On Friday, the Criminal Justice (Sexual Services) (Amendment) Bill was introduced to the Dáil. This bill, if it is passed, will criminalise the purchase of sex from prostitutes. Thomas Pringle TD certainly has strong feelings about it, attesting that “gender equality is not achievable while women are for sale,” and that “when people make a conscious decision to purchase the body of another human being to do with it what they see fit, that is unacceptable human behaviour, which should not be tolerated or accepted as the norm”.
Discussing how to deal with prostitution is difficult. The debate very quickly gets hijacked by people who either miss the point or intentionally bury their heads in the sand and start grandstanding on the morality of the sale of sex as a commodity. This is a philosophical point. It does not matter. What matters is that people are being trafficked here and live out their lives in conditions too horrendous for most of us with a voice to debate to even imagine. It’s time to wake up and face the fact that most prostitution is sexual slavery. Sex with a prostitute is most likely rape. I have never heard the “it’s their choice” line from anyone who works with sex workers on the ground – in their experience the woman who 'genuinely wants to exchange sex for money' does not exist. There's always some level of coercion, addiction, desperation. And even if there are some women who do genuinely work of their own free will, helping them to find another source of income in order to protect the many women who are working against their will is what any decent society would do.
I used to be very much in favour of decriminalising and regulating prostitution. I thought it was the way forward into a society where women would be more empowered and that having everything open and legal would ultimately halt trafficking and afford sex workers more protection. That isn’t the case.
Prostitution isn’t about morals, or liberation, or particularly about sex. It’s about money. Sexual slavery and human trafficking will continue for as long as they are profitable, and the clearest way to mitigate them, and the best way to protect more women and girls from horrendous lives, is to decrease profitability. The only way to do that is to decrease demand by making sure there are consequences that will make people think twice before stepping into the red light district. On a purely moral level, we all know that to have sex with someone who lacks the capacity to say no is utterly wrong. There’s no way to be sure that a prostitute is acting of her own free will, which means there’s no way someone who uses prostitutes can say he is not guilty of rape. Being forced into sex, howsoever it is done, is humiliating and degrading, and in the truest terrible meaning of the word, utterly violating. Having sex with a woman, very likely underage, who has more than likely been forced into having sex with you – even if you are not directly doing the forcing – is rape. And paying for both the privilege of abusing her and the privilege of not having to admit that that is what you are doing is a crime worthy of far more than a four-week jail term, the strictest punishment meted out by this bill.
In 1999 Sweden, admirably progressive, criminalised the purchase of sex. In five years, trafficking fell 41%, and the price of sex fell – a sign that demand was dropping and profitability of exploitation was plummeting. How does Amsterdam, poster child of the leagalisation and regulation movement, compare? Very badly. Brothels were legalised in Amsterdam in 2000. Ten years later underage girls are still being pimped out, trafficking increased following legalisation, and despite a decade of free, regular healthchecks, STI’s including HIV have not decreased in brothels.
If we legalise the purchase of sex we will normalise it, and that will increase demand and profitability. The argument that this bill “will drive the industry further underground” is rubbish. It’s already underground. Sex traffickers already find their way around laws and regulations across international borders. It is hard to see an extra layer of regulation stopping them from redoubling their efforts if prostitution is normalised and the market suddenly increases. They will only stop when the profitability falls so low that it’s no longer worth the risk.
Even if regulation works, there will always be things that legitimate organisations won’t be able to provide, such as sex without a condom on punters positive for STI’s and HIV, and underage girls. Traffickers will specialise to these areas, making an already horrendous situation even worse. In fact, Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesperson Niall Collins noted that at a seminar organised by the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign, former prostitutes “often misrepresented their age to clients because the younger they pretended to be, the busier they became. The demand led nature of prostitution in Ireland creates a sinister market of men who desire underage prostitutes.”
I welcome this bill, but I am concerned it doesn’t go far enough. Much prostitution comes down to organised rape, and for punters to get at most a spot fine or four weeks in jail is grossly disproportionate to the wrong they do. Ireland has a history of making great laws which are never enforced, and of diluting down said laws with dubious loopholes. For example, since 2008, it has been illegal to buy sex from someone who has been trafficked – but with a handy loophole whereby the purchaser can claim that he didn’t know the person had been trafficked, it’s difficult to see this new regulation having any impact whatsoever.
And it won’t be enough to simply decrease profitability. We need to make sure we have the resources and the will to get women out of prostitution if they want out. Independent TD Mick Wallace said that for many prostitutes “sex work is their only source of income and their means of providing for their families. Criminalising their clients will put these sex workers at increased risk of poverty, and lead to further stigmatisation and marginalisation.” This is a completely unacceptable cop-out. Mr Wallace must surely know that if his government was functioning, no woman would be placed in such desperation in the first place.
His statement is an admission of failure.
by Naomi Elster
Naomi Elster is a scientist and a writer. She is currently researching more effective ways to treat breast cancer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, supported by the Irish Cancer Society. She is deputy editor of HeadSpace, a non-profit mental health magazine distributed for free to service users of psychiatric wards and mental health support centres. Her play "Scabs" will run as part of this year's 10 days in Dublin festival on the 4th, 5th and 6th of July in the Pearse Centre, Pearse Street. She blogs at http://nothingmentionednothinggained.wordpress.com.
We welcome submissions to the blog, subject to editorial review, please contact us if you're interested. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the IFN.