There are four key laws that criminalise sex workers in Scotland, targeted for repeal. First, soliciting – which directly criminalises sex workers on the street; typically women. This law makes street-based sex workers vulnerable to violence by pushing them into the shadows, and a conviction makes getting a different job much harder. Interestingly, previous failed attempts to bring the disastrous Swedish model to Scotland did not include the repeal of the soliciting law, despite disingenuous feminist rhetoric that implied otherwise (“my bill is not criminalising the women … being prostituted, but rather the clients”). This, then, is the first time there has been a serious attempt to repeal the soliciting law, despite the damage it causes.
Next, the 2007 kerb-crawling law, which criminalises the clients of street-based sex workers. UK Home Office research found that the “downside” of police operations targeting clients on the street was that “it appeared [to the support agency] to have increased the vulnerability” of sex workers, with clients jumpy, so “women [have] … less time negotiating business with clients, increasing the likelihood of being unable to spot a ‘dodgy punter’”. Increasing sex workers’ vulnerability to violence cannot be an acceptable “downside” to legislation, hence the Scottish push to repeal this law.
The third law that these proposals seek to repeal is the brothel-keeping law. Two women working together for safety can each be prosecuted for brothel-keeping the other: an obvious example of criminalisation making sex workers unsafe, as we’re forced to work alone or face arrest. Furthermore, when we work for a manager, criminalising our workplaces means we have no labour rights protection. Urquhart’s proposals would enable small groups of sex workers to work together in informal co-operatives, while licensing larger, commercial brothels so that, for the first time, our managers can be background-checked and governed by workplace health and safety.
The final law that Urquhart is seeking to repeal is around “living on the avails”, which criminalises anyone who shares bills with a sex worker – our grown-up kids, if we’re supporting them through (say) university, or our partners or flatmates. Sex workers have relationships like everybody else: criminalising these relationships is isolating, and means we don’t to go to the police if we’re victims of crime, for fear that this law will be used against our families.
The New Zealand model – which these proposals draw on – was enacted in 2003, and since then has been endorsed by organisations such as Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women as the legal framework that best upholds the safety and rights of people who sell sex. Anevaluation in New Zealand found that “over 90% of sex workers contacted … stated that they felt they now had employment rights, health and safety rights, and legal rights”. That includes street-based sex workers, who tend to be the most marginalised – of whom “90% said they felt they had employment rights, and 96% said they felt they had legal rights”. New Zealand sex workers can hold their managers to account through labour law: a woman successfully prosecuted her manager at a brothel for sexual harassment.
This issue can be divisive within feminism, but these proposals have been widely welcomed – suggesting we are finally moving beyond the kind of simplistic analysis that assumes criminalising what people are doing to survive will somehow deliver those people more choices. As Urquhart writes: “Whatever a person’s reasons for selling sex … they clearly do not benefit if they are working in a context where the law puts them in danger of violence.” Even though there will not be time for these proposals to be passed before next May’s Scottish elections, we are hoping to resume this legislative push in the next Scottish parliament.