Unmasking the sex industry in Scotland

A conversation with Linda Thompson

This is an edited transcript of a powerful and informative podcast, in which Siobhan from Nordic Model Now! talks with Linda Thompson about her work with women who have lived experience of prostitution in Scotland and why Scotland must urgently address the desperate poverty and inequality that is the backdrop to women’s involvement in the sex trade and introduce the Nordic Model without delay.

Linda is the national coordinator of Scotland’s Encompass network and currently works for the Women’s Support Project in Glasgow.


I am here today with Linda Thompson of the Women’s Support Project in Scotland. I’m absolutely delighted to be speaking with you, Linda.

What I was hoping we could talk about is various topics around the sex trade in Scotland, the difficulties and challenges within that, the extent of the deprivation within the community, what services are available, and the impact of COVID on what you’re doing. Does that sound OK?

That’s fine and no doubt as we talk, many other things will come up but let’s try to keep to those topics.

In the first instance could you talk about the extent of the deprivation in the community you’re working in and how Scotland implementing the Nordic Model would change that?

Long before COVID, in our understanding of prostitution and the sex trade, we know that primarily women are there because of economic pressures and that is one of the main push factors into the industry.

When I undertook the Inside/Outside project, which was a storytelling project with women who were involved in different parts of the sex industry in Scotland, I asked them: What was the main reason you got involved? And it was always money.

Women never talked about an insatiable sex drive. They never talked about wanting to feel empowered. They didn’t talk about it as, this is me reclaiming my sexual autonomy, my bodily autonomy. That never featured.

What women talked about was an absolute drive to become involved based on a lack of money, based on poverty. And I remember asking each one of them: Did prostitution solve that for you?  Did it solve the poverty and financial pressures?

And from those women it was a resounding no, it didn’t. In fact, if anything, it compounded the poverty and financial pressures they were under.

If we’re thinking about the extent of deprivation in this community, we cannot underestimate that for many women they don’t have any alternative but to become involved. They feel there is no other option to get money in order to survive.

We can talk about economic deprivation but until you actually listen to the women and to what this means, I think people often have a very sanitized idea of the sex trade and what it’s going to offer women.

We work with women who literally have nothing else and suddenly the idea hit them that if they enter prostitution or the sex trade, it’s going to be some kind of quick fix and they’re going to get a quick amount of money and then they’re going to be able to leave. But that’s not the reality for most people.

Women talk about the money involved in the sex industry. They talk about it as: Yes it might be quick money, but it’s not easy money.

We need to explore with women what the money actually means in the sex industry. I remember one young woman, Katie, who from her late teens had been involved in different parts of the sex industry in Scotland. She talked about the money being dirty money – as if it was sullied in some way. And every time she looked at the money or thought about it, she remembered what had happened to her and why she was involved in prostitution.

She talked about coming away from a shift in the sauna, at the very start of when she was involved and she might have a purse bulging with money, but as soon as she got it, she wanted to spend it – so it didn’t actually stay with her.

There may be some women, who may invest their money, who may put the money away for pensions. But in our experience, most of these women tend to live from hand to mouth. Whether that’s hand to mouth to get the basic necessities to live, or whether that’s hand to mouth in order to pay a drug dealer, or to buy drugs for themselves or their partner.

Natalia, a woman involved in the Inside/Outside project talked about a triangle effect around the money – the punter would give her money and it was straight out of her hands to somebody else. And very often that was a drug dealer and she said: I don’t know why the punters don’t just give money to the drug dealers because that’s where it goes – it doesn’t stay with me.

I think COVID has flagged up the extreme economic pressures and difficulties that some women are under. If we think about the Nordic Model, it is based on the notion of equality, which is what we are striving for.

If we’re striving for equality, there has to be economic equality. The Nordic Model doesn’t sit in isolation from policy and strategic changes that also look to end the inequality that pushes women towards the sex trade. The Nordic Model is actually part of bigger and broader societal change.

It’s not just about thinking about prostitution, the sex industry, the sex trade, in a vacuum. The Nordic Model acknowledges the great inequalities that exist in our society and that these need to be addressed, and the Nordic Model is just part of that.

If we think about where Scotland wants to frame itself, not just on the European stage, but on the global stage, it looks to learn from the Nordic countries about equality, about educational approaches. It looks at social policy and draws on good equality practice across the Nordic and Scandinavian countries, and to me this is the other part that also needs to be addressed.

Scotland’s mission is to prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls, including prostitution. But we will never achieve the eradication of all forms of violence against women unless we look at the role of the sex trade in perpetuating inequality. The sex trade is not just predicated on inequality, it actually perpetuates inequality.

The Nordic Model gives a voice to the need for broader equality issues to be addressed – and it clearly locates prostitution and the sex industry in that discussion.

If we think about prostitution as a form of work and just as a form of work, it will only ever keep women in very precarious financial situations. You only have to listen to women at the minute, women who have been involved in the sex industry, and to what their experience is, to know that they are incredibly economically vulnerable, and that they are entirely and solely reliant on punters, clients and customers, and if you remove those from the equation, the women are left with very, very, little.

If it was truly a form of work, women would have been able to access some financial support – and they haven’t been and that has been shameful. Women involved in the sex industry have been cast aside.

“I was never a sex worker, I wouldnae ever call myself that. It’s no job. It was just a way of making money but it wasnae easy and it wasnae a job. As soon as you get in that car it’s hard.” – Natalia in the Inside/Outside project.
Quote from Natalia’s story in the Inside/Outside project.

If you look at the backgrounds broadly of women who are involved in the sex industry, very often it is women who feel that they have no alternative. There may be women who out of every choice that was in existence, they chose to be involved in the sex industry, but for the vast, vast, majority of women this is not what they really want to be doing.

Through the Encompass Network in Scotland, we made many calls for action and applications to the Scottish government during this time of COVID. And one of the things that we were able to secure was a small – and I mean an incredibly small – amount of money for crisis and destitution funds.

And of the women who are coming forward and looking for financial support, either through that fund that we’re running or other funds that we’re able to direct the women to, the vast majority need immediate support to get over this extreme financial situation that they find themselves in.

Nearly all of them have said: Do you know what, I want to get right out of the industry. They have not been asked to – we have not said it’s a condition of getting any money that they must make a commitment to exit. But actually, the vast majority of those women said, this is my time. I need out.

At its core, the Nordic Model is about ensuring that women have viable alternatives and options to get out. I think that if women have other options, they would not choose to do this. This is a choice out of little other choice.

The Nordic Model brings together the need for social change, the need for women to be supported while they’re involved, and also preventing women from having to do it in the first place. But it is also about women being able to leave. Women need support to leave, and we need those concrete steps in place, as well as holding those who cause harm accountable.

The individuals who choose to buy, the individuals who choose to profit, the individuals who choose to exploit women, all need to be held accountable – because in the current legislative framework they aren’t being held to account.

The only countries in which they’re being held accountable are those that have moved towards the Nordic Model legislation, combined with other elements of a strategic equality approach.

That was really thorough, Linda thank you. Just to pick up on some of the things you said, it’s interesting that Scotland has this idea of itself as a nation that it is very fair, very progressive, that looks after its own and welcomes anybody who wants to come here. And that it makes sense that anything that promotes equality between the sexes should just be put into force.

Our programme for government states that Scotland is where everybody can achieve their potential, where there’s going to be equality, and that this is going to be a just society. I think with this overall vision for Scotland, the key question is, where does the sex industry fit within that vision? How does it actually help Scotland to achieve its vision and mission and where it sees itself positioned?

How can you have a country, a small country or nation, that views itself in this way but then goes, but actually we will still have this in existence, and we will leave this over there and we will allow the exploitation and abuse, and the inherent inequality to happen.

This is a quite a pivotal time for Scotland as to where we position the sex trade. Do we position it as a legitimate business that is worthy of support and tax breaks? Do we treat it like a business? Or do we take a step back and actually name it for what it is?

And among those who name it for what it is are women who are currently involved and women who were previously involved. And they should be allowed to name it.

The same as Scotland has prided itself – and rightly so in many ways – as being a global leader in terms of violence against women, in terms of legislation around domestic abuse and the broad understanding of violence against women.

We have done some real progressive steps forward on that, and as you said, Scotland likes to pride itself on being fair. We have looked at where we are positioned with some of our legislative approaches – for example with our Coercive Control Act, as it’s commonly called. However, there is one form of violence against women that we haven’t yet taken the steps towards being consistent with that.

Our First Minister has made very clear statements that she wants to ensure that there is gender equality in Scotland. But we can’t ensure there’s gender equality in Scotland when we still have a system of prostitution.

You’ve made that comparison with domestic abuse, which is something that generally as a society we’ve come to understand as unacceptable in any form and that if women seem to be choosing to stay in a situation of domestic abuse, it’s for lack of other options and the fear of the unknown. One thing I can’t grasp is why people can’t feel the same about the sex trade; that they can’t see that women might seem to make a choice but it’s a choice when no other viable options are available for them.

And you talked about how none of the women you’ve talked with have said they went into it for the reasons the sex trade likes to portray – for empowerment and their sex drive – but women are perhaps drawn in by that sanitised rhetoric and then have a terrible struggle to get out.

That is a really important point, Siobhan. Again, women that we work with via the Encompass Network believe that women should be able to make an informed choice. But in order to make an informed choice about becoming involved in this industry, you need to know all of the potential consequences and realities of what you’ll be exposed to and what you’re going to have to experience. And I think that sanitised version that you talk about has become a very dominant discourse around the sex industry.

I have asked the woman that I’ve worked with and the women who were involved with the Inside/Outside project whether they knew what they were getting involved with. And not one of them agreed with that. They all said they didn’t have a clue what they were going to be doing. They all said: I didn’t have a clue about what was going to be involved or what the impact was going to be on me.

Image and quote from Natalia’s story in the Inside/Outside project.

And there were women who had done a great deal of research about becoming involved in the sex industry and had spoken to women who were currently involved and they felt that they were well armed. But the reality was different and on reflection, they felt they had been lied to.

The people hadn’t really told them the full truth and one of the women said: But Linda I was wearing a mask. I was wearing a mask and I would have told other women that actually it wasn’t too bad. I would have told other women that it’s OK as long as you draw your boundaries. I would have told other women, just make sure that you don’t have to do what you don’t want to do.

But in their own experience, that wasn’t what they were able to do. So it is really important that women are allowed to make informed choices. They need to know the reality of what might happen to them if they get involved.

And just earlier today I was talking to a woman who has recently entered the sex trade through selling images in online galleries. She talked about how she thought it was going to be a form of empowerment. She had read women online who were making so many thousands of pounds a month. She thought she knew what she was going to do and where her boundaries were going to be.

And she said that what has happened over COVID is that she’s already had her boundaries overruled; she’s already been pushed to do much more; she’s already creating content that she never anticipated doing.

So I think we have to allow the stories and the realities to come out about what it is really like for women.

We also have to think about who are the other important players in the system of prostitution – those who are benefiting and profiting from it. We have to look at the realities about who’s making the money in this industry.

Where does the profit lie? In my experience it does not lie with the women – it moves onwards and upwards through the industry. In Scotland we know there’s a huge amount of money potentially to be made from it, but it’s not the women in the brothels across Scotland who are walking out with a huge lucrative business behind them. That is not the reality for the vast majority of women.

We have to acknowledge that there may be some women who think of themselves as businesswomen and that they’re self-employed and that this is their business. OK, grand, fine for you, but what about all of the other women for whom that is not their experience.

I think it comes down to some of the dynamics that you spoke about around domestic abuse. If we enter into any relationship or situation, we should be able to leave. For women involved with domestic abuse, they often find that they can’t leave. And for women involved in prostitution they also find that they can’t leave.

I think people don’t like to confront some of the realities around the system of prostitution. This is where we find some of the difficult conversations – about power, choice, consent, and control.

When I’m doing public education, very often somebody will say: But I know somebody who’s a sex worker and they really love what they do.

OK, that’s great. How well do you know her?

Actually, she’s a friend of a friend of a friend.

So, I ask: Do you know or personally?

No, not really.

So, you’ve heard there’s a woman who says that she loves what she does?

Yes.

So, have you sat down and really spoken with her? Have you talked about how she feels every day? Have you talked about how she feels after seeing a rough and violent punter? Have you talked about how frightened she is about leaving the sex worker community and all her social contacts? Have you talked to her about that?

No, I’ve never spoken to her about that.

Well then don’t use that woman’s supposed experiences to justify the system of prostitution.

It’s a great silencing. Women we’ve worked with will say: Why is it not working for me, because for all of these other women, prostitution seems to be OK for them? Is something wrong with me? I need to do something different to make it OK. I need to find another way to do it that is not having such an impact on me.

That is a common experience. Some listeners will know that whenever women leave the sex industry, very often that’s when the impact and the reality hits them. While you’re in it, I think it’s very difficult for women to name some of those experiences.

Last week, I was talking to a woman who exited prostitution in Scotland not long before COVID hit. She talked about how the acceptable discourse is to say that you’re taking a break and you never say that you’re exiting, that you’re leaving.

In that world, it’s acceptable to say that you’re a bit burnt out and you’re taking a break. But in reality, she was mentally crumbling and she had to get out. When she told people that she was leaving, she was completely cut out of her support circle of other women who were involved.

For her to exit, she had to leave everything behind, because she was no longer an acceptable voice within that community as she was articulating what had happened; she was articulating how she felt; she was talking about the impact on her. And it was like: We do not want to hear that – just go away and take a break. You’re sounding a bit burnt out.

But listening to her, you would immediately recognize trauma being manifested, complex trauma coming through, triggering flashbacks. That’s what she was experiencing, not burnout.

There is something about allowing women permission to talk about their experiences and for some women, they might want to talk about it being positive at that time. But it’s really important that we always leave the door open for women to be able to come forward and seek support and to have the right kind of support there at the time that they need it.

If we think about where we are in Scotland with our strategic approach to violence against women, we have Equally Safe in Scotland and previously we had Safer Lives Changed Lives. Both of those are national strategies around violence against women and girls. We have named prostitution as a form of violence. We have named commercial sexual exploitation. We have named pornography.

The bigger challenges are that although we have named it, we have never actually treated it like a form of violence against women in a consistent fashion – unlike the other forms of violence against women.

We haven’t ensured that there have been services in place across Scotland around harm reduction for women while they are involved. We haven’t ensured there’s a robust and really well-resourced model of exiting in place for women across Scotland. We haven’t done that.

Neither have we looked at our Outcome 4, which is about holding perpetrators of all forms of violence against women and girls to account. And in this particular form of violence against women they’re not held to account. The only time they’re held to account is if they kerb crawl or solicit for sex in public.

Recorded prostitution-related offenses are at an all-time low and the legislation we have to hold some of the men accountable for the harm that they do is not actually used.

So Scotland needs have a long hard look at itself. If we say that this is a form of violence against women, why haven’t we been treating it as such in a consistent way?

You’ve made so many fascinating points and there are so many roads we could go down, but I guess the next natural question might be – and you’ve touched on it a little bit – how you feel women and feminist organisations in Scotland respond generally to the issues within and surrounding the sex trade and does this ultimately help women or does it exacerbate the difficulties?

That’s a difficult question to be honest and I think we just have to be up front about it. We have named prostitution as a form of violence against women in Scotland in our national approach, so you would imagine that therefore all women’s organisations would be on board with that understanding. But we cannot say that across the board.

There are challenges especially for smaller women’s organisations to stand up and say: We actually support the equality model and the Nordic Model, or we support a model that’s going to hold perpetrators to account. I think one of the reasons for that is that they have seen the backlash that other organisations receive whenever they do take a stand or when they do speak out.

We’ve had very small support organisations suffer big pile-ons and kind of orchestrated campaigns to get them to lose their funding and be closed down, because they dared to speak about this.

There are challenges for smaller organisations when they are seen to be taking a public stance on this issue. One of the big challenges is that everybody goes: This is a very toxic environment and it’s a very contentious issue.

And I’m like: And other forms of violence against women aren’t contentious? Is child abuse not a contentious issue? But that didn’t stop us opening a discourse and moving forward. 20 or 30 years ago domestic abuse was a contentious issue but that didn’t stop us having dialogue and moving forward.

Another example is FGM, which is a horrific practice and a form of violence against women. In Scotland it was decided that it’s a form of violence against women and therefore we need to move forward with a targeted strategy and legislative change in order to address it.

There are cultural differences, there are people within communities who would not necessarily agree with the Scottish government’s approach, but that didn’t mean that we didn’t tackle a very difficult issue head on and have a discourse so we could move it forward.

But it seems with prostitution, the sex industry, the sex trade, we hit a different brick wall.

I understand it can be a very toxic debate. It feels incredibly personalized at times. It’s a very difficult arena for people to even feel that they can start to ask some questions or to flag up some of those difficult areas that we need to unpick and examine.

Some organisations have just backed off from this form of violence against women. I’ve had some leading organisations say: But that’s not really an issue for us. We are about this issue, not about that issue.

I think sometimes people have retreated back into silos instead of understanding that we need to be tackling all forms of violence against women almost like a jigsaw puzzle. If we leave one area that we never approach or go near, we will never get the complete picture.

In some ways, people run scared from an area on which, I do feel, there’s been a lack of national leadership. It’s incredibly difficult to move work forward. And by national leadership I mean politicians standing up and taking a position on this.

We have some mainly female politicians in Scotland who have led work on it and who have made sure that women in prostitution haven’t been forgotten and that there are policy and strategic debates on it. There are some MSPs who have made a commitment and who continue to work on it.

But I think part of the problem is that the Nordic Model is SNP (Scottish National Party) policy. It is also Scottish Labour Party policy. However, we have not moved forward on some kind of joint unified approach on it. In the absence of strong national leadership and clear directives going out to local authorities, and large institutions and the public sector, people run scared from it.

What we need is a more unified approach on this with strong national leadership. My hope is actually that COVID has flagged this up and now we may move forwards. But it’s shameful that it took a global pandemic to actually shift and move some thinking and action on it.

In terms of women’s organisations, of course they work with women involved in prostitution – but women don’t necessarily disclose that’s what they’re involved in.

And I know through the training that I’ve done with, for example, workers in refuges, very often it is something that women find incredibly difficult to disclose and talk about. Very often it is only much further along in a supportive relationship that women start to speak about it. We have to tackle the stigma and judgment that women experience in order for them to feel that they can disclose and get an appropriate response from any organisation they go to, not just women’s organisations.

Scotland needs a more progressive, consolidated approach for women. I coordinate the Encompass Network and it brings together front-line services across Scotland who support women involved in the sex industry. A couple of years ago, we pulled together a proposed model and approach for Scotland. It was a seven-stage approach for Scotland setting out how we would move forward around equality for women involved in the sex industry.

We called for a clear programme of broader social change that had to look at women’s opportunities. We called for public education and for it to be included in the school relationships and sex education curriculum. We wanted notions around consent to be covered. For example, can you buy consent? Can you pay to have access to somebody else’s body? We felt that’s where we have to start – by having some of these conversations around education. We also called for campaigns to make the general public aware of the impact of prostitution.

We also wanted to look at harm reduction services, ensuring that they are robust across Scotland and to make sure that there are viable exiting services in place. We also wanted to hold the perpetrators to account.

We wanted to disrupt the market and that would include looking at all of those who profit from the sex industry – right up from advertising, commercial sites, to pimps and punters. We saw that for Scotland, it needed to be a multi-phased approach with a lot of resources and investment to ensure that this form of violence against women is treated in the same way as others under Equally Safe.

There are some really interesting things that have happened because of COVID but I recently got criticized for daring to suggest that anything positive might come out of COVID. But I’m ever the optimist in thinking that this may trigger a positive practical change for women in Scotland.

There has been some innovative work happening but, oh my God, there’s so much more that needs to be done and so much more that should have been done. In no way am I resting on any laurels.

I think as we move forward, COVID and lockdown do afford opportunities for discussion that maybe weren’t there before. And during COVID, at nearly every meeting I’ve been in, I make sure I say: What does this mean for women in prostitution? What does this mean for women in the sex trade?

And literally they all go: What’s she doing bringing that into it again? But I think at least women’s needs are being highlighted in different areas.

I’m involved in various policy departments and sectors where there has been some good practice. I’m not going to name names, but in one local authority area they made a commitment to fast-track women into more concrete housing if they were involved in prostitution because they recognised that they were particularly vulnerable.

There were women who’d been sitting for long time on a very long waiting list without moving – and suddenly there was movement. If it can happen then, it can continue to happen. That’s what we need to draw on.

But to be up front, I think there are challenges for Scotland to implement the Nordic Model if we do not have more civic organisations coming on board and understanding this.

I think it’s easier to go: This is a form of sex work. This is sex work. Because what does that mean? It means there doesn’t have to be investment in harm reduction services; there doesn’t have to be investment in support; there doesn’t have to be capacity building across mainstream public sector providers. It means there don’t have to be exiting services – because why would there be? Why would you have exiting projects if it’s a form of work?

I actually think the easier option – as in the option that requires fewer challenges, that requires less courageous movement, and requires less investment in resources – is just saying it’s a form of work.

The much more difficult model to look at, the more challenging model to look at, is the Nordic Model because it addresses some of the fundamental questions.

Image from CLiCK Magazine

It seems like this would be a good time to talk about services that maybe haven’t done as much as they could – or only in response to COVID have they been doing more. The question is, can this continue? It would be good to talk about the services that there are and that you are involved in. For example, in May this year I was delighted to see the launch of the CLiCK helpline. For those who don’t know, this offers support to women who are selling or exchanging sex or sexual images online. Can you tell us a bit more about the helpline and the response to it?

CLiCK is one of the projects in the Encompass Network. It is a piece of work around a designated helpline that we were keen to develop, but COVID really brought up the need for it. The helpline was set up in response to ensuring there were more opportunities for women to engage with more services if they wanted to.

So the helpline was set up and it was available for a variety of hours across the week but that was backed up with an online chatline – so women can either speak on the phone because that’s what some women told us they wanted or they can access the online chat facility, because some women preferred to be totally anonymous. Having the two elements running hand in hand has increased the availability for women to access support.

The CLiCK helpline was set up in May this year and we’re really quite committed to seeing if it can continue almost as part of the legacy of this period of time.

It has been interesting seeing what women have contacted the helpline for. Some women are like: I just want information on what’s available in my area. So it’s very much an information-driven approach. Other women who’ve come forward are in some of the most awful circumstances and are in dire need of support.

But I think one of the interesting things for Encompass is that more women are reaching out to us via social media as well as making direct approaches. And what are they looking for? They’re looking for support for themselves and their kids and families.

Women are asking: I have no money and there is no universal credit coming through for me. I have no means to get any money. What can I do?

One of the first things that we did with CLiCK was to appoint an information officer. We realised we needed information right down at the community level about what is available in terms of support right across Scotland. It was about food banks and school uniform banks; about who’s doing fair food distribution schemes; what play schemes are on offer to support young people.

We drilled right down to the community level, about what was available to support women as women, not just women involved in the sex industry – women as mothers, women as carers, women with health needs themselves. We produced a whole tranche of resources and information.

But what really struck us is how frightened some women are reaching out for help. They can be terrified about who’s going to find out, who’s going to get hold of their information. Are we going to tell the police? Are we going to hand it over to other people?

It’s also been quite tragic because some women who’ve come forward say: Please don’t tell other people that I’m speaking to you, because I’m not allowed to talk to you.

You might think that’s about people controlling them but actually some sex worker communities have said: Do not go and speak to those organisations. So, women have had an additional hurdle to get over to seek support.

Poster for CLiCK.scot

That’s interesting but troubling as well – I don’t mean just academically interesting, because I noticed the CLiCK helpline was using language that couldn’t be taken as vested in a particular position. The marketing made it clear that it is here for women who sell or exchange sex or images online and there’s nothing in that statement to suggest either side or that she has to agree.

You’re absolutely right to pick up on that, because we did make a decision about what was the priority. And we decided it was getting information to women and getting women into support. That had to be the priority. On that we were very clear. And as much as possible we weren’t going to bring the ideological debates into it.

I reached out and engaged with different communities and different groups to say: You don’t agree with where the Women’s Support Project comes from, but during this crisis we need to put all that aside, because the priority is getting these women help. That was my view during the crisis. I’ll do anything I can to make sure women know what is out there and available for them.

We made a decision to use language in a certain way. This has been one of the challenges during this time – to counteract some of the myths and misinformation that has been out there for women. That has been incredibly difficult.

We secured a small pot, £60,000 of funding, from the Scottish Government as part of its destitution support. We got accused of all kinds of things – and about how we got that money. Of course, we believe women in prostitution, women in the sex trade and the sex industry, should have access to a lot more – but that is what we were able to secure.

Women were told they shouldn’t make an application for any of that money because we would force them to exit. Under no circumstance would any service in Scotland that works with women force them to exit. That is not a condition of accessing any service.

So women were absolutely petrified. Some had been told that if you seek support, they will tell the police that you’ve been selling sex during lockdown. Of course, we wouldn’t do that. Never in our wildest dreams is that the approach that any of the Encompass Network services would have. But this was the misinformation that was put out, which meant that for many women they were literally terrified of coming forward and asking for support.

This is why we decided that for CLiCK we would not use terminology or language that may close the doors for any woman to come forward and seek help. We think it’s a really positive intervention and we are keen to ensure that that keeps going.

When women come forward, one of the first questions they ask is: Who is going to find out that I’ve spoken to you? Who are you going to tell? And that shows how frightened women are of disclosing any involvement in prostitution and the sex trade.

CLiCK has done other pieces of work through this time. For example, we looked at all the financial options that were being put forward by the Government that would be available for people – including around Universal Credit. We investigated the challenges for women being able to access that. We looked at the furlough money. We look at self-employed money. We looked at different routes and options to see where women may be able to access money and financial support. More recently, now kids in Scotland are going back to school, we looked at school uniform grants and school uniform banks in local areas.

We looked at all the opportunities right down to the local community level so women could be informed of different resources. One of the things that we have seen during this time is the need for services to be incredibly adaptable and responsive.

Image from CLiCK CAST

We had a great plan to work of what we were going to be doing during this period – but only about five percent of that got actioned – as all our energies had to go on new areas, some of which we will continue to do, like the helpline. We’ve also worked on podcasts of women speaking about what their needs are. Our most recent project is around women’s mental health during this time and ideas around self-care, but really trying to politicise it.

The problem is that we have so few services in Scotland that are actually specialist services working with women involved in prostitution. We need to be shaping much more strongly the understanding and approach of public sector bodies. But I think there is potential for progress around this.

I’m involved in a piece of work with different housing associations and housing organisations because they have acknowledged the vulnerability of women in prostitution and have asked what they need to do.

It is a leading to some quite interesting pieces of partnership work that I hope will pay dividends for the women. But ultimately if this is the route that we go down, just developing small pieces of work, it’s only going to be a sticking plaster.

We need a robust strategic approach with a clear vision for women in Scotland as to what are their rights and how can those rights be assured, and how can we ensure that no matter where you are in Scotland, women are able to access services – both harm reduction and exiting services.

Ultimately, we need a vision about whether the sex industry has a place in a modern-day Scotland and that’s where conversations have to be around the Nordic Model.

Anything else is just going to be sticking plasters until we have a clear vision and a clear statement that we want to prevent and eradicate the sex industry in Scotland, just like every other form of violence against women.

Absolutely. We can include a link to the CLiCK website where those podcasts are available so that listeners to them.

If there are any women with lived experience who have exited or are survivors, we would like their voice included. We are really keen to hear from women, not just about their experiences during this time but much more than that.

I’m going to be starting to do a piece of work around the real-life stories of women who have exited. We’re really keen for women to approach us, just to talk, obviously, but also if they want to be involved in different pieces of work. Our door is always open if any woman wants to come forward.

COVID has brought things into very sharp focus on where the gaps and fault lines and cracks are. A lot of my work over the past few months during COVID has been to flag up women’s needs in as many policy arenas as possible. When there are any groups or meetings to discuss vulnerable groups, I have tried to be there to ensure that women are considered within that.

There’s research starting now about the lived experience of particularly marginalized communities during COVID. Guess what? Nobody had thought about women in prostitution. But we heard about it and said: Excuse me, are you including women in prostitution in that?

And there’ve been discussions around housing rights and we’ve been there on that. We’ve been linked in with different academic studies to ensure that women’s voices are included. We’re looking at public health messaging and working to ensure that for those – and in all of these forums and discussions – women’s needs are considered.

The Encompass Network is incredibly small. We’re only eight small organisations, so I think it is incumbent upon others to also step up.

I know Nordic Model Now! does a great deal of lobbying in Scotland. I think this is really the time that things have to change. If it cannot change now for god’s sake, when will it ever change?

The challenges that women have faced in the sex industry have really been flagged up during this – about no access to financial support and being completely marginalized from some kinds of mainstream financial support. It’s revealed the reality for women in it around the lack of money and the lack of opportunities.

Lockdown has also flagged up, unsurprisingly, that no man died through not having purchased sex. That shows that men can survive without it – not having it is not going to have such a hugely detrimental impact on men.

We have to acknowledge that for many women they had to continue selling sex through lockdown, in that they did not have an option not to.

Did they do it in different ways, with more women turning to things like webcam work?

There are women who had to continue direct contact and they did not have another option. Some women who had regular punters would continue to see their regular punters.

At the start of lockdown, women were trying to implement some kind of harm reduction strategy. We know women were taking the temperatures of punters when they arrived. Women were making men have showers. Women were making sure that men sanitised their hands. They were trying to adopt the public health message in incredibly difficult circumstances for themselves because they felt they had no other option.

In March, some of the main commercial providers, like AdultWork and Vivastreet, put out notices to say that because of social distancing and public health, there should be no direct contact. But women were still being approached by men.

During COVID, we did an exercise via the Encompass Network, scoping online adverts to see what were the realities for women. We found there were still women advertising on things like Vivastreet. We looked at Craigslist. In one week in Glasgow there were 53 men on Craigslist looking to pay for sex.

We put adverts and information on Gumtree for women involved in prostitution about support. And we got bombarded with punters who basically said: Just go away and let the women continue to sell. I’m desperate for sex. I need to see a woman. Who do you think you are? Don’t stop the women.

So there was a high number of men still looking to buy sex. A lot of the men had this idea that that they were somehow providing a public service because they were still prepared to pay the women – which is a skewed cognitive process.

I was quite concerned that women in prostitution might start to be seen in a really negative light – as happened years ago with HIV – and women would be considered as vectors of disease. I was really concerned that that was going to happen during COVID.

And obviously it is really important that the women are tapped into support, but equally I was saying: Who’s speaking to the men during this lockdown? Who’s saying to them that they shouldn’t be putting pressure on women to offer paid-for sex?

A lot of women still had to continue to do it. We kept a track of it and saw when everything started to change in terms of the industry and where we are now. This interview is in the middle of August, and I would say that the vast majority of the sex industry has returned. It may not be official. But it is happening.

Hotels are taking bookings. Women are using hotels again. Women are booking Airbnbs. Women are going back to renting flats. I think the sex industry is pretty much open.

You did mention a wee bit earlier about the kind of online forms, online images. We have seen a huge increase. Women who were previously involved in the sex industry but were not making enough money through direct contact, were moving onto these online platforms, using the galleries in AdultWork, or OnlyFans, or some of the other bigger sites.

We definitely saw women who were already involved in the sex industry moving into that. But we’ve also seen an increase in women who’ve never been involved in the sex industry before moving on to these online platforms.

There’s been a huge amount written about it in the media, some of it very voyeuristic and salacious. They always focus on some young woman who many months ago was able to make so many thousand pounds a month. It’s like, let’s focus on the money that some women make and not on what happens to other women.

We’ve been looking at what’s been happening with these sites and my information officer has been tracking some of what the men are talking about online, men who are stealing, selling and sharing these women’s images without their consent.

We’ve been trying to flag up that there are legislative loopholes here and that there’s actually no legislative protection for these women on these online platforms. We’ve been putting quite a bit of pressure on the Scottish government. We’ve sent letters to the Lord Advocate, saying that there’s a loophole in the law and the women aren’t protected and this must be closed.

One of our concerns is that men now have ready contact with women and what is going to happen. We know that unemployment is going to increase when furlough ends. From a preventive element we are quite concerned about what is going to be in place – or not in place – for the women.

We know that some of the subscribers are asking women to meet up for dates – paid for dates. You can read adverts that men are putting out saying: Are you strapped for cash? I’ll do a car meet with you for 50 quid.

Men are exploiting the economic vulnerability of women. They know that women are particularly vulnerable at the moment. Women are putting adverts, not even for sex work, not for prostitution, not to sell sex – for example, on Gumtree saying: I’ve lost my job and does anybody need any work? And men have responded like that.

These kind of big questions and dynamics, as much as women’s vulnerability and economic vulnerability, have come to the fore. Men’s sense of entitlement and access to money is also coming to the fore. These are some of the challenges that women are going to face.

For the Women Support Project, I see that we have been a bridge for women. If it wasn’t for our strategic placement, women’s needs would not be considered in many areas.

I attended a meeting a few weeks ago about the equality impact assessment of contact tracing and ‘Test and Protect’ for particularly vulnerable groups. And it comes to this point in the conversation where you go: But what about women involved in prostitution, how are they being considered? And there’s silence and you know that they haven’t been considered.

A huge part of my role at the Women Support Project, is to try and ensure that the women are included in as many strategic discussions as we possibly can. That is leading them to think about women’s needs and how to find out about woman’s needs. It’s about women’s voices and women’s experiences.

Through the CLiCK Together Alone project and the work of Your Voice, we’re hearing directly from women about their needs. We also have surveys running. So we’re hearing from women about what their needs are. It’s hardly surprising that one of the biggest needs that they have at the moment is money and finance. We’re using those women’s experiences and we’re hearing from so many women who say that they need to exit and get out of this industry. We must pay heed to what we’ve heard directly from women.

Image from http://www.insideoutsidescotland.info/

We ran the Inside/Outside project a few years ago. It was narrative storytelling for women about their experiences both inside and outside of the sex industry. Now we want to take it to the next phase and the focus is going to be around exiting.

I’m working with different organisations across the four regions of the United Kingdom. It’s going to be a coordinated project engaging with women who have exited or who are survivors of the sex industry, to find out and talk through what that journey was like for them. What led them to that point? What did they need? What were they able to find? What was given to them? What was lacking? We’re going to use women’s real lived experiences.

We’re going to pull that together across the four regions of the UK. Hopefully we’re going to have that out and launched in October with a webinar that’s primarily led by survivors.

It’s a real strategic call because we need things in place now and we need a more robust exiting strategy. We need a much more defined approach and we need the investment of resources to ensure that, as and when women want to leave, they have support to go to.

The words of Katie from the Inside/Outside project will always stick in my mind. Whenever she talked about it, she said that if a woman wants out, she needs the concrete steps. She needs the first rung on the ladder to be there for her to make that step, in order to progress.

I think what we need more than ever in Scotland is those courageous conversations and that investment and to look at this kind of comprehensive model. I think for Scotland we really need to bring this all together around violence against women, and at long last make that decision that as a policy directive this is where we’re going to go in Scotland around the equality model and the Nordic Model. For me I struggle to see what other option we now have.

That concrete step does need to be from the state and government. There needs to be public help available for, as you described, women resorting to advertising for some sort of work during COVID. What’s the better option for them, something provided by the government through organisations like yours or 50 quid provided by a man in a car – who could be anybody – and may not even have sanitised his hands?

Women talk about trying to implement some strategies to minimize their risk. But the men were like: Well I don’t care, I’m fine you know. Or there are men who say: It’s OK, I’m COVID-free.

Really? How do you know that?

The same dynamics come up wherever women are in any vulnerable situation. If there’s any vulnerability there that can be exploited, it’s going to be exploited. Especially if he doesn’t see the woman as a person but sees her as a service that he’s entitled to use, why would he follow measures that she’s trying to put in place?

You only have to look at some of the demands from men at the minute about needing the sex industry opened back up. While women are still trying to implement some elements of risk management, men are asking for unprotected sex again.

I was just speaking to a woman last week and she was saying that the men are asking for deep French kissing and the ‘girlfriend experience’ again. And she’s like: I don’t want to kiss. I do not want to go back to kissing, because I’m so worried.

She said that for a lot of men, they’re quite willing to run a risk for themselves but they do not contemplate that they’re putting the woman at risk and don’t really care about her health.

It comes back to the fact that sex trade dynamics are still being played out – the same exploitation, the same abuse of power. I said earlier about looking at some of what’s happened to women who are selling images online. If you look at some of the sub-forums and sub-sites, you see groups that have been set up by men who are eagerly sharing amongst themselves images cribbed and stolen from women. They have the idea that these women think they’re in control and but actually they’re going to show them who is.

Until we start addressing that sort of dynamics and that male behaviour, we must ensure that women have harm reduction, that they have support, that there’s prevention, we need to ensure that. But ultimately, we have to start challenging men’s behaviour. We have to start challenging that demand. And this is going to have to be a long-term strategy, as we’ve seen in other countries.

There’s no legislation that you can parachute in on day one and there you go, that’s all done and dusted. There has to be a process that leads to this point and there has to be commitment across the board – from the Government, across departments in the Government, all the key players in the big institutions: that commitment has to be there.

It’s not going to be perfect on day one. Any change in approach, any change in legislation, has to be given time to bed in. We have to allow for that.

But if we look at what happened during COVID, what country got this right for women? I looked at what happened in Germany with its legalized model. It didn’t get it right – women were actually dumped out in the streets. I don’t think any country got it perfect. But the countries that were most able to offer support were those that have a support infrastructure there for women.

But I do think this flagged up that historically there’s been complete under-resourcing and under-investment in supporting women in dire financial needs, not just in Scotland but in other countries too.

It clearly shows that for the vast majority of women involved in this industry, it is an incredibly fragile and precarious position that they’re in. There are no safety nets around them. And no matter what the legislative model, no country got this right for women.

For Scotland, this is what we have to learn. As we move forward, we’re currently in phase three of the route map out of lockdown. Just look at what has happened this week in Aberdeen. We have grave concerns about the women. Women’s support services were starting to open up, and now – in the space of a few hours – they’ve gone back into a local lockdown. We’re going to have to have contingency plans.

Regardless whether women can return to this industry as it opens up again, it doesn’t change the fundamental insecure financial position that they’re in. It doesn’t change that. These are the kind of broader equality issues that need to be addressed in Scotland as we move forward. And part of that has to be another legislative model.

You cannot just invest in harm reduction services. You cannot just decriminalise the sale of sex.

You need to have a multi-purpose approach covering all angles.

Absolutely. You cannot just cherry pick which thing you might quite fancy doing. It has to be a comprehensive model.

You referred earlier to the Inside/Outside project and wearing a mask both in the literal sense of the pandemic and in the psychological sense of women putting on a mask as a way of surviving sexual exploitation. The Inside/Outside project always makes me think of masks because of its symbol of the white masks. I remember seeing the exhibition with some friends at university and the impact it had on us. I think that was three years ago?

Was it three years ago? Yes, you’re right it was three years ago. Oh, dear me.

I suppose the Inside/Outside project came from the discourse that was around at that time in Scotland, that only women who are currently involved in the sex industry should be allowed to have a voice about the sex industry.

So we said right, let’s go and speak to women who are involved in different levels of the sex industry, in different phases, and at different times of their life in the sex industry, and let’s see what those women have to say.

It was really was a storytelling project that I undertook with 16 women across Scotland involved in different elements of the sex industry. Some were involved in street prostitution; some were involved in saunas; some were in brothels; some were with escort agencies; some were independent or classed themselves as independent escorts; and some were women who had been trafficked into this country.

Broadly, it would be me, them, a digital recorder, a flask of coffee, and a mountain of cake. And I was going, just tell me about yourself. And the women took it in whatever direction they wanted to take it. They led the conversation. They led the discourse. Whatever discussion they wanted, that’s the path that it went down. We were really, really, clear that the woman had to be in control.

At the end of those recorded conversation, all of the women were given the option to hit delete and some women took it. They had just wanted the chance to tell their story. They’d never had that opportunity before. At all levels they had the choice and control.

But some women did want to make their stories public. So we published a book, Inside/Outside, based on their stories. And some of the women were given the option to take part in a creative project using photography as a way to express their experiences and their lives inside and outside of the sex industry. Those photographs along with the stories formed the basis of the Inside/Outside exhibition.

We also did other pieces of work where we worked with local artists to produce artworks, we made podcasts and short films.

The Inside/Outside exhibition as a whole has been on tour round Scotland. It’s been in universities, as you said, Siobhan. It’s been a pop-up at one-day events. We’ve taken empty shop units in small towns. We actually had it underground at one stage – in old police cells underneath the court house.

It’s been a really adaptable exhibition that has primarily been about bringing women’s voices from the sex industry around communities in Scotland – many that think that prostitution and the sex industry have nothing to do with them. That’s why we wanted to bring the women’s voices out across Scotland – because prostitution and the sex industry is hidden and on the margins.

It was an incredibly powerful project to be involved in. I always say that I will never do a piece of work like that again.

I went into it having worked with women in prostitution for many years and I think there was something unique about this piece of work because I was not the woman support worker, I was not a journalist, I was not an academic researcher. Literally they owed nothing to me and they could walk away from that process at any time.

The women said that they found that an incredibly freeing process because they could say whatever they wanted and they would not necessarily have to face me again. Most of the women said that they’d never had the chance to tell their story before. They might have told some small bits of it to different people in different services at different times. They might’ve told elements to friends. But they’d never actually sat and just talked.

The longest recorded conversation was six and a half hours. The shortest was two and a half hours. We wanted to stay true to the women’s voices. We didn’t want it to be my analysis of what the women said. It had to be their voice. It was their transcripts and that was it – and the photography project was a huge part of it for some of the women.

As I said, we’ve been on tour. We were actually meant to be in Dundee in the late spring and early summer with a big piece of work about community voices. We had women involved in prostitution who were about to do creative workshops with us. Sadly, that has all been put on a back burner.

The next phase of Inside/Outside will probably focus on the voices of women who have exited. That’s what we’re hearing – women feeling that they must exit, they have to, they need to. To stay true to what women are telling us, the next phase will be where woman will talk about their experiences on their journeys back out of the sex industry, and what would have helped or not helped.

In talking to women, what has been flagged up is that there are women out there who exited with no support. But very often they come back needing support at a later time and a later stage. This has shown that we need a really comprehensive model. We need to hear the women who tapped into services and got support to exit, but also the women who did not have those services.

We’re doing a call out for women to come forward and share their stories and to be included in this element of the creative project.

Who knows when we’ll have a physical Inside/Outside exhibition again in Scotland, but we’re hopeful that in March 2021 we may be able to have a managed exhibition that will bring together phase one and phase two of the project, along with lots of other pieces of work that the Encompass Network is involved in – all focused on the real lived experience and narratives of women who have been involved in the sex industry.

“I think I was putting a mask on to make other people think, ‘Eh look she’s fine, she’s looking fine, she’s doing good.’ But inside I really wasnae fine. Far fae fine. Crumbling underneath.” – Levi in the Inside/Outside project

That sounds fantastic. I guess along with the white masks, you’ll also have the general COVID mask as well.

Just to pick up on what you said about the masks, the idea of the masks in the Inside/Outside project came from the women themselves. All of the women no matter what context, what setting, where they were located within the sex industry, they all talked about the need to wear a mask – and that at times the mask would slip and who did you let it slip with.

The women talked about wearing the mask for so long, they were no longer sure who was left underneath. The women all felt that what connected all of their stories was the need to wear the mask and what lies behind the mask.

Whenever we’ve been taking the exhibition round small communities in Scotland, the conversation is around, do we allow the mask to slip for women? Do we actually allow them to take off the mask? And if they take off the mask and start talking about their lived realities, are we ready to deal with that? Because that then forces the rest of us to take our masks off.

I think very often the men continue to wear their masks. They are never asked to take that off. They remain nameless. They remain unknown, anonymous. It is the women who bear the brunt underneath their mask.

Absolutely. That is a really poignant point to end on. I feel we have covered so much but if there’s anything else…

Siobhan, my god we could keep going and this could end up being a podcast about three hours long. I talked earlier about keeping open doors. I think one of the really important things is that services are open.

I’m open to hearing from women, from Nordic Model Now! or from any other listeners, if they want to come forward and find data, we’d just love to hear from them. But who we’d most love to hear from, to be honest, is women themselves with lived experience. So if there’s any listener who’d fancy getting in touch, we just love to hear from you.

Women who would like to add their voices to the new Inside/Outside project documenting women’s journeys exiting prostitution, please email: encompass@womenssupportproject.org.uk.

Links to projects & services Linda mentions

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