A campaign has been launched to have convictions for prostitution wiped from women’s records.
An alliance of frontline support groups, politicians and survivors want women granted pardons like those given to striking miners and men historically convicted of homosexuality.
Campaigners say the convictions keep women trapped in commercial sexual exploitation because they must be disclosed for jobs and training in sectors such as care or childminding.
Bronagh Andrew, operations manager for TARA ( Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance) and Routes Out, which supports women exiting sex work, said: “These convictions can really hinder women’s ability to move on and access meaningful alternative employment.
“There is also the psychological impact of being charged and found guilty of an offence where the act of it has caused significant harm to the woman.”
Campaigners are also demanding no more women be prosecuted with punters criminalised instead.
Bronagh added: “Legislative approaches remain focused on those selling sex and not on the people profiting from it or paying for it. There is an inherent unfairness.
“It can be a significant barrier particularly around care work, where they would need a disclosure. For many women even the thought of having to disclose and explain a conviction is enough to put them off even trying to seek other employment.”
Jobs such as nursing, care, social work, support work or child-related jobs require an enhanced disclosure where even spent and repeat convictions may be revealed.
Bronagh said despite Scottish Government defining prostitution as violence against women, the “victims” of the trade are criminalised.
She said: “We view these women as victims of the perpetrators but at the same time it remains on the statute books that these women can be criminalised. It is a complete contradiction in policy.
“I don’t know another form of violence against women and girls where there is such a reluctance to hold the perpetrators of that violence to account and where the victims are criminalised.”
The alliance wants the Scottish Government to overhaul Scotland’s “outdated and unjust” prostitution laws.
Under existing legislation, running a sex services website and paying for sex are legal in Scotland, while women exploited via the trade can be prosecuted.
The alliance want a model like that used in Sweden where women aren’t prosecuted but buying sex is illegal.
The trade remains synonymous with violence, drugs and money laundering, and crime gangs continue to make huge profits from it. A damning inquiry by the Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation found websites which contain online “catalogues” of women advertised for prostitution facilitate sex trafficking yet are allowed to operate freely under Scottish law.
Bronagh said the lack of legal punishment for those profiting from prostitution is also fuelling sex trafficking. There have been only five successful convictions in Scotland for human trafficking since 2017.
She added: “Trafficking, particularly for commercial sexual exploitation, remains high profit for the exploiters and low risk in terms of criminal sanctions. The distinction between being trafficked and not being trafficked, entering commercial sexual exploitation ‘voluntarily’, is paper thin.
“Without men being willing to pay for sex, we wouldn’t have the issue that we have.”
Bronagh said the Scottish Government seemed slow to adopt the Swedish model because prostitution was still a controversial issue, with a lobby claiming working in the industry was a choice and prostitution is empowering.
She said: “That experience of empowerment through selling sex is not an experience I heard from the hundreds of prostituted women I have had the privilege to support and work with over more than 20 years.
“There is significant physical and psychological harm that is long lasting.”
Police Scotland are reluctant to charge women who are soliciting but many survivors of the trade are still paying the price of a criminal record long after they have exited prostitution.
Bronagh said: “Even if police are more sensitive to the issues, the option to charge women is still there and that is not acceptable.”
Heather Williams, coordinator of the Encompass Network, which supports women exploited in the sex trade, said: “It should be the purchasers who are criminalised. We have seen convictions for the miners and homosexuals taken off their record and the same thing should happen for the survivors of commercial sexual exploitation.”
Heather has been involved in supporting prostituted women for more than 20 years and said the “trade” should be confined to the history books.
She added: “From my experience, there was nothing empowering about their experience. They were some of the most vulnerable women in society. A number of the women had been raped and sexually assaulted. About three-quarters had suffered some form of childhood abuse.
“There are a lot of voices who say that sex work is work and it should be a choice and be made safe. Fundamentally you can’t make it safe.”
Sophie started working in a brothel in Edinburgh when she was an 18-year-old and thought it would be “easy money” when she was struggling to finance a roof over her head.
She said: “It was like being raped every day. I cried every day that I was there.”
The punters were charged £130 an hour for her time but the brothel keeper took 50 per cent and the driver who transported her to flats and hotels took another 10 per cent.
When she tried to leave the brothel after the first day, the pimp theatened to tell her parents and she had to stay there for months.
She said: “The brothel keeper regularly hit women and lots of us were injured by the clients. They could do what they wanted with you and these were men who were everything from judges to politicians.”
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She eventually left because the ordeal of working there outweighed the fear she had of her parents knowing. Sophie said criminalising women for being “raped” was abhorrent.
She said: “Some of the girls I knew were only 16, many were students so a criminal conviction would ruin their lives.
“They were young, they were victims, not criminals. Make the men who use these women like blow-up dolls the criminals, not the women who have been sold like an object.”