ON paper it seems a cut and dried issue: prostitution is a form of violence against women, so why not punish the perpetrators?
That's the view of Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, who this week attempted to rush through Parliament a private members bill criminalising those who pay for sex services.
Ms Grant believes such legislation would reduce the demand for prostitution and disrupt sex trafficking. Yet, what appears a bold strike for feminist rights has raised hackles, not least among sex worker support groups who claim the move could be counter-productive, placing vulnerable women in an even more dangerous predicament by driving their trade further underground.
So who's right? Currently, Scots law makes it a crime to solicit for the purposes of prostitution. The Purchase Of Sex Bill would shift the focus towards those who use prostitutes, creating a similar climate to Sweden, where paying for sex is punishable by up to six months in jail. At the other end of the spectrum is New Zealand, whose sex laws are among the most liberal in the world. Brothels, escort agencies and soliciting prostitution were decriminalised in 2003 which, according to recent research, has given the country's sex workers not only health and safety rights, but a sense of legitimacy and respectability. Here in Scotland, research suggests that an unofficial tolerance zone, which operated in Leith until a decade ago, substantially reduced the number of attacks on sex workers.
Opponents of decriminalisation argue that it legitimises prostitution when in fact no woman – regardless of the shades of grey regarding relative safety – should be in a position where she is, by choice or otherwise, selling sex. The crux: as long as men can buy women's bodies, we will never be equal.
While it's possible to philosophise interminably on this subject, the hard fact is that the sex industry, whether we like it or not, isn't going anywhere and needs to be regulated. The idea of men using prostitutes is unpalatable and punishing them may seem satisfying. We find the idea of sex as a transaction morally repugnant. But perhaps this, rather than ineffective legislation, is the biggest hurdle to be overcome.
Rather than focusing on those who use prostitutes as a vile scourge on the fringes of society which, like scuttling cockroaches, must be stamped out, surely it is time to take a step back and confront the unpalatable truth: sex is a commodity.
Will criminalising those who pay for that commodity drive the sex industry underground? Almost certainly. But will it stop people from using prostitutes? That is much less likely. One only has to look to the prohibition of alcohol in 1920s America to see how that argument pans out. Restricting supply doesn't necessarily reduce demand – and in that scenario the only ones to benefit are pimps and other shady profiteers: which surely brings us back full circle to the same timeless loop of women's health and wellbeing being placed in peril.
That's not to say maintaining the status quo is any less damaging. Prostitution is intrinsically intertwined with serious social issues such as drug addiction, mental health problems, social exclusion and poverty. Instead of moralising about the rights and wrongs of the sex trade, we should be focusing on what matters most: the safety of some of Scotland's most vulnerable women.
Tolerance zones may be seen by some as a recipe for disaster, but surely those who work within the sex industry have a far better idea of what constitutes a best-case scenario than politicians hypothesising on grand ideals?
Wouldn't resources be better served making those a workable objective than trying to round up all the bad guys in town and send them off to the slammer like in some spaghetti western?
It's easy to deftly affix a sticking plaster over a gaping wound, but all that does is cover up the festering infection that lies beneath – which, no matter how hard you try to stop it, will eventually bubble to the surface. Rhoda Grant's Purchase Of Sex Bill – which will now go out for consultation – is undoubtedly well-meaning. But in its current form it is futile.
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