Sex workers and allies protest at Stormont. Photo: Matthias Lehmann/Matt Lemon Photography

Sex workers and allies protest at Stormont 
Photo: Matthias Lehmann/Matt Lemon Photography

This article was first published on The Huffington Post – 22 October 2014

On Monday, Lord Morrow’s ‘Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill’ passed the final vote by the Northern Ireland Assembly. An amendment tabled by Sinn Fein to have the law evaluated in three years is simply not enough: sex workers needed Northern Ireland to wake up to the danger of criminalising the purchase of sex now, not in the future.

Lord Morrow claims Clause 6 of his Bill, which criminalises paying for sexual services, will reduce sex trafficking. In Sweden, however, where the purchase of sex has been criminalised since 1999, this has not proven to be the case. In fact, in a Swedish police report that states the extent of trafficking cannot be measured, an increase in indoor prostitution is indicated by the number of Thai massage parlours, known to operate as brothels, in Stockholm and the surrounding area rising from 90 to 250 between 2009 to 2011/12.

Author of the book Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden, Dr Jay Levy, who conducted fieldwork in Sweden over several years on the outcomes of the so-called ‘Swedish model’ says, “There is absolutely no empirical evidence that overall levels of sex work or trafficking have decreased following the introduction of the law in 1999; instead, sex work has simply been displaced off-street.”

Sex trafficking has been used as a smokescreen in a moral crusade to end prostitution. Justice Minister David Ford does not believe criminalising the purchase of sex will reduce trafficking. He believes criminalising the purchase of sex will endanger sex workers. Research conducted by Queen’s University found 61% of the sex workers they surveyed in Northern Ireland believed criminalising clients would make sex workers less safe, and 85% did not believe that it would reduce trafficking. Indeed, UNAIDS has found that criminal laws related to sex work increase danger for sex workers.

“Trafficking is an evil, hateful scourge, let’s get that straight. But the study from Queen’s University showed that most sex workers in Northern Ireland are there by their own free will,” Kate, a Northern Ireland based escort, told me. “So surely they have the same rights as any other workers, to support themselves, and members of their families in many cases, and to work without fear. This law takes that right away. It’s already difficult to go to the police and if clients are criminalised, it would be impossible.”

In 2011, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice (DOJ) held a conference on women involved in prostitution to share information and best practice and identify potential actions, building on their research paper published earlier that year, which investigated the issues faced by women in the sex trade. After the findings were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, it was discovered that of the 45 delegates invited to that conference on women involved in prostitution, not one was a woman involved in prostitution.

As well as missing key delegates, the conference also missed key points from their agenda, which included dealing with the high rate of crimes committed against women in prostitution and the lack of reporting of such crimes to the police. Had safety – not ideology – been their priority, perhaps the Merseyside hate crime model would have been passed at Stormont this week. Merseyside leads the UK on conviction rates for crimes committed against sex workers. Their joined-up approach of the police working with sex work projects that offer outreach, harm reduction and help exiting the sex trade has also led to the number of women working on-street in Merseyside being reduced by half.

While the police change their focus from enforcement to protection, it has been shown in Merseyside that the trusting relationships developed during outreach lead to exiting. Worryingly though, the documents from the DOJ conference revealed there was perceived risk around providing outreach services, which are essential and lifesaving.

Due to their similar stance on prostitution, there is a lack of outreach and harm reduction provided to sex workers in Sweden. “[Sex work] has been increasingly stigmatised, following through into discrimination from service providers, healthcare providers, and the police. There is additionally considerable opposition to sex worker-targeted harm reduction in Sweden, which is felt to encourage and facilitate sex work and therefore to undermine Sweden’s aims of reducing levels of prostitution,” Dr Levy says. “The legislation has been hugely detrimental in terms of the health, safety, and wellbeing of sex workers. It is very disconcerting that yet another state is pushing to criminalise the purchase of sex.”

Decriminalisation of sex work is the legislation supported by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, UN Women, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the WHO and Human Rights Watch among other organisations. This legislation ensures sex workers’ rights. Increasing safety should be paramount, so that sex workers can work together from premises, as research shows they are most vulnerable to rape and other violence when working alone.

Justice Minister David Ford believes prostitution and human trafficking should be dealt with as separate issues. Clause 6 of Lord Morrow’s Bill is meant to abolish sex trafficking, but there is no evidence to suggest this will happen. The result will be that both sex trafficking victims and sex workers will suffer. In their effort to make it more difficult for men to procure sexual services, they will make it more difficult for support services and police to engage with women involved in sex work and also to identify and assist victims of sex trafficking. The Queen’s University research found the vast majority of clients would not be deterred by the law from purchasing sexual services. Where buying sex is already illegal in Sweden, sex workers based off-street report there is no reduction in the number of clients.

“This will make life so much less safe for anyone involved in sex work, and will divert resources from vulnerable people,” says Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, sex work law expert and Reader in Psychology and Social Policy at Birkbeck, University of London. “Stormont should be ashamed of itself because there is enough good evidence around to show the failed Swedish experiment for the dangerous sham that it is.”

Supporters of Lord Morrow’s Bill eliminated from their agenda the safety of the very women they claim are vulnerable. They attempted to defame those who do not back the criminalisation of the purchase of sex as supporters of sex trafficking in order to undermine their arguments. They should have properly examined the available evidence and consulted with those to whom the legislation applies: sex workers themselves.

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