Response to Rhoda Grant MSP’s proposal to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland by Amy Vergnés, Administrator of SAAFE.info

From: Amy Vergnés, Administrator of SAAFE.info (Support And Advice For Escorts) and an independent sex worker with ten years experience working as a prostitute in the UK and abroad. I am also on the advisory group which developed the National Ugly Mugs pilot scheme launched in July 2012, and a National Ugly Mugs Champion.

Please find below my comments relating to this proposed Bill. I consider this a public response and confirm that I am happy for them to be published.

Support And Advice For Escorts is an independent and non-profit making online peer support and advice resource set up and run entirely by sex workers. Its aim has always been to provide help and information for those who are thinking of, or have decided to begin working as prostitutes so that they can make informed and responsible choices, keep themselves safe and healthy and as far as possible remain within the law. Our site won the Best Website award at the Erotic Awards in 2009 and our forum now has over 4000 members from all over the world, but with the vast majority based in the UK.

The original SAAFE site was put together exclusively by women, but we welcome all in prostitution and have gay/bi male and transgender members contributing on our forum as well as many immigrant women who have come to the UK from a wide range of other countries. We are proud of the fact that so many feel comfortable joining in, asking questions and making friends and we hope that as well as practical help we can do something to reduce the feeling of isolation that often comes especially with indoor sex work. We also provide a Warnings board where those who have been affected by violence and wrongdoing can post alerts and share information about such incidents so that others can avoid the perpetrators.

I have worked as a prostitute on and off for ten years now and was born in Scotland where I still occasionally work, although I am based in England. I work independently, happily and (in common with all the sex indoor workers I have ever had contact with) completely willingly, having previously spent years of my life in poorly paid menial jobs with no opportunities to take control of my work or my income. I now have control over everything, including how, when, where and even if I work, as well as how much I wish to charge – I am no longer exhausted, undervalued and exploited for a pittance at the end of the week. Many thousands of women, men and transgender people remain marginalised as a result of poverty, but until sex comes into the equation nobody cares about them or their families, and this is amply demonstrated by this lazy, sexist and irresponsible proposal.

Q1: Do you support the general aim of the proposed Bill? Please indicate “yes/no/undecided” and explain the reasons for your response.

No, I do not. In addition, I object to the emotive and inaccurate language used in the proposal wording and find it particularly egregious given its clear intent to both influence the reader, and demonstrate the abolitionist bias of the writer. I find the pretence of ‘protecting’ prostitutes by not criminalising the sale but only the purchase of the services we offer disingenuous in the extreme – the idea that anybody legitimately selling anything is not being punished by making it’s purchase illegal is fantasy; not only will the plight of families already living in poverty be increased, but stigma surrounding sex work will be exacerbated by adding yet more links between our work and criminal activity. We are already treated as pariahs by many, and this will do nothing to help social attitudes change.
Arbitrarily banning something just because you don’t like it or find it distasteful is and should remain the stuff of history books, and whilst in a free society I believe that everybody’s individual beliefs and views should be encouraged and supported, it is not the function of politicians, the police or anybody else to impose their personal moral compass on others. This proposal breaches the most fundamental human rights of all those involved by removing individuals’ right to decide what they do with their own bodies – how can it possibly be anybody’s business but my own what I decide to put in my vagina, and why?

Q2: What do you believe would be the effects of legislating to criminalise the purchase of sex (as outlined above)? Please provide evidence to support your answer

Prostitution is not going to go away. There are countries throughout the globe as diverse as the United States and the United Arab Emirates where both the selling and purchase of sex is criminalised, yet it continues to flourish regardless – sex workers exist and continue to trade in every corner of the world. Whilst trafficking does occur, and one trafficked worker is one too many, it is no more endemic in the sex industry than it is in agriculture, manufacturing or hospitality where it has been proven time and time again that migrant workers are regularly horribly exploited (the Morecambe cockle pickers being an excellent example), yet no moves as yet have been made to criminalise farming, factories or the hotel industry.

The legislation would more than likely cause an actual increase in general prostitution activities; if there are fewer clients to go around it takes longer to earn the same amount of money, and the amount of money needed by people to feed and clothes themselves is not going to reduce just because the number of customers has. Vulnerable workers will be made even more vulnerable – frightening the kind, respectful and pleasant clients we rely on into reducing or ceasing their visits to us does nothing but harm for the reasons above. The people who contact us with a view to stealing from or attacking us are not clients – they have no intention of paying for our services. They are criminals, pure and simple.

This will not make any difference to those who don’t respect or care about the laws of the land, because if they seek to rob, abuse and exploit us they are breaking them anyway and another clause in the statute book won’t alter that. If a person thinks it is acceptable to treat others this way because they are prostitutes, they need dissuading of that idea by the strongest possible means whether they be therapy or locking up – this is what sends the message that targeting us will not be tolerated, not punishing the people who treat us with courtesy and respect, and ultimately pay our bills. Depriving the targets of the unscrupulous and dangerous of their livelihood does nothing to alter their attitude or behaviour towards us, and actually makes us easier to harm and exploit as with fewer punters to go round, we have little option but to cross our fingers and engage with some who we’d previously have crossed the road to avoid.

Q3: Are you aware of any unintended consequences or loopholes caused by the offence? Please provide evidence to support your answer.

It is crucial to distinguish between consensual sexual activity between adults and genuine violence and exploitation, which this proposal fails to do – to dismiss a huge and diverse group of people as a single homogeneous lump is not only patronising, but belittles and trivialises the suffering of those who are genuinely vulnerable and acutely need help and support. Given that genuine incidents of violence and exploitation do happen within the sex industry as they do in all other sectors, to liken autonomous adults who have chosen to support themselves and their families by working as prostitutes in whichever type of setting they see fit (and earn a good living from pleasant and respectful clients as a result) to people who have been subjected to appalling pain and distress as victims of rape and other physical or mental abuse purely because they offer sex for money is, in my view, beyond the pale.

This Bill will also damage sex worker/police relations – it takes a great deal of time and work for trust to be built up so that useful information can be exchanged, and not only will this be lost, but any valuable information provided by clients in the event that they suspect all is not as it should be will no longer be forthcoming. Clients will not report incidents if they risk being arrested themselves, and to remove this vast source of potential intelligence when those aiming to seek out exploited workers makes no sense whatsoever.

Q4: What are the advantages or disadvantages in using the definitions outlined above?

‘Prostitution’ describes the exchange of sex for money, nothing else, and is a gender neutral, non-pejorative term used appropriately in law to describe this activity. There is no mention of violence in this correct definition because prostitution is not in and of itself violent; to begin what may form a piece of legislation adversely affecting the lives of thousands by rewriting the English language to suit an individual agenda is indefensible.

‘Sex’ cannot easily be defined, as it means many different things to different people – it is not clear how or where the proposal intends to delineate what constitutes a sexual service and what does not. Ditto ‘payment’; there are situations where sex may be exchanged for drugs, money, clothing or a weeks’ rent, as well as the agreements arrived at by some who will enter a longer term ‘relationship’ of sorts in return for financial support. How will such arrangements be covered by the proposed Bill, and where will marriage/civil partnership where one spouse financially supports the other enter the equation?

Another flaw is the failure to recognise that these definitions are not always used when arranging business. Many sex workers operating indoors and advertising online or in brothels/saunas sell their services by advertising a fee per the unit of time agreed (half an hour, an hour etc) and it is understood without being explicitly stated that within these time constraints, sexual activity will take place. How will it be illegal to sell time?

Q5: What do you think the appropriate penalty should be for the offence? Please provide reasons for your answer.

There should be no offence and therefore no penalty. There is no reason why adults who have chosen to have sex with each other for whatever reason they see fit should be subject to any interference from the law, and given that rape and sexual assault, kidnap and false imprisonment, slavery, child abuse, fraud and trafficking are already covered by existing legislation (which clearly is not being properly enforced or this proposal would never have been written), creation of further offences whose only function is to outlaw consensual activity is a pointless waste of public resources which could be put to far better use finding and apprehending wrongdoers.

If these laws are not being enforced now, what chance does wasting valuable time and money adding yet another new one have of changing anything? It is not possible to make something which is already illegal MORE illegal; it either is or it isn’t.

Q6: How should a new offence provision be enforced? Are there any techniques which might be used or obstacles which might need to be overcome?

Enforcement of such an offence would be difficult, expensive and time consuming, and I would envisage that any prosecutions attempted directly as a result would be doomed to failure because of the sheer impossibility of proving an offence had been committed. It is surely not a worthwhile use of police time or taxpayers money to have officers combing the internet in order to target sex workers and their clients, and even if it was, what steps would then be taken? Are the police to wait outside the premises of sex workers waiting to ‘catch’ unwary punters, who have harmed no-one? How will they prove what is to take/has taken place between those involved – will there be forced forensic testing of prostitutes? And what will be happening to the truly vulnerable workers whilst this is going on?

Q7: What is your assessment of the likely financial implications of the proposed Bill to you or your organisation; if possible please provide evidence to support your view? What (if any) other significant financial implications are likely to arise?

My organisation is non profit and financial implications are fortunately not a concern for us – those involved in running and contributing to the resource do so of their own volition and in their own free time. As a sex worker, and knowing many other sex workers, I can only envisage that a reduction in available custom will result in a reduction in income – if the desired outcome of this Bill is ideally that prostitution will disappear without a trace, how are those in the most desperate circumstances to earn money? If people enter prostitution because they have no other practical options for supporting themselves, what are they to do when this last option is taken away?

Women, men and transgender people engage in sex work for reasons which are as diverse as they are, but the constant is that everybody needs money to live on, and this need will not be altered by the proposed Bill. Many supplement their incomes with occasional instances of sex work when in dire financial need, and then disappear again until next time – ‘topping’ up in this way is a lifeline.

Some are studying and choose prostitution because they want to avoid running up huge debts and also devote as much time as possible to concentrate on their courses – why should they have to work in menial jobs for thirty hours a week when they can earn the same amount in a couple of hours and thus use their increased time for their studies if they choose to?  Others cannot take full time employment due to illness or disability, or because they are caring for a sick or disabled child, partner or other relative, but still require the same (or higher) level of income to meet everyday needs. What useful purpose will making it harder for them to earn this money serve? If this proposed Bill was not intended to cause severe hardship to people already living in poverty, and given that welfare cuts are likely to increase the numbers of such people exponentially, how will this unavoidable consequence be tackled?

Q8: Is the proposed Bill likely to have any substantial positive or negative implications for equality? If it is likely to have a substantial negative implication, how might this be minimised or avoided?

This proposed Bill does not even pay lip service to equality; it is sexist, simplistic and biased. Not all prostitutes are women and not all clients are men, yet the wording shows a complete lack of neutrality and has been formulated with the clear abolitionist ‘All Prostitution Is Violence Against Women’ agenda in mind. To ignore everyone who does not fit the convenient stereotype required to make the same tired old claims is not only detrimental to any possible credibility this proposal may ever have had, but is downright offensive to those being pigeonholed in this way, or worse still dismissed as ‘not representative’ despite being entirely, provably and therefore extremely inconveniently so.

How very disappointing that a country with such previously sensible and forward-thinking initiatives as the tolerance zones and licensed saunas in Edinburgh could also come up with such a blinkered and selfish idea as this, however well meaning it may be. Sex workers and their clients have every right to live, work and be treated as ordinary members of their communities and not penalised because of the way they choose to conduct their lives and their businesses any more than hairdressers, bus drivers or librarians and those who use their services – why should we? The proposed Bill does nothing to support equality, safety or crime reduction, and should it be passed it will, just as similar legislation has in Sweden, waste police time, endanger vulnerable people and have no positive effect at all on those involved.

Amy Vergnes.

One thought on “Response to Rhoda Grant MSP’s proposal to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland by Amy Vergnés, Administrator of SAAFE.info

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>