Our current prostitution laws are outdated and unjust. Online pimping is legal and there is no accountability for sex buyers, while those selling sex can face criminal sanctions on top of daily abuse and exploitation.
The Scottish government urgently needs to criminalise pimping websites and paying for sex. At the same time, it must decriminalise victims of sexual exploitation and provide support and exiting services. These reforms are needed to deter demand from sex buyers and tackle the pimps who profit from this abuse.
Prostitution can never be made safe. There are some who support the sex trade and who want pimps and sex buyers to be legitimised as ‘managers’ and ‘clients’. They present prostitution as work, even framing it around human rights! It is not work; it is exploitation and an abuse of human rights.
I can’t think of another ‘job’ where you need a detailed exit plan to leave or where, daily, you risk physical, emotional and sexual violence.
To keep the sex trade going and growing there needs to be a continual stream of new ‘products’. How on Earth can we accept that a subset of women be fodder for the sex industry? Exploited, then deemed past their ‘sell by date’; used, abused and discarded.
In my late teens, I was exploited through prostitution in London and later trafficked to a prostitution ring abroad. Ridiculously described as “high class”, I was sent out by what was described as the safest agency in London. There is nothing high class about being raped, bitten or asked at gunpoint if you want to see your mum again.
The venues were luxury hotels, apartments and diplomatic accommodation; the punters highly educated and in positions of power. Trafficked overseas, the venues were royal palaces and homes of government ministers. I was very fortunate to escape and get home.
It has been the privilege of my life to have spent over 25 years supporting other women to get out too, and to contribute to policy and frontline service development for women exploited in street-based prostitution and brothels. I never met one woman who did not want to leave.
What my own experience, and listening to the experiences of hundreds of other women, has taught me; is that it is all the same thing. A bruise or a threat feels the same whether you are in a five-star hotel or leant against a car park wall. The fear and the violence and the hopelessness feels the same, as does the desire for safety and a life free of violence.
Recognising prostitution in different locations as expressions of the same form of abuse is key to dismantling this oppressive and harmful system.
In prostitution, there are nearly always underlying issues creating the conditions of vulnerability. Most women and girls’ routes into prostitution are paved with these underlying issues – including poverty, childhood sexual abuse, neglect, addiction or coercive and controlling relationships.
This is why we must rid ourselves of the false dichotomy we are continually presented with, that of course sex trafficking is bad but prostitution is a choice and a job. Both rely on gender inequality and vulnerability. Both are inherently harmful, trapping women and girls in a violent and predatory system.
We need a vision for Scotland that becomes a reality we can be proud of and that rejects the idea that a person can be for sale. All Scottish citizens have a human right to lives free from violence and exploitation and to live in a country where we are not forced to resort to survival prostitution or pushed into the harms of the sex trade by coercive relationships.
The Scottish government rightly recognises prostitution as a form of violence against women and girls and has pledged to develop a model for Scotland that challenges men’s demand for purchasing sex. We need this promise to become a reality that positively impacts the lives of those who are exploited while holding abusers to account.
There is extensive international evidence on the need to criminalise paying for sex while decriminalising victims of sexual exploitation, in order to drive down demand for prostitution.
Sweden has provided a 20-year evidence base of taking this approach and I have visited Sweden to witness for myself how this is successfully implemented. Other countries have also adopted this approach, Norway, Iceland, France, Israel and Ireland among them. In addition, both France and the United States have enacted workable legislation against pimping websites, which facilitate the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women.
Prostitution is a system of gender inequality where women exist as objects, treated like a commodity to be consumed and discarded.
It is gender inequality that makes women and girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation – and we will never have gender equality while men are able to pay for the use of women’s bodies.
I want a Scotland where girls and boys are safe; where they grow up with positive opportunities to build the lives they dream of – not to be funnelled into the dehumanising and violent systems of prostitution.
I am proud to chair A Model for Scotland, an alliance of survivors and frontline support organisations calling on the Scottish government to put into action its policy that states unequivocally that prostitution is violence against women and to make good on its pledge to develop a model challenging demand for prostitution. It will be for the benefit of some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland – and for society as a whole.
Diane Martin CBE is chair of campaign group A Model for Scotland, which launches today, and vice chair of the International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council