A form of violence against women or a legitimate career choice? That’s roughly where the two sides stand on the debate over what we should do about prostitution. Voices from the violence camp have just become louder in Scotland thanks to the launch of the End Prostitution Now campaign, which is backed by various civic organisations.
It is pushing for the buying of sex to be banned north of the border, along with decriminalising prostitution and introducing support services to help people leave the trade behind. The campaign argues that sexual exploitation cannot be addressed without challenging the root causes: gender inequality and men’s demand to buy sexual access to women.
Among its supporters is Rhoda Grant, the Labour MSP for the Scottish Highlands and Islands, who is pushing for an amendment banning the buying of sex to be added to the human trafficking bill currently making its way through the Scottish parliament. Grant recently spoke at an event in Belfast to mark the passing of a similar law in Northern Ireland. She praised Northern Ireland for joining the countries, “sending out a clear message that people should not be bought. Prostitution is a form of violence against women which should not be tolerated”.
Regulation or removal?
There are two distinct approaches to prostitution internationally. There are those who wish to challenge, criminalise and eventually eliminate “demand” and those who support safe and continuing “supply”. In countries persuaded by the latter camp, prostitution is legal or has limited legality, including Germany, New Zealand, Spain and some counties in Nevada in the United States (where otherwise it is illegal).
Advocates for this approach say that prostitution is happening anyway, it is a legitimate career choice for women who enjoy sex and should be classified as “work”, with trade unions to protect the interests of its “workers”. Individual prostitutes and owners and managers of brothels are regulated in the countries that have gone down this route. Health and safety checks are made on the women and the establishments and business often booms.
The new Scottish campaign makes the opposite argument, arguing that for the safety of those involved and women in general, there is no room for libertarianism – and no truth in “realist” arguments that it will keep happening regardless. Since Sweden became the first country in the world in 1999 to criminalise buying sex, it has been followed not only by Northern Ireland but also by Norway (2008), Iceland (2009) and France (2013). We are also seeing a growing volume of debate in the likes of England, Wales and Ireland for a similar direction.
There is evidence of positive results. Sweden has reported there has been a shift in attitudes for the better, a decline in the number of men buying sex and a reduced market for traffickers. There are also positive reports from Norway, though Iceland admittedly appears mixed and you can read a more critical summary of the Swedish experience here.
Harm not work
When people refer to the “oldest profession”, I would more accurately describe it as one of the world’s oldest cultural practices. It exploits women in a marketplace for access to their bodies and maintains their second-class status. Most women involved in prostitution are among the poorest and most vulnerable in any community. Substance misuse is common and many have previously experienced childhood, sexual or domestic abuse. The United Nations and Council of Europe both say that prostitution, as a form of violence against women, is a function of gender inequality.
The single most harmful aspect is to have to repeatedly endure unwanted sex. In a recent Channel 4 programme Strippers, about women working in lap dancing and pole dancing clubs in Scotland, many commented on having to shut off emotionally to get through their evening and some remarked that it had changed their personality altogether. This can create long-term psychological damage and lead to drug and alcohol abuse in order for sex workers to be able to detach emotionally. Substance use often rapidly escalates Calling prostitution “work” doesn’t make it any less harmful.
The attitudes of the “punters” rating the performances of prostitutes on websites often display deeply disturbing attitudes towards them, as last year’s Invisible Men exhibition in Glasgow revealed. Little wonder that sex workers regularly experience extreme physical and sexual violence. And from the back streets of Victorian London to the modern streets of Norwich and Glasgow, many have been murdered.
Working in prostitution also often starts early. A Glasgow study in 2000 showed that 24.5% of the women surveyed had entered prostitution before age 18, with 8.2% starting at age 16 or under. Much of the industrial-scale grooming and sexual exploitation of children exposed in places like Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford in England has shown that prostitution sometimes involves the trafficking of young people. The long-lasting emotional damage of early and continued involvement in prostitution can only be imagined.
For these reasons, I am much more inclined to the argument that we should seek to eradicate prostitution altogether. Reframing the debate as an issue of human rights and gender equality, while focusing on harms, may allow people to ask the right questions: is it ok to buy or rent women’s bodies for sex in the 21st century? Certainly not in my view.