New research released today by sex worker collective the Sex Worker Open University reveals that 17,318 police officers are active in Scotland, up by over a thousand since 2007; a boom some sources attribute to a rise in TV cop thrillers as well as an intense atmosphere of toxic masculinity within the force. 

(Note: this may be useful context if you’ve not seen today’s Herald front page.)

Sex workers across Scotland propose to offer help to those who are ‘employed’ in this line of work through conducting unannounced home visits at the private family homes of police officers. Sex workers are calling these ‘welfare visits’, and hope that these home visits will enable police officers who might want help to escape from ‘the life’ to begin to receive that support, and be rehabilitated back into our communities. Police sources have indicated in the past that unexpected visits at police workers’ homes might be experienced as intimidating or intrusive, but a sex worker source stated, “We’ve included their concerns about these unexpected home visits in our on-going wide-ranging stakeholder partnership project, which means we’re just going to go ahead and do the visits anyway. Management-speak means you never have to really listen to the people you’re making policy about, right?

While ‘on-street’ police officers are the most visible indicator of police activity in any given area, this sex worker research has revealed the significant presence of ‘off-street’ working police. One sex worker stated, “We basically found out how many police officers are working in Scotland by googling it. We didn’t think that merited a press release either, until we noticed that apparently it’s ‘a thing’ now to google how many people work in a stigmatized occupation, and then tell journalists about it? According to today’s Herald, there are more sex workers than shipbuilders in Scotland – which seems like a very important piece of information, um, I guess? Our research shows that there are more police officers than pony riding instructors in Scotland. Or maybe there are fewer police officers than pony riding instructors, we’re not sure. Either way, ‘there are more/fewer people working in X job than in Y’ is apparently an actual news story these days. Journalism, eh?

Sex workers have undertaken this snapshot research of the extent of the people involved in policing amid serious concerns over safety. The World Health Organization recently identified the police as significant perpetrators of violence against sex workers, stating: “Sex workers may face violence from military personnel, border guards and prison guards, and most commonly from the police. Criminalization or punitive laws against sex work may provide cover for violence. Violence by representatives of the state compromises sex workers’ access to justice and police protection, and sends a message that such violence is not only acceptable but socially desirable. (p24)”

In Scotland, women caught up in last year’s Edinburgh sauna raids described their experiences: “I was told to lean against the bed with my legs spread so they could search. When I was in this position, completely naked, a male officer pushed the door open and walked in. As soon as I realised what was going on, I tried to cover myself … I felt very bad, so violated. Imagine if you were completely naked and a man walked in. I’ve never been so humiliated in my life. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. We were all separated from each other and I wasn’t told what was happening.” The police took journalists and photographers along with them on these sauna raids, and to raids on working flats in Glasgow. One sex worker, Cat, said, “We’re not sure how taking the press along – to photograph frightened women who are in their underwear, and who have not given their consent to be photographed – fits in with the ending violence against women agenda, to be honest. We’re just not sure.

The World Health Organization recommends tackling violence against sex workers through rejecting ‘rescue’ approaches, calling on states to: “Reject interventions based on the notion of rescue and rehabilitation. Even when ostensibly focused on minors (who are not sex workers), such raids deprive sex workers of their agency (the choice, control and power to act for themselves) and increase the likelihood that they will experience violence (p25).” The extent to which the criminalisation of sex work serves to legitimise police and state violence against sex workers was made clear when the Edinburgh Violence Against Women Partnership responded to the sauna raids – described by the women who endured them as “so violating, so humiliating” – with the sentence, “We support this police action”.

Sex Worker Open University stated: “Whether we’re sex workers, drug-users, people of colour, queer, disabled, cis or trans women – or particularly if we fall into several of those categories – the police can’t keep us safe. How can they, when they are key perpetrators of both interpersonal and state violence against us? We think that the people of Scotland deserve to know that there are police officers working and living – often openly; sometimes undercover – in their communities. Safety and justice for marginalised communities in Scotland depends on less police involvement, not more”.