There’s more loneliness than lust in parts of our sex industry - Tom Wood

So we are to have a national conversation on sex work; fair enough. But just to make sure we know our direction of travel, the agenda is clear – to criminalise the buying of sex.

Monday, 28th September 2020, 12:30 pm

The early salvoes of this forgone conclusion are not encouraging. Community Safety Minister Ash Denham is quoted as saying: “Prostitution is a form of commercial sexual exploitation and is therefore part of what we consider as violence against women. This consultation is an opportunity for a national discussion about how we address this form of gendered violence, protect the human rights and dignity of women.” There are several things very wrong with this statement. For a start, it excludes any mention of men and boys. Is it conceivable that the minister is unaware of male prostitutes or “rent boys”? Has no one told her that young women and men are trafficked into the sex industry or that men and boys are much more likely to fall victim to violence than women? How did this idea pass any test of equality?

It’s all so black and white in the world of “gendered violence”, wrongly interpreted as “all violence is male, women are victims” – simple. Except, of course, that anyone in the real world knows it’s not. The sex industry, like life itself, is a patchwork of subtle grey.

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In some areas the evidence is clear. We know that legalising prostitution increases demand which soon outstrips supply and leads to coercion – pimping etc. It’s equally clear that the wholesale criminalisation of the sex industry drives it underground and into the lap of organised crime. Arresting our way out of this problem has been tried many times. If it had worked, the sex trade would have been eradicated a millennia ago. But there’s another problem with this latest foray into tackling the sex industry. It presumes that all female sex workers are unwilling participants, brought low by pimps or adverse circumstances. It simply isn’t so. While many street sex workers are victims of addictions and pimps, many women working in saunas have made a conscious choice.

Just before lockdown, while researching a book about the sex industry, I had the opportunity to individually interview six women who work in Edinburgh saunas. Aged between 29 and 56, two were eastern European, one was from the Far East. One was a postgraduate student, another a retired businesswoman. One spoke openly of her drug problem, others of their families and aspirations. All were confident, forthright, frank and feisty. And they all resented being cast as victims. One young woman summed it up as: “I have made my choice and I have my personal boundaries, I am happy that I can cope with the job emotionally.”

After a long police service, I thought I had little to learn about the sex trade. I was wrong. I learned a lot from this impressive group.

But if speaking to the women was a revelation, so were their clients, who were mostly older men. One 70-year-old bachelor has been regularly visiting the same woman for over 20 years. She is his closest friend. There is a lot more loneliness than lust in parts of our sex industry.

Do we really want to criminalise this man? Is this what progressive 21st-century Scotland looks like? I hope our Community Safety Minister has the wisdom to ignore the dogma and speaks to the people I met. Like me, I suspect she might learn something.

Tom Wood is a writer and former deputy chief constable. His new book on the sex industry will be published in 2021.

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