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Opinion: Laws that criminalise sex buyers are making life more dangerous for sex workers

How long more can our government ignore the growing body of evidence that shows that their policies are endangering to the physical and mental health of sex workers, writes Kate McGrew.

Kate McGrew Director of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland

YESTERDAY, 27 MARCH, marked the second anniversary of legislation which criminalised the purchase of sex in Ireland.

It is the view of the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland (SWAI) that the new law has failed utterly to support sex workers.

Instead, criminalisation has driven the industry further underground, we believe leading to increased violent incidents against sex workers and increased exploitation. 

The number of sex workers in Ireland has not reduced and of course, people are continuing to provide sexual services to earn a living.

One escort site alone listed nearly 800 people on one day last week. If you add in those working in erotic massage, street workers, those advertising through various other escort websites and Grindr, as well as those who work only certain days or at weekends, then the number of sex workers in Ireland could run into several thousand.

Criminalisation

What is different under this new law is that sex workers are now forced to work in an
environment that has become more criminalised. This is not just an academic consideration. Every single client is now considered a criminal.

Sex workers need our clients much more than they need us, as this industry is a means of survival for us. So to us, this law has created a buyers’ market and thus clients have more bargaining power.

This has led to an increase in risk-taking behaviour and workers report dropping their prices or offering unsafe services.

Even in Sweden where this law originated, a review found that sex workers reported increased stigma.

The law encourages greater stigmatisation of all sex workers.

It frames us all as helpless victims and facilitates a mentality that dehumanises us. 

It enables assaults and attacks on sex workers as vulnerable people, while at the same time creating more barriers for seeking assistance or reporting a crime.

Coercion

There are a minority of sex workers who are trafficked and need urgent support but this
law totally fails to address their needs.

The law does not respond to the circumstances of deep poverty, domestic violence, homelessness, and drug misuse that leads to coercion.

The majority of sex workers in Ireland comprise single mothers seeking to raise a family, students paying their way through college, and trans or migrant workers eking out a living. Another cohort of people has identified sex work as a means to earn an additional income, with flexible hours, as the cost of living increases.

Interacting with Gardai

Sex workers should be encouraged to liaise with Gardaí about their concerns,
however the historically contentious relationship between sex workers and the Gardaí
has only been made worse by this law.

Sex workers are now fearful if they report a crime, that gardaí will then know where they work and try to surveil their workplace and catch their clients.

There are no new services or funding mechanisms to assist those people who wish
to obtain alternative work.

Instead, what is being reported to us is increased stigmatisation, precarious living and marginalisation.

Since the introduction of the new legislation, Uglymugs.ie – an online safety and
screening service for escorts – is reporting a massive 90% increase in the number of violent attacks on sex workers in Ireland. 

Additionally, Uglymugs says there is a decrease in the number of victims who want to have their report communicated to gardaí.

These stats are no coincidence. The law change has forced our work deeper underground
and pressures women, men and trans workers to put themselves in riskier
situations.

Marginalised

We believe that the criminalisation of those who purchase sex, under the Sexual Offenses Act, makes life more dangerous for sex workers because it forces them to work alone. 

The law is purported to protect us, but if two people are working together they face harsh penalties for so-called brothel keeping. This puts sex workers in increased danger. 

Unscrupulous people can profit from our vulnerability. Workers tell us that they are forced to seek assistance from criminals to find housing or are being exploited by landlords who take advantage of our position, to extract enormous sums of money for accommodation.

We hear of landlords attempting to blackmail workers by soliciting sex from them.

Through my work in the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, I talk almost daily to workers whose safety and income has become increasingly precarious under these new laws.

Ireland is moving away from its dark past, the days of the Magdalene Laundries and the Catholic Church’s obsession with controlling and repressing the female body and sexuality.

Increasing numbers of people and organisations in Ireland and internationally are rejecting an ideology that seeks to marginalise sex work.

Getting organised

Only this month the GMB trade union in the UK established an adult entertainers
section in Scotland. The union is open to anyone in the adult entertainment industry, including sex workers, strippers, burlesque and go-go dancers and video cam workers.

The GMB union says:  “Sex work is work and should be safe - if sex workers are treated differently then that is discrimination.”

Many local and international organisations, as diverse as the World Health Organisation, Amnesty International and the Global Alliance Against the Trafficking of  Women as well as HIV Ireland, the Union of Students in Ireland and the Migrant Rights Centre, have called for an end to the criminalisation of sex work.

In New Zealand, sex work is decriminalised. Sex workers can take legal action for assault or exploitation, without being ‘shamed’ for their profession, and without repercussions for their livelihood.

How long more can our government, health authorities, and gender equality bodies ignore the growing body of evidence that shows that their policies are damaging and endangering to the physical and mental health of this precarious group of people?

It is time for a serious assessment of the impact of the laws which criminalise sex buyers. We must now wait another year for the legislation to be reviewed – that will take place early in 2020,  three years on from their implementation. 

We need sex work to be decriminalised in Ireland. People working in the industry should be at the centre of all conversations about the impact of the current legislation.

SWAI assists individuals who are in the sex industry by choice, circumstance, or
coercion. For support, ring 085 824 9305

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About the author:

Kate McGrew  / Director of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland

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