20 Years On – Scotland learning from Sweden’s Sex Purchase Act

L to R: Ruth Maguire MSP, Mia de Faoite, Diane Martin CBE

By Bec Wonders

This article is based on the live tweets Bec sent out during an event in the Scottish Parliament on 5 December 2019. The event was entitled ‘Twenty Years On: What can Scotland learn from Sweden’s ground-breaking law to tackle demand for prostitution and sex trafficking?’ We are grateful to Bec for letting us publish the article because she captures the feeling and essential messages of the event brilliantly.

I feel very grateful to have been present at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh last night, alongside some of the strongest and resilient survivors and most badass women I have met.

The #TwentyYearsOn meeting was organised by Ruth Maguire MSP and UK Feminista, concerning what Scotland could learn from Sweden’s sex purchase act (the Nordic Model), which was first implemented in 1999, to tackle demand for prostitution and sex trafficking.

Here are some of the many powerful insights and survivor testimony from the meeting:

“I cast my eyes much higher than ‘mitigating’ violence against women and girls. Commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls must be eliminated, not mitigated or tolerated – eliminated.” says Ruth Maguire.

Minister for Community Safety, Ash Denham MSP, speaks about travelling to Sweden on a fact-finding mission with the CPG on Commercial Sexual Exploitation to find out more about the Nordic Model. She stresses the importance of learning from women’s lived experiences in prostitution.

Kat Banyard, director of UK Feminista says that when governments recognise prostitution as a form of violence against women, the state has a very specific role to work towards ending it – not simply handing out safety guides or condoms to women in the sex trade.

Irish survivor Mia de Faoite shows off her tattoo, big black letters on her forearm that spell NOT FOR SALE: “I got this tattoo to mark the last day I was bought, and that I would never be for sale again.”

“According to the [Swedish] National Criminal Police, it is clear that the ban on the purchase of sexual services acts as a barrier to human traffickers.” Kat clarifies that sex trafficking can only take place because there is a presumed market of men willing to pay for sex.

L to R: Rhoda Grant MSP, Mia de Faoite, Diane Martine CBE, Ash Denham MSP, Ruth Maguire MSP

Now the incredible Scottish prostitution survivor Diane Robertson Martin CBE says that we must get rid of this false dichotomy that “trafficking is bad” and “prostitution is a job like any other.” It’s the same men buying women and girls in both instances; and the two systems fuel each other.

Diane describes how she felt way out of her depth in the supposed “high end” prostitution scene in London, being exploited by people much older than herself.

She describes being dressed in an evening gown, asking a police man for directions to her buyer, in the hopes that the police man would get the hint and offer her help. He didn’t.

Diane talks about unplugging the phone, so that her next job couldn’t come through. To Diane, a phone call meant that a specific sequence of events would unfold: getting into a black cab, being ushered into a hotel room, not knowing what would happen, overcome by fear, not knowing if the night would end violently.

Diane says that “we need to dismantle the mythical barriers that some prostitution is classified as safe and empowering. It is a lie that it is dangerous over there, and safe over here.”

Diane shows a photo of herself from 37+ years ago, featuring her big beaming smile as she had a measly hour away from her pimps and exploiters; all the while still preoccupied by the thought that she had to go back:

“The worst part about being prostituted was waiting for hours to see who is going to pick you, worrying about what ghastly old man I am going to have to service, and if it will get violent, or if he will want to do it again and again.

“It’s not a job like any other. It’s not empowering, it’s not a service. You cannot separate what has been done to you from your body. To survive, I had to completely disassociate from my own self, from my body.”

“There are things I don’t want you to have in your head, that I have in my head forever. I cannot simply velcro my vagina off my body and say ‘give it back in half an hour.’” says Diane. This is embodied violence.

Now pro-prostitution lobbies refer to trafficked women as “migrant sex workers.” We cannot let these lobbyists distort the language in order for abusive men to slide into the mainstream as clients and facilitators. Exploitative behaviour is being camouflaged as progressive.

Diane is now making a plea to MSPs in attendance: “Please believe the voices of survivors who know the lived reality of the sex trade. The voice of women who want to leave the sex trade of abuse. Criminalize the demand and say that in Scotland, nobody is for sale.”

Now the incredible survivor Mia de Faoite says, “We are already considered the lowest of the low. If you set up the conditions for rape, it will happen. We as prostituted women are prime targets for any buyer who wants to fulfil a violent sexual act.”

Under a liberal, state-sanctioned legalised sex trade, men can get away with violence against women. It will remain unpunishable while it remains legal.

“When you have been exposed to wickedness, it can change the way you see the world forever” says Mia.

The men who buy human beings for sex are considered good citizens: gainfully employed, tax-payer, father of on average 2.4 children, ticking every box so as not to upset society’s apple cart. So we allow his “indulgence” through silence and by keeping it legal.

Mia quotes Hannah Arendt: “The greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies.” Mia agrees and says it is now time that these nobodies are brought to bear and made accountable for upholding these industries.

Mia ends to a loud round of applause, with a quote from the movie Brave: “There are those who say fate is something beyond our command. That destiny is not our own, but I know better. Our fate lives within us, you only have to be brave enough to see it.”

Bec Wonders is a PhD researcher in feminist print networks and the Women’s Liberation Movement at the Glasgow School of Art. Follow Bec on Twitter: @wondersbec

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