An Open Letter From Laura Lee to Ash Regan-Denham MSP

I am an independent sex worker, living and working in Scotland. I felt compelled to write having viewed your speech on sex work and human trafficking delivered in Holyrood on 13 June 2017. I say compelled to write, I was more astonished really, as the information provided by you was both erroneous in fact and law.

Scottish Parliament

Of first interest is the phrase – “no market, no demand, no trafficking”. Reducing demand through the criminalisation of the purchase of sex is not only ineffective and counter-productive, it is also highly injurious to those you are purporting to protect, and that’s us, sex workers. Trafficking in Scotland happens for a variety of reasons, agriculture, domestic servitude and the fishing industry to name but a few. I agree that Scotland should be a hostile environment for traffickers, but I’m sure I don’t need to point out that human trafficking is already a very serious offence. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 created a single offence of trafficking and raised the maximum sentence to life imprisonment. The act required the Scottish Government to produce a strategy within three years.

In terms of developing that strategy to combat trafficking, I have grave concerns that there is a lot of government money being spent on “raising awareness” projects. The Women’s Support Project, for example, got £60,000 for “raising awareness”. Meanwhile, projects which do actually reach out to and help sex workers like SCOT PEP and Umbrella Lane (to name but two) get nothing. Why is that?

My concerns about the REAL services available for sex workers were confirmed recently when a colleague went to visit the Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre in Dundee. This organisation works in tandem with Vice Versa in Dundee and the Women’s Support Project to “support” women, so I was very interested to see what that support looked like. In her own words, this is what happened.

“I walked up the steps and rang the doorbell. I didn’t think I would need an appointment, but it became clear that was the case. The woman who answered the door was very reserved. I didn’t get a hello either, just a ‘who are you?’. I am a young woman, and if any woman came to the door, with potentially something wrong, you would be a tad more inviting, no?”

“It is stressful when you contact support services. I responded by saying I was someone who had concerns about the crackdown on the sex industry in the city and had some questions. She was still a bit sheepish, but hey, I got my foot in the door.”

“I was asked to go and wait in a room, with the odd person popping their head around the corner from time to time while I was waiting for the women leading the abolitionist campaign. It wasn’t exactly discreet in that sense. After a few minutes of waiting, the person who I had expected and wanted to see came into the room. She looked quite intimidated. I guess it was a complete shock to them that someone would come and express concern on their police partnership crackdown. She then said to me that I needed an appointment. Christ almighty, so sorry! No, I didn’t say that but was thinking it. Surely it is a good thing if a woman meets your centre? Unless you are used to having this done by the police instead? Sadly enough, that would be the case as I would discover in our conversation.”

“She sat down and said how busy the centre was (the phone rang a couple of times and by the looks of it I was the only person there). I responded by saying that I was sorry but given all the media publicity and people coming forward about the police going around sex workers and this being supported by your organisation, I thought it was reasonable for members of the public and those concerned for sex workers to ask questions. She asked me if I was a journalist, to which I said I wasn’t, but if truth be told, given a number of times they had been in the paper with the police and Turn Off the Red Light (abolitionist campaign in Ireland) basically stating to the world they were going after sex workers, would it really matter if I was? Unless they were worried that I had caught them at an unprepared time that would make it hard for them to hide facts/reality.”

“I asked them why they were going after sex workers. I got the whole load of things we are used to hearing – it is a form of violence, we don’t believe in it, it causes harm to women and our communities. I can’t imagine having someone in front of me saying what my experience is of something. I responded by saying that she held views that were not representative of everyone, but she was adamant that they were. Then we got to the nitty gritty of the police stuff. I asked them specifically what was going on, to which she said they had an agreement with the Crown that they would push the diversion programme in exchange for leaving out the arresting part. How ideal does that sound? Erm. Not so much. Firstly, I said that women may not be able to leave the sex industry for a whole range of reasons, surely that must be considered. Even SPACE International, the survivors of prostitution organisation, said themselves that pushing an exit plan on a woman would be setting herself up for failure (I know, how contradictory is this again because that is exactly what they are involved in).”

“She responded by saying it would be ‘out of their hands’ if the police were to arrest women involved in prostitution, who did not comply. Not exactly the holistic person-centred approach that we had been hoping for that all women should be entitled to. Far from it. I asked if they would contact the police if someone did not agree to the diversion programme, to which she said yes.”

“How scary is that? This is forced exiting. I then asked about the actual alternatives, a question most of these prohibition organisations are afraid of. I got a brief explanation about helping them with IT classes, study support etc. What on earth, are we really assuming that all sex workers won’t be smart or have some sort of qualification/previous work experience? I guess this organisation and bigger campaign relies on that massively to reel in public support and sex workers because that depiction suggests an immediate intervention is needed and they are the ones to do it (how clever of them). But of course, it was obvious there was nothing that the diversion programme could guarantee. It is always worth trying for those who want to exit, but it is a forced programme, which will fail women who can’t. I was asked if I would leave my name and phone number – such an attractive option at the thought of the cops at following up with me. I left feeling disappointed to tell you the truth. Believe it or not, I was hoping to be surprised, but left feeling disgusted.”

“This is not an example of an organisation that supports women. Many abolitionists argue that where we are with prostitution is where we were with domestic abuse 40 years ago. Okay, let me be clear on this, they are right, not because prostitution isn’t taken seriously, but they neglect to have a lens which recognises how complex people and their lives are. The other factor is that the police are not helping themselves at all in this, they are dictating the outcome for a woman by pushing forced exiting. The police have a terrible record of dealing with domestic abuse, and to this day, they, at times, still actually think they know better than the organisations who have supported women for decades. There are still hard conversations. Let’s be more honest about this.”

“Overall, Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre Dundee And Angus and in partnership with Vice Versa is not an organisation that has positive guiding principles at the heart of what they brand as support for women in the sex industry. You have been warned.”

It is my fervent hope, Ms. Regan-Denham, that you found that account as shocking as I did. The Scottish Government is pouring money into projects which push vulnerable people into the criminal justice system via the police, and we know that having a criminal record is one of the single biggest barriers to exiting the sex industry.

Having examined your promise to parliament of “support for those exiting”, let us return to the remainder of your speech, in which you stated that the SNP passed a motion in favour of a “Scottish model” when dealing with prostitution, which decriminalises the seller. I’m afraid that is entirely false and misleading to those listening to your lobbying. The Nordic model, to give it it’s true title, does not decriminalise the sellers of sex. We are compelled by law to work alone or risk arrest, and we are still arrested for soliciting and for involving any third parties, such as a receptionist, a maid or even a friend to sit with us for company. The result of that is that we are left as sitting ducks for would-be attackers, because they know we are alone, vulnerable and probably carrying cash.

In the Republic of Ireland, they’ve just adopted the Nordic model based on false promises and lies from abolitionist organisations of decriminalisation. At Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, we warned the then minister for justice, Frances Fitzgerald, of the consequences of her actions in failing to listen to those on the front line and being targeted, sex workers. Shamefully, she said that perhaps the increased violence might perhaps serve as a deterrent to women entering the sex industry. Far from being decriminalised, what we now have in the Republic of Ireland is vulnerable women being raped, stabbed, stalked and living in constant fear. As for “decriminalisation”, those women are now being arrested for working together in safety, having their money seized by police, given a criminal record and promptly deported back into poverty.

As a nation, Scotland prides herself on equality, diversity and human rights. We welcome migrants, we embrace same sex marriage and abortion rights, indeed Nicola Sturgeon has promised to look at the possibility of extending those rights to Irish women. Why, then, do you seek to place sex workers into harsher and more dangerous working conditions? Is it not enough that a sex worker was brutally murdered in Aberdeen and felt she couldn’t approach the police or work with a friend for safety? Is it not enough that three women were savagely attacked in Perth while working alone?

We have a saying in activism and never was it more appropriate: “Nothing about us without us.”

Martin Ward
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