There is no figure so mystified as the sex worker. She is either a whore who must be punished, a fallen woman (and it is always believed to be just women who are sex workers) who must be saved, or a public health hazard who must be stopped to save society from her immorality and disease. However, for several decades sex workers have sought to emphasise that no matter what you think of their job, that it is work like any other form of selling labour, and that they therefore deserve the same rights as any other worker. However, not surprisingly there are a range of competing and conflicting views on all aspects of sex work and on the rights of sex workers, and that some believe that the right to buy sex is wrong and understand justice as supporting sex workers to leave the industry or abolish the industry.
This article will look at this from the perspective of workers’ rights and focus on Scotland, it also includes interviews conducted with Carmen Belle, a Scottish sex worker; Matilda, a sex worker organiser from Portland, Oregon in the US; and Rhea Wolfson, who is an organiser with the GMB union Scotland and the head of the Women’s campaign unit. (These interviews were recorded, for which consent was given as well as consent for any of the recorded material to be used in this article. The names of the sex workers interviewed have been changed.)
With websites dedicated to sex work such as ‘Onlyfans’ taking advantage of the workers by taking a significant portion of their income with no access to labour rights as they know there is little chance of pushback – especially while much of sex work is illegal.In order to find out how the argument between these two opposing groups and the lack of labour rights affects sex workers in Scotland now, I spoke to a Scottish sex worker, Carmen Belle, about her experiences. I have known Carmen personally for a number of years and she agreed to be interviewed about her work. This interview took place in May 2021. Carmen describes her ability to set her own hours and the flexibility and freedom this gives her as a disabled student. She states that “yeah it’s definitely the best job I’ve had in terms of like, just being able to take a day off for my brain, or not do it for a while to focus on uni work.”
However, when I asked about the main issues with doing sex work Carmen discussed not being able to get access to sick pay or other rights you would expect in employment. There is also the difficulty with never having a guaranteed income, and with websites dedicated to sex work such as ‘Onlyfans’ taking advantage of the workers by taking a significant portion of their income with no access to labour rights as they know there is little chance of pushback – especially while much of sex work is illegal. Sites can take down a workers’ page without any warning or chance to appeal, leaving them with no income. Carmen advocated for regulating these sites and preventing them from gaining a monopoly in the market.
I then asked Carmen if she believed her circumstances would change if she were to become classed as a worker, with full access to employment rights like all other workers, and she replied that it would benefit her immensely to be able to have job security and to be able to join a union in order to advocate for themselves and to take collective action.
When asked what improvements could be made if sex workers were recognised as workers with full labour rights, Matilda answered that it would help in child custody cases both due to the stigma associated with being a sex worker as well as having difficulty proving stable income.Matilda, who comes from Oregon, makes connections between the working conditions of sex workers and the precarious workforce overall, and argues that strippers were the first group to be seen as “independent contractors” and therefore not given access to many employment rights – which she states is very similar to cases against Uber in California and in the UK. This means they do not have to be paid an hourly wage, and the business owners do not need to pay the same level of tax. In referring to Uber here, Matilda is highlighting that as with Uber taxi drivers, sex workers should have the same rights as employees, rather than being classed as ‘independent contractors’. Different ‘industry’, same labour rights issue.
Matilda thankfully agreed to be interviewed as I have known her as a feminist organiser for a number of years prior to this, and this interview also took place in May 2021.
When asked what improvements could be made if sex workers were recognised as workers with full labour rights, Matilda answered that it would help in child custody cases both due to the stigma associated with being a sex worker as well as having difficulty proving stable income, and it would also provide stability in housing which will be discussed in more detail later in the article: “there’s just all of these things that come with workers’ rights and being recognised as a real worker that you don’t even think of because they’re invisible – until you don’t have them.”
The Nordic Model
In 2020, the Scottish Government opened a public consultation entitled “Equally Safe – challenging men’s demands for prostitution."
The aim was to get responses from the public and relevant organisations about how to “best challenge men’s demand for prostitution in Scotland, reducing the harms associated with prostitution and supporting women involved to exit.” However, SWARM (Sex Workers Advocacy and Resistance Movement) argued in response to this consultation that it was clear the Scottish Government intended to introduce the Nordic Model.
Carmen argues that all work is inherently exploitative due to the nature of the economic system we live in, and states that capitalism is the reason she must engage in this type of work in the first place.This, according to Nordic Model Now!, who advocate for its introduction, “decriminalises all those who are prostituted, provides support services to help them exit, and makes buying people for sex a criminal offence, in order to reduce demand.” However, Carmen discussed the difficulties this would cause if it came into effect, particularly the criminalisation of those who work together in a property so they do not have to meet clients alone as this would dramatically reduce their safety and involve the police. Police involvement has been known to be dangerous to sex workers, in Scotland and elsewhere (Mac & Juno, 2018), whether this is through being forced to exchange sexual favours instead of being arrested, or violence against them due to the stigma of sex work, or not being able to find other employment. Carmen adds: “As far as I see it, the law should have no place in sex work. Apart from employment law!”
Both Carmen and Matilda take issue with the idea that in order for sex workers to be able to advocate for better working conditions that they must love their jobs (Mac & Smith, 2018). I’m sure there are people reading this who despise their job, however employment rights and safety at work still apply no matter how you personally feel about your job. Carmen argues that all work is inherently exploitative due to the nature of the economic system we live in, and states that capitalism is the reason she must engage in this type of work in the first place. When asked what she would want to say to some feminists who are advocating for the Nordic Model, Carmen replied with “I kind of get the motivation behind it but when you have people who are actually involved in sex work telling you like, no this would actually be so much more harmful… people aren’t gonna stop buying sex just cause it’s illegal like that’s not how it works that’s never how it’s worked.”
Organising sex workers in Scotland
There are currently several sex worker led organisations in Scotland, SCOT-PEP who is mainly an advocacy group which campaigns in order to make sure sex workers are heard in policy decisions that affect them, and that sex workers can be safe at work. They also provide resources so that sex workers can know their rights, provide a space for sex workers to organise together, as well as host events such as film screenings.
Another organisation is Umbrella Lane which focuses on ensuring sex workers are safe and well. They state that their primary goal is to create “a safe space for Sex Workers free from judgement or stigma, so that you can feel a sense of belonging.” They also offer peer to peer support, counselling, financial advice, social events, and run a confidential helpline. Both organisations are against the introduction of the Nordic Model and campaign against it as they believe it would harm sex workers – and both organisations are run by the workers themselves. In response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on ending demand for sex work, SCOT-PEP wrote that the Nordic Model would mean that workers may have to rush or skip their screening processes, so they might have to meet in a place where the client would not be found by the police meaning it may be riskier for their safety. They also included research done in both Ireland and France which showed violence against sex workers had actually increased since the introduction of the Nordic Model, and that it had a negative impact both on the control they had over their job and their lives in general.
Matilda has experience with the Nordic Model as it is the same system in place in her city of Portland, Oregon. She argues that you cannot decriminalise half of a purchase and that if clients are terrified of being arrested then they will be less willing to undergo screening, (sex workers often ask clients for references from other sex workers) and are very reluctant to meet in public places which would be safer for the worker. Matilda herself has experienced some of the harms that come with the Nordic Model. Her neighbour found out she was selling sex and informed her landlord that if they did not evict her that he would go to the police – where her landlord could be charged with sex trafficking as anyone who takes money from a sex worker for whatever reason is considered her trafficker or pimp. She was forced to leave her home.
Rhea argued that typically workers (especially female workers) are excluded from policy decisions that impact their own work, and this leads to unsafe working conditions with little chance of changing circumstances from within.Rhea Wolfson, who is a GMB trade union Scotland organiser and head of the Women’s Campaign Unit, discusses her unions support of sex workers in their fight for employment rights, and against the Nordic Model. “As a trade union, our job is to listen to members and to defend their interests. Safety and value are at the core of everything we do and so when workers, especially women, outline what they need in order to be safe at work, that will be the union's position.”
When asked how the sex worker struggle for rights fits into wider labour movements and if there were any similarities between different types of workers, Rhea argued that typically workers (especially female workers) are excluded from policy decisions that impact their own work, and this leads to unsafe working conditions with little chance of changing circumstances from within. This can be seen in other female dominated workforces as Rhea states - “Women's health and safety, from care to sex work, is not taken seriously enough.”
Finally, when asked about the GMB’s opinion on the Nordic Model, Rhea’s answer echoed parts of both Carmen and Matilda’s statements : “GMB does not support the Nordic Model policy. Based on feedback from workers, this policy only stands to further criminalise the work and marginalise the workers. GMB Union supports the decriminalisation of sex work in order to allow the industry to be properly regulated and create safe systems of work for all workers.”
To conclude, the issue of whether selling sex should be criminalised in Scotland must also consider the effect this would have on sex workers’ labour rights and their ability to work safely, and their overall wellbeing and safety is everyone’s overarching goal. However, on this issue sex worker run organisations, the sex workers I interviewed, and research utilised for this article demonstrates that a non-criminal approach that seeks to ensure workers’ rights is the more effective method of achieving this.
Relevant sources and further reading
Mac, J. & Smith, M. (2018) Revolting Prostitutes. London: Verso.
Grant, M. J. (2014) Playing the Whore. London: Verso.