Ash Denham: Criminalise the buyers to tackle prostitution

Since being elected in May I have had constituents contact me regarding their concerns with prostitution in Edinburgh; both the street selling and the saunas and massage parlours side. After speaking at an event in September about human trafficking, I have also been contacted by women and a few men from all over Scotland regarding their concerns about trafficking. I have also become co-convener on the cross-party group on human trafficking. Along with the Scottish Government currently running a Trafficking and Exploitation strategy consultation I feel it a rather fitting time to write about this.

The majority of people working as prostitutes do not do so willingly. Picture: Toby Williams
The majority of people working as prostitutes do not do so willingly. Picture: Toby Williams

Human Trafficking does happen in Scotland and 70 per cent of victims are forced into prostitution. Four people are trafficked in Scotland each week. Importantly, we must note that human trafficking includes Scottish children; both male and female. The victims may be trafficked amongst communities or out of the country. Children in general are vulnerable; traffickers know this. The exploiters are unnervingly skilled at detecting vulnerable kids and young adults.

In order to tackle both the prostitution and trafficking issues I am in favour of bringing the Swedish model to Scotland, where the selling of sex is legal but the purchase of sex is criminalised. The reality is the majority of prostituted persons are not willing participants. Therefore, both the exploiters and the buyers should be held to account for their choice in participating in this exploitation.

Sweden has seen street prostitution and trafficking decrease dramatically since implementing this law. Canada, which recently implemented the same law, has seen similar results. Compare this to the likes of Germany, where prostitution is legal, deemed a job and meant to protect and support women in prostitution and to give the women the same rights as any other worker.

The reality is that the number of prostitutes has dramatically increased, leading to competition and reduction in pay for the woman. It has found that women now have to serve six men to cover the cost of the rent of a room in the brothel, before making any profit. Only 44 out of 400,000 prostitutes are registered as sole proprietorship businesses. Brothel owners may class prostitutes as customers rather than employees, thus excluding them from the benefits for which the legalisation was passed. Or strict rules are imposed on the girls, such as offering unprotected sex, and if these rules are not adhered to then fines are issued.

Almost half the prostitutes are illegal foreign workers. Girls who come from desperately poor backgrounds and see prostitution in Germany as a quick temporary fix. It is of course never temporary and these girls are soon taken in by “pimps”, have their passports taken and see little of the money they “earned”. Women are made to work long hours in horrendous conditions; such as in drive-through sex boxes, with no lighting, heating or toilet facilities. And at some point they are sold on to cater for “fresh meat”. Sexual violence has also increased, with women being raped to prepare them for prostitution or receiving beatings for not undertaking some perverse desire of the buyer.

Normalising prostitution, only accepts violence against women. It encourages inequality between men and women. I don’t want to see Scotland becoming known for sex tourism. I want to see Scotland tackling the issues, such as poverty and/or addiction that lead to women resorting to this.

I want Scotland’s new generation of men to view women as equals, to not resort to sexual exploitation and domination to define themselves as men. And to give women other options. Trafficking is a highly organised and international operation, and very lucrative for traffickers. In Sweden, buyers are now afraid of being caught. In short, the best way to reduce the demand for trafficking, is to reduce the demand for prostitution. Criminalising the buyer reduces this demand.

The consultation can be found at


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Ash Denham is SNP MSP for Edinburgh Eastern