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Why I'm Opposed to Criminalising the Purchase of Sex

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The Member of the Scottish Parliament, Rhoda Grant, believes sex workers are imbeciles who should be denied the right to earn a living and subjected to state-sanctioned sexual assault to ensure that they comply with the dictates imposed upon their profession. Not that she puts it quite like that.

In her proposed bill to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland (open to public consultation until the 14th of December), she's gone for a paternalistic tone, suggesting authority with her (unfounded and patently untrue) statements about the sex industry while offering protection to the poor souls forced to work in it with promises to keep them safe from the big bad men who exploit them by paying to have sex with them. She's very noble in her presentation: she's also woefully uninformed. As a result, the proposed bill is based on presumption, prejudice, and stereotype, not on fact. But then, who needs facts when emotive statements, hyperbole, and fudged statistics will do the job just as well? It's not as if the outcome of the bill will affect the lives of thousands or anything.

Grant's theory is that criminalising the purchase of sex will end demand for the services of sex workers. Her initial claim, sort of said in the draft bill, was that the sex industry would simply vanish into thin air when all sex workers were given nice jobs that didn't offend her moral sensibilities. Then, talking in the Daily Record in November, she declared "If you drive it underground so no one can find it, it wouldn't survive". Speaking on Sunday Politics Scotland last weekend, she then decided that it needed to stay visible so those wishing to purchase sex could find it. Seems she's more than a little confused. Criminalising sex will drive the industry underground, but it's not going to die there.

It's going to have to exist surrounded by other forms of criminality, undermining or ending the relationship maintained between the police and sex workers. To avoid arrest, street-based sex workers are often forced to change how they work. For example, they may take less time to negotiate sexual transactions prior to getting into a client's car, drop prices, and may agree to engage in riskier sexual activities such as sex without a condom. Conducting HIV prevention outreach or education in this environment can be difficult and sex workers' access to effective healthcare and support services limited.

Then there is the matter of enforcing the legislation. In order to bring charges against an individual for the purchase of sex, there has to be proof that sexual intercourse has taken place which would require an invasive forensic medical examination of the purchaser and/or seller. There is nothing in the draft bill to suggest that the purchaser and/or seller would be asked for their consent before such a procedure was carried out. Not that this is exactly surprising: neither is there anything in the draft bill to suggest that any sex workers have been consulted about it and the effect it will have on their lives and livelihood. In fact, the only nod Grant gives to sex workers being people is asking in her consultation document what the advantages and disadvantages are in using the terms she's applied to them.

The lives of sex workers aren't of any interest to Rhoda Grant, though. As far as she sees it, taking away their livelihood and freedom of choice to choose their profession is what's best for sex workers because they couldn't possibly want to be there and, if they say they do, they must be doing so with a pimp's knife at their back. She's quick to point out the circumstances that may drive people into the sex industry - poverty and drug addiction, for example - but gives no suggestions for alleviating these aside from taking away their job.

The right to earn a living is a basic human right and one which is defended by the GMB trade union, by whom sex workers are represented. Grant dismisses this on the grounds that the purchase and sale of sex "reduce sexual activity and individuals to a commodity". The subtext to this statement being that sex workers are reduced, by their profession, to objects and, therefore, have no need for rights. The sex industry is a service industry: sex workers provide a service for which clients pay. It is the services and not the individual that are the commodity.

As well as saving all those working in the sex industry, whether they want to be saved or not, Grant believes her bill will stop all trafficking. If this were true, then I would applaud her efforts and hope that she received the support necessary. However, she's confusing sex work with trafficking and assuming - in fact, stating - that all those working in the sex industry are there against their will and under coercion. Initiatives which confuse sex work with trafficking impact negatively on sex workers and expose them to greater levels of risk and insecurity. Sex workers are best placed to spot a trafficked person - and have no interest in supporting human trafficking - and criminalising sex workers means the people best placed to spot a trafficked person will then be prevented from helping them.

By definition, sex work means that adult sex workers who are engaging in commercial sex have consented to do so, making it distinct from trafficking. Trafficking, on the other hand, involves coercion and deceit, resulting in loss of agency and lack of consent on the part of the trafficked person.

There is much to condemn in the sex industry and I'm not about to argue that all those who say so are lying, because they're not. But what they're doing is showing only part of the picture. Sex work is a job done by people and, though an obvious fact, this is what abolitionists and those who want to criminalise the purchase and/or sale of sex seem to forget. It isn't done by drones to be pitied, rescued, and denied the right to freedom of thought and choice because they're either deluded or incapable of forming, let alone voicing, an opinion, yet that is how those working in the industry are, frequently, assumed to be. Criminalising the purchase of sex doesn't magically give sex workers a super life; it takes away their livelihood, forcing them out of their profession, and providing them with no alternative employment. Though this may be welcomed by those who wish to leave it, for those who don't, their choice of profession will be dictated by bureaucrats blinded by visions of themselves as saviours.

(If you want to read more about the draft bill and campaign against it, you can do so at http://www.scot-pep.org.uk)