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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 10, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 10 February 2022

Agenda: Point of Order, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Online Pimping, Portfolio Question Time, Professional Qualifications Bill, Budget (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Health and Care Bill, Decision Time


Contents


Online Pimping

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-02911, in the name of Ruth Maguire, on online pimping. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament commends the Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation for its inquiry into pimping websites and its report, Online Pimping: An Inquiry into Sexual Exploitation Advertising Websites; understands that pimping websites, which profit from advertising individuals for prostitution, operate with impunity in Scotland, including in the Cunninghame South constituency; considers that pimping websites facilitate demand for prostitution by enabling men who pay for sex to quickly and anonymously locate women to sexually exploit; believes that pimping websites facilitate and incentivise sex trafficking by centralising and concentrating demand online and making it quick and easy to advertise victims; understands that the Scottish Government recognises prostitution as a form of violence against women; notes what it sees as the Scottish Government’s commitment to develop a model for Scotland to challenge men’s demand for prostitution, and notes the view that the new model for Scotland must outlaw online pimping in order to deter demand and prevent sex trafficking.

12:51  

Today, I am calling for three things: the Scottish Government to outlaw online pimping, traffickers and exploiters to be held to account with the full force of our criminal justice system, and the provision of comprehensive support and exiting services for women who have been advertised and exploited via pimping websites.

I thank colleagues from the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Scottish National Party for supporting my motion and enabling the debate to go ahead. I thank members for their speeches today. I am grateful to UK Feminista, which supported and facilitated the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on commercial sexual exploitation’s inquiry and to all those who took part. I also thank all those who have provided briefing materials and feedback—in particular, A Model for Scotland. I declare an interest as a member of the steering group, however, it is the members of the group—the women who have generously and openly shared their lived experience and expertise, women who have exited prostitution, the front-line organisations that work with women, and the grass-roots campaigners—who do the real work. I am grateful to know them and I feel privileged to work with them. Their courage and tenacity are awe inspiring.

In 2021, the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on commercial sexual exploitation, which I co-convene with Rhoda Grant, conducted an inquiry into pimping websites. Most people in Scotland would be surprised to know that in our country, our current laws mean that criminal gangs that profit from sexual exploitation of women can hide in plain sight by using so-called adult services websites. A quick glance at one of those sites will show that in this city, right now, there are women who have been trafficked—both from outwith and within our borders—who are being subjected to abuse, violence and humiliation to satisfy the demands of a minority of men. It is happening not only in Edinburgh, but right across the country.

Scotland’s laws on prostitution have not kept pace with technological change. As a result, commercial pimping websites, which advertise individuals for prostitution across Scotland, currently operate openly and freely. The problem that we face is that online pimping is legal and fuels sex trafficking in Scotland.

Detective Superintendent Filippo Capaldi, who is the head of Police Scotland’s human trafficking unit, told our inquiry:

“Adult Services Websites are one of the main facilitators of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation in Scotland and the rest of the UK, and we come across them quite commonly when we are dealing with trafficking inquiries, particularly involving foreign nationals.”

Pimping websites enable and incentivise sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Those websites, which host adverts for prostitution, expand the scale of sexual exploitation and enable anyone on the internet to anonymously access women who are advertised for prostitution. Websites are routinely used by sex traffickers, and there is no realistic way in which the website operators can prevent that.

Most prostitution advertising now takes place online rather than on the street or in local newspapers. A small number of websites dominate that online advertising marketplace. Those market-leading websites centralise and concentrate demand from sex buyers across Scotland. By placing an advert on one of those sites, trafficking gangs can quickly and easily advertise their victims to sex buyers throughout the country as well as move their victims between locations by simply altering the location information on their advert.

Frankly, those websites make the brutal business of sex trafficking easier and quicker for criminals. They do not deliver protection or security to the women who are advertised on them; on the contrary, they typically openly display the phone numbers of the women who are advertised, which allows anyone with access to the internet to immediately and anonymously access those women.

There is also no way in which website operators can identify whether a woman is being advertised on their site or exploited by a third party, such as a trafficker or pimp. As Megan King, who is a survivor of prostitution, told our inquiry:

“When I was handed over to my first client, at which point I had no idea I was being sold into the sex trade, that client took intimate photos of me, some in my underwear and others more intimate and degrading. The underwear shots were then used as profile pictures on my Adultwork profile that my pimp created without my knowledge or consent.”

She said that

“there’s no real way that [the website] can verify that that woman is the same woman that is then sold to a punter. In my situation, I believe that my pimp’s wife took passport photographs under which all of his girls were then advertised.”

An inquiry by the United Kingdom Parliament’s all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade concluded that pimping websites are now core to the typical business model for sex trafficking. Those websites have turbocharged the sex-trafficking trade. They incentivise sexual exploitation by making it quick and easy for pimps and traffickers to advertise their victims to men who pay for sex. In Scotland, that online pimping is taking place on an industrial scale, but the operations fall through the cracks of our outdated prostitution laws, and website owners profit from that exploitation with impunity.

The Scottish Government must, with urgency, get on with adopting laws against sexual exploitation that are fit for the 21st century. That requires making it a criminal offence to enable or profit from prostitution of another person, tackling men’s demand by criminalising paying for sex, and decriminalising and supporting victims of sexual exploitation.

It is time to get serious about men’s violence against women and girls in all its forms. It is time to put pimps and traffickers out of business.

12:58  

I express my gratitude to my colleague Ruth Maguire for securing this important debate, and to my colleagues in the cross-party group on commercial sexual exploitation for their determined and focused work to highlight the brutal business that is the world of online pimping.

In Scotland, we have a Government that rightly recognises prostitution as a form of violence against women, and our “Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls” underlines that. We need to implement a “challenging demand” approach, whereby it is the sex buyer who is recognised as the driver for that violence and, in turn, the pimps—whether they are on the streets, in brothels or operating online—are understood to be the traffickers and suppliers of prostituted women.

It beggars belief that men in Scotland are able to simply turn on their smartphones, open up the likes of the Vivastreet platform, and order themselves access to a woman’s body as easily as they can order a pizza. What does that say about the position of women in our society? It says that they are commodities to be bought and sold, trafficked and abused from coast to coast. There is very little empowerment for women in a system that allows online platform companies and pimps to get rich at the bodily expense of women.

I recently watched the “Panorama” documentary “Online Pimps Exposed”, which saw investigative journalist Bronagh Munro take a forensic look at the Vivastreet platform, on which one can buy a second-hand car as easily as one can find a woman in one’s vicinity to exploit. Although the company maintained that it does all that it can to prevent pimps from operating on the site, that is not believable, given that the programme uncovered evidence that hundreds of ads included the same mobile number and the same language, including grammatical errors, but advertised multiple women. Those are clear warning signs that Vivastreet should have picked up on as indicators of sexual exploitation.

A known Northern Irish trafficker was followed to airports where he picked up women who were then quickly added to the platform, with access to their bodies for sale within hours. That clearly indicates sexual exploitation for financial gain.

The news documentary also featured interviews with Detective Sergeant Stuart Peall, who runs the exploitation team at Lancashire Police. He told “Panorama”:

“Every single job is Vivastreet, they advertise over Vivastreet ... It is very common knowledge that if you need sexual services, Vivastreet is the place that you will find it. You can arrange what you want the girl to look like—it’s like a takeaway menu. There isn’t a job we have done that’s not Vivastreet”.

That is echoed by Detective Superintendent Filippo Capaldi, who is head of Police Scotland’s national human trafficking unit. He said:

“Adult services websites are one of the main facilitators of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation in Scotland and the rest of the UK, and we come across them quite commonly when we are dealing with trafficking inquiries, particularly involving foreign nationals.”

There have been numerous prosecutions for pimping and sex trafficking involving people who have used Vivastreet to advertise the women whom they are exploiting. In one case in the north-west of England in 2017, a man spent £25,000 on adverts on Vivastreet, which actually gave him his own personal account manager. What does that say?

A Model for Scotland’s briefing for the debate further outlines that a small number of highly lucrative pimping websites dominate the online marketplace for advertising prostitution. They are the go-to websites for sex buyers who are looking for a woman to pay for sex. As a result, pimping websites centralise and concentrate demand from sex buyers online.

Women are murdered and assaulted in appalling numbers. We cannot disengage that reality from exploitation of women who are involved in prostitution and pornography. Violence against women must be seen in all of its forms and in all the places where it exists. Reducing women to commodities harms us all, so our laws must reflect that.

13:02  

I congratulate Ruth Maguire on securing this important debate, and I am very glad of the opportunity to speak in it.

As MSPs, we get bombarded with a vast amount of information from political parties, public and professional bodies, members of the public, pressure groups and charities, along with many others. I do not think that any of us can claim to read it all. However, I would urge all members to take the time to read the report on online pimping that has been produced by the cross-party group on commercial sexual exploitation. It is a thorough and well-researched piece of work that lays bare the extent of the online sex industry and the hugely complex issues around how best to deal with it.

The report identifies four main websites that are operating in the United Kingdom. Today, one of those websites contains 905 adverts for prostitution, often euphemistically misnamed as “escorting”. Of those adverts, 358 are in Glasgow and 176 are in Edinburgh. However, the issue is not just in our big cities, with women for sale today in all but two of our 32 local authority areas. Some of the content is deeply disturbing. A cursory look yields an advert containing the word “schoolgirl”. There are women from many countries, including those, such as Romania, that are associated with the trafficking of people. The seedy websites are a window on a deeply disturbing and dangerous world. Services and prices are displayed alongside photos of the women, whom we are expected to believe have made the choice to do what they are doing.

The report makes it clear that many of the women have been enslaved by cross-border criminal gangs and are treated as no more than commodities. One of the most shocking findings in the CPG’s report is that the median time for which a sex trafficking victim is held captive is 274 days—approximately nine months. In that time, they will be raped 795 times.

I note with interest the competing views about how law enforcement deals with the websites and the sex trade more generally. It seems that the police have sought to engage with the sites in order to identify and catch the criminal gangs and offer some form of protection to the victims. The approach of the police seems to be based on pragmatism and an acceptance that the trade in sex will always be with us. However, the CPG’s report suggests that a much more robust approach is necessary, citing France as an example. One concern is that that may drive the trade further underground, potentially making the police’s task even harder and increasing the danger to women. I appreciate both perspectives, and I am sure that that will be the subject of continued debate.

I have only four minutes, so I will conclude by categorically agreeing with others that men are the catalyst for the online trade in women—just as men have controlled sex for sale throughout the ages, since long before the internet. It is men who use violence and threats to control their female victims, and it is men who maintain the trade by paying for sex with absolutely no regard for the subjugation and misery that they are fuelling.

This trade is part of broader societal issues that affect women and girls, from the sexualisation of children, the abundance of pornography, female exploitation, and everyday sexism and discrimination right through to a criminal justice system in which women continue to be failed—as was acknowledged in the chamber this week by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans.

Last year, it was reported that an English university was offering sessions to support students involved in sex work. I agree with the United Kingdom Minister for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan, who said that that was “legitimising a dangerous industry”.

I will conclude by stating that it is incumbent on all men to stand up and be counted—to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

13:06  

I thank Ruth Maguire for securing the debate and for her work on the cross-party group on commercial sexual exploitation. The group’s report, “Online Pimping”, is a detailed and harrowing piece of work that covers many bases.

In many cases, girls and women are trafficked and then bought, sold or hired by men for the purposes of sexual violence and exploitation. Unfortunately, that is not new, but the rise of the internet has changed the landscape and, as the CPG’s report notes, it has fuelled a demand and has grown the market in recent years. In the past, men who paid for sex were at risk of being caught when frequenting red-light districts. Nowadays, men can access websites to buy women by the hour just as easily as they can do online grocery shopping.

Rightly, the Scottish Government recognises prostitution as an example of gender-based violence. As we have heard, equally safe is the national strategy to prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls. It has been adapted for schools in order to embed gender equality into our education system and to prevent gender-based violence. That is important for many reasons, including in relation to men’s demand for prostitution. Research from the Sandyford clinic in Glasgow found that men who have not purchased sex by the age of 25 are less likely to ever do so. By educating boys and young men and by highlighting that prostitution is sexual exploitation, we can hopefully curb some of the demand.

We also need reforms to the law regarding those who pay for sex. The need to end commercial sexual exploitation is clear. I know that the Scottish Government has been considering international best practice in tackling the harms associated with prostitution, and I welcome the commitment to develop a model that will reduce the harms of prostitution and challenge men’s demand but that will also support women to exit prostitution.

Right now, as Ruth Maguire points out, online pimping is legal but the women, who may well have been trafficked, are criminally liable. Equally safe emphasises the importance of exit services to support women to leave prostitution and move on with their lives. Importantly, those women deserve to be treated without fear of judgment or discrimination. Women who have been involved in prostitution experience huge stigma, but the outrage should be directed towards the men who buy sex. It is crucial that the model for Scotland tackles the stigma that is experienced by women, encourages them to come forward and get the help and support that they are entitled to, and does not make the victims of sexual exploitation the people who face criminalisation.

I commend the cross-party group for its inquiry. I thank everyone involved for their work, especially those women—the survivors of sexual exploitation—who are trying to effect change. To date, the Scottish Government’s approach has been good, but we need legislative change. It is time to outlaw online pimping, and I look forward to hearing an update from the minister on the planned reforms.

13:10  

I, too, congratulate Ruth Maguire on securing the debate. It is good to see her back in the chamber.

We all know and recognise that prostitution is violence against women. In a country that values equality, men should not be able to buy access to other people’s bodies. That is male violence and an abuse of power, and it has no place in Scotland; yet, today, 1,595 women are on sale in Scotland on Vivastreet and Adultworks.

That is because a sizeable minority of men in Scotland are abusive, which has led to the creation of a lucrative industry. The pimps, traffickers and brothel keepers exploit that market, but, to do so, they need to be able to advertise their victims to sex buyers. The pimps are the same, whether they advertise on the street, own a brothel or operate a website. They facilitate and profit from the prostitution of others. Vivastreet, Adultworks and the rest are simply pimps making money through promoting violence against women and exploiting people to feed an appalling trade.

The truth is that prostitution is lucrative for those who manage it. The websites say that they have measures in place to prevent victims of trafficking from being advertised on them. However, as we heard from Ruth Maguire, our witnesses in the report tell us something very different. Megan King’s evidence was alarming.

Elena Whitham cited last year’s BBC “Panorama” broadcast, which was an investigation into Vivastreet that exposed how pimps and their traffickers use the site to advertise their victims. The journalist who led that investigation, Bronagh Munro, said:

“I was able to identify a pattern surrounding phone numbers, surrounding the names of the women that were being advertised, the names of women that were passing through multiple postcodes. There were hundreds of numbers connected to multiple ads. … The 12,000 ads that I looked at were littered with adverts that I would say were concerning.”

If she can see that, surely so should the police.

Elena Whitham also cited the case that shows how seriously Vivastreet takes the issue of sex trafficking: that of the trafficker who spent £25,000. Prior to that man’s arrest, Vivastreet did not respond to his high rate of spending on prostitution adverts by calling the police; instead, it allocated him an account manager.

Pimping websites have a major vested interest in prostitution and will oppose any attempt to combat that exploitation. The charity National Ugly Mugs is launching NUMbrella lane, a service in Scotland for people who are involved in the sex trade. The Vivastreet logo is on the home page of its website, in its list of funders. The website states:

“We have a longstanding relationship with Vivastreet that began in 2015”.

Last year, National Ugly Mugs lobbied the Scottish Government, through the equally safe consultation, to fully decriminalise the sex trade, including for third parties. There is a close relationship between exploiters and organisations that promote the decriminalisation of pimps, making money out of misery and using it to further the cause of misery. They must be stopped.

13:14  

I thank Ruth Maguire for bringing this debate to the chamber today, because it allows me to give voice to those who are not represented by the sexual exploitation inquiry report—sex workers.

As we seek to tackle violence against women and girls, including sex trafficking, we should follow the evidence to ensure that we support sex workers and keep them safe and tackle the causes and structures that enable sex trafficking and violence against women and girls.

Would Maggie Chapman acknowledge that, although we might call them different names, people who had been involved in prostitution were very much represented in our inquiry? We spoke with those who were involved in what might be deemed high-class prostitution and people who had been victimised in the street. Current sex workers were also invited to take part, but they declined.

I will talk about the responses from Scot-PEP, which represents sex workers, about how their evidence was not included in that report.

I do not agree that outlawing adult services websites will stop sex trafficking and deliver the kinds of changes that the motion outlines. Sex workers—and groups that support and represent them—do not want online platforms to be banned, and they highlight three key reasons for that. First, sex workers use online platforms to screen clients, in order to improve safety. They also use them to connect with each other, in order to reduce isolation and keep each other up to date with risk alerts.

Will the member take an intervention?

I am going to make some progress.

Secondly, if online platforms were banned, it would force sex workers into on-street and other informal ways of working.

Will Maggie Chapman take an intervention on that point?

I am going to make progress.

That could disrupt their income streams, which would cause economic hardship, and would lead to survival sex work, which is more unsafe. There is clear evidence from the US where, following the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2018, violence experienced by sex workers increased, as did their vulnerability to pimps. Perhaps unexpectedly, it also negatively affected their ability to find other forms of work. They were less able to deal with mental and physical health issues and therefore less able to secure alternative employment.

Thirdly, banning online platforms risks displacing activities to the dark web and other unregulatable spaces, where there is far more risk of harm and less scope for outreach, safety and support services. The dark web is already used by traffickers, and banning online sites now will not stop that.

Beyond the Gaze, a research project that was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found that sex workers overwhelmingly agreed that the internet had enabled them to work independently of pimps or managers, screen clients effectively, find out about their rights as workers and people, access networks and support, and improve the quality of their working lives.

Rather than criminalising and endangering sex workers, I urge the Scottish Government and those who speak in the debate today to engage with and speak to sex workers, in order to explore how we can regulate adult services sites, improve safety, secure rights and options for earning the money needed to live, while also addressing poverty, economic insecurity and structural inequality.

I also encourage members to read the response to the CPG’s sexual exploitation inquiry from Scot-Pep, whose evidence was not included in that report.

I will close with the words of a young sex worker in Edinburgh. Jay says:

“I know firsthand the impact removing online advertising spaces causes as my colleagues in the united states were being contacted by pimps being told that it’s different now, and claiming that we need them. I don’t want to see workers in Scotland pushed back into the hands of managers. When I started sex working at 21 I worked in a brothel where a manager took 60% of my earnings and I kept 40%. Being able to work alone has helped me to keep my earnings, helped me to achieve stable housing, and allowed me to claw my way out of poverty. We must abolish poverty, not force women working in sex work into worse and more dangerous conditions in the name of saving them.”

13:19  

I thank our colleague Ruth Maguire for lodging the motion for debate. I state my support for the A Model for Scotland campaign, and I urge my fellow MSPs to support the campaign publicly.

I agree that legislation is required to account for technological change, which has significantly increased the levels of sex trafficking and exploitation taking place in Scotland. As members will be aware, Rhoda Grant MSP was kind enough to arrange a briefing on the A Model for Scotland campaign last December, and it is still available online.

At that briefing, Valiant Richey, the co-ordinator for tackling human trafficking in Europe at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, spoke about the scale of the issue at hand. He highlighted that, 10 years ago, a study concluded that technology is the single greatest facilitator of the commercial sex industry. He went on to say that, over the past decade, the only thing that has changed from that conclusion is that the situation has grown much worse.

That is confirmed by police who are leading convictions against traffickers in the UK. The police, notably Sergeant Peall, say that the scale of sex trafficking cannot be met by current police resources and that these websites incentivise trafficking by increasing profitability.

That brings us to today’s debate, in which we, as legislators, have the power and ability to begin the process of closing the legislative gap and to seek to stop online pimping websites from facilitating mass exploitation in Scotland while they evade the law. Detective Chief Superintendent McCluskey, the head of public protection for Police Scotland, who was recently awarded the Queen’s police medal, described online pimping websites as the most significant enablers of sexual exploitation in Scotland.

Should the Parliament move forward and legislate on this matter, I would urge fellow parliamentarians to remain informed and grounded about the horrific reality of the abuse and misery of sexual exploitation and trafficking, including of children. I underline that there is no such thing as a good or safe buyer in prostitution—in fact, that idea is farcical. Our laws already recognise the abhorrent nature of sex trafficking and prostitution. I urge MSPs to anticipate that there will be false dichotomies and false narratives put forward by lobby groups that are paid for by those who profit from the legal industry, including people who have been convicted of human trafficking offences. Those views can also come from people who have heard those narratives and whose levels of information on the issue may vary.

The OSCE co-ordinator for tackling trafficking in 57 countries in Europe, central Asia and North America, Mr Richey, explained that the advertising of women for sale on these websites opens a gateway to harm. The websites allow, on a great scale, the intersection of somebody paying for sex with someone who did not come to that transaction willingly. Rather, that person, whether they are a woman or a child, finds themselves trapped as a result of coercion, abuse or people preying on their vulnerability. The whole transaction is rendered as non-consensual sex. The websites facilitate mass rape and, in the UK, have been linked to many cases of further violence and homicide. They should not be legal under any circumstances. The websites are against human rights. Mass rape is not a human flourishing—rather, it is the worst possible kind of degradation against people who are the most vulnerable in our society.

Examples from the US and Israel show how successful legislation can be in shutting down the operation of these websites. For example, after the FOSTA-SESTA legislation was passed in 2018, the online marketplace for these websites in the US dropped by 80 per cent in 72 hours. It is our responsibility as MSPs to act to the limits of our abilities and to take this issue, and the protection of the victims of exploitation and trafficking, seriously.

13:23  

I will not be taking interventions, as the dominant view has already been very well represented in today’s debate.

I thank Ruth Maguire for bringing forward the motion for debate; I believe that her concerns are genuine. However, I am concerned that moves to criminalise online platforms that are used by sex workers will actually increase the risk to their safety. Sex workers themselves have said that they use online platforms to screen clients, improve safety and connect with each other for support. Such platforms also provide greater opportunities for sex workers to access outreach, safety and support services than would likely be the case in unregulated online spaces such as the dark web. That is why I believe it important for any decisions that could affect the safety and livelihoods of sex workers to be taken after meaningful consultation with those in work and to be based on evidence.

The evidence from studies so far shows that the vast majority of sex workers believe that there are benefits to their use of online platforms. The Beyond the Gaze project surveyed sex workers, who agreed that online platforms had improved their safety and their ability to access support and noted that they enabled them to screen clients, engage with sex worker networks and access support services. Crucially, the vast majority of them believed that both advertising sexual services online and purchasing such services should be legal.

What happens when a criminalisation approach is pursued? The US has opted for criminalisation of online platforms through the FOSTA-SESTA law and the End Banking for Human Traffickers Act 2021. Research that was published in the Anti-Trafficking Review found that those laws had increased the financial insecurity of sex workers, with some forced to move offline to work on the streets or through an exploitative third party. The laws have also undermined sex workers’ safety with the loss of web-based harm reduction tools that helped to identify clients with a history of violence.

The result of those laws, therefore, has been to push these workers into more dangerous ways of working, into greater financial insecurity and away from support networks, and they were passed in the face of opposition from workers, anti-trafficking organisations, criminal defence lawyers and LGBT, health and social justice organisations. The approach that has been taken by the US is the clearest example of policy being made in spite of evidence and without meaningful consultation with those affected.

As I have said, if we are serious about supporting people to exit sex work, we have to tackle the underlying material issues that often drive people into sex work in the first place. Some issues such as the lack of employment and education opportunities and inadequate social security provision are long-standing, while others are being worsened by the current cost of living crisis with regard to rent, food prices and heating.

Given such underlying material issues, the criminalisation of online platforms will not help individuals leave sex work. Instead, it will leave sex workers facing greater risks to their safety, drive them into financial insecurity and deny them access to support networks and services. The proposal to criminalise online platforms is based on neither the evidence nor the views of sex workers. We need a new approach, which is why I continue to believe that we should pursue decriminalisation of sex work offline and online.

I conclude with a comment from a sex worker reflecting on the FOSTA-SESTA law, who said:

“It was written to remind”

us

“that our lives are dispensable, we are not protected, our work is unseen and irrelevant, to destabilize our ability to live with any degree of agency”.

13:28  

I, too, thank Ruth Maguire for lodging the motion for debate. I also thank CARE and A Model for Scotland for the briefings that they have provided.

Prostitution remains inherently exploitative. Let us call it what it is: it is gender-based violence, no more, no less. As it stands, this form of violence against women is wholly within the law, which is something that would be unthinkable in any other context. I agree that the Government deserves credit for its equally safe strategy, its recognition of prostitution as a form of violence against women and its stated commitment to having a tailored Scottish model for tackling it.

As A Model for Scotland states in its briefing,

“Online pimping is currently legal in Scotland. As a result, highly lucrative pimping websites operate with impunity.”

Many people in Scotland do not see this sort of thing and they are unaware of the issues that it causes every day. As Rhoda Grant has said, there are about 1,500 to 2,000 women for sale now, which is incredible.

Pimping websites play a key role in enabling and incentivising sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in Scotland. The websites make it quick and easy for traffickers and pimps to advertise their victims to sex buyers across the country. We heard Elena Whitham talk about it being as easy as going shopping. Someone can go online and two minutes later, that is it; they buy a woman. They buy a woman!

The Scottish Government is committed to challenging men’s demand for prostitution and to supporting women to exit sexual exploitation. To achieve that goal, A Model for Scotland asks that the Scottish Government outlaws online pimping, holds exploiters to account and delivers comprehensive support and exiting services for individuals who are advertised and exploited through the pimping websites.

We have heard about the cross-party group, which found three main issues. The first is that the pimping websites knowingly facilitate and profit from the prostitution of others. Secondly, commercial pimping websites are designed to facilitate and profit from this form of violence against women. Thirdly, they incentivise and enable sex trafficking by centralising and concentrating demand online.

We have heard already that a small number of highly lucrative websites dominate the marketplace in Scotland. Another key thing is that they are a market-expanding force. The sites can be set up pretty quickly—it takes no technical expertise—and they enable the industrial scale on which sexual exploitation takes place. The size and the scale of the prostitution trade is not constant; it is context dependent.

It is important to touch on the evidence base that supports the recommendations on legislation against online pimping. We heard about the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 in the United States, which significantly disrupted a major pimping website called Backpage and resulted in a real reduction in demand on such websites.

Online pimping is also illegal in France. Legislation makes it illegal to assist in or profit from another person’s prostitution. Procuring is punishable by seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of €150,000. The sentence can be increased to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of €3 million if the offence is committed by an organised group.

In conclusion—and this is the key part of the evidence for me—Valiant Richey from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who is the co-ordinator for combating trafficking in human beings, said:

“Governments should really be considering policy options to shut down these sites as quickly as possible”

as such sites have

“made it much easier for traffickers to advertise people and much easier for buyers to find them. And any time you reduce that threshold, those barriers to accessing the market, you are going to see more engagement and that’s been the major problem. It also reduces risk for traffickers, so it makes it much more attractive.”

Online pimping is wrong. It is symptomatic of gender-based violence against women and has no place in Scotland in 2022.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I think that Maggie Chapman may have inadvertently misled members. On 12 October 2020, Ruth Maguire contacted SCOT-PEP, inviting it to give oral evidence to the cross-party group inquiry. On 10 November that year, I wrote to SCOT-PEP, again extending an invitation to give oral evidence and suggesting that, if that was not possible, it might wish to give written evidence. On 12 November, I again wrote to SCOT-PEP asking it to give evidence to the inquiry, either oral or written. We had no response to that.

I thank the member for her contribution. I suggest that that is not a point of order, on the basis that the content of statements and contributions from members is not a matter for the chair. However, the member has made her point, which will be in the Official Report.

I call on the minister, Ash Regan, to respond to the debate.

13:33  

I thank Ruth Maguire for the motion and commend the cross-party group on commercial sexual exploitation for its report, which highlights the cross-cutting issues related to online pimping, such as its role in facilitating human trafficking, and the underlying issue of how women are viewed in society, which is timely, given that the independent working group on misogyny is due to publish its report later this month.

Ms Maguire’s speech was an unflinching portrait of this grim issue and there were many excellent speeches across the chamber. I never thought that I would get to this point, but I am quite in agreement with Russell Findlay on many of the points that he raised in his speech.

However, I cannot agree with either Maggie Chapman or Mercedes Villalba on either their assessment of the issue or the approach that we should take to it. Of course I agree that listening to prostituted women is very important. The point of order that Rhoda Grant just made showed that that is considered to be an important element and we want to listen. For the members’ information, SCOT-PEP is also on the Government’s reference group, so we are listening carefully to what it has to say. I agree that that is really important. I have also spoken to a number of women who have been involved in prostitution, so I assure members that I take that seriously.

However, I urge members to look at the reality of prostitution in countries that have pursued decriminalisation. Members should consider the high level of trafficking that is involved and the conditions, which, I am sorry to say, are far from safe for the women who are involved. They should also consider the levels of commoditisation, which has come up a lot in the debate. I reflect that that inhumane commoditisation harms not only the women who are involved, but harms and impacts on society’s view of all women. My question to both Maggie Chapman and Mercedes Villalba is, is that appropriate and desirable? Is it what we want in Scotland? I would say that it is not.

The Scottish Government is clear that misogyny fuels violence against women and girls and erodes our efforts to make progress to address gender inequality. Women’s bodies being commodified in that way and purchased by men is a deeply misogynistic behaviour. An exchange for sex or sexual services is not about sex: it is about power, control and the persistence of structures that normalise such harmful behaviours in our society.

The equally safe strategy’s definition includes the full spectrum of violence against women. It does not prioritise tackling one behaviour over another to achieve equality—Elena Whitham mentioned that in her speech—but recognises that forms of gendered violence frequently overlap. A recent snapshot survey by the Encompass Network demonstrates that point. Of the women in that survey, 36 per cent disclosed experiences of childhood sexual abuse, 83 per cent disclosed experiences of domestic abuse and 20 per cent disclosed that they were under 18 when they were first involved in selling sex or sexual images.

Our commitment to tackling prostitution is in line with our intention to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women into Scots law. Article 6 of the convention compels Scotland to take all appropriate measures, including legislating to suppress all forms of trafficking and exploitation of women through prostitution. That is a global call to action and one to which we must respond. This year’s programme for government does that by committing the Scottish Government to develop a model for Scotland to challenge men’s demand for prostitution. In doing so, it adds to a series of policy actions that are being taken to root out misogynistic behaviours in society.

The cross-party group’s report calls for a number of legislative solutions to address certain activities that are associated with prostitution and to restrict pimps’ and traffickers’ room to operate and exploit. There are a number of laws in Scotland that make certain activities that are associated with prostitution illegal. Those activities are: running a brothel; public solicitation to sell or purchase sex; loitering to sell or purchase sex; procuring someone into becoming a prostitute; and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

I fully recognise that those laws are piecemeal and were not consistently developed against a wider understanding of socioeconomic deprivation or, in some cases, even when the internet was available. However, we are clear that the development of a new model to challenge men’s demand must be informed by such factors and make things better, not worse, for women. We must shift the burden and focus on the men who buy sex, and have been able to do so for generations, without being held to account for their actions.

To support the design of the model, we have tasked a short-life working group of experts to consider what the fundamental principles to underpin the model could be. The group has met on two occasions and is making excellent progress. Its membership includes justice and health representatives, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Scottish Women’s Aid, representatives from violence against women partnerships and Public Health Scotland.

The development of principles will create a solid foundation that will uphold the values that we want to be reflected in the model and will ensure that women’s safety is at its heart. Our ambition is to make very clear what the model stands for and draw on possible areas of consensus, such as the need to further recognise and address the structural and systemic disadvantages that women experience. The draft principles are expected in the early part of this year and we will consult further to feed further voices into the process.

A national contract has been awarded to an independent research team to undertake lived experience research in order to better understand current support, service provision and the needs of service users. That will help to inform the aspects of the model that deal with support.

An independent Scottish Government analysis is under way to look at lessons that have been learned internationally about implementing laws to challenge men’s demand. That will be vital as we learn from the global stage how best to approach the issue.

It may be helpful if I set out that the regulation of internet and online service providers is a reserved matter. We are continuing to liaise closely with the UK Government on the forthcoming online safety bill. On 4 February this year, the UK Government announced that extra priority offences will be included in the bill. We understand that that will include offences that involve sexual exploitation. In principle, the move is welcome, as it aims to make the internet hostile to pimps and human traffickers. We will consider the bill very carefully once we have more detail on it, especially with regard to the scope of the domestic model that we are developing.

Now is the time for progressive and ambitious policies that support women, address the underlying causes of misogyny and drive gender equality forward. I am heartened by the debate and am fully committed to continuing to work with members across the chamber and stakeholders as we further progress with the model’s development.

That concludes the debate. I suspend the meeting until 2 pm.

13:41 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—