IS selling sex just a job? Should strippers, street prostitutes and erotic masseuses be subject to the same employment protection as nurses, building workers or teachers? Glasgow-based dominatrix, Megara Furie, believes so. “Where would you go if you were in a ‘normal job’ and someone was making your job unsafe?” she asked in a Herald article last week. “You'd join a union and they'd stick up for you.”

Furie is one of several sex workers lobbying for the establishment of an “adult entertainment” branch of the GMB union. Rhea Wolfson, the GMB organiser for Glasgow who is backing their bid, said the move was primarily about safety and “finding a way to make sex workers feel less isolated, because everything in the law is geared to isolate them – physically and otherwise. Sex work is work and it should be safe”.

Any move to make vulnerable people safer is surely welcome but the proposal raises important questions about the way we think about and regulate “sex work” including “prostitution”. Both terms are controversial: this issue is contentious, and not just among sanctimonious traditionalists who consider selling sex to be sinful or depraved. Feminists and support workers who care deeply about the safety of those involved are also divided over the wisdom of decriminalising and normalising the industry.

“Our main aims are to secure workers’ safety and workers’ rights,” said Furie, whose Mistress Megara Furie website promises “endorphic exhilaration and absolute submission … regardless of your fetish”. The website also clearly outlines the boundaries clients must adhere to.

Although selling sex isn't illegal in Scotland, there are laws designed to restrict brothel-keeping and trafficking and moves are afoot to adopt the so-called Nordic approach practised in Scandinavian countries where the purchase (but not the sale) of sex is illegal.

Opponents argue that criminalising those who buy sexual services would drive transactions underground, making them more dangerous. Furie said she'd worked in Northern Ireland where it's already illegal to buy sex. “Clients being fearful of being arrested made the usual safety checks almost impossible to carry out, which seriously affected the safety of my work,” she said.

The proposed Purchase Of Sex Bill (Scotland) has been SNP policy since 2017. They say adopting the so-called “Nordic model” (also dubbed the “Scottish model”) would “reduce commercial demand for sexual exploitation”. The SNP also promise to “offer appropriate support for those wishing to exit commercial sexual exploitation”.

On the face of it, this is a pragmatic approach aimed at tackling an abusive industry without further marginalising already vulnerable practitioners. However, Nadine Stott, chair of the Scot-Pep sex workers' rights advocacy organisation, argued that “the criminalisation of clients has been shown time and time again to make sex workers more vulnerable to violence, as interactions with clients have to become more rushed and clandestine – a gift to people with violent intentions".

If established, the GMB branch would lobby against adopting the “Scottish” (or “Nordic”) model and oppose existing legislation such as the “brothel-keeping” law which prevents more than one person working together on the same premises. Campaigners say it forces people into dangerous isolation.

“There are laws in place that are making everyone’s work unsafe and there are proposals to bring in new laws that could make it even less safe,” said Furie. “It doesn’t make the work go away. Even if you criminalise clients, it’s not going to end demand. All it does is remove any safe-guards that we’ve got.”

Rhea Wolfson supports their aims. Does the fact she is Labour's candidate for Livingston for the next Westminster election add an extra dimension to the debate? She insists this is not a party political matter: Scottish Labour is divided over the issue and so is the SNP (at least one of whom spoke against the policy at the 2017 conference).

Meanwhile, last month's Scottish LibDem conference was addressed by former sex worker Diane Martin, who called on the party to support the SNP policy, citing her own experience of exploitation. “For men prostitution is like renting a film, with the power to write the entire script,” she said. “They’re the director, they’re the star, you’re the prop.” However, the LibDems voted against the motion.

The proposed new GMB branch would tackle discrimination and harassment. As an example of how this might work, Wolfson points to New Zealand, where prostitution is substantially decriminalised. In 2014, a sex worker there successfully pursued a brothel operator who had sexually harassed her through the Human Rights Review Tribunal, winning $25,000 (£13,777) in compensation.

"Sex workers are as much entitled to protection from sexual harassment as those working in other occupations," the ruling said and the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective hailed it “one up for decriminalisation”, adding that it “could never have happened when sex work was illegal”.

Trade unions traditionally negotiate pay on behalf of workers but Wolfson said “this isn't something that's currently on the agenda” and that the main issue is to promote health and safety.

“We want to have the same rights as every other self-employed person,” said Furie. “We’re trying to take the sex out of sex workers because we just want to be seen as workers.”

Many feminists agree that the term “sex” is a misnomer in this context. Julie Bindel, author of The Pimping Of Prostitution: Abolishing The Sex Work Myth, argues that prostitution is “not about sex or sexual identity, but rather a one-sided exploitative exchange rooted in male power”.

However, she also believes the word “work” sanitises an “inherently abusive” arrangement that is “a cause and a consequence of women's inequality” and symptomatic of “a neoliberal world in which human flesh has come to be viewed as a commodity, like a burger”.

The Glasgow-based Women's Support Project doesn't like the term either. Commenting on the new GMB branch proposal, their spokesperson said: “We do not see that prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation can be made safe and have concerns that framing it as work may make the harms and long-term impacts invisible. It is important to note that many women in the sex industry do not use the label 'sex worker' and it cannot be assumed that this is how all women view what they are experiencing.”

The Women's Support Project defines stripping, pole dancing, lap dancing and telephone sex lines, alongside prostitution and trafficking, as “commercial sexual exploitation”: a view they say is informed by their work with people involved in the sex industry. Their statement quotes a woman who said: “I was never a sex worker, I wouldnae ever call myself that … It was just a way of making money but it wasnae easy and it wasnae a job.”

Rhea Wolfson, however, argues that: “Sex work is work – people can be uncomfortable with that, but our job as a union is not to moralise but to protect workers' rights. This industry exists, it has always existed.”

Besides, aren't those involved entitled to decide how they wish to be defined? In the past, shockingly abusive terms – such as “slag” and “rent boy” – were used to describe people in the sex trade, and certain newspapers routinely used the word “hooker” in headlines reporting violence, including murder. The implication was that these injuries or deaths mattered less than those of other victims, and this derogatory attitude feeds through into society – including clients of sexual services, thus putting vulnerable people even further at risk. And as Wolfson points out, stigmatisation actually makes it harder for people to move out of the sex industry and into other jobs.

The GMB's definition of “sex workers” does not include “managers or bosses ... even if they are also selling sex”. It does, however, include “sex workers of all genders” and Wolfson hopes the proposed adult entertainment branch will be run like any other branch of the union, with elected post holders.

The GMB Scottish Committee is expected to make a decision on establishing the branch by the end of this month. The debate, however, is likely to continue.

Sex work and the law: a brief history

1801: The Edinburgh Magdalen Asylum beomes a refuge for women wanting to leave prostitution. New entrants are kept in solitary confinement for three months “to eradicate the taint of moral contagion”. Their heads are then shaved and they are bullied and beaten by staff.

1892: Under the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act, women can be prosecuted in police courts for “being a common prostitute or streetwalker”.

1902: George Bernard Shaw's play about a brothel-keeper, Mrs Warren's Profession, is first performed. Shaw says he wanted to highlight “the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together”.

1927: UK solicitation laws are debated by the Macmillan Committee on Street Offences, but the law remains unchanged after the committee struggles to distinguish between matters of private morality and legality.

1954: The Wolfenden Committee debates the solicitation laws. The intention is to frame a secular and objective – rather than moral – approach to the issue, but the final report describes prostitution as “an evil of which any society which claims to be civilised should seek to rid itself”. The resulting 1959 Street Offences Act makes it easier to convict people of soliciting, and raises penalties.

1937: The Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act allows “sexually promiscuous” girls to be routinely examined for veneral disease in remand homes or schools.

1949: The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act empowers courts to remand sexual offenders, including prostitutes, for medical examination. So-called “habitual prostitutes” are thereafter regularly remanded in custody for venereal disease treatment, whether or not they show symptoms.

1982: The Civic Government (Scotland) Act empowers local councils to issue public entertainment licences. Edinburgh Council begins granting these to massage parlours and saunas, becoming the first UK city to effectively decriminalise brothels.

1985: Lothian and Borders Police negotiates with Edinburgh prostitutes to form a tolerance zone around Leith’s Coburg Street, adopting a “blind eye” approach to policing there.

2001: The toleration zone is moved to an industrial estate in Salamander Street and later closed.

2002: SNP MSP Margo MacDonald introduces the Prostitution Tolerance Zones Bill to the Scottish Parliament.

2005: MacDonald's bill is withdrawn, following an enquiry by an expert group into prostitution.

2013: Police Scotland is formed. Previously, regional police forces had operated different policies,with Glasgow operating a “zero tolerance” line compared to Edinburgh's softly-softly approach to saunas. Saunas are said to have been raided and many closed down.