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State is failing to protect sex workers from violence, Amnesty International says

The group said a law introduced in 2017 which criminalises the purchase of sex in Ireland is facilitating the abuse of sex workers.

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THE STATE IS failing to protect sex workers in Ireland from violence, according to Amnesty International.

In a report published today, the human rights organisation said a law introduced five years ago which criminalises the purchase of sex in Ireland is facilitating the targeting and abuse of sex workers. 

Since 2017, Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act has criminalised the purchase of sex and significantly increased penalties for brothel keeping – two or more sex workers selling sexual services from the same premises – to a €5,000 fine or a jail term of up to 12 months.  

The law is currently being reviewed by the Government. 

The group conducted research in Ireland, which found that the criminalisation of aspects of sex work is forcing sex workers to take more risks. 

Amnesty International’s researchers interviewed 30 people between August 2020 and October 2021 who have engaged in sex work currently or in the past.

Out of these, 26 were engaging in sex work in Ireland or had done so within the previous two years, one had moved to another country but had worked in Ireland for many years, and three were former sex workers.

The majority of the sex workers interviewed for the research said they want sex work fully decriminalised in Ireland, including the purchase of sex.

They also identified sharing premises with other workers as a useful strategy to improve their safety and limit potential risks of violence.

However, Amnesty International says the criminalisation of aspects of sex work such as the brothel keeping provision, has a “chilling effect” on sex workers’ exercise of their human rights by preventing them from working together in one apartment for safety.

One sex worker told Amnesty International: “One-to-one, a woman with a man, we don’t stand a chance. We need another girl. She can hear what’s happening… But to be alone, it’s very dangerous.”

Another sex worker told the group: “One night I was going down a cul de sac that was discreet, so I wasn’t going to be found by the Gardaí… they couldn’t drive by the spot we were in. But at the same time, I had no escape route if anything went wrong… And that was a very direct result of the Garda presence there targeting clients.”

No official data with regard to violent crimes committed against sex workers in Ireland is available, the report says, as An Garda Síochána does not keep disaggregated records that would allow offences committed against sex workers to be identified.

Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, said the laws intended to protect sex workers are putting them at higher risk of abuse and violence.

“This is what sex workers are telling us about the actual impact of the 2017 law, and the Irish government needs to start listening to them,” he said.

“Our research clearly shows that criminalising the purchase of sex is forcing sex workers to take more risks while penalising brothel keeping is preventing sex workers from working together to ensure their own safety.”

Lack of trust in the police

The research also shows how the lack of trust in the police and social stigma reinforced by the criminal law are key concerns for sex workers.

The overwhelming majority of sex workers interviewed reported experiencing violence while engaging in sex work. However, sex workers also reported being fearful of the police.

Among the reasons given for preferring not to engage with the gardaí when experiencing violence were a lack of trust and a belief that no action would be taken.

In addition, sex workers expressed a fear of harassment or violence at the hands of the gardaí, as well as their landlords being notified or targeted, which could lead to eviction and homelessness.

One sex worker told Amnesty International: “I see the gardaí as a threat rather than as a shield.”

Another sex worker said: “It has to be 100% decriminalised. When it’s not, I’m scared to report to cops or others. In every other business, if there are bad clients, if anything happens to you, you can call the police… It’s more about creating a safer environment for us.”

Migrant sex workers’ fears of contacting the police stem from the risks they face because of their immigration status or plans to apply for Irish citizenship.

“The only time I would call the cops would be if I was dying on the floor… I’d personally rather be at risk with a client than with a police officer,” one migrant sex worker told the group.

Amnesty International says the research highlights the lack of data on sex workers’ experiences and the Government’s reliance on “outdated and flawed research” that conflates human trafficking for sexual exploitation with sex work.

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It also highlights that the state failed to sufficiently consult sex workers when drafting the 2017 law.

O’Gorman said the Government’s review of the law represents “a vital opportunity to ensure it actually protects sex workers”. 

“But if this is to happen, sex workers themselves must be meaningfully consulted so that their lived experiences can inform the laws and policies that are meant to protect them,” he said.

Polling conducted for Amnesty International in December 2021 revealed that 70% of people in Ireland believe sex workers should be consulted on any law that directly affects them, while 73% felt that sex workers have a right to make decisions about their bodies and lives.

Department of Justice

A spokesperson for The Department of Justice told The Journal that a key purpose for the 2017 Act was to provide “additional protection to persons involved in prostitution, especially vulnerable persons and victims of human trafficking”.

“It allows those engaged in prostitution to provide information to Gardaí, for instance if they were subjected to violence by clients, without fear of prosecution for selling sexual services,” he said.

“Given that the goal of the legislation is to protect vulnerable persons and, in this context, the review will include consideration of whether further measures are needed to strengthen protection for persons who engage in sexual activity for payment.”

He said the participation and inclusion of “persons engaged in prostitution and persons who have been victims of human trafficking” will be sought as part of the review.

“The review of Part 4 is being carried out by an independent expert and is ongoing. The Minister will carefully examine any recommendations of the review once it has been completed and progress appropriate actions to address the issues identified.”

The spokesperson also said officials in the department are working on a legislative amendment to scrap previous convictions for “sale for sex” or “prostitution offences”.

“This is a significant step in recognising and responding to the needs of victims of sex trafficking, and those forced to provide sexual services, which will include people trafficked into Ireland for that purpose,” he said.

About the author:

Jane Moore

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