Monday, 18 June 2012

Why Scotland should not make sex work illegal

UPDATE: MSPs have voted that Grant's bill will have to go to consultation and will not be fast-tracked. Which is good news. But the fight is not over, and expect more to come when the consultation hits.

At the same time that the Moratorium 2012 campaign kicks off in London, spearheading a common-sense approach to sex work, there appears a bid in Scotland to try to make prostitution illegal. Just to recap: soliciting, running a brothel, and kerb crawling are already illegal (as too are trafficking and sexual exploitation of children). Exchanging sex for money at this point is not. Not yet.

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant claims "Scotland should become an unattractive market for prostitution and therefore other associated serious criminal activities, such as people trafficking for sexual exploitation, would be disrupted." Grant is, unfortunately, badly informed and wrong. I'm going to keep this one short and sweet because the points are pretty straightforward...

Scotland does not have a sex trafficking epidemic

Sex trafficking is the excuse frequently given these days to harass and criminalise sex workers. Problem is, it's not remotely the "epidemic" they would have you believe. If you're not already up to speed on the whys and wherefores, I highly recommend reading Laura Agustin's work on this. Or if I may be so cheeky to suggest you could also buy my book. 

Specifically, it is not happening in Scotland“In Scotland, to the best of my knowledge, we don't have a conviction for human trafficking,” said police constable Gordon Meldrum. Meldrum had previously claimed research “proved” the existence of 10 human trafficking groups north of the border, and 367 organised crime groups with over 4000 members. “We had one case which was brought to court previously but was abandoned. My understanding is it was abandoned due to a lack of evidence, essentially.” Strange how the evidence seemed to disappear precisely when someone was asked to produce all these fantasy baddies, isn't it? 

It's not only Scotland where the trafficking hype falls flat though: investigation throughout the UK has comprehensively failed to find any supposed sex trafficking epidemic.

Not convinced by the evidence? Then consider this: criminalising sex workers and their clients removes the most reliable information sources police have for investigating abuses. Police don't have a great track record on this: In interviews by the Sex Workers Project with 15 trafficking survivors who experienced police raids, only one had been asked by law enforcement if she was coerced, and only after she was arrested. SWOP-NYC make this case clearly.

Criminalising sex work has been shown in Scotland to make criminal activity worse

Criminalisation has all kinds of effects on the behaviour of sex workers, but unfortunately, none of those effects are good. Fear of police forces sex workers to get into clients’ cars quickly, and possibly be unable to avoid dangerous attackers posing as clients. When vigilantes and police roam the pavements, sex workers wait until the wee hours to come out, making them more isolated and vulnerable to harm.

Such an approach can also result in a transfer of activity from streetwalking to other ways of getting money. High-profile crackdown results in repeated arrests of prostitutes, which translate to fines that sex workers, now burdened with criminal records, are unable to pay except by more prostitution or by fraud, shoplifting, and dealing drugs.

Take Aberdeen, for instance. From 2001 onward, the city had an established tolerance zone for sex workers around the harbour. That ended with passage of the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act in 2007. In the following months the city centre experienced an influx of streetwalkers and an increase in petty crimes.

Quay Services, which operates a drop-in centre for streetwalkers, reported that sex workers became more afraid to seek assistance, and the number of women coming to the centre dropped to “just a handful”. There was also evidence that displacing sex workers led to more activity in the sex trade, not less – convictions for solicitation tripled.

This kind of ‘crime shuffling’ takes prostitution out of one area and dumps it on another. It only resembles an improvement if you fail to look at the full picture.

Prohibition never works

There is a lot of talk in the political sphere about the need for “evidence based policy”. This means rejecting approaches that are moralistic and manipulative. Sex workers have suffered the tragic consequences of prejudicial social attitudes that lead to bad policy. The prohibition approach has not worked. It will never work. The people who endorse this view are putting people in danger and should not be guiding public opinion any longer. Disliking sex work is not a good enough argument to justify criminalising it. Is there any public interest served by preventing adults from engaging in a consensual transaction for sexual services? No, there is not.

Bit like the war on drugs: making the business profitable only to criminals, awaiting the inevitably grim results, then claiming that it’s the drugs themselves, not the laws, wot caused it. Few reasonable people believe that line of argument when it comes to drugs. Why does anyone believe it when it comes to sex?

Moral disapproval is a bad basis for policymaking. I don't find the idea of taking drugs at all appealing, but I don't assume my own preferences should be the basis for law.

The condescension heaped on people who do sex work is embarrassingly transparent. All this mealy-mouthed, 'oh but we want to help them, really’. How’s that again? By saddling people with criminal records and taking away their children? Do me a favour.

As well as the happy prostitutes there are unhappy sex workers in need of support. Society should protect the unwilling and underage from sexual exploitation and provide outreach for those who need and want it. We already have laws and services for that. Maybe the laws should be more intelligently enforced and the services better supported. But prosecuting the victimless crimes does neither of these. It helps no one.

The potential existence of abuses does not mean such work should be automatically criminalised if for no other reason than doing so makes the lives of people in sex work worse, not better. Criminalisation is the very opposite of compassion. Rhoda Grant is hiding behind an "end demand" approach that will not achieve what she claims it will, but will punish sex workers and send those with already chaotic lives further into a downward spiral. If that isn't punishing them with no hope for change then I don't know what is.

It's time we started acting like grownups and stopped pretending that making something illegal makes it cease to exist.