Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 12 December 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Urgent Question, Topical Question Time, Year of Young People, Point of Order, Decision Time, Violence Against Women and Commercial Sexual Exploitation


Violence Against Women and Commercial Sexual Exploitation

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-08740, in the name of Rhoda Grant, on the international day for the elimination of violence against women, and tackling commercial sexual exploitation. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises that 25 November each year marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women; acknowledges the inclusion of commercial sexual exploitation in the Scottish Government’s definition of violence against women in the paper, Equally Safe, Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls; considers that prostitution is both a form of such violence and a barrier to gender equality; notes the view that those who purchase sexual services should be held accountable for their part in this violence, and commends the many organisations across Scotland and internationally supporting women to exit prostitution.


Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

This debate comes at the end of the global 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. The core message this year is that women’s rights are human rights. It is about the right of women and girls not to suffer violence, discrimination, humiliation or harm, and the right to be treated as a human being who has the same value as everyone else.

Commercial sexual exploitation is a glaring example of how women and girls are treated differently, with their right to be protected from violence and humiliation set aside in favour of the sexual gratification of others.

In “Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls”, the Scottish Government recognises that commercial sexual exploitation, including

“prostitution, pornography and human trafficking”,

is a form of violence against women. We all support the Government in making that clear statement. However, when it comes to the strategy and the work that flows from it, the approach to tackling commercial sexual exploitation lacks the vision, commitment and resources that are rightly directed at other types of violence against women.

Prostitution is profoundly harmful, violent and exploitative. The Scottish Government has conducted research with professionals who work with women in prostitution, and in “Summarised Findings—Exploring Available Knowledge and Evidence on Prostitution in Scotland Via Practitioner-Based Interviews”, which was published in December last year, the researchers reported:

“most respondents who provide services and support to those involved in prostitution emphasised a range of risks and adverse impacts associated with prostitution in the short and longer term in relation to general and mental health, safety and wellbeing and sexual health.”

Research into women in prostitution in Glasgow, which was published in 2010, found that 21 of the 33 women who were interviewed reported violence from men who purchased sex. Another study has shown that women who are involved in prostitution are 16 times more exposed to rape and 12 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

There is a telling example of the damage that prostitution causes to women’s mental health in a study of female drug users in Glasgow, which found that the women who were engaged in prostitution were more likely to show symptoms of anxiety and depression than the drug users who were not in prostitution. Another study with women in prostitution found that 68 per cent of those surveyed suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The reality of those statistics comes home when we hear women talk about their experiences. In a Women’s Support Project video, a woman called Stephanie says:

“A lot of people think it’s easy money, but it definitely isn’t cos there’s a lot of psychological problems, a lot of violence. I’ve been attacked four times, raped twice, there’s just a lot of danger in it. They’re just treating you like something they’ve bought and you will do what they say. And if you don’t agree, tough. Just get on with it.”

In no other circumstances of life would such a high risk of physical and mental harm be tolerated. The equally safe strategy says that that should not be accepted and that prostitution is a form of violence against women, yet too often the response is that prostitution has always existed and will always exist, and there is nothing that can be done about it. The truth is that something can be done about it. We can hold to account those who use others for their sexual gratification. We can send a clear message that it is not acceptable in Scotland for women’s bodies to be bought and sold.

In western Europe there has been a sea change in attitudes to prostitution over the past three years and, since late 2014, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, France and Canada have adopted laws that make it a criminal offence to purchase sex. The laws draw on the experience of Sweden, which pioneered that progressive approach in 1999, followed by Norway and Iceland in 2009.

The official evaluation of the Swedish law in 2010 found that on-street prostitution had halved and there had been no increase in off-street prostitution since the passing of the law. A 2014 evaluation of the Norwegian law concluded:

“The ban on purchasing sexual services has reduced demand for sex and thus contribute to reduce the extent of prostitution in Norway.”

If we are to fulfil the vision of the equally safe strategy and create

“a strong and flourishing Scotland where all individuals are equally safe and respected, and where women and girls live free from such abuse—and the attitudes that help perpetuate it”,

we must work to eradicate prostitution. We can do that only by addressing those who perpetuate it: the men whose demand for paid sex creates a market in which vulnerable women and girls—and indeed some vulnerable men—become objects for sale.

We must also make greater strides towards helping women to find routes out of prostitution. The motion that we are debating particularly commends organisations that support women to exit prostitution but, sadly, that area is all too often underfunded.

A woman who is referred to as Katy told the Women’s Support Project:

“If there had been a chance earlier to get out of what I was doing, I would get out of it. I would have took that chance. Changed my life earlier.”

The Government’s research shows that organisations supporting women to exit prostitution are facing serious challenges due to insecure and short-term funding. Many of those organisations are known to us all. They include the Women’s Support Project, whose work I have quoted, and TARA—trafficking awareness raising alliance—which does a huge amount of work with people who have been trafficked into sexual exploitation. There are also others whose work is less well known, including organisations such as the Co-op. I am a member of the Co-operative Party, but I was unaware that it provides support and employment opportunities for people escaping modern-day slavery, which comes in the form of a 12-month paid employment and support project. That is just one example of what can be done to support people.

We need to realise that people who are exiting prostitution will have complex problems—the problems that drew them into prostitution in the first place and the harms that prostitution has since caused them. Project TurnKey CIC offers alternative support to victims of commercial sexual exploitation. It provides legal information, workshops to boost confidence and links to partners that offer employment and training, and offers that support to women who are often in prison and who are either involved in or at risk of becoming involved in prostitution. We must ensure that such services are available to all those who need them.

The 16 days of activism have been great at raising awareness. However, gender-based violence is still happening and is not limited to 16 days. That is why we must act now to fulfil the vision of the equally safe strategy. We must work to prevent exploitation through prostitution by challenging the notion that sex can be for sale, by making it a criminal offence to pay for sex, by helping women to exit prostitution through services and by ensuring that women are not criminalised for being victims of exploitation.


Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I thank Rhoda Grant for bringing this important debate to the chamber, but it is a debate that I wish it were not necessary to have. I cannot believe that we are debating such an incredibly distressing subject and that so many women are suffering violence and intimidation from men throughout the world, whether through prostitution or domestically. The fact that, in 2017, there is an international day for the elimination of violence against women and tackling commercial sexual exploitation beggars belief. However, the facts speak for themselves. Millions of women are victims of violence and sexual exploitation, which is simply not acceptable in any civilised society, as it is a fundamental abuse of women’s rights.

We have come a long way in achieving equality in Scotland over the past 10 years, with fairer workplaces for women, the provision of funding to gender equality organisations, getting the gender balance right, increasing childcare provision and so on. However, as the equalities secretary Angela Constance has said, we cannot take our foot off the gas when it comes to gender equality and safety. Women should feel safe in every space that they wish to inhabit and in whatever profession they are in. That is a matter of fundamental human rights. We all have a duty to ensure that our daughters and granddaughters are safe from violence, sexual harassment and intimidation. It is our responsibility and it should be top of everyone’s agenda.

The new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill will, if passed, make an enormous difference to women who have been physically or psychologically abused. Crucially, and for the first time, it recognises the enormous harm that is done to children who are caught in the crossfire. The Scottish Government and the Justice Committee, of which I am a member, are working hard with women’s charities and stakeholders to get the bill right, as the many brave women who came forward to give evidence of their experiences deserve nothing less.

The sexual exploitation of women has been around forever. The late Margo MacDonald did a lot of work to improve the lives of sex workers and a resolution was passed at the Scottish National Party conference in March this year to support the Nordic model that Rhoda Grant described, which is based on 1999 Swedish law that criminalises the purchase of sex but decriminalises the person selling it. I believe that that is a progressive way to deal with violence against women, and the trafficking and monetary exploitation of women. Having heard directly from women who have worked in the sex industry about their harrowing experiences, I defer to their belief that that is the way forward. As Rhoda Grant said, prostitution, by its very nature, is violence against women.

We all know that violence against women and the sexual exploitation of women are about the abuse of power. They are perpetrated by cowardly inadequates who must be made aware that society will no longer tolerate their behaviour. It is incumbent on every decent citizen—men and women—to get the zero tolerance message over to those inadequates. There is no hiding place for them now, and women’s rights will no longer be abused in Scotland or anywhere else in the world.

At a general level, we must ensure that our daughters and granddaughters never have to deal with abuse of any kind, and we must educate our sons and grandsons that it is never acceptable to perpetrate violence against women. Mutual respect between the sexes must be the goal as we go forward. We need to make 2017—the year that the First Minister described as a watershed when it comes to sexual harassment and the abuse of power—the time when society says that enough is enough. Women must never again live in fear and, crucially, that includes sex workers throughout the world. It is time for a radical rethink on this issue.


Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am very pleased to speak in this debate to recognise the international day for the elimination of violence against women on 25 November and the following 16 days of action. The theme of 2017 is “Leave no one behind”, which, according to the United Nations,

“reinforces the UNiTE Campaign’s commitment to a world free from violence for all women and girls around the world, while reaching the most underserved and marginalized”.

On that basis, I acknowledge the inclusion of commercial sexual exploitation in the Scottish Government’s definition of violence against women in the paper, “Equally Safe”. The equally safe strategy commits the Scottish Government to

“work with others to develop thinking around Commercial Sexual Exploitation and ensure that women working in this area are protected from violence and abuse, and supported to exit situations where they are being sexually exploited for commercial purposes.”

On 28 November, the Scottish Parliament debated the subject of violence against women and, specifically, the Scottish Government’s delivery plan for its equally safe strategy. My colleague, Adam Tomkins, put on record in that debate the commitment of the Scottish Conservatives to tackling violence against women. I am pleased to restate that commitment today.

I am genuinely grateful to Rhoda Grant for drafting a motion that opens up the debate on prostitution as commercial sexual exploitation. I grew up in Leith in the 1980s and 90s, which brought home to me the effects of prostitution on individuals and communities. The sight of women being propositioned by men looking to buy sex is not healthy or cohesive for any community, and it is that which informs part of my view on a way forward, which we will discuss later.

I have a concern about the absolutism of the motion, which is why I am glad that we are having a full and open dialogue. The motion states that prostitution is

“a form of ... violence and a barrier to ... equality”.

I accept that in some—perhaps most—cases it can be, but not necessarily always, and if that premise is not established, the solution of criminalising the purchaser does not automatically follow.

Furthermore, I wonder aloud whether, in proposing a solution that holds the purchaser accountable, we risk failing to remedy the other societal, health or economic drivers behind the offer. More precisely, the motion is predicated on people being forced into sex work. If that is right—that prostitution is exploitation and violence and, fundamentally, is not a choice—which it might be, surely we must ask, as I think Rhoda Grant did, and then address what is driving people into it. We must address the cause as well as the symptom.

I agree with my colleague Michelle Ballantyne who, in a debate on 28 November, said that we must not vilify all men as perpetrators of violence against women but

“must ensure that we identify those who are, hold them in abhorrence and ensure that they are duly punished for ... the crimes that they have committed.”——[Official Report, 28 November 2017; c 62.]

In my view, that nuance is correct. Similarly, I am not persuaded that all sex workers are there only due to desperation and as a last resort.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Does the member recognise that the term “sex worker” includes pimps, pornographers, brothel owners and so on, who work in the so-called sex industry? Does the member also agree with me that prostitution is never a career choice and that the reasons for it are based in poverty, drug abuse and vulnerability?

Liam Kerr

Yes, I agree with the point about the term “sex worker”. I hope that the member will forgive me if I have not expanded the term; I accept her point.

Do I accept that prostitution is never a career choice? I am insufficiently informed to say that with absolutely certainly—that is my honest answer. Is it never a career choice? I do not know enough. That could be true but I do not know enough to say absolutely one way or another.

In October, I had the opportunity to meet Sabrinna Valisce and hear at first hand about the New Zealand experience. Having supported decriminalisation there, she is now campaigning in support of the Nordic approach of tackling demand for prostitution by criminalising the purchase of sex. I found her persuasive, as I did an article in The Spectator in August by Julie Bindel, which is well worth considering in the context of this debate.

However, I am also concerned about evidence from organisations such as Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the World Health Organization that seem to suggest that criminalising prostitution, including by criminalising the purchase of sex, can increase violence against prostitutes and force a more hurried transaction, driving it underground and making the process more clandestine. The Canadian alliance for sex work law reform argues that targeting clients makes street prostitutes more likely to take risks with new or unknown clients and displaces sex workers into darker and less populated areas where they are more vulnerable to violence.

I genuinely welcome Rhoda Grant bringing the debate tonight. It is a highly—

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Will the member give way?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Not now, I am sorry.

Liam Kerr

This is a highly nuanced issue and legislative proposals on the criminalisation of the purchase of sex should be scrutinised in detail to ensure that they do not have any unintended consequences. I genuinely look forward to helping to develop Parliament’s thinking in this area.


Ash Denham (Edinburgh Eastern) (SNP)

I thank Rhoda Grant for securing chamber time this evening to debate this important issue.

The motion that we are debating this evening pushes for the eradication of violence against women and girls, recognising the sheer incompatibility between a woman’s safety and equality on the one hand and a society that accepts prostitution on the other. The Scottish Government has made it its ambition to stamp out gender-based violence from this country, as any Government that prioritises equality and human rights should do. Those efforts have made, and will continue to make, great strides.

However, across Scotland, even at this very moment, there are thousands of women whose daily reality is not a feeling of equality or safety in relation to men, but one of mental and physical destructiveness at the hands of men—some men, not all. There are thousands of women who are not empowered, valued or admired, but degraded, debased and abused by men who are fuelled by a sense of entitlement and a belief that a woman’s consent and a woman’s body are merely commodities. That is prostitution. If Scotland is truly to be a place where women are equal and free from gender-based violence, we cannot accept a system that some survivors have described as pay-as-you-go rape.

Gender-based violence is certainly not limited to commercial sexual exploitation through prostitution, but we focus on it today, not only because it is a major cause of violence against women and girls, but because it represents the continuing patriarchal obstruction of gender equality.

One survivor of prostitution, Rebecca Mott, illustrated that by stating:

“How can you remain human when you are sexually tortured so many times it is your routine? ... How do you remain human when every women-hating word, concepts and ideals are placed under your skin until you lose what or who you are?”

The fact that Scotland has no criminal offence for men who would seize a woman’s very humanity is, frankly, appalling.

The time has come for those who purchase sexual services, and thereby perpetuate gender-based violence, to be held accountable for their actions. For the sake of women who are abused, who are made to feel worthless and who are raped and murdered, the time for accepting prostitution as somehow normal must end. An industry that preys upon and exploits girls and women who are in care, homeless, in debt or addicted to drugs—all for profit—is not normal; an industry where one has to cope with routine physical and emotional violence is not normal; an industry that grooms children for sexual servitude is not normal; so let us normalise it no longer.

As we push forward and strive to make Scotland a country where gender-based violence ceases to exist, let us call out systems and attitudes that preserve that violence, because, as former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said:

“There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable.”


Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I congratulate Rhoda Grant on bringing this debate to the chamber and on all her hard work on what is often a difficult subject to approach. I also thank Christian Action Research and Education for its work.

I spent 12 years serving on the Equal Opportunities Committee of this Parliament and, as the gender reporter, over that time I specifically tried to address the issues of prostitution and pornography, which are undoubtedly on the continuum of violence against women and children and have been accepted as such over the lifetime of this Parliament.

Any debate on this subject must recognise that prostitution, pornography and other forms of commercial sex are all part of an industry that is making millions of pounds out of human misery; that is also likely to be part of a wider web of organised crime; that promotes alcohol and drug problems as necessary tools of the trade; and that makes rich men out of a minority of predators while it ruins the lives of thousands and thousands of women and children.

The so-called sex industry—whether that is, for example, pornography, prostitution, or lap-dancing—is predicated on women’s subordination and objectification. The industry causes harm to those within it and it seriously undermines the quest for gender justice, human equality and, indeed, happy, fulfilling sexual relationships.

The idea that the sex industry in some way creates positive career choices and opportunities for women and men has to be challenged head on. Anyone who suggests that this is an industry in which good terms and conditions of employment can be negotiated with employers who are willing to sit round a table considering all aspects of the fair work agenda is silencing the voices of the many, many vulnerable and abused women.

It is clear that women enter prostitution for socioeconomic reasons, not aspirational ones. Indeed, much evidence over the years has shown that women do not consider entering into prostitution to be a choice; the vast majority desperately want to get out. It is not a simple business transaction; it is about violence, exploitation and abuse. Let us face it: it is hardly a popular career choice for young people. People appreciate that they must sell their labour, but nobody expects to have to sell their bodies just to survive. That is not the vision for Scotland that we were discussing earlier this afternoon, when we considered what lies ahead for the year of young people in 2018.

There have of course been legislative changes and policy advances over the lifetime of this Parliament but, like Rhoda Grant, I think that the time is right for further legislative steps to tackle demand for prostitution. No other form of violence against women is tolerated, so why is buying sex acceptable? We need to look to our neighbours in Northern Ireland, the republic of Ireland and France; they have made buying sex a criminal offence. Our attention must turn to those who invest in a global sex trade, making money out of women’s bodies, and to those who have no regard for gender equality.

The Scottish Government’s equally safe strategy to tackle violence against women and girls has been mentioned. The aim is to work across all Government departments and a wide range of agencies and stakeholders. The strategy recognises that commercial sexual exploitation is a form of abuse.

I would like to draw attention to the work of trade unions in this field. Trade unions in the republic of Ireland played a key role in the turn off the red light campaign, which led to new laws to criminalise the purchase of sex and decriminalise the selling of it. In 2011, the Scottish Trades Union Congress took the unequivocal view that prostitution is a form of violence against women. Trade unions have consistently argued for further investment in services that support women who are seeking to leave prostitution. Therefore, the Scottish Government’s commitment in the equally safe strategy delivery plan to increase resources is welcome. A commitment for everyone to have access to good-quality healthcare, housing, education and an income must mean for everyone. Women who are involved in prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation have as much right to expect access to the services that they need as anyone else.

Commercial sexual exploitation is clearly a form of violence against women. As long as it is tolerated, violence will continue to be perpetrated against some of the most vulnerable women in our society. As long as it is considered acceptable for the bodies of women in prostitution to be treated as objects for sexual gratification, gender equality will remain out of reach. Progress on the issue is long overdue in Scotland, and l look forward to working together to take the issue forward.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

A number of members wish to take part in the debate, so I am minded to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Rhoda Grant.]

Motion agreed to.


Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Each year, 25 November marks the international day for the elimination of violence against women. Just two weeks ago, all the parties took part in a Government debate on the progress that has been made on that, the work that is on-going and the things that are still to be done. I am grateful to Rhoda Grant for bringing the specific topic of tackling commercial sexual exploitation to the chamber.

I am clear that commercial sexual exploitation is a form of men’s violence against women, that it is a cause and a consequence of gender inequality and that it makes the world less safe for women and girls. I am equally clear that, if we are to create a world that is equally safe for women and girls, we must put an end to commercial sexual exploitation—not mitigate it or tolerate it, but end it.

In welcoming the equally safe strategy, I was glad to highlight that, as part of the delivery plan, the Women’s Support Project will deliver its challenging demand programme to raise awareness of commercial sexual exploitation and to build capacity in organisations to address the issue. I also highlighted the Scottish Government’s commitment in the plan to consider how it could enhance support for service providers that are supporting harm reduction and exit for those who are engaged in prostitution.

Reducing immediate harm is important, and I want all women to be safe, but reducing harm alone simply is not good enough. Surely, we have to act to dismantle the structures and conditions that create the harm in the first place. I hear the vocal minority of women who say that they find selling sexual access to their bodies personally and economically empowering, but their individual comfort in their situation does not negate the wider harm that is caused by accepting a society where sexual access to women and girls can be bought and sold and where women and girls can be treated like commodities.

If we are truly to put an end to the harm that is caused by commercial sexual exploitation and prostitution, it will require bolder and braver steps than simply improving the lives of individual women who are operating or simply surviving in a place where exploitation, violence and degradation are considered the norm. Yes, we have to mitigate harm and ensure that women are as safe as possible and have access to good-quality health services, but we will all be failing in our promise to eliminate violence against women and girls if we do not address head on the single root cause of that particular form of violence against women, which is male demand for the purchase of sexual access to women and girls.

We can address that issue only by criminalising the purchase of sexual access to women’s bodies while decriminalising prostituted women and providing properly resourced specialist services to help women leave prostitution. Currently, we are only really focused on the last part, which is supporting women to leave. For me, it is time to stop women from being exploited and degraded in that way in the first place. It is time to be bold and brave and to legislate to make a difference. It is time to tackle male demand.


Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

It is appropriate that the Parliament marks the international day for the elimination of violence against women, and I thank Rhoda Grant for bringing the topic to the chamber. The day itself and the 16 days of action that follow it are now past for this year, but the very fact that the day continues to be needed highlights the point that violence against women is still very much an issue.

Established to mark the day that three brave women were murdered by a brutal dictatorship simply for speaking out for their rights, the day is a reminder that violence against women and girls remains one of the most widespread breaches of human rights in the world. No society is free of physical and sexual violence. Domestic abuse remains an on-going issue in virtually every community that is represented in this Parliament and is still far too often unreported. My colleague Liam Kerr reiterated my party’s commitment to tackling violence against women and spoke at length on prostitution in Scotland.

In other parts of the world, the prevalence of violence against women is often highest in countries where the gender inequality gap is at its widest. Many countries lack the legal frameworks that help to protect women and/or the political will to counter patriarchal and traditional norms. Law enforcement agencies may be short of resources and too often fall short in their willingness to take action against male perpetrators of violence against women. In some countries, such as India, it has taken mass demonstrations of women and men before the authorities act to bring to justice those accused of horrific acts against women. We must also never forget that we still live in a world where female genital mutilation is widely carried out in 30 countries, despite some progress towards its elimination.

The UN leave no one behind campaign highlights many other vulnerable groups for whom rates of sexual and physical violence are particularly high. They include women who are among the world’s most marginalised, such as those from minority groups—most recently the Rohingya people—and women in places that are affected by conflict or natural disaster. Figures show that, when women are most in need of help, acts of violence against them soar. Other groups for which abuse has been highlighted in official reports include women with disabilities, elderly women—we remember the victims of abuse in care homes here in the United Kingdom—and young girls, especially those prized as trophies of war, such as the Yazidi women.

From trafficking to forced prostitution, the vulnerability of many women remains a real concern across far too much of the globe. The day that we mark tonight started more than half a century ago, and I hope that I have shown that, sadly, it is very much still needed. I find it incredible that more than half a century has passed and we are still debating the same issues. However, that is not a criticism or an indication of failure. In many areas and in many countries, there have been improvements and women have made progress.

In 2006, the Inter-Parliamentary Union reaffirmed the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and subsequent well-intentioned declarations. It emphasised that no State or Government is justified in

“invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations to eliminate violence against women”.

It stressed

“the key role of parliaments and parliamentarians in preventing and eliminating violence against women”

and the need to work with all organisations that work to eliminate sexual and physical violence. Further, it called on all Governments and Parliaments to raise awareness about issues of violence against women and to promote public awareness of the problem. The debate is playing a part in that and, again, I thank the member for bringing it to the Parliament.


Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

As a woman, there are few issues I feel angrier about than the exploitation, abuse and rape of women every day in this city and across this country. Maybe it is because I am a woman too or maybe it is just because, as Kofi Annan said in 1999 to commemorate the campaign against violence against women,

“Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And, it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development, and peace.”

As long as there is demand for commercial sex that traffickers, pimps and brothel owners can exploit and from which they can profit, we will never live in a country that is free of violence against women. No doubt, the vast majority of self-respecting people in Scotland agree that no woman should be subjected to violence, domestic abuse, rape, sexual assault or exploitation. However, we have still not successfully curbed the demand for commercial sex that fuels sex trafficking and allows violence to thrive. Prostitution is a form of violence against women and it is a barrier to gender equality.

Earlier this year, there was mass outrage about the shameful news of landlords asking for sex for rent. That was legitimately and rightly condemned by politicians across the board. However, sex for rent is part of a wider trend towards increasing levels of commercial sexual exploitation in Scotland involving vulnerable individuals in need of cash to purchase essentials such as accommodation or food, or to fund addictions.

At the end of the day, this issue is about power, and until we rebalance the power, we will never live in a world free of violence against women. I want to quote an article that appeared in the New Statesman in April this year, which I thought captured the hypocrisy of many of us who were shocked about sex for rent but are still content with allowing access to women’s bodies for basic living needs. The article says:

“If anything is for sale—any body part, any experience, any relationship—then the poorest will be stripped bare. If you accept the principle that there is nothing wrong with buying sex ... how do you ensure supply can meet demand? Only by making sure there are always enough women with no other options. There is no other way. There are not enough female bodies to meet male sexual and reproductive demands without any form of coercion; that’s why patriarchy, with all its complex systems of reward and punishment, exists in the first place.

If sex work is work, poverty is necessary.”

However, commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking exist not just because of the “victims”—I say that word in inverted commas, because these are strong, courageous and brave women—but because there is demand and there are profits to be made. It is an industry that ultimately operates on the basic principles of supply and demand. That is why I fully support decriminalising the supply and criminalising the demand. There is ample evidence that greater criminal penalties and negative publicity would deter the purchaser from buying sex, thereby reducing demand.

Gender inequality, sexual exploitation and sex trafficking will never cease as long as it is acceptable to purchase access to another person’s body and to purchase access to a person who is often more vulnerable and disadvantaged.


Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I begin by thanking Rhoda Grant for bringing forward this important debate on the annual international day for the elimination of violence against women. This is a topic that is important to me as a husband and as a father of three girls, and it is a subject that deserves far more attention than it gets. That is why I was happy to accept the position of women’s champion for the Scotland branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. That post now has to be filled by a male, and I am honoured to be the champion.

It is important that we remember that violence against women, across the country, the Commonwealth and the world is an issue that should concern not just women, but should concern us all, and it requires everyone in society to work together to end this blight.

Violence and the threat of violence affect women across Scotland and the Commonwealth, whatever their wealth, race or culture. The impact on the women who are affected is devastating and the shock waves can be felt through the entirety of our society. It also endangers our community safety.

Rhoda Grant quite rightly raised in her motion the issue of prostitution. I want to take a moment to highlight the particular issue of the violent acts that take place against sex workers and how we deal with them, as a country.

A report that was produced in 1996 by Neil McKeganey and Marina Barnard described a range of violent behaviours towards women who were involved in prostitution in Glasgow. They ranged from name calling to physical assault, rape and even murder, and the report found that those were done not just by people whom the women termed “clients”, but by others including their pimps, drug dealers and others who were involved in prostitution. What worries me is that the women are unlikely to report such crimes to the police.

Work has also been done on the subject in separate papers by Dr Emma Smith and Jane Pitcher. Their work found that there are many reasons for women’s response, including fear of not being taken seriously by the police, concern about possible criminalisation should they contact the police, and the potential for increased stigmatisation. We have to do something about that: sex workers should know that the police are there to help them and not to jail them. We need to get to the stage at which the option of going to the police, reporting violence and seeking help is a possibility for every woman in our society, no matter her situation.

I would be very interested to hear from the minister, in summing up, about what work is going on in the country today on the issues that have been raised this evening.


Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

I thank Rhoda Grant for bringing this important subject to the Parliament for debate. I welcome the opportunity to support the motion, and I support calls for the introduction of the Nordic model.

During the short time that I have in the debate, I want to highlight some of the inconsistencies, as I see them, that are often on display around debates on the subject, from people who seek to oppose criminalisation of the purchase of sex. The purchase of sex is either unacceptable behaviour; or it is a business transaction like any other; or, as the equally safe strategy makes clear, it is a form of violence against women. Those who argue that there is nothing exploitative about the sale of women’s bodies for cash, whether that cash is required to buy food, fund addictions or pay rent, cannot then argue that there is something exploitative about the sale of sex for rent. The degree of coercion in both cases is the same. In both cases, that coercion is primarily economic in nature. Why should one medium of payment be considered abhorrent and the other acceptable?

If we choose—because we believe it to be the lesser of two evils—to avoid some perceived unintended consequences, to turn a blind eye to the purchase of sex, we are complicit in normalising such behaviour. In normalisation, protection of the rights of buyers and treatment of prostitution as work like any other lead to the explosion of demand that we see in countries where purchase of sex is legalised. The opening of multistorey brothels, trips to discount whorehouses as a normal part of high school graduation celebrations for teenage boys, and acceptance of the abuse of power relationships are not behaviour that we should normalise, and are not parts of the kind of society in which I want my sons or daughters to grow up. Such normalisation changes behaviours and changes society’s norms as it drives up demand. That is all good for the businessmen who control the supply side of the industry, but it is in no way good for those who are exploited by the business.

At a time when we worry about the explosion in mental health problems among people who are from traumatic and exploited backgrounds, we cannot condone that most intense form of exploitation and the consequent risks to mental health. At this time, when we are taking great steps to consider the future outcomes of care-experienced young people, we cannot fail to recognise the strong links between exploitation in the care sector and subsequent exploitation in the sex industry.

I find it most peculiar that those who never miss an opportunity to rail against the inequities of the free market come rushing to defend the rights of people who are in positions of economic power when it comes to the purchase of sex. In no sense can that be considered not to be an abuse of power in an unequal power relationship, but those who would rightly condemn sexual advances that took place in the workplace, based on an unequal power relationship, find nothing wrong in the abuse of power that occurs in the purchase of sex.

I also find it peculiar that people who would, in respect of any other industry, treat with great scepticism any claims coming from those who control the supply side of the business, in the sex industry’s case find full alignment with industry trade bodies, concerned, as they are, with removing barriers to trade in a quest to support the extraction of maximum profit from the business by driving up demand.

At its heart, the issue is a simple one. It is about the kind of society that we want to be, and whether we believe that such abusive power relationships should be normalised or we should take steps to oppose that.


The Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs (Annabelle Ewing)

I congratulate Rhoda Grant on securing this members’ business debate on the important issue of the international day for the elimination of violence against women and tackling commercial sexual exploitation, and I thank all members for their thoughtful contributions.

At the outset, I reaffirm that tackling and eradicating violence against women is a key priority for the Scottish Government. As members will be aware, on 24 November 2017 we published “Equally Safe—A Delivery Plan for Scotland’s strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls” to deliver practical steps that will take us towards ending this horrific form of violence for good. As has been noted, the drive to make Scotland equally safe was debated in Parliament on 28 November.

Our plan is ambitious. It sets out 118 actions that we intend to take from now until 2021 to help to ensure that we can make progress towards a Scotland in which women and children live free from violence and abuse, and the attitudes and inequalities that perpetuate it. The 16 days of action are a great opportunity to champion the efforts of many people in Scotland, including the members of this Parliament who strive endlessly to bring about real positive change.

As members are aware, earlier in the year we published independent research that was commissioned to investigate the reliability of the evidence that is available on the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services and how it applies to Scotland. The research provides a useful collation of international evidence and an overview of the existing evidence in a Scottish context. Crucially, it also identifies that there are a number of gaps in knowledge, particularly in relation to the scale and nature of off-street prostitution. The existing evidence highlights poverty, constrained economic choices and structural gender inequality as drivers into prostitution, which are commonly combined with a range of underlying vulnerabilities.

In addition, the research found that a range of risks and adverse impacts were associated with prostitution in the short and longer term, which related to general and mental health, safety and wellbeing, and sexual health. However, it must be pointed out that the limitations of the evidence base are considerable, so there is uncertainty about the potential impacts of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex on that vulnerable group. Indeed, the research did not provide any conclusive evidence that harm would be reduced through such changes to the criminal law. Helpfully, however, it highlighted the potential scope that exists for improving policy and the help that is available in the context of prevention, harm reduction, support to exit and challenging demand.

Rhoda Grant

Does the minister not acknowledge that harm has been reduced in countries that have implemented such legislation? I am talking about a reduction not only in harm to those who are involved in prostitution, which is inherently dangerous, but in sexual violence against women.

Annabelle Ewing

I was trying to make the point that the international research is inconclusive. That is what the research that we have been presented with says. We have worked to obtain feedback from various stakeholders on that research, which we are currently reflecting on. In addition, I have met a number of people who have been or are still involved in prostitution, as I promised—in response, I think, to a general question from the member—to do, and we are reflecting on the information that we gathered during those meetings.

Ruth Maguire

Will the minister take an intervention?

Annabelle Ewing

I am afraid that I must make progress.

Our approach is based on what the existing evidence can tell us. Therefore, at this time, we are focused on a prevention and reduction of harm model, which is about preventing vulnerable individuals from entering prostitution in the first place, reducing the harm that is associated with the selling of sexual services for those who continue to engage in prostitution and—crucially—supporting those who wish to exit.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Will the minister give way?

Annabelle Ewing

I am afraid that I must make progress.

The equally safe delivery plan committed the Government to do exactly that. The equally safe strategy makes it clear that violence against women includes commercial sexual exploitation, within the definition of which fall prostitution, lap dancing, stripping, pornography and trafficking, many of which have been mentioned. Such a statement was included in the initial strategy that was published in 2014 and the refreshed version that was published in 2016, and specific actions to strengthen our efforts to tackle commercial sexual exploitation are included in the latest delivery plan. A member said that they were not that impressed with the plan, which they felt was not very ambitious—in fact, I think that it was Rhoda Grant. There is a page in the delivery plan that lists seven, eight, nine or 10 actions that I could read out, but that would take us well over the time that we have available.

Elaine Smith

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I hate making a point of order in the middle of a speech, but the debate has been extended and I think that this is such an important matter—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am afraid that that is not a point of order. It is up to the member whether to take an intervention, as you well know.

Annabelle Ewing

I am trying to make some progress to respond to the points that have been raised in the debate. I was happy to take an intervention and I have tried to respond to it in a reasonable fashion.

We want to help ensure that those who are engaged in prostitution can leave. That is why the Government supports services such as Sacro’s another way, which works in Edinburgh to tackle these issues. Other partners are doing important work to tackle commercial sexual exploitation across Scotland, but of course we recognise that there is always more to do.

It may interest members—although they will have differing views on the venues in question—that the Scottish Government has launched a consultation on draft guidance on the licensing of sexual entertainment venues by local authorities. The consultation will close on 7 February 2018. I encourage members to make their views known in that context.

Those members who were elected prior to 2016 will be aware that that licensing regime was provided for in the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015 and will come into effect in due course. When it is brought in, the regime will allow for local licensing authorities to decide what is appropriate in their areas. Indeed, they will be able to set an appropriate number of venues for their area, and that number could, for example, be zero. We believe in effective licensing of the venues that remain compatible with the laws of the land, notwithstanding what people’s personal views may be of the venues. Effective licensing is in place to protect the people who work in those places and to reduce criminality.

Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

Will the minister take an intervention?

Elaine Smith

Will the minister give way?

Annabelle Ewing

I am afraid that I must make progress.

Within the equally safe delivery plan, alongside the specific commitments that relate to prostitution, we have committed to the establishment of a multi-agency group that will develop steps that are designed to reduce the harms that are associated with all aspects of commercial sexual exploitation. Supporting the reduction of harm will be a main focus of the group’s remit. I expect the multi-agency group, once it is established, to consider the full holistic approach to tackling those issues, which, as members know, are rooted in gender inequalities.

We will continue to support the challenging demand project, which raises awareness of commercial sexual exploitation, and to work with the Women’s Support Project to build capacity to deliver the project across organisations.

We have committed to commissioning a mapping of existing specialist support for those who experience commercial sexual exploitation, to better understand current coverage and good practice. We want to create pathways for people who are engaged in prostitution to safely exit through access to mentoring programmes, which will ensure that they have—as has been properly referred to tonight—the key support that they need to access health and welfare services and that they are encouraged in pursuing economic opportunities outwith prostitution.

Of course, as new areas of concern emerge, so must our response continue to evolve. I hope that we can all work together in the spirit of tonight’s debate to ensure that all issues that relate to gender-based violence, including commercial sexual exploitation, are discussed fully, with all the varying points of view expressed. Having been involved in this issue for quite some months now, I can say that there are differing points of view about how best we can reduce harm. That, I think, is what unites us all—we all want to reduce harm and to ensure that, for those who are engaged in prostitution, there is a way out.

That is what the Government has committed to do. We will continue to reflect on the evidence that we have sought to amass. In the meantime, as I said, we will continue to do everything that we can—

Elaine Smith

Will the minister take an intervention?

Annabelle Ewing

I am just finishing.

We will do everything that we can to reduce harm and to ensure that, for those who seek a way out, we are there to support their exit.

Meeting closed at 17:58.