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Sex Workers Are Fighting to Unionise in Scotland

They're trying to keep Holyrood from introducing laws that would criminalise their clients and compromise their safety.

by Megan Wallace
27 June 2019, 8:00am

Striking sex workers protest march through Soho on International Women's Day. Photo by Guy Corbishley/Alamy Live 

With British sex workers striking on International Women's Day and strippers unionising in increasing numbers, individuals across the industry are fighting for their right to hold employers accountable, demand better working conditions and safeguard their livelihoods.

Many view the fight to decriminalise sex work is a labour rights issue, but Scottish politicians see it differently. In 2017 the SNP passed a motion to adopt the controversial Nordic model which penalises those who purchase sex. Angela Crawley, its Equalities Spokersperson, advocated for its adoption in both Scotland and the wider UK, describing prostitution as a form of “gendered violence” and “both a cause and a consequence of sexual inequality.”

Scottish dominatrix Megara Furie doesn’t mince her words: “As workers our right to a safe workplace free from harassment is being ignored by an ignorant yet powerful minority [in government].” Instead, sex workers are looking to fight for their labour rights the traditional way: by joining a union.

Earlier this year, Furie led a successful campaign for unionisation that eventually resulted in GMB union green-lighting an adult entertainment branch in Scotland. “Unionisation and organised collectivism has long been the cornerstone of British workers’ rights. I and many others in my industry grew up watching trade unions take on bosses, organisations and government bodies defending the people on the ground who are otherwise voiceless.”

The new union branch has the Nordic model squarely in its sights. “The evidence is mounting that the Nordic model is not only ineffective but harmful, and soon will be the leading cause of violence against women,” Furie says.

After emerging in Sweden in 1999, the Nordic model has since spread to Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, Ireland and Israel. The legislation maintains that is legal for sex workers to sell their services but makes buying these services illegal. Contrary to popular belief, it does not fully decriminalise sex work – laws against brothel-keeping and soliciting continue to operate, making workers still reluctant to report abuse due to the possible police attention this might incur.

With the ruling party taking such a pro-Nordic model stance – encouraged by campaigns like End Prostitution Now and supported by Scottish Labour, the second biggest party in Holyrood – sex workers are worried that the Scottish Government will soon implement its own version of the controversial policy.

The SNP’s stance on prostitution has been hotly disputed by individuals working in the sex industry in Scotland. Sex Workers 4 Yes is petitioning the SNP to place the decriminalisation of prostitution on the agenda for the second independence referendum. HIV Scotland Chief Executive Nathan Sparling has also criticised it due to the “increased vulnerability to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections” associated with the Nordic model.

What it does do is attempt to curb demand for prostitution without doing anything to tackle the financial or material conditions that motivate individuals to choose sex work. In the UK, universal credit hardship and cuts to single parent benefits have seen an uptake in survival sex (where individuals engage clients for shelter, food or essential cash). The introduction of Personal Independent Payment, which has wrongfully denied and underpaid individuals’ disability payments, has also led some to enter into sex work who wouldn’t have done so otherwise.


Watch Now: The Battle For Sex-Workers Rights


As Molly Smith, the sex workers’ rights advocate and co-author of Revolting Prostitutes, said in a Metro interview: “If you understand that people are selling sex in order to get money, it becomes obvious that if policymakers want to reduce prostitution, they need to meet the material needs of sex workers and people who might become sex workers – and you don’t achieve that through policing.”

Scottish sex workers’ concerns have only been amplified by news emerging from Ireland after the Nordic model was introduced, with UglyMugs.ie, a service allowing sex workers to report violent or potentially dangerous clients, reporting that violent crime against sex workers increased by 92 percent.

Ireland isn’t the only place where the so-called “sex buyer law” has been associated with violence. The lethal shooting of trans sex worker Vanesa Campos in 2018 has been linked to the implementation of a French law outlawing the purchase of sex. Giovanna Rincon, the director of trans rights group Acceptess Transgenres, told VICE that the Nordic model means that sex workers had to safeguard their clients from police and the criminals who might target them. “The real criminals – like thieves – use this,” she explained. “The law talks about ‘sending the right message’ but it doesn’t even mention the safety of people actually in the industry.”

Scottish sex worker-led organisations like Scot-PEP have been vocal about the harms of the Nordic model. “So-called ‘sex-buyer laws’ target sex workers and make them less safe in the workplace,” board member Carly Bell told CommonSpace. “Unwillingness to report to law-enforcement leads to a climate where violent men who pose as clients know they can get away with committing crimes against sex workers, and men who are willing to buy sex have to be comfortable with breaking the law in the first place.”

Umbrella Lane sex worker rights group
Photo by Umbrella Lane

Their concerns are unlikely to be heeded. The Scottish government’s Violence Against Women and Girls policy classes sex work as a form of gendered violence (like domestic violence), referring to prostitution and pornography as “commercial sexual exploitation” and conflating consensual sex work and trafficking

The paternalistic treatment of sex workers as victims means that individuals from the industry are excluded from important policy decisions. Sex worker-led charities like Scot-PEP, Umbrella Lane and National Ugly Mugs were excluded from discussions surrounding a £1 million investment into a online support app for sex workers. It also means that police can describe strategies such as Operation SHAW – which saw officers make home visits to indoor sex workers – as “welfare checks”. (Organisations like Scot-PEP view them as raids in disguise.)

Umbrella Lane director Dr. Anastacia Ryan believes that the new union could challenge the government’s tendency to see sex workers as charity cases rather than human beings. “The worker-led unionisation of sex workers represents another example of sex workers challenging the perspective in Scottish policy of workers as weak, faceless victims of male violence,” she says. “It’s another example of workers showing their resilience and agency and together fighting for change.”

Dr. Holly Davis, a University of Edinburgh professor focussing on the Scottish sex industry, thinks the union could have positive implications in the wider movement for sex workers’ rights. “Stigmatisation and marginalisation have traditionally excluded sex workers from labor rights discourse, which contributes significantly to their experiences of exploitation and subsequently to the denial of their rights as workers,” she explains. “The potential within these developments are exciting and promising, hopefully resulting in successful campaigns and actions towards cementing the rights of sex workers as workers within the UK and setting an international precedent.”

More generally, the visibility that such organisation provides is invaluable in a world where sex workers are forced to remain underground and out of sight from authorities. “Current laws and policies surrounding the sex industry force workers to organise their work in ways that ensure their invisibility from state authorities,” Ryan explains. “In doing this, sex workers are often isolated and precarious and compromise their safety to work within the legal framework and avoid police harassment.”

Unionisation could offer a real chance to finally make sex workers’ voices heard by a government that usually silences them. Furie’s application for a separate adult entertainment branch is currently in its final stages. Anybody who works in the sex industry in Scotland is welcome to apply. That goes for anyone in any sector of the adult entertainment industry, including indoor workers, pro subs and dominants, strippers, porn performers and associated staff – as long as they aren’t a manager, owner or in any other position of power.

Furie explains that the branch’s focus will be challenging the existing legal framework and sending a strong message to the government about what the country’s sex workers want and need: “We want to see an innovative new Scottish model brought in which is written by workers for workers which will fully support and protect the rights and safety of those in the industry, those choosing to exit and those who have exited but continue to face discrimination and exploitation.”

Unions hope to provide one platform to defend their rights from a government that continues to see them as victims and not workers. As Ryan puts it: “Whatever people’s reasons for doing sex work, everyone deserves to have access to labour rights and associated protections, including unabated access to justice in cases of abuse, violence and exploitation.”