Comment: Sex workers’ safety is crucial

Edinburgh has far fewer street sex workers than Glasgow. Picture: Esme Allen (posed by model)
Edinburgh has far fewer street sex workers than Glasgow. Picture: Esme Allen (posed by model)
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Decriminalisation, would bring all the protection women involved in the vice industry require, says Anastacia Ryan.

When SCOT-PEP was founded, in 1989, it was a ground-breaking organisation: a charity that provided services to sex workers – so far so usual – but one that was set up and run by sex workers.

Back in 1989, people didn’t realise so much that sex workers could be agents of change, as well as the passive, voiceless recipients of “rescue” services – services set up without bothering to ask what sex workers might actually need or want.

Twenty-five years later, all over the world – and particularly in the global south – sex workers run their own organisations, dedicated to delivering the services sex workers actually want, and to amplifying their voices in debates that are about them. Who knows better how to make workplaces safer, than the people who work there?

This idea still appears to be contested in Scotland, as some organisations and politicians seem determined to be on the wrong side of history, like little King Canutes trying to stop the rising tide of evidence – evidence that sex workers can speak for themselves, and evidence that a punitive approach to sex work makes sex workers more marginalised and unsafe.

Let’s look at the evidence. When the laws around kerb-crawling changed in 2007, to criminalise the clients of street-based sex workers, SCOT-PEP recorded a 95 per cent increase in attacks on sex workers.

Laws that target clients (“end demand” laws) are often framed in a “feminist” language of “protecting women”, but that 95 per cent increase hints at the real-life effects: sex workers, in order to evade the police who are threatening to arrest clients, have to work in more isolated back streets, and have less time to assess the client – who will be jumpy about the possibility of arrest – before getting into his car.

On a global scale, the UN agrees, stating in 2012: “There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to sex work reduce ‘demand’. Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations”.

Laws against managers are used against sex workers who are working together – working with friends being a much safer (and more chatty!) way to work. We see this in Glasgow, where the police harshly enforce “brothel-keeping” laws against indoor sex workers, in contrast to Edinburgh, which has had (until recently) a pragmatic approach to indoor sex workers choosing to work together. As a result of this pragmatism, Edinburgh has ten times fewer street-based sex workers than Glasgow, where women are driven outdoors. Again, the criminalisation of sex work – even in contexts where it is presented as “protection” – rebounds harmfully on sex workers.

What sex workers need – the legal framework that keeps them safe – is decriminalisation. This would allow sex workers to do things like work with friends, or talk openly to clients about services and boundaries, before having to make a decision. Several countries in the world – for instance, New Zealand – have decriminalised sex work, and they’re held up by organisations like UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation as countries that have made sex workers 

The road to decriminalisation is inevitably slow, so while we traverse it, we need the police to take a pragmatic, harm reduction-focused approach, which is why we’re calling for a moratorium on raids on workplaces – both licensed and unlicensed – and an end to arresting clients and sex workers on the street, as neither raids nor arrests achieve anything that a civilised society should consider beneficial. Join us in our call for 
pragmatism and decriminalisation.

• Anastacia Ryan is a board member with SCOT-PEP