Letter in the Guardian: Labour rights are the key to sex workers’ safety

Jean’s letter in the Guardian newspaper last week, responding to the campaign to criminalise the purchase of sex, a move which sex workers say would make them less safe:

Former police officer Alan Caton celebrates the criminalisation of the purchase of sex in Northern Ireland and suggests that crackdowns make sex workers safer (Letters, 1 June). However, sex workers themselves tell us the exact opposite. When the highly successful tolerance zones for street prostitution were abolished in Edinburgh, for example, sex workers reported a 95% increase in violence over 12 months.

Mr Caton further proposes criminalisation of clients as a solution to trafficking; it is hard to understand how he believes threatening the key witnesses to trafficking and coercion – the clients – with a sex-crime record if they come forward would help with investigating and prosecuting this awful crime.

There is little evidence that the criminalisation of clients even achieves its proponents’ aim of reducing demand for sex work. Following criminalisation in Sweden, police themselves have observed a sharp increase in massage parlours in Stockholm – from 90 in 2009 to 250 in 2013.

What sex workers tell us would actually protect them would be to ensure their labour rights, including the right to work in a shared premises, to eliminate stigma and discrimination against sex workers, and to decriminalise sex work.

Jean Urquhart MSP
Independent, Highlands and Islands

To find out more about issues affecting sex workers and read sex workers’ own views, visit SCOT-PEP and the Sex Worker Open University.

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Why I Won’t Be Supporting Rhoda Grant’s Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill

I’ve recently had a number of constituents get in touch with me regarding Rhoda Grant MSP’s proposed Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill. Sex workers are among the most vulnerable workers in Scotland, and many work at daily risk of exploitation and violence.

The role of the law should be to protect the vulnerable from harm. I believe that should Ms Grant’s proposals become law, it would significantly increase harm suffered by sex workers in Scotland.

For this reason I will be arguing against the proposed Bill.

Regrettably, the consultation on this proposal largely dismisses the testimony of those most affected – sex workers themselves – and of those, such as drug services, who have witnessed the effects first-hand. If these voices are taken properly into account, a picture of serious harm resulting from hardline legislation in Scotland and elsewhere emerges.

Criminalising the purchase of sex causes clients to avoid visible locations, requiring sex workers to operate further from police and other services that protect their safety and health, including peer support networks. Sex workers will be more isolated and more vulnerable as a result.

The reduction of demand, which is the stated aim of the proposal, means that in order to continue working, sex workers will be forced to accept clients or working conditions that they previously would have rejected. This will include such dangerous practices as not concluding negotiations before accepting a client, not using condoms, and accepting clients known or suspected to be violent.

I am a member of the Cross-Party Group on Human Trafficking and take the reality of modern-day slavery very seriously. I believe the proposal would exacerbate the horror of trafficking and frustrate efforts to eradicate it. The effect of criminalising the clients of sex workers will be to prevent them coming forward if they encounter sex workers whom they believe to be trafficked, underage, or otherwise exploited.

I understand that many feel strongly about this issue on both sides of the debate. For me, the only reasonable starting point is to ask: what will best protect the safety, wellbeing and human rights of those most affected? The answer to that question is improved services, improved police training, and improved public understanding, not crackdowns that drive sex workers further from social protection.