EHRC Debate on Prostitution (Glasgow)

Equality and Human Rights Commission Debate (Glasgow 24th Sept 2009)

“Give Prostitution the Red Light?” A Question Time-style debate on prostitution in Scotland – reform, regulate or reject?

Representatives from CAAN attended a “debate” hosted by the EHRC (Scotland) regarding an upcoming proposed ammendment to criminalise the purcahse of sex in Scotland.

Catherine Stephens of the International Union of Sex Workers forwarded on an invite to CAAN to the debate on prostitution in Glasgow. Becky Dwyer attended on behalf of CAAN-Scotland to offer support to Ms. Stephens and sex workers in Scotland. Allan Balsille (who submitted evidence opposing the extreme pornography legislation and has been in contact with the EHRC (Scotland) regarding related issues) also attended.

Following informal refreshments, the debate commenced under Chairperson Alex Bell. Mr. Bell has experience with the BBC and various newspapers and was also a speech writer for the SNP. Scotland Commissioner for the EHRC, Morag Alexander, was unable to attend, so the introduction, pleading for calm, rational enlightenment and debate on a passionate topic, was given by another member of the EHRC. First the panel spoke, and then the floor was opened and microphones passed around.

The panel was composed of:

  • Julie Bindel – feminist columnist for the Guardian who is a vocal campaigner to “end violence against women”
  • Bill Skelly – HM Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland, in full police uniform, speaking from a perspective of law enforcement
  • Catherine Stephens – Prostitute and dominatrix activist with the International Union of Sex Workers fighting against stigmatization, marginalisation and discrimination of sex workers
  • Roger Matthews – professor of criminology who has studied street prostitution and kerb crawling in the 1980’s and 90’s.
  • Margo MacDonald MSP was unable to attend because of health reasons.

The debate looked on a number of issues, including the current proposal in Scottish Parliament to criminalise people who purchase sex. These consumers of sex were assumed (for the most part) to be men, and were called “clients” by Ms. Stephens and “punters” by Ms. Bindel. Comparisons to Sweden were made, questions about the validity of certain research were raised, and the floor reacted well to various points, applauding and booing at certain comments. It was a slightly more estrogen-ised version of the House of Commons, as the people present were easily 90% women (and 90% against prostitution). No men spoke out in favour of prostitution.

Arguments put forward by Ms. Stephens were along the lines that politicians and people in general needed to speak with prostitutes and sex workers to find out the reality of their day-to-day lives instead of creating policies based on stereotypes and urban legends. Inspector Skelly likewise expressed an increased emphasis from the police to listen to people to find out where the problems are; he seemed appalled that people were dismissing Ms. Stephens’ comments out of hand because she is a sex worker.

Ms. Bindel rejected the “myth” that there are “happy hookers” who are different from women and girls who are trafficked and forced into prostitution. As far as she is concerned, the majority (if not all) of women and girls in prostitution do not want to be there, and are victims. This sentiment was echoed in the audience when members said that Ms. Stephens does not represent the damaged abused women who come for help to their women’s shelters and assistance programs.

As the conversation moved on, reference was made to the spectrum of types of and experiences of sex workers. Questions were raised by Ms. Stephens and members of the audience whether studies based on street walkers applied to all sex workers. As a follow up, Chairperson Mr. Bell asked Ms. Stephens about her experiences as a dominatrix. Prof. Matthews argued that all sex workers lead similar lives, and that there was no substantial difference between a woman working on the street to sell sex and a woman working from her home or a brothel to sell sex. Very little reference was made to the range of customers frequenting prostitutes, except to wonder how to protect women (both prostitutes and civilians) from them.

At the both the beginning and the end of the debate, Chairperson Mr. Bell did a poll of the floor, asking who was in favour of criminalising the purchase of sex and who was against. The result, both times, was overwhelmingly in favour of such legislation.

Read each speaker’s take on criminalising the purchase of sex (20 Sep 2009):

A July 2009 study on sex workers’ needs in Edinburgh by SCOT-PEP:

Articles about Jacqui Smith’s proposal to criminalise people who pay for sex (17 May 2009):$1296338.htm$1296768.htm

Proposals to criminalise the purchase of sex have been made both in Westminster and Hollyrood. Please contact your local politician and ask them to reject these proposals!

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Scotland rocks!
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