Jean launches new Bill to decriminalise sex work

Women from the Sex Workers' Open University demostrate with red umbrellas and placards reading 'Solidarity with sex workers'.
Photo: Sex Workers’ Open University
Jean Urquhart has published a consultation on a new law to promote sex workers’ rights and safety by decriminalising sex work.

Jean’s proposed Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill has been developed in close consultation with sex workers in Scotland, and are supported by SCOT-PEP, a charity which campaigns for the rights of sex workers. It has also been supported by HIV Scotland and NUS Scotland, and the decriminalisation approach taken by Jean’s proposals is backed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation.

Read Jean’s personal messageDownload the consultation

The proposed Bill would:

The four key elements of the proposed legislation are as follows:

  1. Permit small groups of sex workers (up to four) to work together from the same premises, and for larger premises to be licensed. Currently, even two sex workers who work together for safety are criminalised for brothel-keeping – forcing sex workers to work alone increases their vulnerability to violence.
  2. Scrap laws against soliciting and kerb-crawling. Evidence shows both measures reduce the amount of time sex workers have to assess their safety and agree services, which again increases their vulnerability to violence.
  3. Extend protection against coercion, which only applies to female sex workers under current legislation, and make those provisions more robust – in line with what sex workers say they need.
  4. Permit sex workers to have joint finances with their families or flatmates. Currently the partners and family of sex workers are criminalised, which is isolating and stigmatising, and assumes coercion rather than tackling coercion directly.

The consultation is open for responses from the pubic until December 1st 2015. You can download the consultation document here.

Speaking about why she has developed the proposals, Jean said:

“With the death of Margo MacDonald, Scotland’s sex workers lost an irreplaceable friend and ally. With the exception of the proposals she campaigned for, the debate about Scotland’s prostitution laws has for too long been conducted as if sex workers should be pushed out of sight. They have been systematically ignored while laws which expose them to violence and stigma have been preserved or extended. These proposals take on board not only the experience and concerns of sex workers, but also reflect a growing international consensus that what sex workers most need is safety and labour rights, not the risks which come from criminalisation.

“Despite the support for decriminalisation offered by organisations from Amnesty International to the World Health Organisation, these proposals will be controversial. Some think sex work is simply immoral, or cannot be made safer, or that punishing clients can be done without harming sex workers. Others claim that sex workers are somehow themselves responsible for the problems of a sexist society. I would urge anyone who takes those views to read the evidence, to read the consultation, and to consider whether their feelings are more important than sex workers’ right to work safely.”

Nadine Stott, co-chair of the sex workers’ rights charity SCOTPEP, said:

“We are incredibly grateful to Jean Urquhart for bringing forward the first comprehensive set of proposals designed to allow sex workers to work safely in Scotland. The purchase and sale of sex is currently legal, but in general, the law prevents sex workers from being able to work safely, and that must end. There is no reason why sex work should only be permissible if a single person works alone in their flat, for example. That law leaves sex workers vulnerable to violence and exploitation, as do the current laws on street-based sex work, which also seriously hamper sex workers’ ability to move onto other work.

“The evidence from New Zealand, where similar proposals were passed in 2003 in close consultation with sex worker-led organisations, is that putting safety first works. The New Zealand model reduces violence, enables sex workers to have greater confidence in reporting crimes to the police. It has also not led to an increase in sex work. We look forward to supporting this process through Parliament, to seeing responses to the consultation, and to working with MSPs to put sex workers’ safety at the heart of the debate for the first time.”

Stewart Cunningham, also co-chair of SCOTPEP, said:

“I recently had the opportunity to visit New Zealand to explore the effects of their legal model first hand. While I was there I met with sex workers, representatives of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, and a number of academics who have studied the impact of the law, and I am convinced now more than ever that this is a legislative model that Scotland must adopt. In New Zealand, the rights, health and safety of sex workers are prioritised above any moral or ideological objection to exchanging sex for money. I met with the former sex worker who was the first person to take a brothel manager to court for sexual harassment and was awarded $25,000 in compensation. She emphasised to me how in a decriminalized system she did not have to tolerate harassment and abuse from her manager and was empowered to use the law to hold him to account.

“The effect of the New Zealand approach to sex work is summed up in the words of the human rights tribunal in this case when they said simply that ‘sex workers have the same human rights as other workers.’ It is time that Scotland began prioritising the rights and protection of people who trade or sell sex, for whatever reason, rather than arresting and prosecuting them and perpetuating harm.”

George Valiotis, Chief Executive Officer for HIV Scotland, said:

“International organisations like UNAIDS and the World Health Organization have long called for the decriminalisation of sex work, and Jean’s proposals are firmly based in that evidence. In 2012, the WHO called the decriminalisation of sex work a ‘minimum global standard’. Criminalisation clearly inhibits sex workers’ safety and access to services, including HIV-related services. As such, we welcome any move to follow these international and evidenced-based recommendations.”

NUS Scotland President Vonnie Sandlan said:

“I’m delighted that these proposals have been brought forward – they are long overdue. The safety and rights of sex workers is a feminist issue, and one which we know is of great importance to students in Scotland. As a feminist I wholeheartedly support these measures, and hope that they signify the start of a new normal in policymaking, where the voices and experiences of sex workers are prioritised.”

Luca Stevenson, co-ordinator for the European Network of Sex Work Projects (ICRSE), said:

“ICRSE, a European network of seventy five organisations advocating for sex workers’ rights, strongly supports this decriminalisation bill.

“The criminalisation of sex work profoundly fails to protect sex workers. Criminalisation of the purchase of sex, as experimented with in Sweden and Norway, increased the stigma directed against sex workers, and increased sex workers’ vulnerability to violence – and made them less likely to report abuse and violence to the police. We hope MSPs will listen to sex workers and human rights organisations who, after years of research, unequivocally support decriminalisation.”

Cat, a sex worker in Scotland, said:

“Finally a politician has listened to us and put our safety first. I can’t understand why policymakers love to talk about how dangerous sex work is and yet support laws that force us to sell sex alone. Jean listened to people currently selling sex in Scotland and actually cared about our safety, rather than grandstanding or seeing us as a problem to be ‘cleared away’. I hope other politicians will follow her lead.”

Mike, a male sex worker, said:

“I have worked for several years in Glasgow, offering sexual services to men. Society needs to comes to terms that many of us have decided to sell sex and laws that criminalise us do not stop sex work. Many of my clients are mature men who have only recently accepted their sexuality and prefer to hire an escort than hanging out on the ‘gay scene’ or using apps. It is unbelievable that people would want to see either my clients or myself fined or jailed. Criminalising consensual sex between adults should be confined to the 1960s, not a modern democratic country like Scotland.”