Northern Ireland’s Criminalisation of Buying Sex Puts Sex Workers at Risk

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.

APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade Report “Shifting the Burden” Increases Violence Against Women

This article was first published on The Huffington Post – 7 April 2014

APPG Prostitution and Global Sex Trade - Shifting the Burden 2014With politicians’ infamy for ‘shifting the burden’, this was not the best title for an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) report. Chosen to reflect their recommendation of shifting the burden of criminalisation from the seller of sex to the buyer, in practice this fails as badly as when politicians endeavour a cover up – like why was this group funded by a religious anti-gay charity!?

Just like our politicians here, even in the face of evidence, Sweden remains adamant not to admit their mistake. Their National Police Board reports nearly 3 times as many Thai massage parlours (which are known to operate as brothels) in Stockholm and vicinity from 2009-2011/12 (from 90 to 250) but still they claim their sex purchase ban is a success. By the way, for anyone who is not aware of this, the aim of the sex purchase ban is not to increase prostitution or to push it indoors; the aim is to end sex work and sex trafficking. There is no proof of any decrease in either. And worse, there is an increase in danger, most especially for women working on-street.

I won’t be shifting burden as has been done in this report, unfairly with the use of a couple of my quotes out of context, as well as Professor Phil Hubbard’s and the English Collective of Prostitutes’ (ECP), in addition to quotes being attributed to the ECP which were in fact said by an NHS Outreach Worker.

As I have stated previously, without the criminalisation of clients, the government here should still invest in exiting routes for people seeking to leave the sex trade. Investment for such services is recommended in this report. However, whether or not the government will invest remains to be seen and these services will only work if they are non-judgemental, non-religious and not enforced.

The APPG has taken on board my recommendation for the policing approach operating in Merseyside. However, I did say at the launch of the report last month that the Merseyside model relies on good relationships between the police and people in prostitution, and this is impossible under the Swedish model.

It is extremely disappointing the report suggests anti-social behaviour orders for women working on-street. Is it really anti-social when a woman is doing what she can to make sure her children eat, her house is warm, her rent is paid? Because that is the reality for most women in prostitution. Most of the 80,000 people in prostitution in the UK are in poverty, and 70% are single mothers.

The APPG seems to have no idea of the effect of criminalising clients when stating people selling sex will be decriminalised. By criminalising the buyer, the person selling sex becomes the protector of their potential clients. Those working on-street have to place themselves in more out of the way and dangerous areas so the buyer is not caught. And so he is not caught, she doesn’t have time to negotiate before getting into his car, check there’s no one else hiding in the back of the car, or by talking with him seeing if he is slurring his words indicating he might be drunk. There are many dangers to this. I have been driven to the middle of nowhere and raped and didn’t expect to get out alive, and in the UK where police crackdowns on street prostitution have been instigated they have resulted in murder.

At the time of providing my written evidence last year to the APPG, I was a supporter of the Swedish model as I did believe it was in the best interests of people in the sex trade. It seemed to make sense that women, men, trans men and women and non-binary people selling sex would be decriminalised and exiting routes would be invested in and established. Clients would be criminalised to ensure a reduction in demand for sexual services, and with statistics that I had read of 9 out of 10 people in prostitution wanting to leave the sex trade if they could, the model sounded like an ideal solution.

However, the “end demand” model has failed in Sweden, a wealthy country with a small population and a small number of people engaged in selling sex. If it cannot work there, it has no chance of working in the UK.

The decriminalisation of people selling sex is a misnomer as other laws are used against them: migrants face being deported and potentially returned to dangerous countries, landlords are forced to evict if they are informed a sex worker resides in their premises and mothers face losing custody of their children purely because by selling sex they are deemed unfit parents. These issues mean when a sex worker is the victim of crime, they cannot report to police.

By the time I gave my verbal evidence, I had begun to have doubts about the Swedish model. However, I was unaware of so many issues: that it has failed to achieve its aims of reducing sex trafficking and sex work and that it creates danger and increases stigma. But my fear at the time was that exiting routes would not magically appear overnight. With 80,000 people in prostitution in the UK, who are mostly in poverty and 70% of those single mothers, where would the money come from to invest in such services, which must be complex, as well as lifting them out of poverty? So although I did not recommend the criminalisation of clients, I did not know all the facts I do now, so my reason is not the reason I would have today nor did I have the conviction I do now to fight the Swedish model.

Without that knowledge, on the day of my verbal evidence I could not report the dangers let alone the failure of the Swedish model. Though I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak at the meeting launching the ‘Shifting the Burden’ report last month where I covered nearly every point from my article condemning the European Parliament’s vote in favour of Mary Honeyball’s report recommending the criminalisation of the purchase of sex.

I believe the Swedish model is social cleansing of the poorest and most vulnerable women. This is something Sweden has a history of undertaking – forced sterilisations were taking place up until quite recently.

Women in the sex trade who are injecting drug users are the worst hit by their sex purchase ban. No harm reduction (condoms, lubrication etc.) for sex workers or drug users (needle exchanges) is provided in Sweden as it is erroneously believed to encourage sex work and drug use. That was me, an intravenous drug user who sold sex, and I am the same person I was back then and I am the same as other women selling sex and shooting up their drugs, and I will fight for those women. They matter to me, and they should matter to every person who cares about human rights and every person who claims they want to end violence against women. And if you don’t care about the women in the sex trade like me who shoot up drugs, if you care at all about human rights and are against violence against women, then you should be against the Swedish model, which is violence against women.

Criminalising clients puts people working on-street in greater danger and forced ‘exiting’ does not work

Ruth Jacobs

Since reading of the murder of Mariana Popa, a 24-year-old Romanian woman working on-street in Ilford Lane in October 2013, I have thought about her often. Her death occurred just as police embarked on a hard line ‘cleaning up the streets’ approach to prostitution named Operation Clearlight.

I have recently investigated another such ‘cleaning up the streets’ campaign in Medway, Kent for BBC1. Their Safe Exit scheme was meant to help women exit the sex trade and was hailed a success. However, our investigation found that although Kent Police claimed to have reduced numbers of women working on-street in Medway by 90 or more, only one woman was actually helped and sadly she is no longer alive. Another woman was murdered, and other women who were working on-street are known to have died since the scheme started. In response to our Freedom of Information request, Kent Police was…

View original post 941 more words