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Is sex work just work?

The late SNP MSP, Margo Macdonald, was a long time champion of the rights of sex workers – “working women” as she called them. She campaigned for tolerance zones and defended sex workers against heavy handed policing, such as the attempt to close down Edinburgh’s saunas. There has been no one in the SNP willing to carry that particular torch, and nor, it seems, is anyone in politics now willing even to talk about this subject since #metoo. Nicola Sturgeon has resolved, finally and irrevocably, to make prostitution illegal.

This is unfortunate because the one thing we know for certain about the oldest profession is that it is not going to go away. Attempts to abolish it only push the trade underground and place sex workers into the hands of criminals and traffickers. The failure of the so called Nordic Model, where men who purchase sex have been criminalised, has confirmed this. It is an obvious legal absurdity to make it legal to sell something but a crime to buy it. Apart from anything else it places sex workers in the invidious position of being accessories to breaking the law.

Attempts to apply the Nordic Model to Northern Ireland are widely recognised to have been a failure. The Ministry of Justice report on four years of the Nordic Model indicated only that “heightened fear of crime has contributed to a climate whereby sex workers feel further marginalised and stigmatised”. Only an enlightened approach which accepts the reality of sex work and puts the interests and safety of sex workers first is going to work.

Sex work in Scotland is of course legal. Only living off immoral earnings, pimping, is a crime – though it is not always easy to say who is making money out of prostitution. Edinburgh has been famous for tacitly permitting sex work in the city’s saunas and massage parlours. There has always been a studied vagueness about what actually goes on in these establishments. There is massage, certainly, but a lot of other things too. There is also undoubtedly intimate touching and sexual activity. Though sex work does not always involve actual sex. Many clients are lonely and seeking physical presence and comfort.

Police Scotland have made several moves against Edinburgh’s saunas in the last decade by attempting to prosecute their owners or the women for breaking the law. This backfired rather spectacularly in 2018 when it emerged that the owners were actually following the law – as laid down thirty years ago by Edinburgh Council with the full backing of charities and even the Church of Scotland. In 1986, Councillors, the NHS, Lothian and Borders Police and the Crown Office, agreed that saunas could have prostitutes on the premises provided they promoted safe sex and supplied condoms.

In their abortive raids in 2013 the police behaved appallingly to the women, many of whom said they were strip-searched and accused of having condoms in their treatment rooms as if that were a crime in itself. Health workers condemned the police for risking the spread of HIV through their puritanical zeal. Edinburgh council made its view clear by relicensing most of the saunas. Margo was in full voice: “I cannot congratulate the council enough for finally standing up” she said. “This new wave of police and their zero tolerance policy is wrong”.

She was right. But the zero tolerance policy has returned with vengeance. Hardly a month goes by without some MSP calling for the prosecution of sex workers or their clients. There is an assumption that the women in these places were being trafficked and brutalised. Margo disagreed, and it was certainly not my experience when I investigated the sauna trade.

Indeed, the women I spoke to insisted they were there voluntarily and felt that they were protected in Edinburgh’s saunas in a way they could never be on the streets or in private brothels. These establishments are regulated and inspected both to ensure that they are hygienic and that the women are not being coerced, brutalised or underage.

Women I spoke to did not regard themselves as exploited – indeed, they often reported that they felt more in control than in many other occupations. One of them, “Edie” told me that she had felt far more exploited and coerced when she worked as a chef. A surprising number of sex workers are actually studying for degrees. Others find this a way to finance better lives for their families in a way that fits in with child care. Some call themselves sex therapists – especially those who act as “angels” for disabled people who have no other access to sex.

This horrifies politicians, many of whom seem to think sex is dirty and that women are suffering from patriarchal false consciousness in not being aware of their exploitation. “No one should be able to buy a woman like they buy a hamburger” is the line that is offered as a killer argument for prohibition. But these women do not believe they are being “bought” any more than if they were paid to work as cleaners or carers.

If they are not coerced and sell sexual services voluntarily, I can see no justification, morally or on health grounds, for trying to make them outlaws. To claim that sex workers are all too stupid to be aware of their own exploitation is patronising and illiberal. Increasingly, international bodies like the International Labour Organisation recognise sex work as work, and that prostitutes have as much right as anyone to offer their labour for sale.

Sex workers are increasingly militant in defence of their business. And sex workers are by no means all women. Many transgender people make a living out of sex work, as Nicola Sturgeon has been finding out recently to her chagrin. They and many young people regard “whorephobia” as every bit as objectionable as transphobia. There are also well established gay saunas in Edinburgh and there will be pushback from the many men who “sell their bodies like hamburgers” and have not intentionally of stopping.

My notes and recollections of Edinburgh’s saunas are admittedly rather out of date and I don’t know how much they may have changed. They look rather down at heel. I intend to find out in the coming months before the next inevitable attempt to close down Edinburgh’s enlightened solution to managing the age old trade. We cannot allow social media bigots to stifle debate on prohibition even before it begins. I’ll leave the last word here to Margo.

“Few cities in the world have ever managed prostitution better than here in Edinburgh. And it’s nonsense to suggest that zero tolerance will deliver anything but unsafe working conditions and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases”.


About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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