Below are Freedom United’s responses to the consultation’s questions most relevant to our work regarding the Scottish Government’s approach to sex work and preventing violence against women and girls. You can read the full consultation here and we invite you to leave your thoughts in the comments below!
Question 1. Do you agree or disagree that the Scottish Government’s approach to tackling prostitution, as outlined in this section, is sufficient to prevent violence against women and girls?
As an anti-modern slavery organization, Freedom United’s experience from the sector makes clear that the Scottish Government’s approach to tackling prostitution would not effectively prevent trafficking and violence against women and girls.
Indeed, equating prostitution, or sex work, to commercial sexual exploitation and positioning it as inherently violent against women obfuscates the distinction between an informed transaction between consenting adults engaging in sexual activities and the coercion, threat and manipulation that is present in commercial sexual exploitation – forced prostitution being a form that.
Negating that crucial difference risks undermining trafficking prevention strategies and identifying and protecting trafficking survivors.
The partial criminalization of sex work as outlined by the Scottish Government, including the criminalization of brothel-keeping, solicitation and kerb-crawling means that women are forced to make high-risk decisions faster to avoid being detected by authorities.
This leads sex workers to accept clients that they may not have otherwise accepted, leaving them more vulnerable to violence and abuse. A 50% rise in violent attacks on street-based sex workers in Scotland was recorded following the introduction of the kerb-crawling law.
The criminalization of many aspects of sex work actively disempower women, instead empowering abusers by creating an environment where violence against women in the sex trade can thrive because their fear of the offence often trumps their pursuit of protection from the law.
Furthermore, acquiring a criminal record as a result of pursuing safer work conditions – such as working indoors with a friend, amounting to brothel-keeping – hinders an individual’s exit from the sex trade by immediately cutting off many alternative employment opportunities available to them.
Furthermore, when we consider violence against female sex workers, we must take into account the evidence from the public health and HIV prevention sector that clearly shows that criminalization of sex work contributes to violence against women and girls.
As UNAIDS points out, “The legal status of sex work is a critical factor defining the extent and patterns of human rights violations, including violence against sex workers. Where sex work is criminalized, violence against sex workers is often not reported or monitored, and legal protection is seldom offered to victims of such violence.”
UNAIDS advocates globally for the full decriminalization of sex work as a crucial strategy to reduce HIV transmission. In welcoming the Northern Territory of Australia’s decision to decriminalize sex work in 2019, UNAIDS Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, stressed that “The decriminalization of sex work reduces the risk of HIV transmission for both sex workers and their clients.”
The Scottish Government should not ignore this fact and risk increasing HIV infection rates in the name of protecting women and girls.
In addition, while this consultation focuses on women and girls, it is essential to understand how government policies to criminalize the purchase of sex have repercussions on all sex workers of any gender identity or sexual orientation, in particular LGBTQ sex workers.
Based on evidence from around the globe, UNAIDS states that “Too many countries tolerate violence against women and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The social isolation brought on by the stigma and discrimination against sex workers and the criminalization of sex work create environments in which the repercussions against the perpetrators of violence vary from negligible to non-existent.”
Leading human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, advocate for full decriminalization of sex work and the need to establish clear legal distinctions between consensual sex work and crimes like human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.
Human Rights Watch points to weaknesses in the “Nordic model“, noting that the “Nordic model actually has a devastating impact on people who sell sex to earn a living. Because its goal is to end sex work, it makes it harder for sex workers to find safe places to work, unionize, work together and support and protect one another, advocate for their rights, or even open a bank account for their business. It stigmatizes and marginalizes sex workers and leaves them vulnerable to violence and abuse by police as their work and their clients are still criminalized.”
Human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is already a crime in Scotland, and violence against female sex workers is a very real and serious problem.
However, efforts to criminalize the purchase of sex have been shown to increase the risk of HIV infection among sex workers, as well as make them more vulnerable to violence and abuse — contradicting the central goal of the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Government’s current approach towards prostitution is not fit for purpose within the context of preventing violence against women and appears to be exacerbating the risk of violence for women in the sex trade.
Question 3. Which of the policy approaches (or aspects of these) outlined in Table 3.1 do you believe is most effective in preventing violence against women and girls?
Research into the effects of ‘prohibitionism’ models such as the sex purchase ban model, commonly referred to as the Swedish or Nordic model, outlined by the Scottish Government has found that sex workers face increased precarity and risk of violence, particularly those facing intersectional discrimination.
Instead of protecting women engaging in sex work from violence, this model pushes sex workers underground where they are more likely to be vulnerable to violence, exploitation, abuse and trafficking and are less likely to report to the police and seek help.
The International Committee the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) 2019 report ‘Collateral Damages of Anti-Trafficking Laws and Measures on Sex Workers’ further outlines the harms of sex purchase ban models including the effect on women’s health and physical wellbeing: “Sex purchase bans have negative effects on sex workers’ health. Due to the limitation of their negotiation power, sex workers may not be able to properly negotiate the use of condoms.”
Rhoda Grant MSP, who is in favor of a sex purchase ban model in Scotland, acknowledged the risk of violence towards women remains under this model in the summary of consultation responses on the Proposed Criminalization of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill: “While those who currently break the law [i.e violent abusers] will not see the criminalization of the purchase of sex as a deterrent, many others will.”
Evidence collected by sex workers’ rights organizations, human rights advocates and academics has proved that sex workers are more vulnerable to violence under this model and some can only report violent attacks by risking deportation. Eviction and the risk of homelessness is also a major concern for women under the sex purchase ban model.
Importantly, it is crucial to look at the evidence from governments that have criminalized the purchase of sex. In Northern Ireland, the purchase of sex became a criminal offense in 2015 under the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act. However, a study conducted by Queen’s University Belfast and commissioned by the Department of Justice found that the ban had “minimal to no effect” on demand for paid sex, the number of sex workers, or levels of human trafficking for human exploitation.
In the report’s conclusion, the researchers note that “It may be disappointing for proponents of this legislation that the research did not uncover more evidence of a reduction in prostitution in Northern Ireland, particularly since this was hailed as such a success in Sweden, and one of the main reasons why the Nordic model (so termed) has been exported internationally. However, we would respond by suggesting that the evidence base from Sweden and the Nordic countries generally is simply not strong enough to support the proposition that sex purchase legislation has led to the massive decreases in prostitution and human trafficking that are alleged to have occurred in those jurisdictions.”
The Scottish Government’s policy agenda is ostensibly an effort to replicate what has already been tested in Northern Ireland. The research is clear that this is not an effective path to stopping human trafficking.
Similarly, New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003 and since then the country has not seen a spike in human trafficking. In fact, the country remains ranked at Tier 1 — the highest ranking possible — in the United States 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report for its efforts to combat human trafficking.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, female sex workers in New Zealand have been able to access life-saving government support schemes due to that fact that they are recognized as workers under the law.
The Scottish Government should recognize the lessons learned from Northern Ireland and the success of New Zealand in preventing human trafficking while upholding the rights of female sex workers. Affording sex workers their rights does not negate the goal of fighting human trafficking and preventing violence against women and girls.
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