Sunday 15 December 2019

Ivana Bacik: ‘Prostitution is not ‘work’ – it’s an abuse of power that harms women and our society’

Dangerous: ‘Prostitution causes harm both to the women engaged in it and to gender equality in society more generally.’ Photo: Ievgen Chabanov
Dangerous: ‘Prostitution causes harm both to the women engaged in it and to gender equality in society more generally.’ Photo: Ievgen Chabanov

Ivana Bacik

Debates on prostitution are highly contentious. Even the language used is loaded.

Some, like Barbara McCarthy ('We need to remove the stigma and protect sex workers', Irish Independent, November 16), describe prostitution as 'sex work' - they argue it should be legalised. They oppose our 2017 law which for the first time criminalised the clients - almost exclusively men - who buy sex from the (mainly) women who sell it.

But the reality is that the new law marks an important progressive step for women in Ireland.

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It was introduced following a strong campaign led by trade unions, NGOs and women's groups who recognise that prostitution is not 'work'. They could see prostitution is a highly exploitative illegal trade, causing immense harm to those exploited within it and generating immense profits for those who organise it - on streets, in apartments, online, in towns and cities across Ireland.

In 2013, I was on the Joint Oireachtas Justice Committee when we carried out an investigation into prostitution in this country.

We noted the high levels of migrant women engaged in prostitution here, and the blurred lines between those trafficked into Ireland for prostitution and those who are coerced into prostitution through economic circumstances. We recommended unanimously that the best way to address high levels of exploitation and harm to women caused through prostitution was to adopt a law first introduced in Sweden 20 years ago, making it a criminal offence to buy sex.

This seeks to tackle the exploitation of those in prostitution through criminalising demand - and includes supports to assist those who want to exit from prostitution. Our report paved the way for the introduction of the 2017 Act.

That same act effectively decriminalised those who offer sex for sale in public, abolishing previous laws under which women in street prostitution were generally prosecuted.

It did not change the previous laws which already prohibited brothels and which continue to criminalise pimps and those who profit from the prostitution of others. All those who campaigned for the introduction of the 2017 law are opposed to the imprisonment of any people who are exploited through prostitution.

Indeed, our committee was clear about the need to abolish laws criminalising women who offer to sell sex in public. And we were also clear about the need to tackle the awful abuses and harms caused to those engaged in selling sex.

We heard compelling evidence about the real dangers they face daily from clients and from pimps; dangers highlighted again more recently by the very troubling reports of horrific attacks upon women and men in prostitution.

It is to be hoped that the perpetrators of these attacks will be swiftly prosecuted. The sad truth is that prostitution itself is inherently dangerous; those selling sex have always been subject to abuse, violence and harm. This occurs even in countries where prostitution is legal, as recent prosecutions of legal brothel owners in Germany have shown.

The realisation that prostitution causes harm has created growing momentum in support of the Swedish approach internationally. So-called 'Nordic model' laws criminalising the purchase of sex have now been passed in a range of other countries including Norway, Iceland, Canada and France.

Their introduction is currently being examined in Britain and elsewhere.

But despite this significant movement worldwide among law-makers, academic debate is increasingly dominated by those who argue that prostitution is 'sex work', and who support decriminalisation or legalisation of prostitution, as in Amsterdam, Germany or New Zealand.

They often use the language of women's rights to support their position; but when the radical rhetoric is pared away, many of the justifications for legalising prostitution are based upon straightforward neo-liberal economic theories, within which sex becomes just another commodity, to be traded in a free and unregulated market.

Unfortunately, this view misses the fundamental issue.

Prostitution is clearly not work like other kinds of work; it causes harm both to the women engaged in it, as empirical research shows; and to gender equality in society more generally.

Those who support legalisation appear unaware of this broader collective context. They also ignore the contemporary #MeToo movement which has challenged sexual harassment and exposed it as an abuse of power.

There is obviously a contradiction between the principle central to #MeToo - that sex must be based upon free and voluntary mutual consent - and the existence of laws allowing men to buy the consent of women.

Prostitution sex is not liberating for women. If sexual consent has to be bought, it is not freely chosen. Its purchase is an abuse of economic power.

Laws tackling demand can be effective in empowering women, addressing harm and supporting progress to a genuinely equal society.

Senator Ivana Bacik is leader of the Seanad Labour group and Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin

Irish Independent

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