Northern Ireland’s new prostitution laws will not make the sex trade safer

How can making clients more secretive possibly be considered a positive step?

How can making clients more secretive possibly be considered a positive step?

At midnight on 13 Jan, a Bill criminalising the purchase of sex became law in Northern Ireland. It follows the Swedish system, which prosecutes the buyer and not the seller of sex.

Since Sweden introduced the law in 1999, a number of countries have considered following suit.

Norway and Iceland adopted the law in 2009, and since 2006 Finland has criminalised the purchase of sex if it is related to trafficking. In 2013 a similar law in Scotland failed to make it through parliament.

In October, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted by 81 to 10 to make it a crime to pay for sex. This was despite research commissioned by the Department of Justice in October which showed that only two per cent of sex workers surveyed supported the change in law.

The study showed that 61 per cent of sex workers in Northern Ireland thought the law would make them less safe and 85 per cent did not believe that it would reduce sex trafficking.

And crucially, only 16 per cent of people who responded to the client survey said that the law would make them stop paying for sex altogether.

As well as the fact that many of the people who know the industry best feel threatened by the new law, there are a number of conceptual problems with it.

It pushes the idea that men are criminally culpable for their actions but women are not, implying that women have lesser moral agency.

The Irish charity Ruhama – who have welcomed the change – points out that prostitution is very rarely a free choice, and that most sex workers are forced into their lifestyle by a combination of factors. I acknowledge that this could, in theory, be said to limit the amount of ‘agency’ sex workers have over their bodies.

But to concede this has a dehumanising effect, stripping women of responsibility for what they do in undesirable circumstances where they are, nevertheless, giving consent. We do not automatically define sex that is paid for as rape. That is the key distinction here.

The issue of female autonomy is not solely an abstract one. In 2013, a Swedish sex worker known as Petite Jasmine was murdered by an ex partner after a long standing dispute over child custody.

Jasmine had been denied custody on the grounds that, as a sex worker, she was a victim unable to make her own decisions, who needed to be saved from herself. She was viewed as being so weak and, implicitly, stupid, that her partner was deemed to be a better parent, despite his history of being abusive.

Activists insist that the Swedish framework contributed to her murder.

Supporters of the Northern Ireland Bill (called the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill) say that it is an important step in holding purchasers of sex to account for continuing the cycle of abuse and violence against women. And in theory, yes, it is a refreshing change to see the stigma of sex work shifted on to the man involved.

The usual trope sees the woman selling sex as the tainted and culpable party; it is the female prostitute who is the known face of the transaction. The paying customers have for centuries been allowed to remain invisible and protected from the stigma.

But in practice the move will not, as promised, ‘end the cycle’; it will simply drive the problem further underground.

In 2010, the Swedish government said that street prostitution had halved since the change in law.

But their figures do not include those who work via the internet or in bars. Inevitably, the digital age has changed prostitution, and the internet has provided yet another way for men to be more secretive when buying sex.

The Department of Justice’s research identified only 20 individuals who work on the streets in Northern Ireland, and found that the ‘majority’ advertise their services online from home.

Men who fear being prosecuted are less likely to want to fix a time and place for meeting; it means meetings will be spontaneous and unrecorded, that women may end up in locations which noone knows about. They will lose valuable ‘assessment’ time, as clients try to persuade them more quickly into cars because of the police threat.

I cannot see any benefit in making customers who pay for sex more secretive.

The fact that those seeking sex will be driven underground also means that sex workers will continue to notice a heavy police presence. The police will inevitably have to target prostitutes in order to find the men who buy from them – again, this will encourage them to meet more secretively so as not to put their clients in danger of arrest.

The other problem with the Northern Ireland Bill is, as Amnesty have pointed out, that it confuses the issues of prostitution and trafficking. Reducing trafficking is described as the law’s primary aim, but research by the Association of Police Officers has shown that these are two very separate issues; their study estimated that of 30,000 sex workers in England and Wales, 17,000 were migrants and of these 2,600 are trafficked.

Conflating the issues is not helpful, as the needs of trafficked migrant workers are completely different to those of prostitutes working in their own countries.

The primary issue that anyone should be concerned about with the sex trade is how to make it safer. How to reduce the transmission of HIV and other STIs, how to flag up violent clients, (the National Ugly Mug campaign is brilliant), how to provide safe exit routes for sex workers who want to change their lives.

The new law introduced in Northern Ireland does not address any of these issues; and politicians are not listening to sex workers themselves, the most important voices in the debate.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter 

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21 Responses to “Northern Ireland’s new prostitution laws will not make the sex trade safer”

  1. robertcp

    My view is that nobody should be prosecuted if one consenting adult has sex with another consenting adult for money. We should concentrate on the safety of sex workers and prosecuting people that force other people to become sex workers.

  2. David Lindsay

    It ought to be made a criminal offence for anyone aged 18 or over to buy or sell sex, with equal sentencing on both sides.

    No persecution of girls whose lives have already been so bad that they have become prostitutes.

    No witch-hunting of boys desperate to lose their virginities.

    But the treatment of men and women as moral, intellectual and legal equals.

  3. George380

    Congratulations to Ruby Stockham and Left Foot Forward on an excellent article with a great deal of objective insight.

    With regard to the very issue of female autonomy discussed in the article, recently I commented that to deprive women of the right to determine for themselves whether or not they are victims is itself patriarchal. Today I received a response stating explicitly (and rather virulently I think) that to allow such autonomy to women is to declare feminism dead. This seems to me to be a remarkable piece of philosophical self-contradiction and certainly to dehumanize women in the way described by Ms Stockham.

    Is it not far better for law enforcement to target the coercive people traffickers directly? Look at the spectacular recent successes of the British police in breaking trafficking operations, resulting in highly successful prosecutions. This sort of praiseworthy effort will be reinforced by the Modern Slavery Bill in the UK.

    There is a growing body of evidence that the Swedish or Nordic model can have the effect of driving traffickers further underground and their victims–for coercive trafficking does have real victims–further beyond the possibility of help. The claimed successes of the Nordic model are being seriously questioned by objective researchers. As Ms Stockham points out, even if there is a reduction in directly observed street prostitution, it should not be assumed that it is not flourishing online and in other locations. Even the Swedish government has admitted that quantification is difficult.

    I find no comfort on examination of the effect of the law in Sweden on helping victims and do not think a single recording of a supposed trafficker saying Sweden is no good as a market for victims is at all persuasive about its efficacy. Literally making prostitution “disappear” is not helpful.

  4. IUSW

    Excellent article. I would like to clarify one aspect about dates. For those selling and buying sex, the clause criminalising clients comes into effect on June 1st 2015

  5. Leon Wolfeson

    Yes, you treat them all as infants unable to make valid contracts simply because of your morality surrounding the topic.

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    Remembering that the biggest culprits are the MP’s slashing the economy and the welfare net, certainly.

    Introduce a basic income, and watch prostitution near-entirely vanish.

  7. Francostars

    Prohibition is the water of Mafia fish and it is better to avoid it. It is also better to legalize and tax prostitution to cope with the crisis. Moreover, this kind of law could be against the European Convention on Human Rights and against the Lisbon Treaty, bywhich where prostitutes are working in law must be taxed and so customers could not be punished.

  8. robertcp

    It would be good if all prostitutes chose the profession rather than selling ther bodies for food and shelter.

  9. Leon Wolfeson

    ..Or university fees.

    It’s a growing thing.

  10. robertcp

    I agree.

  11. Keith M

    Well said.

  12. robertcp


  13. uglyfatbloke

    Well put Leon.

  14. Leon Wolfeson

    Quite. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t use a prostitute and find the business morally disgusting, but the reality is that I don’t believe there’s really much at all which should be prohibited in contracts between consenting adults, freely entered into*.

    Also, there’s a public health issue here, it makes things far less safe for prostitutes in practice.

    (* Of course, with a basic income and people not thus economically dependent on a boss, we’d see true freedom to enter contracts. The Nordic System already shows some of this with the strong social security net, but it’s not as good as a true basic income)

  15. uglyfatbloke

    Leon…you really can’t go throwing common sense, practicality and personal liberty around the place like this. The political class will have a seizure….with any luck.

  16. Leon Wolfeson

    Causing politicians to have brain freezes is a feature as far as I’m concerned, not a bug 🙂

  17. uglyfatbloke


  18. jacko

    “I wouldn’t use a prostitute…”

    You wouldn’t know what to do, it’d be a waste of money.

  19. Leon Wolfeson

    Thanks for that, jackass.

  20. David

    You sound like someone who has never actually spoken to a current sex worker.

    Many people (male and female) are comfortable doing sex work and do so simply because it is a well paid job with flexible hours. If someone can earn 10 or 20 times the minimum wage, why should they be denied the right to do so because others don’t approve?

    Your idea that ”girls” lives have to be incredibly bad to become prostitutes is quite simply ignorance. I personally know sex workers who have left well paid jobs to do sex work, others who have high level education and are doing further degrees , some who are in long term relationships and are married.

    They see sex work as simply that — work. It’s the society around them who refuse to believe that anyone can do this willingly or even happily that are the real problem.

    The recent NI assembly resolution, supposedly in the name of human trafficking, conveniently ignored the fact that there wasn’t a single case of sex trafficking in NI last year (2014) and that 98% of local sex workers opposed it. These facts were ignored simply because this isn’t about trafficking, it’s about a moral crusade, something we’re all too familiar with here. ”Save Ulster from Sodomy” anyone?

  21. danny

    The U.S. needs to legalize prostitution! Countries that have legalized prostitution have extremely low rape crimes! They also have very low child molestation crimes.

    The U.S. Government and all of the state and local policing agencies get their cut from prostitution by making it illegal and charging the men and women that solicit the prostitutes to get their cut!

    The Government Pimps crimes related to drugs, cancer research, fast food, construction, and just about every business in America, they get a cut byway of taxes. They can’t get their cut from prostitution, so they keep it a crime.

    If two people of legal age agree to have sex, it should not matter if one of them is going to profit financially from it. This is a big waste of resources. It clogs up our courts, jail cells and waste tax payers money.

    We have far worse crimes for our law Enforcement to go after other than dressing our police up as whores to lure someone to ask them for sex for money!

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