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Sex Workers’ Safety in the Balance in Scotland

Consultation Ignores Safest Option for Workers — Full Decriminalization

People take part in an International Women's Day march in London, England, against criminalization of sex work and the associated stigma, unsafe work conditions, and violence against sex workers, March 08, 2018. © 2018 Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media

The Scottish government is holding a consultation on “how best to challenge men’s demand for prostitution in Scotland, reducing the harms associated with prostitution and supporting women involved to exit.” Scotland’s laws currently criminalize many activities related to the sale and purchase of sex, including publicly soliciting or loitering for the purposes of selling sex, and “brothel keeping.”

The opportunity for members of the public, especially people currently engaged in sex work, to weigh in is important. But the government’s framing of the consultation betrays a lack of understanding of the diversity of people who sell and buy sex.  It also excludes the approach that best reflects international human rights law and research on how best to protect the safety of people who exchange sex for money – full decriminalization. The consultation asks people which of four approaches they see as most effective at preventing violence against woman and girls, but those options do not include full decriminalization.

As Human Rights Watch wrote in our submission, our research in countries including  Cambodia, China, South Africa, Tanzania, and the United States has led us to support full decriminalization of sex work. Our findings indicate that even when only buying sex is criminalized, it makes it harder for sex workers to protect themselves from violence. Laws prohibiting “brothel-keeping” often prevent sex workers from sharing work premises and protecting each other.

Laws such as those in Scotland criminalizing loitering and soliciting can force sex workers to make hurried and less cautious decisions about potential clients, or to work in more dangerous locations. These laws also leave many sex workers with criminal records that can make it harder to transition into other forms of work and access benefits and services.

The consultation also highlights “links between human trafficking, prostitution and serious organized crime.” Human Rights Watch has also conducted extensive research on human trafficking and works to end human trafficking. Sex work is the consensual exchange of sex between adults. Human trafficking is a separate issue—it is a serious human rights abuse and a crime and should always be investigated and prosecuted. Laws and policies that clearly distinguish between sex work and the crime of human trafficking help protect both sex workers and crime victims.

Scotland’s consultation on sex work could help inform a new approach that better protects the safety and well-being of sex workers—if the government is prepared to hear those views.

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