My name is Linda Thompson, and I’m currently the National Coordinator for Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Scotland with the Women’s Support Project. Commercial sexual exploitation doesn’t really have any agreed or legal term, but at its most basic commercial sexual exploitation is what happens to anyone in the sex industry. It is obviously prostitution, prostitution, whether that is someone selling sex, soliciting for sex and on a street or a public place, whether that someone, an individual, who is selling sex through an escort agency, through a brothel, through a sauna, massage parlour, wherever indoors. It also includes human trafficking, because as we know, women, who are trafficked for sexual exploitation, end up in the sex industry.
It includes pornography stripping, lap dancing, phone sex, webcaming for sex, internet sex chat rooms. It includes mail-order brides and sex tourism. So it’s a wide spectrum of activities that fall under the umbrella of commercial sexual exploitation. The Scottish government and partner organisations all across Scotland see prostitution, commercial sexual exploitation as a form of violence against women. It is rooted in the historic and systematic inequality of women. It’s based on the idea that women will have to have sex with men that they do not desire to have sex with.
And the reason why that happens is because they need food, they need money, they need resources, they need a place of safety, they need some element of security that they don’t currently have. And men, primarily men, are the ones who have that and can offer it. There is no consensus and agreement across the board that actually prostitution is a form of violence against women. But I would take a step back, and I would ask people, if it’s not a form of violence against women, what is it? Some people will say, it’s a form of employment. I think it’s interesting, if you speak to many women in the sex industry, and you say to them, is this your work?
They have quite a strong reaction, and say, no, this is not a job, this is not employment. There are some people who might find the system of prostitution very empowering for them. They might find that it’s given the money, it’s given them access to resources that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. That doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful for all those involved. Women are harmed within this, we know that. Women in the system of prostitution experience as high a level of post-traumatic stress disorder as soldiers returning from war. Through the Encompass Network we started the Inside Outside project. And we wanted very much to be bringing forward the unheard voices.
We recruited and engaged with a number of women across Scotland, some of the women involved in street prostitution. Some were involved indoors in saunas and brothels. Some were working as independent escorts, very much what we consider the high end of the market. And we spent time with those women individually really listening to what their lives, and their stories, and their experiences had been. What had brought them to this point? What was life currently like for them? And what did they see for their future? What did they want? What were their hopes and their dreams? Now the women– most of the women had never told their stories before.
So it was a unique opportunity for them and a way to tell all. And they were incredibly brave, and incredibly honest, and incredibly frank with what they shared with us. But they were in control of the whole project, they could decide what they wanted to share with me, they could decide what did they want to share with the public. And we took it a stage further for them, where we gave him the chance to take part in a photography project, where they took the photographs that would illustrate aspects of their lives that they wanted to share. So the women were completely in control the whole way through the project. It’s been an incredibly powerful project.
Both for the participants, the women who took part, but also, I think, for the outsiders to the sex industry to actually hear directly from these women, their at times brutal accounts of what has happened to them within the sex industry. Now these women have rich, complex, diverse lives, and they’re not just women in prostitution, they’re not just women in the sex industry. They’re mothers, they’re daughters, they have relationships. They may have other work, they might be involved in course. They have complex lives, and we wanted to capture that, because very often there’s a very narrow, or very narrow different aspect, but very narrow ideas put forward about women and prostitution, and what women in the sex industry is like.
And we wanted to give them free reign to bring forward everything that was happening for them. The overriding thing for all of the women was that they wanted to tell their story in the hope that this would never happen to other women, that actually by telling their story they would prevent other women going through and experience what they had gone through. And there was really common themes that came through all of the women’s stories, no matter how different the women were or how different their experiences were. And the common themes were around, I think, around choice, consent, and control. And for a lot of women they talked about feeling that they have no other option to become involved.
They talked about consent, and one of the women said, very clearly, that the men don’t buy your consent, they buy your silence. They talked about you might consent to one thing within the sex industry, but how punters and customers, clients push, push, push boundaries. And the boundaries, that you wanted to keep at the start, very soon within this industry are eroded. One of the participants, [? Katie ?] talked about that really punters just think of you as a piece of meat. A lot of the women talked about the lack of control. Women talked about adverts being placed on the internet for them of which they have no input into, which said that they would offer a whole range of services.
They never agreed to that. So they would have punters arriving, expecting to do certain things to them that the women had never agreed with. So I think those are the three things that came through. And it was really interesting, the commonalities and the women’s backgrounds. Very often there was a point at their lives in which they went down a certain path into the sex industry. And I think for anybody who wants to work to prevent this they have to look at what are those crucial points in young children, young women and women’s lives. And for a lot of women those points were beyond their control.
The women who find it overwhelming to see the reaction to their work, to their stories, to their photographs, they couldn’t believe that anybody would be interested in them, that anybody would give them the time. They were expecting to be judged, they were expecting to be criticised. So whenever they’ve seen a very positive response from people, it really made them sit back and think, we need more of this, we need more women coming forward. We need to find safe ways for women to come forward and tell their story. And if you listen to the women’s stories, they clearly describe this as violence against women.