The “Equally Safe” Scots consultation on sex trade law

17 December 2020 by Jennifer

My responses to 8 questions from the consultation.

The Scottish Government recently did a consultation about sex trade law. I saw that sex workers were asking people to respond if they had the energy.

On the very day of the consultation deadline, 10 Dec, I finally freed up some time to take a look at it, and started writing a response.

Consultation seeking views on how best to challenge men’s demand for prostitution in Scotland, reducing the harms associated with prostitution and supporting women involved to exit.

Consultation document

I ended up getting quite into the writing, and when it was done, I thought to myself, maybe I should make this into a blog post as well – for what it’s worth.

In the consultation format, each question was preceded by some explanation. Most of my answers quoted below would make sense without having to read the preamble, though there is one place where I criticise a specific bit of the framing, and I’ve linked to the original at that point.

I first wrote about sex work in 2013, as part of thinking over some events at & around Nottingham Women’s Conference. Since then, I’ve also had the pleasure of being a beta reader for Revolting Prostitutes, a very informative book on the subject, by Molly Smith and Juno Mac, two of the three women who’d turned up to protest at the conference back then. And I went to the SWARM conference in London in 2019, which was excellent.

This post isn’t like “all my thoughts about the area” – although I would like to write an epic analysis one day :-) This one is very much shaped by “bouncing off” the questions from the Scots Government. For example, I don’t talk at all here about men who earn money from sex, because this consultation was explicitly focused on men paying women. And I wrote it pretty fast, because of the deadline looming. Of course re-reading it I’m thinking of more things I could have said, and ways I could have explained better!

(By the way, you’ll see there’s no question 2 in my answer. I skipped that one. It was about how sex workers had been affected by covid.)

Before putting it online here, I debated whether to go through adding more formatting. On my blog posts, I often like to sprinkle through some words in bold to assist with skim-reading. But as well as making it slightly less similar to the original, that would also take longer to finish! So in the interest of not spending eons tinkering, here it is as originally submitted. All I’ve done is made my bullet-point-dashes be proper bullet points, and my quasi-underlines into italics.

My consultation response

1. Do you agree or disagree that the Scottish Government’s approach to tackling prostitution, as outlined in this section, is sufficient to prevent violence against women and girls?

Obviously it isn’t “sufficient”. Perhaps a better question should be, to what extent does it help or hinder?

The most effective way to reduce sex work would be to ensure an adequate social security system, and/or more well-paying jobs accessible to a variety of people (including, for example, women whose health is unpredictable). Lots of women would rather get paid for sex than live in poverty, especially if it means they can provide better for their children.

The wider picture is that our society places many women in a position where they must please men to some extent in order to get access to resources.

Some women please multiple men via sex. Some women please one particular man via sex and other kinds of labour. (Not suggesting that genuinely reciprocal loving relationships never happen.) Many women’s paid jobs which don’t include sex itself still involve other forms of gendered labour: for example, having to shut down sexual harassment, or having to present a consistently friendly face to unpleasant customers or to a horrible boss. (See Arlie Hochschild’s work on emotional labour.)

Of those examples, the women selling sex aren’t necessarily the most miserable or least empowered:

  • Many sex workers already tried putting up with bad circumstances in some other line of work, and realised that sex work paid better, for comparable risk and trouble and far less time.
  • For some women, selling sex to multiple men, and thereby having money under their own control, was part of how they escaped an abusive situation with one particular man.

However, pleasing multiple men via sexual services in exchange for money is by far the most stigmatised of those options.

It’s true that a necessary ingredient in the sex-for-money equation is the fact that most men like having sex and some are willing to pay for it in cash. But if you could change that ingredient, it wouldn’t change the fact that a lot of women need money. For many (I think probably most) sex workers, the need for money, rather than direct coercion from an individual, is why they’re doing sex work. Sex work is the least bad way they’ve found to get money.

If you take away that option without giving them a better one, it creates a money shortfall for them, and/or they have to switch to a worse way of ensuring their survival – by their own definition of “worse”, such as a job which leaves them little or no time to be with their children, or exacerbates chronic pain.

Changing prostitution laws doesn’t change these underlying dynamics of limited access to resources. Those have to be addressed directly. You can’t solve the overall problem by just getting rid of one specific sub-element, which is the explicit trade of sex for money.

However, making that one specific element more illegal and more stigmatised does change the landscape of risks and decisions, for both the sellers and the buyers.

For example, when buying sex is illegal, buyers who make contact beforehand are less likely to give their real names for screening, and buyers on the street are more likely to want to rush the initial conversation in case the police come along. These differences, which may seem small, are in reality very important: they get in the way of sex workers’ risk assessment processes, such as checking whether a potential client is known to have treated someone else badly, or taking a few extra minutes to interact with him. This interference could make the difference between, on the one hand, turning down a dodgy client, on the other hand, being assaulted or worse. It’s dangerous to reduce a sex worker’s opportunity to assess a buyer before telling him yes or no.

Likewise, when buying sex becomes illegal, a fair number of well-meaning blokes will stop doing it, whereas the ones who continue are by definition those who don’t mind breaking the law. From the point of view of women needing money, that could be the difference between “4 interested clients, see 3 and reject the one who seems a bit off” and “2 interested clients, I’m skint, gonna need to see them both even though one seems a bit off”.

If you believe that the badness of sex work is measured purely in how many times someone has sex, or how many times money changes hands, then 3 times is worse than 2 times. But as regards the safety of the woman in that example, clearly it’s far worse to be in a position where financial pressure pushes you to override your risk-assessment intuition.

The principle here is that if you want to eliminate the worst situations, you have to get clear first (a) what are the worst situations, and (b) what happens “on the ground” when you try to get rid of them. Otherwise, you can end up in practice getting rid of the unpleasant/mediocre options which are easier to eliminate, while inadvertently keeping the more dangerous risks, which then are more likely to be the only option. (Analogous problems exist in regulating drugs.)

In this example, the “mediocre option” would be something like selling sex to an average bloke, who would use a condom, have sex as agreed, pay the money and leave. Much worse options can easily remain after that one’s off the table.

One of the worst predicaments caused by bad law is that when “running a brothel” is illegal, women have a terrible dilemma between (a) working alone to be legal, or (b) working with a friend for safety. Dodgy men may try to find out which is the case. Knowing either answer gives him additional power over her: either she’s alone, or she’s in an illegal position, therefore vulnerable to a threat of police involvement.

The idea of banning brothels is presumably that each woman should only be in charge of herself. But that ought never to mean that the law coerces women to work alone. In New Zealand, small owner-operated brothels are legal: no more than 4 people, and none may hold power over the others; this seems to me like a good idea.

Aside from improving the law, sex-worker-led organisations ought to be funded to channel money directly to the women who need it, and to support people who want to move into a different area of work.

3. Which of the policy approaches (or aspects of these) outlined in Table 3.1 do you believe is most effective in preventing violence against women and girls?

The New Zealand framework seems to me the least worst, although migrant women are still excluded from it.

It seems odd and potentially misleading to me that the New Zealand framework isn’t outlined here alongside these four in the table. Why was the scope of the summary table limited to “EU Member States”?

As regards the first option you suggest: The idea of forbidding “profiting from another person’s prostitution” sounds superficially desirable, but needs to be carefully handled in practice. What if a sex worker pays someone to answer the door for her, then to stay in the house as a safety precaution – should that precaution really be illegal? What if a sex worker calls a taxi to take her to a hotel – would you want to criminalise the taxi driver? If you do, there’s pressure on the sex worker to hide what she’s doing, so the driver is less likely to become part of the worker’s informal safety network.

That element of law could also lead to problems if a non-sex-working partner lives with a sex worker and they share rent and bills. Must they live apart in order to protect the partner from accusations of breaking the law? That would seem likely to make her financial situation more difficult, and perhaps contribute to stress and isolation.

In terms of where the money goes, I think what the law needs to focus on is coercion. It shouldn’t criminalise the kinds of arrangements which would be considered perfectly OK in the context of other kinds of work.

4. What measures would help to shift the attitudes of men relating to the purchase of sex? Do you have any examples of good practice either in a domestic or an international context?

  • Education on consent must include the reality that when someone does any work for money, or obeys instructions from the benefits system, their consent is coerced to the extent they needed that money to survive.
  • Education on consent must include that when a person does something for pay which they wouldn’t have done without pay, their consent is conditional on being paid.
  • Educators should not reproduce harmful concepts such as the idea that buying sex is a matter of “renting a body”. In contrast, a framework which upholds consent is that the worker has consented only to the services & interactions which have been agreed between the two parties.(The “renting a body” idea also erases a lot of the interpersonal work of sex work, e.g. negotiation, presentation and emotional labour. It disrespects the skills of sex workers. Even a quick interaction on a street draws on elements of those skills.)
  • Selling sex must be sufficiently de-stigmatised that workers are able to call upon help from others to uphold their stated boundaries, without worrying that they themselves will suffer bad consequences for outing themselves. Buyers must have a reasonable expectation that crossing a seller’s stated boundary will be disclosed to the wider community and not accepted. A future possible aim to abolish sex work must not take precedence over this one.
  • Bigger picture, it’s hypocritical for representatives of the state to claim to disapprove of prostitution while simultaneously maintaining a punitive benefits system which leaves people in poverty. Don’t be surprised that individual men think it’s OK to take part in it, when the entire system tacitly supports it happening.

5. Taking into account the above, how can the education system help to raise awareness and promote positive attitudes and behaviors amongst young people in relation to consent and healthy relationships?

Children ought not to be coerced for the convenience of adults, only when unavoidable for their own wellbeing. Most children are in practice taught from a very young age that the person with more power is entitled to make the person with less power do what they want.

In the absence of that fundamental reorganisation of society (e.g. of schools), there are already simpler things we can do. For example, children ought not to be coerced to kiss relatives if they don’t want to. Children ought not to be tickled after they’ve said “stop”. Boys’ nonconsensual interactions with other people ought to be named as such, not dismissed as “boys will be boys”. Girls ought not to be told to give up toys for the sake of humouring boys, or to play with other children when they don’t want to.

As children get older, they ought to have access to age-appropriate conversations about more complex aspects of consent, such as imbalances of power, access to information, attaching conditions, etc.

This “Flip The Script” course seems like a good approach to sex & relationships education for girls, with a dimension which was extremely lacking when I was at school:

6. How can the different needs of women involved in prostitution (in terms of their health and wellbeing) be better recognised in the provision of mainstream support?

As long as sex work is so intensely stigmatised in wider society, it’s difficult to make any mainstream support fully accessible to sex workers. In the current climate, sex workers are never going to know whether the staff member they encounter next is going to hold prejudices against them (e.g. that they’re “damaged” or wicked), or whether bad consequences might come back round from disclosing their situation (e.g. having their children taken away). With that kind of a lottery, I find it very understandable that sex workers often choose not to disclose to service providers. For some purposes, that probably doesn’t matter, but sometimes it does.

This means it’s very important to ensure that sex-worker-led organisations like SWARM, SCOT-PEP and Umbrella Lane, and sex-worker-centric services similar to Basis (Leeds) or POW (Nottingham), have enough funding and resources to support the work they do. They will then be able to support some of the people who wouldn’t trust non-sex-work services.

When SW-led and SW-centric groups have enough resources, it also means they’re in a better position to advise less-specialised organisations on how to improve.

A possible advantage of decriminalisation is that often (though not always), when the law leads, social attitudes follow. There does seem to be evidence that after the anti-sex-buyer law was passed in Sweden, people-in-general became more negative about sex workers and sex work, not only about buyers. It’s difficult to combine “this is so bad, it’s illegal” with “selling sex is an understandable and rational choice for some people, and maybe sometimes they need some help but they don’t need to be stigmatised”.

7. In your opinion, drawing on any international or domestic examples, what programmes or initiatives best supports women to safely exit prostitution?

There should be a mechanism for deleting old criminal convictions for selling sex, and for deleting related convictions (e.g. “brothel-keeping”) where the convicted person was selling sex themself and no coercion was involved.

Support for sex workers ought not to be conditional on quitting, or conditional on never going back. There shouldn’t be a hard cut-off between “support for people to exit” and “support while people continue”. Instead, it should focus on getting people what they need now (e.g. secure housing, money, healthcare, paperwork) and then building towards what they would need if/when they want to quit.

People providing that kind of support need to have understanding of, and empathy for, the pressures which lead people to rely on sex work.

It may often be that the best supporters are people who’ve transitioned out of sex work themselves while remaining unjudgemental about the people still doing it. The community holds valuable experience on things like identifying transferable skills, writing CVs, when and whether to disclose to non-sex-working new friends, etc.

8. Support services are primarily focussed within four of Scotland’s main cities – Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow – how can the needs of women throughout Scotland who are engaged in prostitution be met, noting that prostitution is not solely an urban issue?

Nothing much to add on this point, except: seek the views of sex workers in Scotland and follow their lead.

9. If there are any further comments you would like to make, which have not been addressed in the questions above, please use the space below to provide more detail.

  • Listen to sex workers! especially the ones still in the midst of it!
  • Be wary of a narrative which says that the only sex workers it’s important to hear from are “voiceless” or “silenced”. Don’t assume that visible sex workers must be in easy situations, or aren’t taking their cues from their less-out, less-visible peers. Originally-middle-class people can end up working alongside migrants who are only just beginning to learn English; even the more privileged workers understand things which you probably don’t know if you haven’t “been there”.
  • Read up on sex worker rights organisations across the world, such as APNSW. (
  • Don’t assume that the more oppressed a worker is, the more likely they are to want sex work to be illegal. It’s very hard to organise for your rights when your workplace is illegal, or your clients are illegal.

Thanks for reading :-)

Drawing of a small pale-pink candle, plus the hashtag #IDEVASW, which stands for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

Appreciation, criticism & new ideas all welcome...

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