Feature by Mat Kladney | 16 May 2006

Violent crime, sexually transmitted infections and drug addiction are assumed by the general public to be business as usual for sex workers in the United Kingdom. It goes with the territory, many will claim - occupation in this immoral profession obviously leading to these expected ends. Further, it is often argued that the actual act of prostitution is inherently exploitative. Yet, Scotland's sex workers do not have to be facing these demons. So says Ruth Morgan Thomas, former sex-worker and member of Scottish Prostitutes Education Project (SCOT-PEP), an Edinburgh-based charity created by and for prostitutes, dedicated to the promotion of health and human rights for those working in the sex industry.

The legitimisation of prostitution should conceivably eliminate many of these negative realities. Despite arguments by some feminist groups that all commercial sex is exploitative, SCOT-PEP observe that many sex workers in Scotland are empowered and employed in the business by choice. In addition, treating prostitution as any other economic industry makes it possible to remove much of its criminal underbelly through already existing worker protection and human rights legislation. By "fighting for social justice and inclusion" SCOT-PEP aims to guarantee sex workers the same human rights guaranteed to the general populace. This part of SCOT-PEP's charitable ethos is threatening its funding and thus its ability to provide its other services including condom distribution and drug harm reduction as well as an anonymous crime-reporting system.

In numerous instances SCOT-PEP has been offered secure funding with the proviso of urging sex workers to leave the industry - something the organisation is not prepared to do, favouring the approach of providing non-judgmental services to all sex workers, whilst helping those to leave who actually want to leave. Also, looking at various experiments in sex work legislation shows that decriminalisation or legalisation is the best way to ensure public health and safety. A 2003 report commissioned by the Scottish Executive considering the social issues relating to prostitution "would wish to see criminal law offence provisions which are explicit that the mischief they target is public alarm and offence, rather than criminalising the sale or purchase of sex."

Interestingly, Sweden changed its laws in 1999 to criminalise the purchase of sex, but not the sale. Though well-intentioned, Swedish sex workers claim this drove prostitution underground, increasing violence and human trafficking in the trade, making contact with social workers and other support very difficult and making the general condition of prostitutes much worse. Similar to pre-1999 Sweden, Edinburgh once took a very pragmatic approach to street-based prostitution. A managed area was established in Leith along a 250-meter segment of Coburg Street.

Here the authorities overlooked the criminality of street prostitution. This approach to the situation allowed organisations like SCOT-PEP to effectively maintain contact with all street-based sex workers in Edinburgh. Sexual health of the sex workers (and by extension their clients and partners) was maintained, as was their general safety. With regentrification occurring throughout Leith, the tolerance zone was moved following the construction of luxury flats nearby. Despite temporarily creating a new zone, an attitude of 'not in my backyard' prevailed, spreading street-based prostitutes over a wide area throughout the city. Since the loss of the tolerance zone, reported violence against street-based sex workers has increased tenfold. Meanwhile progressive erosion of funding has made it much harder for SCOT-PEP to effectively attend to the needs of sex workers. This is similar to the situation in Glasgow where no official tolerance zone has ever been established, although until recently police did selectively enforce solicitation laws creating an unofficial management area.

An organisation similar to SCOT-PEP, called Base 75, exists in Glasgow to give support to (primarily) street-workers. This group is part of Glasgow's Sandyford Initiative, the city's centre for sexual, reproductive and emotional health. Although it offers pragmatic help and harm reduction, it works in conjunction with Glasgow's Routes Out Of Prostitution Social Inclusion Partnership. As such, it receives funding from Glasgow City Council, which aims to completely eliminate prostitution and sees it as male violence towards women.

SCOT-PEP's mission to promote social inclusion of sex workers and their human rights is limiting its ability to provide basic services as it is constantly searching for new sources of financial support. Acceptance of prostitution seems to be an idea untouchable by funding bodies in Scotland, thus SCOT-PEP has turned to the public. Its new campaign "Seeking Fairy Godfathers and Sugar Mummies" seeks to raise the £30,000 it needs to continue operating by the beginning of July. If SCOT-PEP is unable to raise this money it will leave a dangerous service gap in Edinburgh that will eventually be covered by those who do not have the experience or local knowledge to appropriately tackle the issues faced by those working in the sex industry.

SCOT-PEP can be reached at 0131 622 7550 or via email at