Sex workers deserve better

Photo: Toni Mac / SWOU (
This piece was contributed by Jade O'Neil.

When writing and defending the Scottish Lib Dems' decriminalisation policy, few people 'got' the importance of tackling the definitions used by the Scottish Government for the sex industry in their own documents. 
It seems semantic, but sex worker lead organisations told us they were being excluded from consultations as a result of this documentation which classed all sex work as "violence against women" (and associated organisations as complicit in that violence).
This meant it was difficult for them to have their voices heard. Silencing people is just one of the first steps of oppression. The active exclusion of sex workers from the discussion pushed them further and further from positions of influence, and now it is actively harming them by denying funds to anyone who refuses to concede to the Scottish Government's outdated, patronising, and incorrect definition of all sex work (even interactions which are only between men, by the way) as violence against women.
Organisations like Umbrella Lane (a Scottish sex worker support project) have been working tirelessly through this crisis to raise and distribute funds to sex workers in Scotland who had suddenly lost their income. Many aren't entitled to benefits, and those who are don't always have the means to access them (or time to wait for them to come through). This funding is a matter of survival.
So, when the Scottish government announced (a bit late but still welcome) that they would be allocating £60K to support these organisations during the coronavirus crisis, sex workers and their allies breathed a sigh of relief. It's not much money at all in the grand scheme of things but it can buy an awful lot of food.
Sadly, the relief was premature. The Scottish Government have restricted access to the fund to those who believe that sex work is inherently violent. That means that the money goes to so-called 'rescue' organisations and other anti-sex work groups who are generally already pretty well funded by the right wing / religious lobbies. Groups run by sex workers for sex workers won't receive a penny. Sex workers who (understandably) don't feel safe approaching - and outing themselves to - the organisations who campaign against their rights and for their criminalisation, won't receive any of the money.
The strings attached to this grant make the Scottish Government's stance very clear: we care about you if you agree with us. We will help you if you join us on our campaign to eradicate sex workers' rights. You can eat if you repent.
As Dr Anastacia Ryan, Director of Umbrella Lane, said: "Today’s news that Government funds are only supporting services that employ a violence against women approach in their work is saddening news for our team and beneficiaries, who have learnt we are ineligible to apply. Umbrella Lane has been working extremely hard to respond to the needs of sex workers during this time and has successfully supported over 120 people with hardship grants and many more with well-being support. To be excluded from Government support to continue our efforts seems unjust and a political decision that overrides a genuine concern for sex workers’.”

Umbrella Lane's full media statement can be found here.

Jade O'Neil is a sex workers’ rights activist responsible for the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ policy in favour of full decriminalisation. Her professional background is in web development but she now manages digital projects in the charity sector to improve sex worker safety.