On 3 June 2013, a debate on sex work was arranged by Solas, Centre for Public Christianity. The debaters were Laura Lee (Sex worker rights campaigner, blogger and sex worker), Douglas Fox (of the International Union of Sex Workers, editor of the blog Harlots Parlour and sex worker), Rhoda Grant MSP (who has put forward a Bill to criminalise sex purchase in Scotland) and Richard Lucas (a minister and member of Solas – you can read his blog here). Laura Lee and Douglas Fox were debating against Richard Lucas and Rhoda Grant.
The debate opened with a statement by each of the panel. Laura Lee told her story of how she was working as an independent escort when a member of the community outed her on “every social media platform they could find”. She and her 7 year old daughter were bullied, her car was vandalized and her daughter was told by a well-respected, churchgoing adult man that her mother “will die of AIDS” – a statement which caused the child to panic as she believed it. A paedophile who had returned from a long prison sentence for molesting children was accepted by the same community.
Rhoda Grant’s main points were that “demand is met by coercion” and sex work is “trafficking”, not free choice. Ms Grant confused sex work with paedophilia and child abuse. She used Syrian women to back up her argument which isn’t relevant to her Bill as its scope is UK-limited.
Laura Lee took offence to Grant’s use of the term “prostituted women”. Laura said “It suggests we can’t consent to sex because we’re not there of our own free will. But we can, just like a barman can refuse to serve a customer.” She said that clients have reported incidents of violence towards sex workers to Crimestoppers and that the Ugly Mugs scheme which protects sex workers by creating a database of violent clients is now at risk due to funding.
Richard Lucas’ opening statement was bold: “Sex is a deep emotional bond between a man and a woman,” he declared. He claimed sex is for procreation. “It’s self destructive for prostitutes and damages their ability to form long-term relationships. For most women the idea of being a prostitute is repellent,” he added.
Richard Lucas agreed with Rhoda Grant and stated “the demand is met by sheer coercion”.
“A prostitute abuses the sexual bond to make money,” he said and compared this to a drug dealer keeping people dependent on drugs for her own profit.
Richard Lucas claimed that sex work damages families by providing opportunities for unfaithfulness.
He surprised everyone by saying “If prostitution is prevalent then the seriousness of rape is diminished.”
Douglas Fox talked about how sex workers are discriminated against in law, denied basic human rights. Supporters of the Swedish model appropriate famous, emotive child abuse cases to bolster their agenda – a tactic which he thinks is insulting to the victims. He stated that we can’t lump together child abuse victims and consenting adult sex workers. “We need justice,” he said. Douglas Fox reminded us of what academics, sex workers’ organisations and UNAIDS already know – that the Swedish model is internationally recognised as a failed model. There is no evidence that the Swedish model decreased the numbers of sex workers or trafficking victims. (It’s my understanding that the Swedish model actually increases trafficking to Russia). The Swedish Government doesn’t know the number of sex workers or if the number has fallen. He also drew attention to the fact that the consultation responses in favour of Rhoda Grant’s Bill were disproportionately from Christian evangelical groups.
“Why is Scotland even considering this failed experiment when there are successful models to copy?” he asked. It’s a pertinent question. Fox described how the New Zealand Government chose to stop discriminating and give sex workers human rights and legislation which recognises a sex worker’s right to consent to sex. The Merseyside model increases convictions of offenders who are violent to sex workers – though this model and the protection it gives is inexplicably limited to Merseyside, UK. “What a contrast to the moralism offered by Rhoda Grant,” he concluded. Fox talked about a “mythology of men as predators and woman-haters” and said that sex workers are a diverse group of individuals. “The Bill denies the humanity of sex workers,” he said, before discussing the problem of how police would prove that sex work had taken place. In some countries condoms are used as evidence which deters everyone from carrying condoms – whether they’re sex workers or not. It’s my understanding that it may also prevent universities and schools from handing out condoms. Douglas Fox also discussed the huge cost to the taxpayer if the Bill was to become law.
The next part of the debate involved the panellists debating each other.
Rhoda Grant: I wouldn’t want it for my family.
Douglas Fox: I would want my children protected if they decided to go into sex work.
Richard Lucas claimed that “If sex is not a big deal then forcing someone to do it becomes less serious.”
He obviously doesn’t get that rape is violence not sex. His comment is reminiscent of Victorian laws which only recognised rape if the victim was female and a virgin. However, the historical record seems to show that in (largely) sexually repressed societies (e.g. the Victorian age) rape wasn’t treated seriously – it wasn’t rape if the victim wasn’t female or wasn’t a virgin – or if the victim had a tattoo (in one Chicago gang rape case it was held that the tattooist’s needle had already broken the victim’s virginity so it wasn’t rape.) But in less repressed times we have the idea of marital rape and rape is a crime no matter who you rape. Mr Lucas seems to have a problem understanding the seriousness of rape himself, judging by his blog.
Laura Lee pointed out that studies which claimed to prove sex work was bad for the workers were conducted by the biased Melissa Farley who is now under investigation by the APA. Rhoda Grant baced up her Bill with flawed studies. Even studies not done by Farley have their problems).
Rhoda Grant shocked me by openly declaring “We need police to monitor sex workers.” (They already do). State surveillance! She’d admitted it. Though of course it’s state surveillance of only one industry. State surveillance of a minority group which is stigmatised and stereotyped. I think Ms Grant is on pretty safe ground here, because most people won’t actually care about sex workers. It’s not like she wants the state to surveillance hairdressers or accounting clerks or babysitters.
Douglas Fox (to Rhoda Grant) : Imagine if the Bill is now law. Police break down the door and I’m caught in a hotel room with a man. How would you prove that sex had taken place?
Astonishingly, Rhoda Grant MSP doesn’t actually know. The Bill has got to this stage and she still doesn’t know. She’s debated a sex worker and former sex worker on TV and radio, and she still doesn’t know. “That’s down to details of the Bill, which are still to be drawn up,” was all she said in reply, causing an audible ripple of laughter in the room.
Laura Lee then raised the point that the Bill will scare away men and women who don’t want a criminal record, leaving only violent clients who might already be known to the police.
Douglas Fox told of how he was arrested for trafficking because he bought a train ticket for his friend who was a sex worker. He briefly discussed how the trafficking laws can be loosely interpreted to define almost anything as trafficking which not only hurts innocent people but also skews trafficking statistics wildly upwards.
Richard Lucas compared sex work to joyriding. Comparing (victim-less) work to a (damaging, life-threatening, destructive) crime was never going to work as an analogy, but to give Mr Lucas his due he almost managed to pull it off.
There was an opportunity for members of the audience to ask the panel questions.
In response to such a question, Rhoda Grant said “Sex worker communities should not be allowed to regulate themselves”. Brave words – whatever your opinion of them. It’s a position I believed she would never publically admit.
Another MSP asked Rhoda Grant a question and stated “I will not be supporting the Bill”.
Tim Bell, a Church of Scotland minister, disagreed with Richard Lucas.
Most people asking the questions seemed knowledgeable about the issues, especially trafficking laws, and were against the Bill.
Rhoda Grant said that “women should be able to earn as much as men” so they wouldn’t need to enter the sex industry. An unfortunate comment considering that – as proved in The Sex Myth– female porn actors earn around ten times more than male porn actors. Ms Grant described sex work as “not acceptable” – an interesting correlation with Richard Lucas’ statements.
Richard Lucas stated that sex work is “immoral” and that sex work “creates violent men. So does pornography.” The black-and-whiteness of his world view was breathtaking in its attractive simplicity; there are times when I want to believe that complex multifaceted issues can be traced to a single root cause. But though occasionally I’m tempted by monochrome monocausality I believe Lucas’ love affair with it borders on the unhealthy. Sometimes it’s just better to say no.
Quotes from Rhoda Grant MSP
I spoke to Rhoda Grant after the debate. She declined to be interviewed, saying she’d give me an email (which she did). This is what she said in the email:
“Abuse, from family and partners as well as drug and alcohol addiction lead people into prostitution, as does poverty. As a society we need to deal with these issues, it is not right that someone faces these stark decisions.” I certainly agree that we do need to deal with abuse, addiction and poverty. But taking someone’s job away by making it a crime to buy their services doesn’t seem a good solution to poverty – or to drug addiction or abuse.
“Prostitutes face rape abuse daily, they also have a much lower life expectancy than the rest of the population, dealing with demand will mean that fewer people will be coerced into prostitution and not have to face this desperate situation,” Ms Grant said. But there’s no evidence that the Swedish model has had any impact on coercion or trafficking. Instead, the Merseyside model (which could be implemented whether Rhoda Grant’s Bill succeeds or not) does dramatically increase convictions for rape and abuse of sex workers.
Ms Grant also stated “Currently our laws punish the prostitute and deal with public nuisance, I believe the buyers, who create the market should be held responsible for their actions. Our society stigmatises the prostitute but almost encourages the purchaser – this is not right and shows just how unequal our society is. We must hold the purchasers responsible for their actions; they create a market that leads to the abuse of others.”
Right with you on the stigma issue, Ms Grant. But the Swedish model will just lead to more abuse. The fact that purchasers are also women or couples also causes problems for the feminism angle that Ms Grant tends to work, as does the existence of gay escorts and trans sex workers.
At the debate venue I did get the chance to ask her what she thought of the Swedish Government’s admission that the Swedish model had increased stigma of sex workers and what she thought of the fact that the Government classified it as a positive result of the model. Ms Grant said she doesn’t think the Swedish Government said that (they did) and she doesn’t consider increased stigma of people in prostitution to be a positive thing. So it’s interesting that she’s trying to implement a model which directly causes the stigma which she is against. Politicians, eh? Still, she was very nice to talk to.
Interview with Richard Lucas
I interviewed Richard Lucas after the debate. He was very pleasant to talk to, though I have to say that extended only to his manners and not to what he had to say. Though I must admit a certain fascination with the idea that anyone can think like that.
When I asked Mr Lucas whether it was worth harming a few people in the sex industry in order to achieve the abolition of sex work, he compared it to forging money and said increased violence against sex workers is “just a consequence.”
“Disapproval of prostitutes is a good thing,” he said. Other things I learned from Richard Lucas are that casual sex is “immoral” and those who have it are “unhappy”.
He said that “Children should be taught at school that prostitution is unacceptable.”
“I support Rhoda’s Bill and would encourage people to support it. The Bible, especially Proverbs, is against prostitution. I’m happy so many Christians gave supportive submissions to the Bill’s consultation.”
And it’s also responsible for the recession (along with casual sex and homosexuality): “God can intervene; a nation can face consequences directly or indirectly. A book written in the 1930s called Sex and Culture said no civilization lasts for more than a generation when they lose the plot about sexual morality. America and Britain are in economic decline and that’s coinciding with the generation who lost sexual morality. It’s a fact. Recession is a natural consequence.”
“God supports Rhoda Grant and her Bill,” he said. Apparently, God hasn’t communicated his support to Richard Lucas as yet, but Lucas is sure He does support the Bill.
Richard Lucas is against abortion, casual sex, equal marriage and LGBTQ people as well as sex workers. Richard Lucas then informed me that Laura Lee’s story might not be entirely true because “if she suffers from insomnia or flashbacks she’s not going to tell us.” In his view, Laura Lee is causing “harm” by portraying sex work in a way which isn’t negative. Lucas thinks that if prostitution were criminalised then Laura Lee wouldn’t be able to speak about it, which would be a “good thing”. Shortly afterwards he suggested Dr Brooke Magnanti is a paedophile, saying “it wouldn’t surprise me if she said that sex with children is not all that bad.” He didn’t have any evidence in support of this claim. He then said she would not enter eternal life “unless she turns away from what she’s doing” and described how the BBC has an “agenda” and gave Richard Dawkins and Magnanti platforms to fulfil this agenda. I pretty much gave up at this point; Lucas had declined to be audio recorded and I felt that continuing the interview would result in more irrelevant libellous allegations against random people and organisations that, without audio, I’m incapable of proving Lucas ever made. I regret terminating the interview at that point as it would’ve been interesting to hear Mr Lucas’ theories on Richard Dawkins being the BBC’s pawn, though admittedly that’s not relevant to sex work politics. I believe that I allowed myself to be disturbed or at least distracted by the paedophilia allegation.
I will say though that interviewing him was a very interesting experience.
Interview with Douglas Fox
I met with Douglas Fox the next day. He was concerned that the Swedish model actually harms victims of sex trafficking. “The very people [sex workers] who’re in contact with abused people will be those who’re criminalised, so they won’t come forward. Push any industry into the shadows and you create an environment where criminality thrives – like with drugs.”
Douglas Fox also discussed how sex workers would be forced to depend on third parties who might exploit them: “When sex workers are frightened to advertise, frightened to use their own homes for fear of police, they automatically turn to third parties who’ll provide safety and anonymity.”
“The government fails to protect the vulnerable – look how many homeless people there are in Edinburgh. It’s the fault of the state. The state has failed them. They need to put food on the table. It’s not sex work that makes it desperate. He could sell his labour by washing dishes or cleaning floors or dog-sitting. There’s 101 ways you can sell labour. To single out sex work as especially exploitative is a way of marginalizing those people to whom you have a moral objection.”
He also told me how he and his partner who runs an escort agency were arrested for living off immoral earnings. The press were photographing their house as the police searched it – which was illegal. After a few hours in the cells, Douglas was set free – only to find that he and his partner had been outed in the Evening Chronicle. Douglas Fox claims that when his complaint reached the Press Complaints Commission, one of the people on the panel owned the Evening Chronicle. Douglas claims that he lost this complaints hearing as the Chronicle had given them a right of reply – by knocking on the door at 6am the night after they’d won the case and been out celebrating.
“Some sex worker activists talk about the negatives – poor women on the streets. And some sex worker activists talk about the positives. But why can’t we have a full picture of sex work?” he said. “I think people need to start questioning popular perceptions of sex workers and understand that they’re real people, not stereotypes. Those who come to media attention only do so because of law enforcement or because they’re top end and willing to out themselves. And yet thousands of men and women who are your neighbours sell sex every day.”
“Celibacy is wonderful if you’re happy,” he said. “You have to accept people for who they are.”
Douglas Fox discussed middle-aged women buying sex in Turkey and Africa but said people don’t think of it as sex work because it’s disguised under the flimsy pretence of a relationship. “Three women came up to me after I spoke to Amnesty International claiming they had arrangements with men. They paid for tuition fees, cars or gave an allowance in exchange for sex or companionship.”
Rhoda Grant’s Bill doesn’t define “sex” or “money” – which means it probably will result in these women (sugar mummies?) being arrested, as well as arrests of “sugar daddies”. It’s possible that seekarrangement.com and similar sites will be criminalised.
I spoke briefly to Laura Lee at the debate, though I didn’t interview her. My impression of her is that she’s determined to fight for sex workers’ rights and that whorephobia and stigma have caused her distress whereas violence from clients has not.
Nine, an editor, writer and sex worker rights advocate, claims that “Rhoda Grant’s consultation summary has 135 direct quotes from supporters and only 58 from opponents.”
Whatever your stance on sex work, it would seem that although Rhoda Grant doesn’t say she’s motivated by Christian moralism, her Bill plays right into the moralists’ hands. Grant didn’t deny that many Christians support her Bill. Rhoda Grant’s main disagreement with Richard Lucas is just on the point that she doesn’t consider prostitutes to be greedy women keeping their clients dependent on sex; she prefers to think of them as victims in need of rescuing by herself. That’s hardly a radical disagreement. Rhoda Grant chose to join Richard Lucas in debating against two sex worker activists. She must’ve known he would be arguing from a religious viewpoint. And Lucas’ blog, many letters to the Scotsman and Twitter feed promoting them are available on the internet.
In my view, the Bill to criminalise sex purchase is just another example of moralism dressed up as feminism or concern. Attending the debate and talking to everyone concerned has reinforced that view.