New Law Could Decriminalize Sex Work in Scotland

Proposed legislation in the Scottish parliament aims to end the "volatile relationship" between police and Scottish sex workers.

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Sep 9 2015, 5:00pm

Photo courtesy of SCOT-PEP

Less than a month after Amnesty International's proposal to decriminalize sex work, one Scottish politician appears to have taken the recommendations made by the human rights organization to heart. Jean Urquhart, an independent member of Scottish Parliament, has proposed legislation which calls for the abolition of laws banning kerb crawling and soliciting.

Her proposals, published in a draft for consultation, also allow for sex workers to operate together in groups of four and under. Current Scottish law means that even two people who work together for safety can be prosecuted for brothel-keeping, with a sentence of up to seven years in prison. Sex workers would also be allowed to have joint finances with families or flatmates.

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Scottish women have hailed the 'landmark proposal', while organisations such as HIV Scotland and NUS (National Union of Students) Scotland have thrown their weight behind the bill. "Amnesty have got it absolutely right," the independent Member of Scottish Parliament told Broadly. She said that her proposal came about as the direct result of another Scottish politician's attempt to make the purchase of sex illegal.

"One of the things I didn't like about Rhoda Grant's bill is that criminalization of sex work was seen as the cure-all for drug addiction, violence against women by men, and human trafficking," Urquhart explained. "I think these are all big issues that need to be dealt with, but criminalizing the sale of sex doesn't answer any of these questions or solve any of these problems."

A demonstrator on a SCOT-PEP protest in Glasgow organised with the sex workers collective SWOU. Photo courtesy of SCOT-PEP

She believes decriminalization would make prostitution safer, and that the current ban on practices such as kerb crawling actually puts sex workers in greater danger. Urquhart worked on the bill with SCOT-PEP, a sex worker rights charity, and consulted with female and male sex workers in the process of her research.

"According to the evidence that we've researched, we've increased [the risk of harm]," she said. "It doesn't mean that prostitutes have stopped doing street work, it just means that it happens very quickly. In order not to be caught, the prostitutes have to decide to get in the car without time to assess whether there is any danger or not."

For sex workers all over the UK, the law is shit... There's a whole range of laws that massively negative impact people who sell sex in Scotland.

While the purchase of sale and sex in Scotland is legal, SCOT-PEP co-chair Nadine Stott says that sex workers still do not feel protected by the law. "For sex workers all over the UK, the law is shit," she explained. "SCOT-PEP is regularly in touch with small groups of women who have been working together for safety and who have been raided and arrested and both charged with prostituting the other."

"That is a routine feature of Scottish policing. There's a whole range of laws that massively negatively impact people who sell sex in Scotland."

Edinburgh-based sex worker Jamie Drake said that decriminalization would mean the end to the "volatile relationship" between police and Scottish sex workers, pointing to the recent widespread raid on Edinburgh brothels.

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"I've worked in New South Wales in Australia [where sex work is legal] and the difference is huge," she said. "If anything ever went wrong I wouldn't feel scared to go to the police as I know they would only be there to help me. However in Scotland there is no way I would ever go to the police."

Laura Lee, a Glasgow escort and blogger, said that being able to operate alongside other sex workers was crucial. "The number one problem we face is being unable to work together for safety. Decriminalization allows that and sends a message out to would be attackers that we are no longer alone and vulnerable."

"I had a client in Glasgow who was very mentally unstable and frightened me," she recalled. "When we had finished our session, he accused me of going to the kitchen to find a knife! I felt very vulnerable and had there been another sex worker there I would simply have told him to leave. It took me two hours to calm him down and get him out."

If somebody is violent towards sex workers, they have no defence. The law is not on their side.

Urquhart's proposals are now in the consultation stage, which allows members of the public to respond to her suggestions. The parliamentary timetable means that the bill will not be passed before the next election, but she is hopeful that it will at least spark debate in parliament. She says that she has the support of the Green Party and believes that the Liberal Democrats will also come on board with the proposals.

"The bill is the result of knowing what [sex workers'] problems are. One of the things that they feel [...] is the kind of disregard for their work," Urquhart said. "If somebody is violent towards them, they have no defence. The law is not on their side. They're most keen to have the same rights as everybody else—to have that protection in law—and to feel safe doing the work they were doing."

Sophie*, a sex worker from Edinburgh who has been in the industry for seven years, told Broadly that she is optimistic about future decriminalization. "Everyone says the bill isn't likely to become a law, but I feel it's important to start the conversation on our terms," she said. "So far, the Scottish parliament has only discussed proposals that criminalize my work in one way or another, and I'm very glad sex workers in Scotland get to say what we really want and what would make our work safer."

* Name has been changed