Prostitution: Why Scotland should criminalise paying for sex – Ruth Wilkinson

The Scottish government has found the courage to ask a question most politicians won’t: how do we challenge men’s demand for prostitution?

More than 90 per cent of women involved in prostitution say they would leave if they could (Picture: Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images)

Too often the focus is on how women should change their lives and their choices, with little regard for how those choices are shaped by men. But the government’s recent consultation gets right to the heart of the matter, because as long as men can buy women’s bodies we can never be equal.

The Women’s Equality Party has never doubted that prostitution hurts women. Yes, there are women who choose to sell sex, and it is important the government listens to them too; and not all exploited or prostituted people are female.

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But the sex trade usually means men paying for access to women’s bodies, and most women selling sex have been forced into it by traffickers, pimps and poverty. Choice is not choice when no other option is available, and over 90 per cent of women involved in prostitution say they would leave if they could.

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The ‘needs of men’

People argue there will always be men who want to pay for sex. I would argue that as long as there are women who don’t want to have sex for pay, but nonetheless feel they have to, we have a responsibility to end demand.

The much-revered ‘needs of men’ fuel a multi-billion-pound global industry built on the exploitation and abuse of women, to which men are encouraged to turn a blind eye. What if, instead, every punter knew he might be paying for his pleasure not just with cash but a criminal record? The Women’s Equality Party is in favour of criminalising buyers and decriminalising prostitutes.

But if we are to stand a chance of ending demand, the Scottish government needs to go even further. Any sex-buyers law must be accompanied by significant investment in organisations that deliver non-judgmental, practical and financial help for women engaged in prostitution.

These services must never be predicated on women agreeing to exit prostitution, but rather a place where women feel safe and supported. The government should take action to ensure women engaged in prostitution are included, without discrimination, in unemployment assistance and other financial and social support, something many countries have failed to do during the pandemic. They must implement robust responses to violence against women, including better access to justice for prostitutes who experience violence when selling sex.

Teaching boys that girls are human beings

Challenging men’s demand for prostitution means challenging inequality. We need to challenge men’s sense of entitlement to sex and pornography’s normalisation of sexual violence. We need to talk about what sexual consent really means: consent free of physical, psychological or financial coercion.

We still, even after #MeToo and decades of campaigning, need to be teaching boys to treat girls and women as actual human beings, not as bodies to be leered at, used, and paid for.

The question we are most often asked at the Women’s Equality Party is what is the one thing that would make things more equal between men and women? The answer is that there is no silver bullet, and we need to do the hard work of removing the barriers for all women so that they can have genuine social and economic freedom. Ending demand is a crucial first step.

Ruth Wilkinson is Scottish spokesperson for the Women’s Equality Party

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