, Julie Bindel, which suggests that half the men who go to lap dancing clubs are looking to buy sex – a statistic echoed by a Women’s Support Project survey which found that nearly a third of men accessed prostitution through a sexual entertainment venue.
Maintaining male dominance
Once Councillor Ross has digested the Money and Power report, he should move on to the Scottish Government and Cosla’s Equally Safe strategy. It sets out how national and local government should prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls, as well as address the underlying attitudes and systems that perpetuate it. Its definition of violence includes prostitution, pornography and lap dancing.
I have some sympathy with Councillor Ross. In the early 1990s, as a young councillor, I was a member of Edinburgh’s licensing committee. I voted to grant licenses to ‘saunas’ knowing full well they were brothels. But as I learned more about the sex industry, I changed my mind.
Sexual entertainment venues strip women of dignity and their human rights, reducing them to nothing but flesh to be drooled over by drunken men. They exploit women’s economic and social inequality. They maintain male dominance.
It may suit Councillor Ross’s middle-class sensibilities to consider lap dancing as just another career choice, but like prostitution, you will not minimise the harm caused by lap dancing by describing it as ‘sex work’. The Scottish Government deserves praise for its thoughtful, mature approach. Edinburgh City Council should follow its example.
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