In a landmark building just a stroll away from Glasgow Central Station, all offices are listed on a board in the entrance hall – except for one, which is on the fifth floor.
This space is used by a support organisation for sex workers called Umbrella Lane. It is crowded with boxes, condoms, and history books about prostitution. Kathryn Jarvinen, a community outreach officer, greets me in the same friendly manner she uses to welcome sex workers who visit here.
Umbrella Lane was set up in 2015 with the aim of providing a holistic approach to sex work support. From open discussions about negative client encounters, to free condom and lube supplies, Umbrella Lane is an open door to everyone. Former sex workers are on hand to inform newcomers of their rights.
Those who attend its drop-ins and weekly socials – which include painting sessions and film nights – have all sorts of backgrounds.
The majority of attendees are women. Some are “full-service” workers, who provide in-person sexual services working either from their own flats or in hotels. Others are cam girls (someone who performs via webcam) and strip club dancers. Some women split time between online and real life sex work, usually indoors.
In Jarvinen’s first year of work at Umbrella Lane she noticed a steady increase in the number of people accessing the service. The support offered goes as far as providing mental health assistance and letting workers have a friendly chat in the common room.
Jarvinen is enthusiastic about the organisation’s next steps: “We are doing some outreach to street-based workers, migrant women, drug-using workers, and more marginalized communities other than indoor workers.”
Sex work is legal in Scotland if people work alone and indoors. But soliciting, loitering on the streets, and brothel keeping are criminal offences. Workers are prevented from being together in the same flat, even for personal safety. Often called the “Nordic model” as it originated in Sweden, Scotland’s framework implies that buying sex or selling sex, especially in public or in a shared space, is still an offence.
Scot-PEP, a sex worker-led charity, claims this unfairly affects workers. “Rolling back punitive austerity measures is the best way to prevent people from entering sex work, rather than punishing sex workers by removing their income,” the charity says.
Before the coronavirus pandemic there were already many challenges for those working in the industry. Unreliable incomes, risk of violence, and discrimination are just a few. But as cases of Covid-19 escalated in Scotland back in March, so too did the health risks associated with sex work. Emergency legislation associated with lockdown exacerbated the situation for sex workers, whose earning ability has been decimated.
Claiming the emergency funding offered by the UK Government to the self-employed is not straightforward. The scheme is open to those with a trading profit of less than £50,000 in 2018-19 or an average trading profit of less than £50,000 from 2016-17 onwards. More than half of the income in that period must come from self-employment. Sex workers who registered as freelancers in the months leading to the pandemic do not qualify for grants.
Getting benefits hasn’t been easy either. 1.2 million people requested Universal Credit between March and April, leaving claims unanswered or unfinished. Physical distancing rules have left many workers close to destitution. “I was lucky to get on Universal Credit just before the lockdown,” one anonymous worker says. “I’m able to live on that with some restraint, so I’d rather leave other funds to people who cannot access it or have kids.”
Umbrella Lane decided to mobilise when Covid-19 hit. An online crowdfunding campaign raised £10,000, allowing it to pay sex workers a monthly hardship grant. But by early June the charity announced that funds were running so low that new payments would be paused until July. A new fundraiser is already up and running, so far raising 15 per cent of its goal.
Umbrella Lane’s hopes for financial support had risen in May when the Scottish Government announced what looked like a rescue plan for sex workers. But the charity was dismayed to learn that £60,000 was to be invested in increasing staffing for support and trauma counselling – and that these services would be delivered exclusively through the Encompass Network, a group which helps sex workers, but sees sex work as inherently exploitative.
“Despite calls to the government to financially support sex workers they have chosen to administer funds through a network that only allows organisations to be part of they believe all prostitution is violence against women,” tweeted Dr Anastacia Ryan, who helped establish Umbrella Lane in 2015.
Umbrella Lane’s application for membership of the Encompass Network was rejected. It believes the funding discriminates against sex worker projects who embrace a non-judgemental, harm reduction approach. In contrast, Encompass Network requires its members to follow the Scottish Government’s Violence Against Women & Girls initiative, which lists prostitution and pornography as harms.
The Scottish Government denies the discrimination charge. It told The Ferret it supports “a range of services which help reduce the harm caused by prostitution, including those that have arisen as a result of the pandemic.”
“We are aware there are many women in vulnerable personal and economic circumstances, including those engaged in prostitution, and would encourage anyone who is experiencing hardship to engage with the support services available,” a spokesperson added.
Molly Smith from the Decrim Now campaign believes that Covid-19 has exposed Scotland-wide failures to support a harm reduction approach.
“It is sex worker-led organisations that genuinely care about what happens to people who sell sex,” she says. “They can see that sex workers sell sex because they need money, not out of some kind of pathological brokenness.
“I’m sure some of those staff hours will be used in ways that help some people, but ultimately sex workers need direct financial help and rent freezes.”
She claims it further underlines the need to decriminalise sex work. The issue has been fiercely debated for many years, with sex workers unions citing evidence that criminalisation of their clients puts them at risk by pushing the practice further underground.
However, some charities such as the Women’s Support Project point to figures from Sweden and Norway which suggest that criminalising sex workers’ clients reduces demand. They claim the approach holds to account “those who profit from the sexual exploitation of others” and from “human misery, such as pimps and human traffickers.”
Sex workers at Umbrella Lane office say that the unwillingness to decriminalise has meant sex workers cannot have confidence that they will get support when they need it.
Umbrella Lane has a chest of drawers full of HIV test kits for those uneasy about health services. For example, an escort called Dana* struggles with her local sex clinic. “If you want to get tested regularly, you have to either disclose your status to them or wait for months to get seen,” she says. “And I don’t plan on telling them I’m a sex worker. I don’t trust officials with this information.”
On a video call, Glasgow sex worker Liz* says she had to fight to obtain post-exposure medication. An HIV-positive client removed his condom during their encounter, despite her demands to have protected sex. She visited five different sexual clinics to obtain antiretroviral medication in time, but with no success.
Some of the doctors argued that there was little reason to believe she had been infected – and a four-week prophylaxis cycle would have a negative impact on her general health. Liz insisted on receiving medication to avert a future HIV diagnosis, but she did not find support.
One doctor even claimed that her being a woman and the man being from outside Subsaharan Africa lowered chances of infection, despite him being declared HIV-positive. Scientific evidence does not point to gender or ethnicity as a reason for reduced HIV transmission.
She finally got treatment at A&E by showing up at 11pm on a Saturday night. “Every step of the way was very hard. None of the previous reasons were convincing enough to me. It would have been nice to be believed straight away,” she says.
Jarvinen tells me that medical staff “shouldn’t be coming at sex work from any political stance”. She adds: “They just need to be there from a harm reduction stance and not try to force women to exit sex work or anything like that.”
Besides being Umbrella Lane’s director and co-founder, Dr Ryan is a lecturer in social and public policy at the University of Glasgow. She argues that laws stretching back decades that framed prostitution as anti-social behaviour, punishable by a fine or even imprisonment, are behind sex-worker distrust.
She claims it was further underlined by a 2013 decision by Police Scotland to revoke the licence of Edinburgh saunas, which have operated as brothels in defect tolerance zones in the city. Raids involved invasive strip-searches of sex workers. Campaigners claimed workers were forced to give up their safety to compete for clients.
A 2015 NHS Lothian report warned that condom use among workers had decreased following the crackdown. STI rates increased and the number of sex workers attending clinic services went down for the first time in eight years.
Research by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that sex workers who face criminalisation are three times more likely to experience violence. Many sex workers share mobile apps and warning chats.
They include National Ugly Mugs, an organisation which helps workers across the UK to file police claims against dangerous individuals and sends text warnings to its subscribers. Over 200,000 such messages were sent out in 2018 alone.
When Liz was assaulted by her HIV-positive client, she found this was the only form of justice available. She shared a flat with another sex worker and could not report the assault for fear of being charged with brothel-keeping. After sharing his details on an app, Liz found she was not the only woman he had attacked. Her take on the solution is clear. “Decriminalize, decriminalize, decriminalize!” she says.
Sex worker rights
Many of the workers say the stigma of being a sex worker makes life harder. Casey* moved to Scotland from Canada, where she performed amateur porn and webcam modelling to support herself. She says not knowing anyone in Scotland allowed her to earn more money without feeling judged when engaging in full sex work as a Queer person.
“My friends and boyfriend have been very supportive,” she explains, “but I wouldn’t tell my parents!”
Sex workers at Umbrella Lane speak openly about the ups and downs of the work. Paula*, who has experienced mental health issues, says sex work gave her the flexibility to provide for herself.
“It’s been incredibly beneficial to my mental health, to have a source of income without having a boss,” she says. “At the same time, the unreliability of the job is a more or less constant source of stress.”
For Liz, it was a choice made due to chronic illness, which was not recognised as a disability by previous employers or the Department of Work and Pensions. “It was making me ill to go to the Jobcentre every week to be interrogated about jobs that I wouldn’t physically be able to do,” she explains.
This type of work is easier for her due to her illness, and brings in money she needs, she says. But it can be hard on her body. “It is the least worst option, which sounds a bit pessimistic but is the best way to describe it!” she says.
Campaigning organisations such as Umbrella Lane claim it is time to focus on policies that make sex workers’ lives less precarious. With surveys showing that the number of girls doing sex work while in higher education has doubled in the past three years, change should also happen within universities, says Dr Ryan.
She claims most universities have no policy on how to support those who disclose their status at a student well-being session, or in meetings with academic advisers.
“We must ensure that those doing sex work at university are not feeling a sense of stigma and shame around what they’re doing,” she says. “That can make them feel stuck into continuing to do sex work when they leave university for a different career.”
Liz is keen to stress the importance of doing the same in terms of labour rights. Since 2018, a sex worker and stripper branch has been operating as part of the United Voices of the World trade union. Industrial Workers of the World publicly took a stance in favour of full decriminalisation.
“The only way you can fight exploitation is through labour law and protections, which you obviously can’t have if your job is illegal,” Liz says. “But I have been heartened by the fact that everyone is still fighting, even though we are up against these terrible odds.”
Correction: This article was updated at 18.10 on July 23 to clarify the details of Liz’s* experience with a doctor.