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Debating prostitution? Why not listen to sex workers for once?

In the debate over criminalisation, sex workers’ voices are all too often drowned out.

Catriona

THE IRISH GOVERNMENT plans to criminalise the buyers of sex in legislation expected to be published later this year. Why? To stop trafficking and protect sex workers by putting them out of a job, politicians say. But the proposed bill terrifies me as a sex worker, as it ignores evidence that criminalisation doesn’t work and, more importantly, ignores our voices.

In 2012 and 2013, when the government had its consultation on prostitution, it heard from NGOs, academics and trade unions. They initially refused to let sex workers into the consultation until the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland pressured the government to hear their voices.

Sex workers told the committee that they did not want this law criminalising clients, but their voices were drowned out by people and groups who will not be affected by this legislative change. How can we make legislation without actually consulting and listening to the very people who will be affected by it?

Opinions ignored

Sex workers’ voices often get drowned out by NGOs, because in their eyes we are not representative. According to research done by Queen’s University on prostitution in Northern Ireland, however, 98% of sex workers didn’t want to see the introduction of legislation criminalising sex there. If that’s not representative, then I’m not sure what is.

The evidence from Sweden, where criminalisation was introduced in 1999, shows that that model isn’t working – the UN, UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Lancet Journal are all inclined to agree. There’s no proof of less sex buying and no statistics on sex trafficking victims before the law was introduced, so there’s no way of knowing if the number of victims has decreased.

Working conditions

But worst of all, sex workers experience worse work conditions and feel more stigmatised as a result of criminalisation. The Swedish government, however, sees this as a positive effect.

If the Swedish model doesn’t work, then what does? The UN, UNAIDS, WHO and the Lancet Journal all hold up decriminalisation as the best legal framework for sex work.

Decriminalisation and legalisation are two different things. Legalisation is when you legalise sex work as a commercial activity, but introduce extra regulation because it’s sex work. This is what we see in Holland and Germany.

Decriminalisation removes laws on sex work from criminal law to civil and labour law. It recognises sex work as work. We see this kind of legislation in New Zealand and New South Wales, Australia.

And does decriminalisation work? Yes it does. Sex workers and police have a better relationship, and working conditions have improved. In New Zealand, they haven’t had one sex trafficking case since they introduced the law. And in New South Wales, Australia outreach services found it easier to identify and help vulnerable people in the industry as a result of decriminalisation.

Safety implications

Looking at Ireland, I’m concerned about where we are heading in regards to sex workers’ rights. If two sex workers are found working from the same premises, this is considered a brothel and against the law.

Sex workers find their workplaces being raided throughout the country, because they want to work with their colleagues for safety reasons. In one recent case, after a garda raid of a brothel, an officer is alleged to have come back to have “consensual” sex with one of the sex workers targeted by the raid.

The brothel law will not be repealed under the new legislation and engaging in sex work will not be decriminalised, so brothel raids will still happen.

Sex Workers Alliance Ireland met with Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald in November about our concerns. We told her sex workers would be less safe and experience more violence if this new law is introduced. Her response? It’s more important to send “a message” that the purchase of sex is unacceptable.

If Ireland is to improve sex workers’ rights, we need to take a human-rights based approach. We need to talk to sex workers and create an evidence-based decriminalisation model that values our safety.

Catriona is an independent sex worker who has been involved with the Sex Workers’ Alliance Ireland since 2013. Over the past week, she has curated the @Ireland Twitter account. You can follow her personal Twitter account here

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