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Scottish sex workers call for rights, not so-called ‘rescue’.
Rhoda Grant releases the responses to her consultation, amid concerns that she has ignored both sex workers, and overwhelming evidence contrary to her conclusions.
The Sex Worker Open University, a UK-wide worker’s collective comprising sex workers and allies today questioned the extent to which MSP Rhoda Grant understands the issues she seeks to address.
Sex Worker Open University pointed to the latest evidence from around the world that contradicts Ms Grant’s various claims. In particular, the most recent UNAIDS guidance note came out very strongly against precisely the kind of criminalisation that Rhoda Grant now thinks is a good idea. UNAIDS stated, in December 2012, “The approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex … were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them.”
An anonymous female sex worker echoed the report of UNAIDS in her own words, saying “The criminalisation of our clients serves only to make our work more difficult and risky. We as workers are flung into a buyers market, with less ability to negotiate safety and safe meeting with clients (who would be taking a much bigger risk if they were criminalised) on OUR terms. Sex workers who rely on their clients will be forced to let crimes go unreported, lest they harm their income by drawing attention to their other clients. Sex workers under this law would be far more vulnerable and isolated from police in the event of violence”. She added, “Lawmakers must listen to us, not speak over our heads. We are the experts on our own lives and to ignore the knowledge we have on issues such as harm reduction and safe working conditions is completely appalling.”
An anonymous male sex worker commented, “As a sex worker I am deeply saddened that Rhoda Grant intends to pursue her private member’s bill to criminalise the purchase of sexual activity. Ms Grant thinks that her proposals will protect sex workers but in fact they will make our lives more precarious, more dangerous and further stigmatised. With the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS and Ban-Ki Moon himself all calling for the decriminalisation of sex work we have to ask ourselves why these global experts are being ignored in Scotland. The evidence overwhelmingly supports the fact that criminalisation of sex work (whether on the supply or demand side) has negative outcomes for sex workers’ health, safety and wellbeing. Sex workers are the experts on our own lives and we will not stand by quietly while Rhoda Grant attempts to pass this ill-conceived and deeply dangerous piece of legislation.”
SWOU members highlighted that Rhoda Grant’s approach seems to be to treat sex workers as people who have no other option but to be in the sex industry – and then to try to take away that option, making what she supposes as only ever a last resort substantially more dangerous. The people she purports to be most concerned about – those who really are there through no choice of their own – will still be there, just in profoundly worse circumstances.
Kat, a female sex worker, said, “I’ve met Rhoda, and when I told her that her proposals would make me more vulnerable to violence, she just told me ‘you’re not representative’. That’s not an answer, is it? That’s a non-sequitur. I wasn’t arguing I was representative: I was telling her that I would be more vulnerable to violence. It seems that she either can’t hear us when we say that – or she won’t hear us”.
Kay, a female sex worker, said, “it is trying to bring in criminalization by the backdoor. There are many things that make the life of a sex worker like me harder. There are laws that mean I cannot work with others for safety, there is the stigma that means I might lose my children, there are laws on soliciting and kerb crawling that make women unsafe. However right now the biggest threat to me is not from clients but people like Grant who with American Evangelical money want to stop me seeing the nice, law abiding clients and drive me into the arms of the dangerous law breaking ones.”
Again, this tallies with the official advice from UNAIDS and others. In the December 2012 guidance note, UNAIDS observed: “Policies and programmes to reduce the demand for sex work, designed ignoring the voices of sex workers, often result in unintended harms including increased HIV risk and vulnerability for sex workers and their clients”. We wonder to what extent the harms can be considered to be ‘unintended’ when the policy is pursued by deliberately and actively ignoring the warning words of sex working people.
An anonymous member of SWOU commented, “If Rhoda doesn’t want women to choose sex work because of poverty then she should work to improve employment for women. If Rhoda doesn’t want women to choose sex work because of addiction then she should work to improve services for addiction and mental health and access to these services. If Rhoda doesn’t want women to choose sex work because she doesn’t like it, I’m afraid she’s fresh out of luck because what individual women choose to do with their own minds and bodies is simply none of her business. Sex work is not the cause of poverty, it is not the cause of addiction and it is not the cause of Rhoda Grant and other’s moralistic beliefs. Criminalising the purchase of sex will do nothing to change these things.”
Sex workers and allies within the SWOU network also drew attention to some telling discrepancies within the publication document itself. Submissions written that opposed Rhoda Grant’s proposal – one from Nine, a former support worker with a sex worker-led organisation, and another from Matthias Lehmann, a researcher in the field – were mysteriously left unpublished. Nine has in the past commented, “how does it feel to support [legislation criminalising clients], then see the women you support showing up with more and more tales of violence and desperation? How does that feel like a victory?”, while Matthias Lehmann wrote in his submission to the consultation that Ms Grant was suffering from “a self-inflicted lack of information”. There were approximately seventy other responses to Rhoda Grant that remain oddly unpublished – the vast majority from people opposed to her proposal.
The Sex Worker Open University has some concerns about the transparency of the process by which Rhoda Grant has collated and summarized the responses that she received, given that she apparently has had some logistical trouble in publishing those that were critical of her plans.
The SWOU collective – which includes workers from all sectors of the industry, while excluding managers and bosses – simply believes that those who work in the sex industry have the best knowledge in how to make the industry safer. This opinion isn’t difficult or strange: it is basic common sense, backed up by a huge quantity of high-quality evidence from around the world. Sex workers in Scotland are disappointed to see that Rhoda Grant is apparently determined to be on the wrong side of history.
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