Don’t expect polite debate when it comes to prostitution policy

money-rollHOW do you solve a problem like prostitution? Well, first you have to decide if it actually is a problem at all. Next you have to decide what language to use to describe it, and to describe those involved in it. Then you have to consider your aims, look at the options and evidence, and arrive at a policy position. Lastly, you’d better run for cover.

This most contentious of issues has generated a flurry of policy debate in recent weeks thanks to the efforts of former MSP Jean Urquhart, whose parting gift to the Scottish Parliament was her proposed Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill. It will take a brave MSP to pick up the baton. To say there are some who disagree with the contents of this Bill, which was drafted following an extensive consultation, is an understatement. To say the debate between the two camps – which can be broadly categorised as the “New Zealand model” camp and the “Swedish model” camp – is polite and respectful would be an outright lie.

To say the debate between the two camps is polite and respectful would be an outright lie

In the Kiwi corner you have supporters of Urqhart’s bill, which seeks to do away with the patchwork of legislation that criminalises people selling sex (people whom they generally describe as “sex workers”). Though selling sex is not in itself illegal in Scotland, street solicitation is a crime, as is brothel-keeping, which is broadly enough defined that two people working together in a flat can be prosecuted. Those who advocate the New Zealand model argue that this de facto criminalisation not only puts sex workers at risk by forcing them to work alone, but also prevents them from reporting crimes such as rape and assault. They favour decriminalisation of sex workers, and oppose criminalisation of clients.

In the blue and yellow corner, Swedish-model advocates seek to criminalise the purchase of sex, in order to reduce demand and send a clear message that prostitution is a form of violence against women and therefore unacceptable in every circumstance. They may or may not favour decriminalisation of those selling sex, but their focus is on men doing the buying. They aren’t keen on describing those involved in prostitution as “sex workers”, believing this misleadingly reframes exploitation as a freely made choice. They emphasise the links between prostitution and trafficking, and the constrained circumstances of most of the women involved.

Few would dispute that prostitution is a context in which violence against women disproportionately occurs, both in terms of frequency and brutality

Perhaps the fundamental point of disagreement is whether the purchase of sexual services is – in and of itself – a form of violence against women. Few would dispute that prostitution is a context in which such violence disproportionately occurs, both in terms of frequency and brutality, but advocates of the New Zealand model argue that this is at least in part due to the criminalisation of buyers, or sellers, or both. Those who identify as sex workers and lobby for improved protection reject the notion that reducing demand for their services is a worthy aim, pointing out that this would reduce their ability to refuse clients whose presentation raises red flags.

So is prostitution inherently harmful to those involved? The rhetoric of many Swedish-model advocates suggests that selling sex causes psychological and perhaps spiritual damage to women – and that any prostitute who claims otherwise is lying, or deluded, or both. They paint a picture of abused women reliving and reproducing traumatic experiences, and regard “happy hooker” narratives as at best unrepresentative and unhelpful, and at worst downright false. They ask how you would feel if it was your daughter, your sister or your mother selling sex. The implication is that this way of making a living would be more harmful to your female relative than working on a zero-hours contract at SportsDirect, or selling payday loans, or investigating potential cases of benefit fraud for Concentrix.

Swedish-model advocates regard “happy hooker” narratives as at best unrepresentative and unhelpful, and at worst downright false

They seldom mention sons, brothers and fathers, despite the fact that men sell sex too. These transactions do not fit neatly into the conceptualisation of prostitution as violence against women – clearly, they do not fit into it at all. When it was recently reported that Labour MP Keith Vaz had procured the services of male prostitutes, few sought to portray him as a perpetrator of violence, or the young immigrant men involved as coerced and in need of rescue. Any changes to prostitution laws would affect male as well as female sex workers, so any serious debate on the subject must at very least acknowledge their existence.

Better than just acknowledging the existence of sex workers is including them in the discussion about legislation that directly affects them. That’s a no-brainer, surely? Well, not for the Scottish Women’s Consortium it wasn’t. This Scottish Government-funded group supposedly “works closely with women in Scotland to ensure their voices are heard as part of decision-making processes”, but after sex-worker advocacy group Scot-Pep distributed leaflets during its recent conference in Glasgow, the organisers swiftly confiscated them – even going so far as to remove them from the hands of women who were reading them. When Scot-Pep held an event the Scottish Parliament last week, their second, they braced themselves for a repeat of the aggressive heckling that had characterised the first. That it passed without incident could be seen as a sign of progress, but what we have now is two polarised camps and little prospect of consensus.

After sex-worker advocacy group Scot-Pep distributed leaflets during a recent conference in Glasgow, the organisers swiftly confiscated them

So what’s the way forward? No-one is happy with the status quo, but replacing it with something else will require courage. The only guarantee here is that one group of campaigners will end up very unhappy indeed.

A version of this article first appeared in The National, and the debate continued in its letters section.

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