The case for the Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex Bill

Rhoda Grant MSP explains why she thinks the arguments made against the Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex Bill are flawed.

On the 29 May I published the results of the consultation for my proposed Bill on the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. The respondents were overwhelmingly, 80 per cent, in favour of this Bill. Since its publication I have been continually attacked by those against the Bill who have claimed that I have misrepresented the breadth of support. In fact they have presented a number of falsehoods about the Bill via a number of platforms including this one. I find myself constantly defending my position against unfounded allegations and yet no-one has properly questioned the assertions made by the "Sex Workers’ Lobby". I find this baffling and therefore would like to take the opportunity to address their arguments.

I recently received this from an exited prostitute:

The only way to describe my experience was HELL it’s like you are selling your soul over to the devil when you get into prostitution, the devils being…… ,  your freedom gets taken away completely, you automatically become a dolly money making machine for them and while working for…… you were reminded every day that you’re worthless and couldn't do better in life apart from prostitution….people are not aware of what happens  behind closed doors in the brothel ....the minute you walk in you are scared for life ...it’s like being raped 10 times a day and pimps telling you its ok ??? You lose everything dignity, Identity, respect and happiness.

This is by no means a one off case but the daily reality for many prostitutes. With this knowledge I am expected to turn a blind eye in order that those who profit from and cause this misery can continue their activity unrestrained. I cannot.

The current laws surrounding prostitution penalise women and only deal with public nuisance – none of them protect those who are prostituted. The Bill I propose is for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex which aims to redress this imbalance in our current laws. In no other circumstance does our law criminalise the victim but not the perpetrator! The purpose of this legislation would be to decrease demand and thereby begin to tackle an industry that preys on vulnerable people.

My consultation proved that a wide range of society agrees with me, including NHS Scotland, many Violence Against Women partnerships and organisations that provide support to working prostitutes. I do not just have support from feminist groups and religious organisations as my opponents have suggested. This is just one of many false allegations I have had to defend against, such as the suggestion that I have ignored the views of those who work and have worked in prostitution. This is again not true; the pro-lobby have simply ignored the supportive responses I received from women that have exited prostitution. Indeed, I have also met with a wide range of people including working prostitutes and other individuals involved with support organisations.       

There has been little scrutiny of the position put forward by the "Sex Workers’ Lobby". In particular, this lobby has made two adamant petitions, one for decriminalisation or legislation for the industry and the other that said industry should be allowed to regulate itself. Their argument for self-regulation is that they understand the industry best and are therefore best equipped to tackle abuses. There is no evidence to support this argument as all reports indicate that abuse is rampant within the industry. They suggest that "clients" are best placed to report abuse. However these clients have little concern for prostitutes. We would need evidence to demonstrate that they are reporting instances of trafficking in great numbers and where is it?  Legislation needs to be implemented that protects vulnerable people against organisations and individuals that profit from them. No industry can successfully self-regulate because it is in its interest to make profits.  

However, I would also like to challenge the notion that decriminalisation or legislation would protect vulnerable people being abused in this industry. The oft-cited example is New Zealand which has decriminalised all aspects of the sex industry. There are calls to introduce this model here. However, social policy cannot be looked at in isolation and New Zealand exists in a very different context to us. Their immigration polices help to ensure that people who enter the country are protected through a buddy scheme. The "Sex Workers’ Lobby" rarely acknowledges the examples closer to home, such as the Netherlands and Germany, which have tried less successfully to legalise and regulate the industry. It simply has not worked; Amsterdam has acknowledged that there is an huge illegal market and that women are still being abused. Looking at the UNODC report on trafficking it is clear that The Netherlands is seen as a more attractive destination than Sweden. The most conservative estimate is that 8 per cent out of the entire industry is comprised of trafficked individuals - that is more than 1,000 people, but it could be many more. This does not take into account the huge number of people coerced into the industry due to poverty. There is a similar story in Germany, a recent documentary into the industry revealed that decriminalisation has increased demand and actually made sex cheaper. The brothel owners are the people benefiting from this, not the prostitutes.

It has been claimed that Human Rights Groups and the UN have called for the decriminalisation of prostitution and that my Bill is going against them. This again is not the full story. My Bill is not criminalising the women (and men) being prostituted, but rather the clients that are fuelling the industry. The organisations quoted state that they are against the increased criminalisation of victims of this industry - so am I!  

I do not claim that my Bill would be a silver bullet in tackling the abuse of prostitution. It needs to be coupled with greater education, more exit services and initiatives that help to tackle the vast inequalities that still remain in our society that coerce people into prostitution. It is clear to me that dealing with demand will help. The "Sex Workers’ Lobby’s" arguments against my Bill need to be scrutinised and we should ask how their arguments are actually going to help protect those vulnerable people who are being repeatedly abused on a daily basis. Is it in their financial interest that this abuse continues?

Rhoda Grant is the Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands

The Scottish Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder