Prostitution is not ‘empowering’ for women, it’s a miserable life of exploitation and violence, writes Dr Jacci Stoyle.
When I was young life seemed so simple; sex was something that you chose to do for love or lust or even comfort, or something you were forced to do (called rape), but what it definitely wasn’t, was a job.
Of course, one knew that women had sex with men for money, but the suggestion that this was a job like any other would have been considered preposterous.
Fast forward to 2019 where the discourse has changed: sex is now being referred to as ‘work’. Pimps, who sell women to buyers to use as they wish, are called ‘business managers’. Johns are ‘clients’, prostituted women are ‘sex-workers’, foreign women trafficked into the sex trade are ‘migrant workers’ and UK women and girls who are groomed are ‘making a lifestyle choice’.
This new, ubiquitous discourse tells us that ‘sex work’ is ‘empowering’ for women and that ‘sex workers’ are ‘happy’ in their work.
When a society changes the language it uses to describe things, it changes the way those things are perceived. So, by reframing abuse and exploitation of vulnerable young women into something perfectly normal and innocuous, prostitution has been reconstituted into simply another option in the labour market.
The public are still appalled by the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young women, as was shown by the Oxfam scandal following the Haiti earthquake when high-ranking employees of the charity traded Aid for sexual services.
When this first came to light, and still to this day, there was (quite rightly) a public outcry. The organisations who lobby for full decriminalisation of the sex trade didn’t mention how ‘empowering’ this must have been for the Haiti women. They were strangely silent.
However, very few people made the connection that a vulnerable young woman is vulnerable whatever the circumstances, so if it is exploitation in Haiti, then why is it not so in Scotland?
If prostitution is now work, it follows that there will be sex-worker unions. Indeed, they exist, although practically none of the women and girls in the sex trade belong to one, but they are open to all sex workers including ‘business managers’ and brothel owners.
Now, that would be odd if the CBI could join the TUC and set the agenda, wouldn’t it? When these unions claim that sex workers say they want full decriminalisation of the sex trade, is it not strange how that is exactly what pimps, brothel owners, traffickers and buyers want?
Survivors of prostitution who have healed and recovered sufficiently to speak out about this ‘cosy, happy’ world of prostitution will tell you a very different story. It is an inherently violent existence – rape and beatings are occupational hazards and they will tell you that behind the rhetoric they have never met a woman who has chosen to be there. Research has demonstrated that 70 per cent of prostituted women and girls suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as depression, anxiety and mental dissociation.
For the 90 per cent of women involved in prostitution who have a ‘business manager’, he will take a large proportion of their money, which doesn’t sit well with this brave new world of female empowerment.
There is a sense of inevitability about prostitution; the ‘oldest profession’ is universally quoted, inferring that having always been with us, it will always remain so. But it is in fact no more inevitable than any other human behaviour.
Let’s just think about plastic bags for a second. Who would have thought that charging only five pence for a plastic bag to customers, who may have spent £100 on their shopping, would have led to the change of behaviour that sees most consumers bringing their own bags to the supermarket? Indeed! And who would have thought that criminalising the buying of sex, which happened in Sweden in 1999, would have led to the prostitution and trafficking for the sex trade to be negligible in that country 20 years later? In addition, most men and women in Sweden now believe that buying sex is wrong in the same way that most people in Scotland believe that drink driving is wrong.
Both plastic bags and criminalising the buying of sex hit on a factor that shows behaviour is not inevitable and can change in a heartbeat. Men who buy sex are invisible, both in the discourse (now clients, but rarely mentioned at all) and in reality; everything is done to protect their anonymity. Research shows they are mostly married or co-habiting, have families and colleagues, and don’t want them to find out that they aren’t such a nice guy after all.
Therefore, swathes of men will not enter the criminal justice system when this law is applied, they will simply fade away, just like they stopped drinking and driving and did up their seat belts when those laws came into being.
The Swedish approach decriminalises the sellers of sexual services and provides funding for them to exit the trade. We are well placed in Scotland with community support groups to enable women to do the same here so that they are not left destitute.
The Scottish version of this law, sometimes known as the Nordic Model, has been SNP policy since their Spring Conference in 2017.
The Scottish Government already have firm foundations in place with their Equally Safe policy. Is it not now time to place this law on their programme of legislation to enable the Scottish people to finally take the Women For Sale sign down in Scotland?
Dr Jacci Stoyle is secretary of the Cross-Party Group for Commercial Sexual Exploitation in the Scottish Parliament