AS a Women’s Aid worker, I supported women whose boyfriends had pimped them out to friends and subjected them to appalling sexual exploitation and abuse. Now, as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I want to hold those men to account.

The Scottish Government rightly recognises that prostitution is violence against women. Our policy objective on this issue is clear: deter men from paying for sex, hold perpetrators to account, and support women exploited through prostitution to exit and recover. However, realising that objective will not be possible without legislative reform.

That’s because Scotland’s laws on prostitution are wholly outdated and fundamentally unjust. Online pimping is legal and men who pay for sex do so with impunity. At the same time, women exploited through prostitution can face criminal sanctions for soliciting. In essence, perpetrators of sexual exploitation are untouchable, while victims face punishment.

Who benefits from this? Firstly, men who sexually exploit women by paying for sex. Their demand for prostitution is being enabled, rather than deterred.

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In 2018, a study by the University of Leicester asked more than 1200 sex buyers: “Would you change your behaviour if a law was introduced that made it a crime to pay for sex?” More than half of the respondents said they would “definitely”, “probably” or “possibly” change their behaviour.

Yet in Scotland, a sex buyer knows that if he perpetrates this form of violence against women, the criminal justice system will be a passive bystander. Who else is benefitting from our archaic prostitution laws? The owners of highly lucrative pimping websites. These websites make huge sums of money by hosting adverts for prostitution.

An inquiry by MSPs revealed that pimping websites facilitate and incentivise sex trafficking in Scotland. And there is nothing in our laws to stop them.

The National: MSP Elena WhithamMSP Elena Whitham

Men who want to sexually exploit women can anonymously browse pimping websites and select women from an online catalogue. The websites act as a magnet for pimps and traffickers because they centralise and concentrate the “customer base” – sex buyers – on a small number of online platforms.

Pimping websites make the grotesque business of sex trafficking vastly easier and quicker. In June 2018, the Paris prosecutor opened an investigation into one of those websites, Vivastreet France, for aggravated pimping. Under French law, pimping websites are illegal. Here, they face no such restrictions.

While pimps and punters take advantage of our outdated prostitution laws, the women they exploit pay the price. Yet rather than our legal system working to help victims, women exploited through prostitution can themselves face sanctions for soliciting.

Punishing victims for their own abuse is unjust and counterproductive. Women abused through prostitution can face enormous barriers to exiting the sex trade and rebuilding their lives. Barriers include trauma, financial difficulties and coercion by abusive partners. Having a criminal record is yet another potential block in the road to recovery.

Diane Martin, a Scottish survivor of prostitution and trafficking who is now chairing a campaign for legal reform called A Model For Scotland – see – says: “I want to be part of a Scotland that completely rejects the idea that women and girls can be for sale, treated as commodities by men who believe this is their right and entitlement.” So do I.

TO make Scotland’s prostitution laws fit for purpose, we have to shift the burden of criminality off victims and on to those who perpetrate and profit from this form of violence against women.

How do we do that? By decriminalising victims of sexual exploitation, providing comprehensive support and exiting services, criminalising paying for sex, and outlawing online pimping.

By shifting the burden of criminality, these reforms would bring Scotland in line with the approach taken in countries such as Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Israel and France.

This approach works. There is substantial and robust evidence supporting the effectiveness of this approach in combatting men’s demand for prostitution. In 1999, Sweden was the first country to shift the burden of criminality. Research reveals that, since then, public attitudes on paying for sex have transformed, with traffickers being deterred and demand for prostitution has dropped.

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The most recent research found that 7.5% of men in Sweden had paid for sex. Just 0.8% of these men had paid for sex in the previous 12 months – the smallest proportion recorded in two decades and the lowest level in Europe.

Evidence from the United States also highlights the effectiveness of action against pimping websites in combatting sex trafficking. Pimping websites were outlawed there in 2018, and analysis of the impact one year later revealed the prostitution advertising market was significantly disrupted and demand had dropped.

Valiant Richey, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s special representative for combating trafficking, told members of the Scottish Parliament: “That bill passed and the market declined by 80% in 72 hours. … I’m not aware of any anti-trafficking legislation anywhere in the history of the world that had such an impact on the market in such a short time.”

It’s time that, as a society, we stopped being bystanders to the appalling abuse of women through prostitution and sex trafficking. It’s time for a new model for Scotland – for laws that shift the burden of criminality off victims and on to perpetrators. It will be a model Scotland can be proud of, and its adoption will mark a historic step forward in the struggle for equality between women and men.

Elena Whitham is the MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley