Making Scotland’s Sex Trade Safer

The recent death of Cynthia Payne provides a helpful reminder of the two-faced attitude to prostitution that we often hold. Ms Payne managed to cultivate a populist and almost comic Carry on Whoring image. She invited the great and the good to her home in Streatham and offered sandwiches and “services” merely in exchange for luncheon vouchers. In her day, she never seemed to be out of the public eye. However on the other hand, public opinion also holds prostitution to be a rather sordid transaction that needs to be heavily legislated against and which doesn’t bear thinking about.

I happen to believe that there is no law which is going to completely remove prostitution from society. Given that view, it seems reasonable to expect the law to protect those who are vulnerable. If some modest reforms of the law can help make the lives of those who are vulnerable a bit safer then our politicians should not be squeamish about making change happen.

One of our own MSPs, Jean Urquhart is doing precisely that at the moment by promoting a consultation on several possible changes to the law around prostitution. I have little doubt that she will get some abuse for her efforts. There are few votes in offering favours to sex-workers. The trouble is, Jean Urquhart is at least partly right.

At the moment, it is perfectly legal for someone to sell sex from a flat or house provided they act alone. Once anyone else gets involved, so does the law. Should two women operate from one dwelling then they can both be prosecuted as brothel keepers. Is this really right and just? Wouldn’t those two women be safer working in partnership or as a collective with a couple of others, any of whom would know that someone was on hand, if a client turned nasty?

After all no-one is going to call the police to deal with a client if they think that they themselves are likely to be arrested too.

Jean Urquhart’s proposals would lead to further decriminalisation of prostitution. It is easy to see why there might be a law to prevent “living off the avails of prostitution”. The idea is to stop people making money from the sex lives of the vulnerable. However it is less easy to see why the child of a sex-worker should themselves be guilty of a crime for accepting money from their parent to enable them to go to college.

Jean Urquhart’s proposals will not become law in this parliamentary session and she standing down as an MSP next year. Her legacy should be a parliamentary review of the law surrounding prostitution which seeks to target coercion rather than transaction. I don’t expect to see political manifestos next year make many promises to help those in the sex trade. However, that should not prevent progressive people from all shades of political opinion from raising these issues with those standing for parliament next year.

Those who see prostitution as a scourge in society need to come up with their own ways of diminishing the amount of prostitution that takes place. I believe that the best way of doing this is to tackle poor employment options for women, ensure access to adequate affordable housing, remove the wickedness of benefit sanctions, tackle student poverty and heavily legislate against those who offer at an absurdly high rate of interest, credit to those who cannot afford it. And everyone would benefit from much better sex education in schools that doesn’t just treat the sex lives of young people as a problem.

Locking up women (or men) who are engaged in buying or selling sex should come a long way down the list.

Alongside reviewing the law, there needs to be a review of sentencing guidelines and police policy. Recent heavy-handed raids against saunas in Edinburgh by Police Scotland seem to be an argument in favour of local rather than national policing policy rather than a responsible policy on how to deal with sex-work in Scotland.

I happen to be unconvinced that prostitution is a legitimate career choice. I’d prefer a society in which there was less of a sex trade rather than more of it. However, there are people who are involved in that trade currently and those who will be involved in it in the future. Where the law can be changed to make them safer and less vulnerable then politicians should be fearless in bringing change about.