Archive article from The Socialist Issue 281
MSP MARGO McDonald's controversial Bill to create "Tolerance Zones" for prostitutes in Scotland has divided politicians, councils and women's organisations across Scotland.
The Prostitution Tolerance (Scotland) Bill proposes that local authorities, in consultation with the police, health board and the local community, should designate zones where prostitutes could solicit safely at designated times.
The local authority would then have a duty of care to provide adequate lighting, CCTV and access to health and support workers.
However, if there were objections from the local community or business they could take it to the Scottish Executive which can overturn the decision of the local authority, although general opposition to tolerance zones would not be grounds for appeal.
Some women's organisations that oppose tolerance zones oppose it because they believe they legitimise prostitution and will turn prostitution into a 'normal' profession rather than it being seen as another form of violence and abuse of women by men.
On the other hand, women's organisations that work with prostitutes, such as Scottish Prostitutes Education Project (Scotpep) based in Edinburgh and Routes out of Prostitution based in Glasgow, are in favour of the Bill.
They believe it will ensure that prostitutes are safer, will have access to health services, needle exchange programmes and in particular reduce child prostitution.
Edinburgh has had agreed tolerance zones for 20 years following a huge rise in the number of HIV and AIDS cases in the city.
Compared to other cities such as Glasgow, heroin use and incidence of sexually transmitted disease is low, women's safety is much greater and child prostitution was virtually non-existent. Less than a third of prostitutes in Edinburgh are heroin addicts compared to 90% in Glasgow.
However this came to an end about eight months ago when the zones were ended. Since then there has been an increase in the number of child prostitutes.
The number of prostitutes murdered is also significantly less in Edinburgh where only one woman has been killed in the last decade compared to seven in Glasgow. In fact it was the number of murders in Glasgow that prompted the police to designate tolerance zones.
As a socialist and a woman who works with women fleeing abuse, many of whom have been forced into prostitution by abusive partners, I have to say that I am torn on this issue.
Marx pointed out over a hundred years ago that capitalism reduces everything down to commodities, and that includes women's bodies. The sex trade is now an integral part of the global market.
Indeed, it's no accident that the sex industry was the first to recover from the 1997/1998 economic crisis in South East Asia. In Western Europe each year half a million women are literally traded. Germany, one of the largest most developed capitalist economies, has more women working as prostitutes than teachers!
Today in Britain the sex industry generates an estimated £2 billion in profits each year. In London alone more than 80,000 men regularly pay for sex. The effects of globalisation and neo-liberal policies have hit women particularly hard.
Thousands of women have gone to extraordinary lengths to escape war, poverty and persecution. According to a home office report at least 700 women each year are smuggled into the UK to work, often unwittingly and unwillingly, in the off-street trade. In London's backstreet brothels six out of ten women are trafficked.
Of course this only tells part of the story. Violence is something that most prostitutes face. One Channel 4 documentary, Sex on the Streets, found that 73% of women interviewed were attacked in the previous 12 months, most of these attacks were unreported. Most of those interviewed felt the police were unsympathetic.
Of course this situation is compounded if you are an illegal immigrant. If you report any attacks to the police you run the risk of being deported.
The unreporting of violence is not surprising when you consider the comments made by a police officer to the Sunday Times after the murder of a prostitute in 1995: "They are shite, killed by shite: who gives a shite?"
The approach of most police forces and local authorities is to target the prostitutes themselves. This approach has clearly failed. In fact all it has done is move prostitutes to a different area, often extremely unsafe, so as not to be seen by the police. Even when police target the 'kerb crawlers' prostitutes have to move on so as they can make a living.
In the Netherlands prostitution has been legalised to a certain extent. It is now legal to operate a brothel as long as you comply with certain regulations. Rode Draad (Red Thread) a prostitutes' union set up in 1984 lobbied for years to get prostitution legalised so it would give them more protection.
They argue that the new laws will mean they can fight for proper pay and conditions, including sick pay, maternity leave and so on, as well as forcing their bosses to adhere to health and safety regulations.
However, in some countries where prostitution has been legalised, prostitutes complain of long hours, poor pay, lack of choice over clients and bad working conditions.
A lot of prostitutes feel that the changes being proposed are merely cosmetic and won't make any difference to their lives. A spokesperson from the University of London's Child and Women's Abuse Unity commented: "Tolerating off-street venues just makes pimps into 'managers' and punters into 'customers', while the prostitutes find it more difficult to leave."
In fact it is far more dangerous for prostitutes to work on the streets than in brothels or saunas. Studies show that you are ten times more likely to face violence if you work on the streets.
The reality of working on the streets is horrific, women tell of being raped, severely beaten and being driven by strangers to locations they may not know or feel safe in, if they are attacked who do they tell?
The overwhelming majority of women working as prostitutes did not 'choose' to become prostitutes. Many were forced into it by partners, drug abuse and because of abject poverty. For most it is a life of hell.
We should support removing the existing legislation that criminalises prostitution and back measures that will ensure that prostitutes can work more safely, i.e. through well lit tolerance zones, safe off the street venues where support workers and health workers have regular contact.
In London, sex workers have begun to organise themselves into a trade union, the GMB. They have been going around to various venues trying to encourage women to join and have also been fighting for better, safer working conditions.
However, as long as we live in a class society which breeds on sexism and exploitation, women will continue to be forced into the 'sex industry'.
Only through the socialist transformation of society, where the vast resources which are currently controlled by a wealthy elite, are taken into public ownership will we see the true liberation of women.
Women would then have access to a proper job with a living wage, free education, childcare, decent housing and a well run health service.
Socialism would give men and women real control and choices in their lives. It would also lay the basis for equal relationships, free from the distortions of capitalist society, and for an end to the sexual and cultural oppression of women.