NEIL MACKAY’S BIG READ: Scottish sex workers warn changes to prostitution laws could put them at serious risk

The Scottish Government is considering new laws governing prostitution. Nadine Stott chair of the sex-worker led campaign group Scot-Pep tells Writer at Large Neil Mackay proposed changes would drive vulnerable women underground and into increased danger

NADINE Stott paints a vivid and harrowing picture of life for sex workers in Scotland. It is a world of violence and the unrelenting threat of attack from men, police harassment, exploitation, poverty, and the scorn and contempt of a society which neither cares about their lives nor wishes to listen to their voices.

Stott runs Scot-Pep (the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project) – Scotland’s leading sex worker campaign group. It’s led by sex workers and fights to have the voices of sex workers heard. Stott, who chairs Scot-Pep’s board, is a deft and astute campaigner. And she is angry that Government, charities and police are preparing to take decisions about the lives of Scottish sex workers without heeding their cares and concerns.

Currently, soliciting for sex in public, kerbcrawling and brothel-keeping are illegal. The Scottish Government is considering a Nordic model which criminalises anyone “buying” sex – indoors or outdoors – while decriminalising the sale of sex.

However, Scottish sex workers are fearful these changes will put them further into harm’s way, driving them underground along with their “customers” – and leaving them more vulnerable to exploitation and violence.

Sex work life

“It’s really bad out there,” says Stott. “Women who sell sex on the street are criminalised. Kerbcrawling is criminalised. That puts women who sell sex on the street in more danger.”

As men who pay on-street sex workers are breaking the law, “clients” obviously fear arrest. “Interactions with clients are rushed, women have to get in cars more quickly,” she says.

Women working indoors “are criminalised if they work together”, Stott explains. “You can be raided, arrested and charged with brothel-keeping.

“This pushes sex workers into really hard choices – working alone which is more dangerous versus working with a friend which is safer, but it means you’re at risk of criminalisation.”

On “managed premises” like saunas “you don’t have access to any labour rights or employment protection.

Managers think if the place is raided condoms can be used as evidence so they keep the number of condoms to an absolute minimum which is really bad for the health and safety of women,” says Stott.

Sex work unions

THERE have been several attempts to unionise sex workers but it’s an uphill struggle.

The GMB has representation, as does the independent union United Voices of the World.

“Both had some success,” says Stott, “but primarily with strip clubs because they’re legal workplaces. It’s logistically much easier to organise workers within those venues and push owners into recognising worker demands.

“However, unionisation draws attention –when you see Deliveroo workers organising they’re bringing attention to their workplace. That’s really hard for sex workers where workplaces are criminalised – like brothel workers.”

Pandemic sex

“SEX workers were some of the first to experience the effects of pandemic,” Stott points out. “There’s been a terrible tsunami of poverty.”

Clients began staying away. Incomes “took a really steep dive”. Stott adds: “People were left without money for bills. Getting Universal Credit is really hard – especially for sex workers.”

Sex workers fear being outed by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff and “what that means for future benefits. They fear disclosure to social services and having their kids taken away”.

Migrant sex workers, Stott says, had no recourse to social security. “Fears around the DWP were even more amplified,” she says, because of deportation. Conservative immigration policies have left migrant sex workers “feeling at risk from every direction”.

Stott says austerity plays a role in prostitution. Social security cuts make women poorer, and poverty leads to prostitution, she adds.

With the pandemic causing client numbers to plummet, “it became really scary in terms of health. When there’s fewer clients, sex workers have much less power in interactions – there’s less power to turn down clients who seem violent, sleazy, boundary-pushing or trying to negotiate on condom use”.

Poverty & violence

“IT’S really important,” Stott says, “for the public to realise that poverty is implicated in producing violence. It’s true in every context.

“Look at domestic violence,” she says. “It’s pretty striking that women are much less safe when there’s cuts to refuges. Cuts to social housing, zero-hour contracts, benefits – all that means you can’t escape violent relationships, right?

“And all that – including anti-immigration policies – is implicated in producing a system where sex workers are vulnerable to violence.

“Sex workers are fearful of violence from clients, landlords, partners and police. All of this is tied to poverty and precarity – from rent to immigration status.

“Violent or abusive men thrive when they know people can’t go to the police. It’s easy, in the context of the housing crisis, for landlords to sexually exploit tenants.”

Financial vulnerability and physical vulnerability are “tied together”.

The new plans

“BROADLY,” says Stott, “the Scottish Government is interested in introducing some additional form of criminalisation of clients. Clients in Scotland are already criminalised if they buy sex on the street and that’s been disastrous for street-based sex workers.”

On-street sex workers, says Stott, are much safer if “they can stand around with other women, who take down car number plates as you get in the car”.

But Stott adds: “That makes you more visible as a sex worker which in turn makes clients more visible –which is exactly what you don’t want if both you and your client are criminalised.

“You’re there aiming to sell sex to get money – to do that you have to protect the client from his fear of arrest. You have to work in a way that’s more isolated so you’re not standing around with a group of friends. You’re not working in well-lit areas with CCTV. You’re not able to have an extensive back-and-forth with potential clients – which is really important as that’s when you’re having an explicit conversation about price, and expectations, and you’re also implicitly assessing ‘does this person seem coked-up, drunk, aggressive. Is this person giving me weird vibes?’

“So, instead of having that conversation on the street when you’re not yet in the car, you have to get in the car immediately to protect the client from his fear of arrest and then have the conversation driving away – when it’s already too late.”

With indoor prostitution, where women work together in flats or meet clients at their homes or hotels for sex, the same issues arise when it comes to safety under possible new laws, says Stott. “At the moment most sex workers don’t accept incoming calls from hidden numbers full stop,” she explains. “A phone number is a basic piece of the puzzle – it’s something traceable about the client if something goes wrong.

“Obviously, if clients were criminalised, everyone would switch to hidden numbers. A man who wanted to attack women could just find a woman with no consequences. He’d know he could arrange to meet a sex worker completely anonymously.”

Men would also be deterred from meeting at sex workers’ homes “as he’ll feel the police will be surveilling the flats of sex workers looking for men coming in and out because otherwise how are they going to catch clients? So, he doesn’t go up to her flat anymore”.

Instead, Stott fears, sex workers will be asked to meet men and then go to their homes or cars. “She’ll have no real power to say no because she still needs to work and make money.” The risk of kidnapping, assault, rape and murder increases, Stott adds.

“It massively increases the power of the client to set the terms of the interaction. As clients stay away when they’re criminalised, sex worker power is reduced. When you’re poorer, you’ve less ability to say no to clients who seem more suspect, violent, or aggressive.”

Stott feels the current legal model already disempowers vulnerable women while the Nordic model would just increase vulnerability. “I don’t feel sex workers’ voices are listened to adequately in Holyrood,” Stott says.

“There’s a choice,” she adds. “On one hand you can chose to symbolically punish men who pay for sex through criminalisation – that feels emotionally really satisfying. I get that. I’ve been involved with Scot-Pep for 10 years and I don’t think men who pay for sex are great people. I understand how they come to symbolise male power, patriarchy and violence against women.

“On the other hand, you can materially improve the conditions of women who sell sex. You cannot have both things at the same time as they pull in opposite directions – symbolically punishing men who pay for sex makes the material conditions of women who sell sex worse. I think a lot of people in power, NGOs and the police would like to pretend there’s no conflict between these two things – for totally understandable reasons as they’re emotionally invested in symbolically punishing male clients through criminalisation.

“Sex workers are talking about their material needs for money, housing, secure immigration, childcare, jobs that pay a living wage and are flexible around caring responsibilities – but all that goes out the window because there’s this deep emotional investment in punishing men who pay for sex.”

Stott says that in “discourse about empowerment” among those in leading positions in society “the voices of sex workers are dismissed and patronised. Sex workers are demanding material change, and those on the other side are demanding material change – it’s just their material changes will harm women who sell sex”.

Sex worker wants

SCOT-PEP would like the New Zealand model adopted in Scotland, says Stott, “but with additional provisions for migrant sex workers”.

“That means the repeal of soliciting and kerbcrawling laws – the laws which target sex workers and clients on the street – so that people can work together in well-lit places and have enough time to negotiate with clients safely,” she says. “We’d like the repeal of brothel-keeping laws – at the moment two sex workers working together for safety are criminalised.

“We’d like a system where people who work in managed brothels had the manager subject to labour laws – that would include checking the manager didn’t have convictions for violence, and ensuring there were fire exits and safe sex supplies on the premises. Basic workers’ rights.”

Additionally, Scot-Pep wants no deportations of migrant women working in the sex industry so they can safely access police and health care.

Stott points out that all forms of prostitution continue under the current system involving criminalisation. “What we’re asking for is people to have rights instead of no rights.”

The way to “massively reduce [prostitution] is to ensure there’s jobs that are well paid and appropriate for women with caring responsibilities, social housing and secure tenancies, and meaningful healthcare around drugs”.

With many on-street sex workers heroin users, Stott advocates “prescription heroin”. She adds: “If you gave people prescription heroin you’d reduce a large amount of street-based sex work. Additionally, you’d bring people into services in a way which wasn’t punitive. Safe supply shouldn’t be a radical idea. Ideally, nobody wants people using heroin problematically, but since they are, give them prescriptions. Let’s keep them alive and know what they’re taking safely.”

If addiction services were better funded, “far fewer people [would be] pushed into selling sex to fund the habit”. Equally, Stott says, forcing migrants into “the grey economy” pushes women towards prostitution. She’d like to see “people, regardless of their immigration status, working in the mainstream economy”.

In terms of where on-street sex work would take place under a decriminalised model, Stott suggests city centre “toleration zones” away from residential areas. However, blanket decriminalisation and better services for women would mean less on-street prostitution, she believes. “If people had the resources they needed, that would reduce the amount of sex work. People who sell sex on the street are often the people in most poverty so any kind of intervention that gave more resources would have the biggest impact on that group,” says Stott.

“People are already angry about prostitution. And yet street prostitution is criminalised on both sides of the transaction. So, clearly, criminalisation isn’t working. If your primary concern is for street prostitution not to happen or be visible, then criminalisation of the seller and buyer is already in place and is not the answer to those concerns.”

Getting out

MOST sex worker-led groups like Scot-Pep, which aim to help women leave prostitution, have little or no funding. Many of the official “exiting services”, says Stott, “come with a large helping of judgment and a sense of rather than seeing you where you’re at and being willing to work with you on goals you identify for yourself, they want you out of prostitution at all costs –even if that means pushing you into low-wage work that doesn’t sit around your life.

“Good exiting support entails understanding that this is potentially quite a slow process – that people might want to reduce or change the way they do sex work rather than immediately go to exit.” The best exiting support “is directed by the sex worker herself rather than the political concerns of the NGO”. Stott spoke of one service in receipt of Government funds which said it would pay money to a sex worker’s landlord directly. That could have “outed her to her landlord. It also treated her as if she had less capacity than a child. It’s very bureaucratic, disempowering and paternalistic”.

Stott feels there’s a sense of “public titillation” around the idea of students selling sex to fund university, when so much prostitution involves women in dire poverty with drug habits and children, and many others are impoverished migrants. “Every sex worker deserves the same rights, safety and resources,” she says.

Student sex work, Stott adds, should be seen as “speaking to student poverty, which is endemic due to lack of grants and expensive student housing. But that’s not sexy. The issues are very similar for all sex workers – it’s rooted in their material needs”.

Trans sex workers

SOME trans people who end up in sex work, says Stott, do so as “they struggle to access mainstream employment because of transphobia in the workplace. Sadly, that’s getting worse.

“For trans people, clients, landlords, and police are all operating in the same toxic soup of transphobia that much of the UK media and politicians are feeding. Like all sex workers, they’re most in danger when clients feel they’re unlikely to call for help or be believed.

“The situation we have at the moment is one where men who want to perpetrate violence against women can seek out trans women safe in the knowledge she’s unlikely to call the police in case she’s prosecuted for a prostitution offence.”

Society’s eyes

DURING Covid, sex workers reported more clients wanting sex without condoms. Yet nobody knows or cares, says Stott. “It’s a useful measure of the power of sex workers,” she adds. “If condom use goes down, the power of sex workers is going down. It shows sex workers being pushed into poverty and women are less safe.”

In terms of the Government consultation on changing prostitution laws, Stott feels those in favour “are basically arguing for laws to reduce the number of clients. A reduction of clients caused by Covid already caused harms”.

She adds: “I’d love to know how anyone thinks a reduction of clients caused by criminalisation wouldn’t cause similar harms. They don’t connect their own support for criminalisation to harms caused to sex workers through a reduction of clients.”

The way society treats sex workers is “appalling, shameful”, says Stott. “It’s easy for society to treat people perfectly who fulfil its ideal of normative values. The test of a good society should be how it treats people at the edges.” That’s why Scot-Pep, and the sex workers who run it, speak up, Stott concludes.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992