There is a group of women globally who are at least 12 times more likely to be murdered than women of similar age.

Three quarters of those women will have experienced violence, assault, stalking and rape.

Most of this violence goes unreported due to widespread distrust in police and fear of criminal and civil repercussions towards them and their families.

The Scottish Government are currently considering proposals to implement a legal change, which if implemented, would evidently increase the risk of this violence further towards these women three-fold.

The women we speak of are women who engage in sex work. The 17th of December is widely observed as International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, marked globally through vigils to remember the people who lost their lives at the intersection of societal stigma, unjust laws and genderrelated power that increase sex workers’ (of all genders) vulnerability to violence.

This day also marks a renewed commitment to advocating for the protection of sex workers rights to live and work in safety and with equal protection of the law.

The Day follows the Sixteen Days of Action to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls, but stands alone, due to the historical legacy of mainstream feminism not only sidelining sex workers’ experiences of violence, but actively denying these experiences exist.

It is this thread of “feminism” that underpins current political efforts in Scotland to further criminalise the sex industry by making it a criminal offence to purchase sex.

This model, often referred to as “The Nordic Model”, has been implemented in several countries, including Northern Ireland, Sweden, France, Norway and Ireland. In each setting, the evidence of its effects makes for extremely solemn reading.

The stated intention of “abolishing the sex industry” has in effect, made sex work an extremely dangerous profession.

Sex workers in countries that have adopted such a legal framework have noted their increased precarity, having to work in more isolated and hidden ways to avoid the arrest of themselves and now also of their clients.

In Ireland, violence against sex workers rose by 92% following the introduction of such laws and in France, sex workers have also witnessed a 42% rise in violence, largely attributed to their loss of bargaining power with clients given their need to avoid state attention in carrying out their work.

This serves as a stark reminder of why we must urgently listen to those who will be affected by laws being proposed in Scotland.

Yet tragically, the voices and experiences of sex workers and sex worker-led projects continue to frequently be ignored by both policy makers and service providers. While it is not illegal to sell sex in Scotland, there are strict laws against soliciting, living on the earnings and brothel keeping.

In practice, this means that the only legal way to work is to work alone and in private premises; out of sight, out of mind?

That’s how it feels to the hundreds of sex workers in Scotland who engage with the national peer-led support project Umbrella Lane (SCIO) that I began with sex workers and supportive allies in Glasgow in 2015.

Umbrella Lane supports sex workers daily who experience violence of various forms in their work. Yet in four years of operating, we have only seen one person prepared to testify against the perpetrator in court.

Despite the current policy rhetoric and recent legal campaign narrative that reduces all sex workers to victims of male violence, concrete protections for sex workers in reporting actual violence against them are severely lacking.

Sex workers are denied the protective assistance granted to other victims in the court processes and thus fear their working status will be disclosed publicly, or worse, that they themselves will be criminalised if they were to be working in an illegal way, for example working with a friend for safety, which sex workers are regularly arrested for with a following charge of “brothel-keeping”.

Together, illegality and stigma deny sex workers equal protection under the law and create a significant barrier in their recourse to justice.

Having had the opportunity to conduct academic research in New Zealand following the introduction of the Prostitution Reform Act (2003), being confronted with such preventable barriers to accessing justice posed to sex workers in Scotland becomes more frustrating.

Decriminalisation – of both the sale and purchase of sex – was shown in my research, and in a growing body of evidence since, to be an incredibly important first step in enabling access to justice when crimes are perpetrated against sex workers.

As feminist advocates, academics and those who fundamentally support the rights of all people to live free from violence, we must listen to the voices of those with lived experience, and support calls for the full decriminalisation of adult sex work.

It is time for Scotland to live up to our reputation as “progressive” and align our legal and policy frameworks with full decriminalisation, as desired by sex workers themselves, and supported by leading health and human rights organisations like UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation and Amnesty International. 

Dr Anastacia Ryan is the founder and director of Umbrella Lane, a sex workerled charity that supports and campaigns for the rights of sex workers in Scotland