I WOULD PREFER to live in a world where men and women did not, by economic necessity, have to sell sex to pay their utility bills, finance their child’s first communion or simply pay for a hostel so they would have somewhere to sleep.
We do not live in such a world. The everyday lives of many, though not all, sex workers has often been a struggle against the consequences of family breakdown, addiction and low educational attainment. When I heard of a policy – first introduced in Sweden in 1999, then other Scandinavian countries – which promised that sex work, often recognised as the world’s oldest profession, could be made obsolete I was intrigued.
It was presented as a magic bullet. It was such a simple idea; remove the demand for sex by criminalising those who purchased it and sex workers would disappear from our streets, our neighbourhoods and our communities. It was, of course, dangerously naïve to believe that such a policy, without addressing the causes of the structural inequalities that led men and women to sell sex in the first place, would be successful.
While the so-called ‘Swedish model’ did not extend beyond Scandinavia there is a growing consensus in Ireland that a similar policy of criminalisation might also eradicate sex work in Ireland. But why has this piece of ‘magic bullet’ legislation had such a limited take-up internationality? And more curiously still, why is it presented to the Irish public as the only policy response that should be considered?
‘Women also have the right to say yes’
So powerful is this consensus that to question it one risks standing accused of being an apologist for pimps, brothel owners, criminality and the exploitation of women. However, by not questioning it we risk sleepwalking our way to a legislative model that has proven problematic internationally, most notably in Canada and Britain. The Australian State of Queensland went further in its analysis of the Swedish model in May 2011, stating that it was rhetoric unsubstantiated by evidence.
Organisations like Ruhuma and the umbrella organisation, Turn Off the Red Light (TORL) argue that this legislation is the most effective means to tackle sex trafficking in Ireland. But Ireland already has enacted the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 and it is reasonable to assume that those working consensually within the sex industry would be key allies in identifying those suspected of being trafficked into the sex trade. The idea that the gardaí would waste scarce resources prosecuting consenting adults for exchanging sex for money instead of specifically targeting trafficking would be absurd. It is an absurdity that Britain has already recognised. The Policing and Crime Act 2009 passed by Parliament rejected the Swedish model in favour of legislation that would only criminalise a person for having sex with someone subjected to force or other exploitative behaviour.
In June this year, Dublin’s Bridewell Garda Station arrested 64 men for soliciting – already an offence under existing legislation – following complaints from local residents. Politicians were delighted. So were Ruhuma and TORL. This decision to criminalise men instead of women was even bizarrely recast as some kind of blow for the feminist movement. As an academic whose research is inspired by feminist methodology, I believe that as much as women have the right to say no, they have an equal right to say yes and exercise control over their own bodies.
The Bridewell operation had the desired effect – sex workers disappeared from those streets. But where did they go and more importantly, does anyone care? The reasons people sell sex are complex – to fund addiction, to provide a better life for their children, to return money to family abroad to name but a few. Given that complexity of motivation, the belief that these men and women simply re-join the formal labour market is, again, naïve.
‘Sex workers are more at risk off the streets’
A compassionate society should care less about the optics of removing sex workers and more about the consequences of such a decision to effectively remove the livelihood of a section of the population; however you or I may view that activity from our relatively privileged positions. The experience from Sweden reveals that sex workers driven out of urban, brightly light areas with CCTV now negotiate sex in more remote, industrial locations – increasing their risk of violence and removing them from contact with outreach workers that deliver a range of harm reduction services.
Outreach services face similar difficulties in Ireland. At a time when the State recognises through the National AIDS Strategy Committee (NASC) the need to support sex workers as a vulnerable group, any decision that would force men and women away from these services makes absolutely no sense. Take for example, a joint venture by the drugs project Chrysalis, Dublin Simon, SafetyNet and the Order of Malta that provides a mobile health clinic with free GP service offering HIV and STD screening to female sex workers – but has to negotiate around a political climate where these women are constantly being moved on, along with their clients.
Before there is a rush to judgement that this criminalisation model is the one best suited to Ireland, let’s pause. Let’s actually talk to sex workers who have been excluded from this discussion, who are more than just victims to be rescued or sinners to be saved. Let’s look at other jurisdictions like Britain, Australia and New Zealand which provide alternative policy responses. Let’s have the broadest discussion possible, driven less by salacious tabloid headlines and religious ideology and more by the health and safety of sex workers and the wider community. These men and women deserve no less.
Dr. Paul Ryan is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at NUI Maynooth, a board member of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, and has published widely on sexuality and Irish society. His forthcoming book, Asking Angela Macnamara: an intimate history of Irish lives, is published by Irish Academic Press.