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Why sex workers deserve better

WHAT do you know about the sex industry?

Or do you choose to know nothing? Glasgow is hosting the Sex Workers' Rights Festival, a series of events protesting against plans to further criminalise their work, a move they believe will make prostitution more dangerous for the men and women involved. A Sex Worker Open University (Swou) event this weekend will ask for protection at work and human rights.

Rights, and human ones, no less. How bold. What makes the Sex Workers' Rights Festival so interesting is that it involves sex workers. Mainstream media presents the twin myths of the happy hooker and the coerced victim – drug addicted, abused, trafficked. The mainstream feminist mantra presents prostitution as harmful to all women and to society.

Whichever you choose to believe, both reduce the worker to a body without any real voice.

The Sex Workers' Rights Festival also will respond to Labour MSP Rhoda Grant's attempt to bring forward a new law that would make it an offence in Scotland to buy sex. Running a brothel, soliciting, and kerb crawling are already illegal. Exchanging sex for money currently is not. Ms Grant believes she can make Scotland an "unattractive market" for prostitution, drive down demand and, therefore, obliterate supply.

This is moralising policy-making at its worst. Ms Grant's proposal quotes only one sex worker – a caller to a radio show. Sex workers' narrative sits within the parameters of violence and victimisation. The truth of the matter cannot be so neat.

If Ms Grant gets her way and Scotland further criminalises sex work, prostitution will be forced underground. In Norway and Sweden, where clients have been criminalised, reports show sex workers have been negatively impacted – demand has certainly not diminished, nor has supply.

Work becomes more dangerous: getting into a car quickly, so as not to be spotted, makes it tougher to identify risks. Fines can simply mean sex workers increase their business hours to cover the debt. Hiding the issue breaks down networks of support between workers and creates a fear of approaching outreach services and police.

Calling prostitution the oldest profession is a wild misnomer; professions have regulatory bodies to protect them. This is an occupation where rape and death are just hazards of the trade. We offer up these women and men like sacrifices at the fringes of society, servicing the myriad desires and the myriad motives behind those desires. Disapproval is not a good enough basis for disallowing sex work. Policy should be in the public interest; the public interest here is to protect a section of society desperately in need of protection.

I lived opposite a brothel in Sydney, where sex work is legal under state legislation. Brothels are regulated by the local council, as any other business, and street work is legal within certain parameters.

I could paint an emotive picture of our neighbours, how they looked like us and dressed like us. How the men who visited them looked like the men we dated. But there's no place for emotion in this debate, just clear-eyed pragmatism. Legalisation is the only mature way forward. To further criminalise sex work is the action of a squeamish society, its hands over its ears, singing meaningless notes.

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