The background to the debate on sex work, including how the left should relate to the issue, has been published by Rebel in a recent article by Madeleine Johannson. Here, Steph Hanlon discusses the specifics of the law in Ireland and the detrimental impact it has on the working lives of sex workers.
Ireland’s move to neo-abolitionism
The recent developments in Irish policy and law on sex work fails the sex work community on a number of levels. It deepens already existing inequalities, compounds stigma and contributes to unsafe working conditions which place sex workers at increased risk. Specifically, the moves in public policy were towards a neo-abolitionist model – where all sex work is viewed as violence against women which should be stamped out. The argument is that by ending demand, you can end sex work. But this is aspirational and not backed up by evidence. In fact, Sweden has had a similar law since 1999 and it still has a thriving sex industry.
The adoption of this neo-abolitionist model has served to legitimise societal attitudes towards the sex work community as “less than”. In addition, no steps have been taken to address the increasing rates of reported assault or rape by sex workers, contributing to lower successful conviction rates.
The new law (The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017) which came about as a result of the Turn Off the Red Light (TORL) Campaign, has been heralded as “a historic day” as it is now illegal to buy sex in Ireland. But what are the consequences of this legislation? Not only has criminalising the buyer been ineffective, it has seen a rise in abuse towards sex workers in the last year and contributed to silencing those at risk of increased exploitation in sex work.
The Turn Off the Red Light Campaign
The Turn Off the Red Light Campaign (TORL) is comprised of an alliance of civil society organisations which has lobbied for the reform of Irish legislation on prostitution. TORL has welcomed the passing of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which for them was:
“[…] celebrated as an opportunity to tackle the harm and exploitation inherent to the sex trade in Ireland.”
While prostitution is the most commonly referred to form of sex work by the campaign and its core groups, sex work is not limited to one specific act – it also includes escorting, stripping, modelling, dancing, escorting, pornography, and operating phone lines
Additionally, the campaign’s definition of prostitution is based on the notion that “it is an activity that is done to women”. This commonly accepted definition of sex work doesn’t take into consideration the woman’s own agency, nor the fact that men and transgender people, as well as people with disabilities, also sell sex. While these campaigns often portray prostitution as cisgender and heteronormative, people who suffer the most from lack of support systems are trans people. Neither Ruhama nor Turn Off the Red Light mention trans sex workers in their entire website or mission statements (unlike SWAI – Sex Workers Alliance Ireland). When asked about this, Ruhama – a Dublin based NGO who’s central aim is ‘supporting women affected by prostitution’ – say they “support both women and transwomen affected by prostitution and sex trafficking, and acknowledge that there is a need to support men who are affected by prostitution”. Although they do not have a dedicated service for men, they “will not turn anyone away”
Within Irish law, however, men and LGBTQ sex workers don’t exist.
Consequences of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017
The Consequences of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which criminalises the purchase of sex work, also legitimises societal prejudice towards sex workers. Due to the illegality of their actions, clients often push boundaries resulting in more abusive treatment of those selling sex. Criminalisation has also forced sex work underground, leading to a more competitive market. This means that sex workers are less likely to report rape, assault or exploitation due to the fear that they will become known for reporting clients and will lose other potential clients. Increased competition between sex workers for clients also leads to reduced rates, working alone, feeling pressure to engage in activities which sex workers are not comfortable with, and clients dictating the rules. Many feel unable to access vital services such as the Gardaí and health services because of the new criminal nature surrounding sex work.
Before the act was passed, many supporting what was then the Sexual Offences Bill, claimed it would decriminalise sex work for sex workers – this has been proven false. In reality, the Act which was written into law has increased fines and sanctions against sex workers who are now prohibited from working collectively for safety in the same house, and working around areas which are well-known to the Gardaí. Again, this leads to working in unsafe, more isolated conditions. Sex workers also face penalisation and increasing police control. Fine Gael TD Francis Fitzgerald has doubled the fines and sanctions for sex workers caught working together in a house or on the street.
See Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 s25;
- Paying anyone, including a prostitute with money (or any other consideration) for sexual activity with a prostitute is now criminalised. This is a new offence; it is summary only (non-arrestable); the only penalty is a modest fine, but the amount escalates after the first offence. Sexual activity is defined broadly in this Section.
- Note that it also includes an offence of failing to comply with a direction to “move on” (i.e. stop loitering in order to solicit someone), without reasonable excuse, which carries a maximum penalty of 6 months imprisonment.
The Paradox of Abolition
Moreover, in the year since the Criminal Law Sexual Offences Act 2017 came into force, there has been an increase in crime against sex workers. According to Uglymugs.ie:
“Sex workers in the Republic of Ireland have reported 54% more crime to UglyMugs.ie in the year 27 Mar 2017 – 26 March 2018 (compared to the previous year). Violent crime specifically is up 77%.”
In the last decade, there have been just 10 successful prosecutions. Of the 309 crimes reported to the Uglymugs website in 2010, only 23 of these were reported to the Gardaí. Then in 2016, of 910 crimes reported to the website, only 8 were reported to the authorities. Reports are compiled on a monthly basis and January 2017 saw 110 reports with 0 follow up reports to authorities. This “out of sight, out of mind” approach to justice results in sex workers who are afraid of reporting crime to the Gardaí, rather than viewing the authorities the protection the law claims to intend. The 2015 Lehane case which saw a man standing trial accused of raping a sex worker is an anomaly in the Irish context – not for the lenient sentencing – but the fact that the case made it to court. The process of even making it to court took six years.
Abolitionist organisations, who support the criminalisation of sex work in an attempt to eradicate it, therefore reinforce the structures that they seek to oppose. By seeking ‘protection’ for sex workers through criminalisation, these organisations actually make sex work a much more dangerous occupation and limit how sex workers can avail of state services. Rather, those interested in protecting sex workers should ask how state power could decriminalise sex work completely, in order to sanction and regulate it, instead of forcing it underground.
The groups central to the TORL campaign are Ruhama, the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI), and the National Women’s Council (NWCI). The NWCI heard a motion at their AGM on Thurs 21st June in response to the calls to “develop a process for a review of its position in relation to prostitution and sex work” by Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) and the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) – yet they reaffirmed their stance and continue to refuse membership to SWAI (Sex Workers of Ireland). This results in the only sex-worker led organisation in Ireland having no say in the policy stances adopted by the NWCI on sex work. This approach of advocating for sex workers instead of with sex workers treats them as objects which must be saved, instead of people with their own agency.
However the groups supporting the TORL campaign are fast becoming fringe groups in the advent of a number of organisations advocating a pro-sex work stance, including Amnesty International, the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland (TENI), HIV Ireland, the Abortion Rights Campaign, MRCI, the Union of Students Ireland (USI) and most importantly, many vocal sex workers all support full decriminalisation of sex work in Ireland.
Fighting for rights in sex work
The Irish State is failing sex workers who are suffering needlessly as a direct consequence of its abolitionist policy. It does not tackle the roots of structural inequalities (i.e. discrimination in the workplace, higher education costs for students, regularisation, migrant rights, gender inequality, LGBTQ rights, disability rights, or social welfare rates). The Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) have stated that;
“[…] only when we address structural inequalities and confront discriminatory attitudes that reinforce sexism, racism; classism, homophobia, transphobia and other oppressions will society create the conditions for transformative change and limit, if not, eradicate the demand for sex work. Criminalising […] will only serve to create the conditions for increased stigma, harm and violence for sex workers.”
We need to develop a dialogue which involves active participation from sex workers and does not view them as passive victims but active agents who should be given a stronger platform to have their rights recognised. Decriminalisation allows for increased regulation and transparency in the sex industry – making exploitation and assault easier to track down and address. As the SWAI have highlighted;
“When sex work is decriminalised, sex workers are empowered to realise their right to work safely, and to use the justice system to seek redress for abuses and discrimination. Decriminalisation means that sex workers’ human rights and safety become an institutional priority and sex workers are less likely to seek ‘protection’ through corrupt or illegal associations (Harcourt, Egger and Donovan, 2005; Abel et al, 2010)”
We must demand zero tolerance in cases of sexual assault, rape and exploitation – this affects not just sex workers, but those who have lived experience of inadequacy of the justice system such as lenient sentencing and the rates of prosecution for rape and sexual assault. We need to challenge the overall lack of successful prosecution of people who rape or sexually assault sex workers. This will contribute to challenging rape culture – creating a strong culture of consent and justice – inclusive of all gender and sexualities and people in Irish society. Support for sex workers is essential in the face of structural stigma and discrimination, and for continuing the momentum of a grassroots movement.
When approaching this issue, it is most important to ask what is the best way to stand in solidarity with sex workers, which doesn’t contribute to further marginalisation.