New laws are likely to make sex workers' lives much more dangerous in the future
Dublin-born law graduate Laura Lee is challenging the North's new law that criminalises paying for sex using European human rights legislation. The law comes into effect on June 1 and she's fighting it all the way to Strasbourg. Lee says she will do the same when similar laws are introduced here. She's a sex worker.
Lee says: "I am doing this because I believe that when two consenting adults have sex behind closed doors and if money changes hands then that is none of the state's business. The law they have introduced has nothing to do with people being trafficked but simply on their, the DUP's, moral abhorrence of paid sex. I believe that after June 1, sex workers' lives in Northern Ireland will actually be harder and the industry will be pushed underground."
Justice Minster Frances Fitzgerald confirmed last November that the Irish Government is to draft legislation that will make it a criminal offence to pay for sex. According to the minister: "The purpose of the new offences is to send a clear message that the purchase of sexual services in the context of prostitution is unlawful and the evidence suggests that making an act unlawful does in itself influence behaviour."
Buying sex isn't illegal here in Ireland right now. Neither is selling sexual services. The law protects these transactions as agreements between consenting adults. Some activities associated with prostitution are outlawed, however, as public order offences. These include kerb-crawling, soliciting in public, loitering in public places, brothel-keeping and living off immoral earnings. In 2008, it became illegal to buy sex from someone who had been trafficked.
Turn Off The Red Light is a campaign to end prostitution and sex trafficking here, run by an alliance of civil society organisations. It believes that the best way to combat this is to tackle the demand for prostitution by criminalising the purchase of sex. Yet a sex worker like Lee disagrees with its aims. "This case hopefully will put a big dent in the campaign to bring in this law across the border in the Republic. There is a massive propaganda campaign to claim that, north and south in Ireland, sex workers are women who are trafficked into the country. This is total nonsense. In 2014 there wasn't a single arrest in connection with sex trafficking in Northern Ireland. The majority of sex workers - like myself - are independent, and 70pc are single mothers trying to earn a living in these hard times. No one has the right to take that option away from them."
In fact, it seems that sex workers consider any criminalisation of men to be a bad thing, a kind of do-gooder legislation that might end up making their lives a lot harder. A survey by Northern Ireland's Department of Justice showed that 98pc of sex workers were against the new laws criminalising men, as it means more women will be forced to work in deserted areas away from a police presence (where clients would feel safe from arrest) or would need to turn to pimps for protection, etc.
Statistics surrounding prostitution are always going to be unreliable since the trade is such an invisible one. Sweden made the buying of sex illegal in 1999 and the police believe it has proved extremely effective, arguing that the number of prostitutes has more than halved from 2,500 in 1998 to only 1,000 today. It isn't clear though if there has been an actual drop in demand there or if prostitution has just been pushed underground and out of sight.
Prostitution is illegal in most countries for a variety reasons - often because of moral crusaders, sometimes because of the risk of sex trafficking. The thing is that prostitution isn't ever going to disappear completely.
A representative national survey here in 2006 found that 6pc of Irish men between the ages of 18 and 64 have paid for sex with a woman.
But legalising it, à la the Netherlands, where women work without pimps in a controlled, regulated environment with compulsory health checks, rather than hauling themselves around the mean streets of Dublin or wherever, seems impossible, or at least a very long way off.
For now, however, new legislation to criminalise clients rather than just the women seems the fairer option. It's a small step in the right direction, away from punishing the women themselves. But our proposed laws are ill-thought-out and could equally force prostitutes to work in less visible, less safe places, offering up girls on street corners for any kerb-crawling nutjob to do what he likes with.
The new proposals certainly won't protect working girls, who have no human or civil rights and little recourse to the law when they need it.
We can't just legislate prostitution away. Any new measure that makes them safe and exempt from abuse and violence is what these vulnerable women need and an exit strategy to those who want one. How about folding that into future conversations and making it a part of new legislation?