Sex Work in Scotland: Peer-led Charities Hit Back at Scottish Government

As Umbrella Lane’s team first read the findings of the Equally Safe consultation, the Scottish sex worker charity felt positive. Prerna Menon, Umbrella Lane’s co-ordinator, told Bella Caledonia: “From the amount of responses the consultation received, it’s clear that lots of sex workers actually engaged and made their voices heard.”

However, although respondents highlighted the need for more meaningful engagement from peer-led groups, Umbrella Lane – the only sex worker-led support organisation in Scotland – was left out of the extra funding released by the Scottish Government. And the same goes for SCOT-PEP, a peer-led charity that advocates for the safety, rights and health of everyone who sells sex in Scotland. 

The Equally Safe consultation

In September 2020, the Scottish Government launched a public consultation “seeking views on how best to challenge men’s demand for prostitution in Scotland, reducing the harms associated with prostitution and supporting women involved to exit.” Running until December 2020, the consultation was part of Equally Safe, Scotland’s strategy to eradicate violence against women and girls.

Posing nine main open text questions, the consultation enquired about several aspects of sex work, including the Government’s current approach, the impact of the pandemic, international approaches and education.

As explained by SCOT-PEP, the particular focus of the consultation on “challenging men’s demand for prostitution” rather than on how to keep sex workers safe was a cause for concern in the sex workers community. Their fear was that the consultation might have been part of a push from the Scottish Government to introduce the criminalisation of clients, a system often referred to as the “Nordic Model”.

First instituted in Sweden in 1999, the Nordic model penalises people who buy sex over those who sell it. Supporters of this approach believe that sex work is a violation of women’s rights. According to the logic of the Nordic Model, criminalisation results in the decline of sex work’s demand and, as a consequence, in the end, or the reduction of women’s exploitation. In addition, they claim this approach shifts the stigma directly to the buyer rather than on the person who sells sex.

Sex worker-led groups have opposed several attempts to introduce the Nordic Model in Scotland, stressing the risks they would be subjected to should clients’ criminalisation become a reality. Speaking on The Importance of Being Feminist, a podcast realised by YWCA Scotland, Swedish sex worker Freja said: “when you criminalise the buyer, the sex worker becomes responsible for keeping the buyer safe.” 

Having worked both in Sweden and in Scotland, she explained how the Nordic Model drives sex work underground, limiting sex workers from working on their own terms and implementing safety strategies. 

Since the Nordic Model came into place in Ireland in 2017, in fact, sex workers in Ireland reported a 92 per cent increase in violent crime against them.

Embed from Getty Images

The consultation’s findings

Published on 16 June 2021, the consultation’s findings showed a great engagement from the public, with the enquiry receiving more than 4,000 responses. According to the published analysis, these responses were “polarised” between supporters of the criminalisation of buyers and those in favour of the decriminalisation of sex work to protect sex workers’ safety.

Community Safety Minister Ash Denham said ministers would examine measures taken by other countries to “challenge men’s demand for prostitution” despite a majority of responses in the consultation opposing this model. 

The main focus of the consultation’s findings, however, has been COVID’s impact on people who engage in sex work. In fact, the risk of contagion and the need to adhere to social distance has severely impacted the income of sex workers, who were not afforded the same financial safeguards accessible to others.

For this reason, the Scottish Government is investing an extra £90,000 to support women involved in sex work. The money will fund services run by Encompass Network, the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, and Victim Support Scotland.

The decision has been criticised by sex worker-led groups. Despite respondents demanding more peer-led support and Denham promising a “programme of work to engage with those with lived experience,” peer-led organisations have not been allocated any funding. 

“Involvement of sex workers has to be more than tokenistic, and invite sex workers to shape the policy that affects their lives and livelihoods,” Chief Executive of Umbrella Lane Anastacia Ryan said.

Involvement of vulnerable groups is particularly important to make sure policies are drafted according to their specific needs rather than policy makers’ beliefs. Menon explained Bella Caledonia that “even though non-peer-led organisations all come from a good place, and we really are willing to work with them, sex workers are more likely to access sex worker-led services.”

SCOT-PEP added: “We hope the organisations receiving funding will commit to working with sex worker-led organisations to make sure that the money reaches people who need it, and revisit their support for the criminalisation of sex work which has been hugely damaging to trust between mainstream services and the sex worker community.”

Beyond the consultation

As the Scottish Government drafts their future plans to regulate sex work, they need to acknowledge one crucial piece of information missing from the consultation. Sex workers are not composed only of women, they can be of all genders and sexual orientations. 

While one can appreciate that women engaging in sex work might be the majority, this is no excuse to neglect other genders. In fact, by focusing only on women, other sex workers are left in a grey area where lines are blurred and rights trampled on. 

Sex workers need to be at the centre of the conversation, not a sideline source whose input has the same weight as that of politicians and policymakers. Organisations like Umbrella Lane and SCOT-PEP can help the Government fully acknowledge the agency of sex workers, rather than treat them as vulnerable people to be saved.

As shown by the consultation’s responses, people who engage in sex work are not only able to speak for themselves but they’re happy to. It’s time we stop speaking over them and actually listen.


Featured photo by Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition on Unsplash

Comments (5)

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  1. Dave Millar says:

    Is sex the ‘Holy of Holies’ that must not be tainted by commercialism or should women be free to do what they want with their bodies? There are a lot of questions being dodged, methinks.


    1. Iris Pase says:

      Hi Dave,
      I personally believe the issue is not about dodging questions but setting priorities. We could spend months or even years debating on the moral and ethical implications of sex work but people’s safety should always come first. That’s one of the reasons why sex workers have been campaigning for decriminalisation rather than legalisation. It’s about allowing safer working conditions rather than making theoretical statements.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        Yep, we shouldn’t rush to judgement. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, the safety of sex workers needs to be secured before we start moralising about the way they make their living.

        The criminalisation of behaviours makes those behaviours less safe. That’s the whole point of criminalisation; it functions to deter those who’d engage in those behaviours by threatening them with harm.

        Decriminalisation makes it much easier for those who engage in dangerous activities like sex work to seek the help and support they need to mitigate the risks without fear of punishment. It’s by far the better strategy if your concern is the well-being of the workers involved.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Does selling sex improve the pattern of interactions between people? (I would say, no) Does selling sex degrade the pattern of interactions between people? (I would say, yes) Is selling sex less harmful than the likely alternatives? This would require much more consideration, but even if there was a sharp uptick in violence with the imposition of the Nordic Model, most of the benefits may come in generational timescales, which I think is what some campaigners argue.

    Does selling sex endanger or harm people not involved in the transactions? I would say, yes there is probably sufficient evidence for this, in the direct accosting of non-sex-workers, and the effects on wider society. Although perhaps in some cases sold sex could act as an outlet that relieves someone else?

    Would a universal basic income reduce the need to sell sex? It would certainly seem so. Here we have the wealth-riches distinction again. The buyers are rich enough to have (at least limited) dominion power over the sellers. This has a long historical shadow, from times when women were only paid 2/3 or so of a man’s wage for same or equivalent jobs (even after this was made illegal), while historically great income inequality across society is increasing. If everyone had basic wealth (to live a good life) but nobody had riches (to exploit others), then would we still see sex sold in significant quantities?

    What are the figures, anyway? Surely any interventions have to be measured? And you could follow Ben Goldacre’s (of Bad Science) advice to run policy test trials of different approaches. How was the performance of the Nordic Model supposed to have been measured against its intended outcomes?

    What is the psychology involved? I have recently seen some programmes covering the ‘post-colonial quagmire’ of an indigenous people stricken by various longlasting effects of culturecide, leaving them rootless, drug-addicted, suicide-prone and sexually exploited, including in the sex trade. This pattern seems far from healthy, and repeated around the world. Every time sex is bought, this colonial-style pattern is repeated. But would some sex workers continue even if they did not need the money (if so, why)?

    Demand will encourage sex trafficking and further abuses along the ‘supply’ chain of people. Cycles of abuse will be perpetuated. If the domestic selling of sex leads to more sex tourism originating from Scotland, what obligations does Scotland have to reduce this activity as well? Does the Nordic Model criminalise this behaviour too, like UK bribery laws eventually caught up and outlawed bribery in foreign parts (if I remember correctly)?

    At the end of the day, if ‘sex worker’ is not an occupation a school careers officer should be recommending, is selling sex something we should be consigning to the history books?

  3. Ed Turner says:

    I hope that Umbrella Lane & Scot-Pep do what the Canadian groups have done & sue the Scottish Government for breaches of their Human Rights, which is UK Law. Also they should seek a Judicial Review as no aid was passed to pro sex worker groups, a clear case of bias!

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