At the SNP’s October conference, MSP for Cunninghame South, Ruth Maguire, joined with other MSP colleagues to propose an amendment to a resolution condemning ‘sex for rent’, which would have widened it out to condemn all forms of commercial sexual exploitation.
For those who may not know, sex for rent involves the exploitation of vulnerable people, predominantly women, who cannot afford to pay rent. The person receives ‘free’ accommodation in return for sexual access to their body.
When the scale of the ‘sex for rent’ phenomenon came to light in April of this year, the shock, outrage, and condemnation across the political spectrum were unanimous. And at the recent SNP conference, a resolution was passed which condemned sex for rent and called on the Government to consider introducing a new law that would make it an offence to advertise accommodation as being “free” with the intent of soliciting sexual relationships.
The amendment brought to the resolution by Ruth and MSP colleagues, Ivan McKee, Kate Forbes and Ash Denham, widening it out to cover other kinds of commercial sexual exploitation, fell by just 32 votes – on the basis that delegates were worried that this would result in a loss of focus on the specific issue of ‘sex for rent’.
Speaking in favour of the amendment, however, Ruth strongly refuted this position, arguing that:
“If we are serious about addressing the harm done to women and girls targeted by men advertising sex for rent, we can’t ignore the bigger picture – which is that this type of demand for sexual access to a woman’s body is rooted in the deep and profound gender inequality that unfortunately permeates our society.
That inequality allows women to be devalued as human beings and as long as our bodies are objectified, commodified and reduced to something to be bought and sold, used and traded, we won’t have equality, and women and girls will continue to suffer.
That is what our amendment is about today. It asks conference to recognise ‘sex for rent’ as part of a wider trend towards increasing levels of commercial sexual exploitation – that harms both women and girls and men and boys. An exploitation that can prey on vulnerable individuals in need of cash to purchase essentials such as accommodation, food, or to fund addictions
Our amendment makes clear, there is no difference between sex for rent and sex for cash to pay rent. The same deeply rooted gender inequality is at its heart, the toxic combination of poverty and patriarchy that underlines the arrangement is the same. The power imbalance at play is the same.
The daily risk of violence, rape and exploitation is the same. The wider harm done to women and girls is the same. Sex for rent and cash to pay your rent is the same.
In order to challenge that really specific exploitation [of ‘sex for rent’], we have to look at the whole thing. Women are not objects to be bought and sold or traded. I absolutely refute that we can’t tackle both those things at the same time, with good legislation, and make Scotland safer for women, girls, boys and men.”
Significantly, the SNP already has a clear policy on the wider of issue of commercial sexual exploitation, which is to support a ‘Scottish model’ for prostitution, which would criminalise those paying for sex, but not those who sell it.
And the Scottish Government’s 2014 ‘Equally Safe’ strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls unambiguously designates commercial sexual exploitation such as prostitution as a form of violence against women and as being rooted in “systematic gender inequality”.
As such, although this particular amendment failed, the narrow vote against as well as the unequivocal passing of the unamended ‘sex for rent’ resolution illustrates the strength of feeling out there about the need to tackle exploitation and adds further weight to the calls for the Scottish Government to take action and legislate.