Fraser Crichton: Why Scotland should adopt the New Zealand form of decriminalised sex work

Documentary photographer Fraser Crichton, who is working on a project looking at the decriminalisation of sex work in New Zealand, tells Tammy's story 

TAMMY* is one of 90 per cent of sex workers who work indoors in Scotland. 

Tammy works discreetly from a flat in Glasgow shared with friends who work together for safety. Although sex work is legal in Scotland, premises with more than one person working in it is deemed an illegal brothel. 

Tammy admits: "Yes it’s technically illegal." Tammy also knows what it’s like to work in a very different environment. For six months Tammy worked in New Zealand where sex work is decriminalised.

The New Zealand 2003 Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) decriminalised sex work, brothel-keeping and living off the proceeds of sex work, while safe sex is mandated, as is a minimum age of 18.

The New Zealand 2003 Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) decriminalised sex work, brothel-keeping and living off the proceeds of sex work, while safe sex is mandated, as is a minimum age of 18. While not "endorsing or morally sanctioning prostitution", the PRA was a shift from a moralistic approach to one of public health and human rights developed with sex worker input.

Tammy, who began sex work to fund her masters degree in Scotland, worked in an appointment-based brothel when her research on the access of marginalised communities to health and support services took her to Wellington, New Zealand. She found Wellington was "a very safe" environment to work in. 

"We had absolute discretion over our clients, what kind of appointments we did, what services we provided, condoms were always insisted on; it was such a different environment from working in Scotland," she says.

Because her work is criminalised in Scotland, if Tammy was robbed, assaulted or raped she wouldn’t call the police. "I don’t know one sex worker that would go to the police," she said. Her mistrust is compounded by Police Scotland’s zero tolerance policy.

While not "endorsing or morally sanctioning prostitution", the PRA was a shift from a moralistic approach to one of public health and human rights developed with sex worker input.

According to Nadine Stott, co-chair of Scot-Pep, a peer-led charity advocating for sex workers, Police Scotland regularly raids and prosecutes women working together, just like Tammy. 

She says: "They’re finding sex work premises, turning up unannounced with a welfare agency and offering their 'support' to sex workers." 

These "welfare visits" harass and intimidate sex workers and Police Scotland’s obsession with sex trafficking has lead to a disproportionate targeting of migrant women, according to Stott. 

Under decriminalisation, the New Zealand police are not there to control and punish sex workers, their role is to attend to real crime and ensure people’s safety. 

Victoria University’s Dr Lynzi Armstrong’s three-year study on interactions between the police and street-based sex workers in New Zealand found decriminalisation changed "the power imbalance" between police and sex workers. Examples include police escorting a client to a cash machine to pay a street sex worker money she was owed and a worker who successfully prosecuted a brothel owner for sexual harassment.

Under decriminalisation, the New Zealand police are not there to control and punish sex workers, their role is to attend to real crime and ensure people’s safety. 

In Scotland the sense of fear and persecution extends to support services.

"Rape crisis for example, would you go to the sexual assault helpline? These sorts of services? I know a lot of workers who say they wouldn’t approach them for fear of being outed," says Tammy.

Former Independent MSP Jean Urquhart’s consultation on a Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill –  developed with Scot-Pep – is based on the decriminalised New Zealand model. 

Urquhart's bill would repeal both the soliciting law and the kerb-crawling laws, would permit up to four sex workers to work together (introduce licensing for larger premises), strengthen measures against coercion of sex workers and allow joint finances with their families. 

Decriminalisation is contentious. Some feminists view sex work as violence against women and support a Nordic model that criminalises the clients of sex workers. 

Explainer: What the proposed changes to laws around sex work in Scotland mean

In response, Tammy says: "I get that some people might want to believe it – if they’re feminists they want gender equality and for them the principle that a man can buy a sexual service from a woman is fundamentally wrong – I would urge those people to look at the impact that actually has on the ground."

In a report, The Human Cost of 'Crushing' the Market: Criminalization of Sex Work in Norway, Amnesty International found significant human rights issues with the Nordic model; it continues to criminalise people working together and makes it more difficult for sex workers to safely screen clients, and was used to evict and deport Nigerian sex workers. 

Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation, Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women and Human Rights Watch all back decriminalisation. Seventy per cent of those responding to Urquhart’s consultation supported the bill including HIV Scotland and NUS Scotland.

"I think what’s weird in Scotland is that for me, it’s one issue that religious groups and feminists agree on," says Tammy, "they seem to want the same end which is to eradicate prostitution." 

In New Zealand, Tammy had access to justice, employment rights and health services. In contrast, she finds Scotland’s legislation inconsistent, exasperating and dangerous. 

There are even direct links between some who loudly campaign for the Nordic model. Rhoda Grant MSP, for example. Grant’s 2015 register of interest included receipt of services from a Christian Action Research and Education (Care) intern as recently as 2014. 

Care was outed by the Guardian in 2012 for its support of conversion programmes of LGBT people and their radical support for the right to life. 

In New Zealand, Tammy had access to justice, employment rights and health services. In contrast, she finds Scotland’s legislation inconsistent, exasperating and dangerous. 

Listening to Tammy, and sex workers who campaign in this area, the best way to ensure access to fundamental human rights is reform based on the New Zealand model of decriminalisation.

Picture courtesy of Sally T. Buck

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today