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
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser