I don’t come particularly well out of this anecdote. But I’m going to tell it anyway, not because it is in itself so important, but because it is a wee data point in building up a picture of the way the ‘debate’ around sex work is conducted by our elected representatives in the Scottish Parliament.
To be brief, an MSP shouted at me – and made me cry. That third clause is obviously the bit where I come off not-so-well; while I would never judge anyone else for crying in a conversation about politics, I judge myself more harshly, and I am worried that people might think I was “turning on the waterworks” in order to gain sympathy. As anyone who has ever cried in an argument can tell you, no one would actually use this tactic (even if it were possible, which its not, for me. I’m not a very good actor!) – crying has a tendency to make people take you less seriously, make you you go pink and blotchy, and not-able to speak, and render you vulnerable to accusations of waterworks-turn-on. If I was making a checklist of “things I’d want to be the case while talking to MSPs”, ‘not looking serious’, ‘unable to speak’ and ‘being blotchy’ would be really, really low on the list.
A couple of days ago, four of us from ScotPEP went into Holyrood to meet some Scottish Labour MSPs. I’ll get quickly to the crying incident (to get it over with), and then unpack some of the other stuff going on in the room, so. We were in the process of disagreeing over the meaning of the figure “nine out of ten ‘prostitutes’ want to quit the industry” – my ScotPEP colleague George had just asked Drew Smith, who’d offered this factoid, whether he thought people who work in call centres, or Primark, might also want to quit their jobs. Someone said, “that’s not a fair comparison”, and I piped up (having hitherto been silent) with the observation that, y’know, I’m a current sex worker, and actually I do think that’s a fair comparison. The implication being that I might know, at least a bit, what with being an actual sex worker (and having worked in the service industries prior to selling sex). I was certainly the person in the room with the most recent experience of both selling sex, and of crappy service-industry sector work.
At that point, Siobhan McMahon yelled at me. Okay, okay, semantics. She might dispute “yelled”. All I can say is, I literally can’t remember the last time someone spoke to me with such aggression. Maybe that’s how they roll in the Scottish Parliament, but in normal adult life, grown-ups don’t speak to each other in such unmoderated tones. I can’t recall exactly what she yelled, because I was so shocked at being shouted at I kind of neglected to pay attention to the details, but it concluded with the observation that “the way that democracy works” is that we can have differing opinions. Um, thanks? For explaining to me how democracy works? I wonder if she so kindly explains the basics of “democracy” to everyone, or only to stupid whores. So then I cried, through a mixture of shock, fury, and, well, sadness I guess. I kind of hoped the conversation would be slightly more elevated. Silly me.
Frustrating! Imagine my surprise, upon getting home and checking Wikipedia, to discover that Ms McMahon became an MSP at the age of twenty-seven after “controversially” being employed by her father, MSP Michael McMahon as his parliamentary researcher. I’m absolutely sure she got the fast-track-to-MSP-job with Mr McMahon as a result of being objectively the best candidate who applied, and it’s merely an unfortunate coincidence that he’s her dad, but just for the sake of appearances, I wonder if she could take a slightly more circumspect tone when telling other people what’s-what with regards to the nuances of their employment options. Just a thought.
The other thing to note is that, unlike Rhoda, who at least had what in retrospect seems like the courtesy to let me finish my sentence before using the “you’re not representative” line to discredit me, Ms McMahon knew literally nothing about me when she felt totally comfortable with shouting at me. All she knew was that a) I was a sex worker and b) I disagreed with her. Cue aggression on her part, and (cringe) tears on mine. This is from the side of argument that want to “help” sex workers, remember. Unless they politely disagree with you! At which point, the definition of ‘help’ becomes ‘shout at until cries’.
Final point! Mr. Smith’s ‘9/10 prostitutes’ (sigh) fact was only offered to us verbally, and I do think it’s more understandable to be a bit sloppy with referencing when in conversation. However, just in case you were wondering, the most probable location for this claim is Melissa Farley’s “89%” study, which has been widely and substantively discredited. Having started my silent-ish weeping out of shock, though, I kind of continued through frustration and despair as the MSPs pick-picked at our fully referenced briefing paper of evidence (well, hmm. The best they really offered was “Helena Kennedy?! Always best to take her pronouncements with a pinch of salt”, which, well – why did the fucking Scottish government appoint her to lead the report on Human Trafficking, then? We didn’t appoint her. You did), while declining to offer any evidence for their own opinions.
It will be very interesting to see what evidence Rhoda Grant produces for her consultation. If are able to discuss this on the evidence, sex workers will win, regardless of how much they shout at us to shut us up.