While most 19-year-olds were picking up shifts at the local bar to earn some extra cash at university, Laura Lee was earning up to £200 a day working part-time at a massage parlour in Dublin. For two years she maintained a double-life, studying by day and entertaining men by night, before finally revealing her secret to her Irish Catholic parents. Since then she has relocated to Glasgow with her daughter and established herself as an independent escort as well as a blogger campaigning for sex workers' rights.
Having spent 20 years fighting the stigma attached to her profession, Laura felt compelled to respond to Ash Denham's proposal to introduce a sex buyer law in Scotland, a model of legislation currently operating in Sweden that criminalises the purchase, but not the sale, of sex. Speaking at the SNP's party conference in March, Ms Denham, MSP for Edinburgh Eastern, claimed that 'whether it is "above ground" or "underground," the culture of prostitution is the same: abusive and degrading.' Despite winning the support of most of the conference's delegates, Laura's is among the voices who emerged to express their disproval. A law graduate herself, she calls the Nordic model 'anything but progressive' as it forces prostitutes into the fringes of cities and increases their reliance on pimps by making it more difficult for buyers and sellers to contact one another directly.
At present, the sale and purchase of sex in Scotland is legal, but Laura is adamant that current legislation is 'at best, farcical, and at worst, highly dangerous.' Many of the laws surrounding indoor and outdoor prostitution are counter-intuitive and involve disproportionate penalties. For instance, it is illegal for a man, but not a woman, to knowingly live in whole or in part on money earned through prostitution. If sex workers own a joint account with their partners, they could face up to two years imprisonment. The same sentence also applies to keeping a woman against her will in a brothel and forcing her to have sex. Let's reiterate that: you could face the same prison sentence for keeping a woman against her will in a brothel as you would if you held a joint account with a sex worker.
Pimping and running a brothel are illegal practices in Scotland. And yet, brothels are tolerated in areas like Edinburgh where they are licensed as massage parlours or saunas. Kerb-crawling and soliciting in a public place are also criminal offences, but this has only driven sex work further underground and increased the vulnerability of prostitutes. In 2007, when kerb-crawling was criminalised in Scotland, sex workers in Edinburgh were forced to meet clients in more remote locations and had less time to screen them and negotiate the use of a condom. As a result, the number of attacks reported in the city nearly doubled in the months following the law's activation.
Scotland's current legislative attitude towards sex work is in dire need of reform, but Laura is wary of the dangers of enforcing more bureaucratic red tape. The legislative models operating in the Netherlands and Austria, where prostitution has been legalised, are not without their flaws. 'Compulsory registration is problematic for obvious reasons,' Laura says. 'Most sex workers do not want it anywhere on their records that they have worked in the industry, it's a barrier to exit and prevents them from applying for other jobs.' Legalisation also does little to protect undocumented migrants or those living in poverty. Unable to purchase or afford a licence, these vulnerable groups of people often have no choice but to work in isolation without police protection.
For Laura, the only model worth considering is New Zealand's, where sex work was decriminalised in 2003. Unlike legalisation, whereby sex work is controlled by the government, decriminalisation involves the removal of all prostitution-specific laws. Sex work is treated like any other business and workers must comply with and are simultaneously protected by labour laws, health and safety regulations and all other relevant legislation. One study conducted by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women found that sex workers had reported improved working conditions and higher feelings of welfare in the years following New Zealand's decision to decriminalise sex work. The study also suggested that men who see prostitution as any other business are less likely to be violent.
This discovery is significant because it highlights a habitually underrated threat to sex workers: stigma. When people see the sex industry as, to borrow Ms Denham's phrase, 'abusive and degrading,' we inherently view its workers as abused and degraded. We see them as powerless and damaged, and while some do have philanthropic intentions, there are others who would exploit these weaknesses. It is this superiority complex that makes politicians think they can speak on behalf of sex workers, and punters assume that their money entitles them to do whatever they want with the body they have purchased.
Ironically, Laura says that most of the abuse she receives 'is from so-called feminists' who support the Nordic model: 'They care so much about sex workers that they heap abuse on us, on social media, at debates, it's pretty relentless.' One argument frequently adopted by prostitution abolitionists is that people never enter the sex trade out of choice. In August, writer and feminist Julie Bindel wrote in the Spectator: 'The women who work as prostitutes are in hock and in trouble. They're in need of rescue just as much as any of the more fashionable victims of modern slavery.' While Ms Bindel clearly has the interests of sex workers at heart, her words are, in effect, quite dangerous. Calling any collection of individuals 'victims' or 'slaves' is not empowering; it is a lazy, sweeping generalisation that denies the group of any agency.
That's not to dismiss the abuse and violence that is rife within the sex industry. Co-ordinated by the Encompass Network, 'Inside Outside' is a collection of interviews with female sex workers in Scotland, each of whom describes the emotional, sexual and physical abuse they suffered during their careers and their subsequent reliance on drugs and alcohol. Trafficking, too, is a huge concern with a growing presence in Scotland. In 2016 alone, 150 potential trafficking victims were identified according to the British National Crime Agency, and human trafficking was found to occur in 27 of Scotland's 32 local authorities. Evidence of these problems is prevalent in the sex industry, but they are not synonymous with it.
Prostitution, the exchange of sex for money, is not inherently harmful. Abuse, exploitation, human trafficking – these are all problems that are manifest in the sex industry, but when we fail to make the distinction between them we are guilty of perpetuating damaging stereotypes and attaching more stigma to an already marginalised group. With 50,000 to 80,000 people estimated to be working in the UK sex industry today, and some 4% of Scottish males admitting to paying for sex, the demand for prostitution shows no signs of decline.
If we criminalise sex workers or their clients, we will only force them to creep further and further into the shadows, away from the gaze of CCTV or police – into the territory of the very people from whom we claim to be protecting them.