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Entrapment by gardai leaves a very sour taste in the mouth

Think of it as an early Christmas present for the National Women's Council. Irish feminists have long argued that the guards should follow Sweden's example and target men buying sex rather than the prostitutes selling the service, and last week they got their wish with the charging of 27 men in Limerick District Court with offences under the 1993 Sexual Offences Act.

Twenty-one pleaded guilty and were ordered by Judge Eamon O'Brien to pay the maximum statutory fine of €470 to a local charity helping migrants. Six others are to appear in court between now and February.

It was an interesting experiment, if nothing else. Previous observers in Ireland had little to go on, when arguing this issue, other than some dusty Swedish sociological surveys and the loud interventions of women's rights campaigners with a vested interest in finding the answers that they're looking for in the Scandinavian model. Increasingly, we're getting a chance to see for ourselves what it looks like in practice. First came a trial run in Dublin over the summer, which was deemed a success after 60 men were arrested and charged. Now it's Limerick's turn. Where next is the policing equivalent of a lotto draw? Men of Galway, Cork, Waterford -- it could be you.

Unfortunately for advocates of the Swedish model, in practice this whole approach begins to look distinctly unpleasant. In fact, there was something very sad about this story, not least the manner in which the men were arrested after approaching undercover female garda officers posing as prostitutes.

Entrapment always leaves a nasty taste. Basically, the police are inviting crime and then arresting those who are lured into committing it. That's like the fire brigade setting fires and then expecting praise for putting out the blaze, and it raises a serious issue of whether there would have been a crime to clear up if the police hadn't made it happen. Certainly the average taxpaper wouldn't imagine, when hearing of the costs of training each new garda, that the essential policing skills being taught to Templemore graduates in the 21st century include how to put on fishnet stockings and high heels and stand around on street corners, asking passers-by: "Hey, big boy, do you want to have a good time?" It makes shooting fish in a barrel look difficult by comparison.

No one likes to see residential areas turned into red light districts, but why not fight it with regular old-fashioned foot patrols by uniformed gardai which would not only deter prostitutes and their clients, but also burglars and car thieves? It's harder than dressing up, but no one said policing was a contest to see how many minor offenders can be nabbed before bedtime. Paying for sex is not even illegal in Ireland. The men in this case were only targeted because they sought a legal service in the wrong location.

If that was bad, though, what happened next was even worse, as the names and addresses of the 21 men, aged from 23 to 67, were printed in four national newspapers (the local Limerick Leader resisted the temptation). Was that kind of public humiliation really necessary? Many of these men live in small communities, where everyone knows one another's business. What purpose is served by holding them up to social embarrassment? Pour encourager les autres, as the saying goes?

That's a feeble excuse for potentially destroying the lives of a large number of men about whom nothing is known except their identities.

Was this their first time visiting prostitutes, or were they regulars? Do they generally treat the women they pay for sex well or badly? The fact that none of the men had come to the attention of gardai before, except for some minor traffic offences, has to count for something. I'm no Sherlock Holmes, but I'd guess that if a man of 67 has never come to the attention of the police, then it's unlikely that he constitutes much of a nuisance to society.

Approximately a third of the men named also had names suggesting they were foreign nationals. Away from home, maybe lonely, with fewer opportunities to meet women, their punishment is to have the country snigger over their private life and for the details of their humiliation to be preserved eternally in online search engines.

Still more were men in their fifties and sixties. Who are they? Maybe some of those poor auld fellas with whose isolation and unhappiness we are otherwise invited to empathise. Maybe married men in loveless marriages seeking a little comfort on a cold night. The statistics neither show nor care about the nuances, and nor apparently do those advocating this scattergun approach to prostitution. They care even less about the effect it may have on the men's subsequent lives.

Public exposure like this stays with the victims for years. Many people faced with such shame commit suicide. We're supposed to care about suicide; many of the candidates in the Presidential election made it a cornerstone of their campaigns; but some suicides are clearly more equal than others.

They brought it on themselves, the feminists will say, shuddering with neo-Victorian distaste over the filthiness of men -- and fair enough, they did. But what sort of society wants to strap a few old men in the stocks just so that it can then congratulate itself on its oh-so-caring liberal attitudes to women working in prostitution?

This isn't an either/or scenario. That's the false dichotomy which feminists have always advanced in this debate. For them, you're either in favour of arresting and shaming men, or you're in favour of targeting vulnerable women. It doesn't have to be either. Instead we could be finding a middle way which accepted that prostitution always has and always will exist then do everything in our power to ensure that women who choose to sell their bodies for money could do so in a safe and comfortable environment.

It would mean less overtime for gardai in high heels, but pretending to be a hooker is hardly an edifying job for a grown woman anyway.

Sunday Independent