Lessons from Ireland on Prostitution

New sexual violence provisions took effect in the Republic of Ireland on Monday, 27th March. Introduced in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, they include new laws against child sexual exploitation, grooming and pornography, which have been broadly welcomed by those working with children in Ireland.

A new definition of consent for use in rape cases also comes into force – a definition that is beautiful in its simplicity and that makes the English equivalent seem confusing and convoluted.

And the law on prostitution has been changed. It is no longer an offence to offer services as a prostitute, while purchasing sexual activity is now illegal. The maximum penalty is a €500 fine for a first offence, €1,000 for a subsequent offence, and substantial prison sentences if the prostituted person is trafficked or a child. Combined with policy measures that provide support and exiting services for those in prostitution, this means that the Republic of Ireland now has the Nordic Model. As Northern Ireland adopted this approach in 2015, it is now in force throughout the island.

This reform of the Irish prostitution law is the result of a six-year campaign led by survivors of prostitution, notably Rachel Moran, author of the best-selling memoir, Paid for: My Journey Through Prostitution, and backed by the Turn Off The Red Light coalition, whose 70 plus members include key organisations like the Immigrant Council of Ireland, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Labour Party, National Women’s Council and Women’s Aid.

The primary aim of the Nordic Model is social transformation: to deter men from prostitution-buying and to provide those in prostitution with genuine routes out. But if the police don’t make arrests and the government doesn’t fund high-quality services, it remains a law on paper only and nothing really changes – as we have seen in Northern Ireland where in the first year of operation there were no prosecutions at all.

There is reason to be hopeful, however, that the impressive backing that the approach gained in Ireland will provide the pressure to ensure that it is implemented successfully on the ground.

Of course the prostitution law reform needs to be combined with measures that address women’s poverty, the financial support of young people and single mothers, the status of recent migrants and sex inequality generally. However, without prostitution law reform, it is unlikely that the real material inequality between the sexes will be addressed.

While prostitution is condoned, it is implicitly accepted as the last ditch option for desperate women, and it tends to increase men’s sense of entitlement and the view that women and girls are objects for use and abuse rather than full human beings.

Like many cultural prejudices, these attitudes often fly below our conscious awareness. We can honestly believe that we are being neutral and unbiased – and can even attribute bias and lack of neutrality to those who have managed to crawl out from under the distorting cultural lens to see the disturbing reality.

This was starkly demonstrated last year in the UK Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee’s report on its inquiry into prostitution. With breath-taking hubris the report claims neutrality while dismissing as “emotive reactions” and “moral values” the evidence about the devastating consequences of prostitution and the effectiveness of the Nordic Model.

When discussing the Nordic Model, the report failed to quote from the submissions from survivors of prostitution or the many organisations that collectively represent millions of women and fight for their rights, and instead quoted a lobby group run by and for the benefit of pimps and a campaigner funded by punters.

While many men, some of whom one must suppose are punters, submitted individual evidence to the inquiry arguing for full decriminalisation, there were no submissions from any organisations admitting to represent the interests of punters.

Perhaps they were too busy writing reviews of the women they buy on UKPunting. Or maybe they know that their blatant conflict of interests would reduce the credibility of any public campaign on their behalf. So they hide behind women and fund the “sex workers’ rights” movement. For example, Ugly Mugs Ireland, who campaigned against the law change, are closely associated with convicted pimp, Peter McCormick, who continues to profit from the sex trade.

The Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, which also campaigned against the law change, received significant funding from George Soros’ Open Foundation, which also funds Amnesty International and a host of so-called “sex worker rights” organisations that all lobby for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade, including pimps, despite the large body of evidence that this always worsens the situation for those in prostitution.

Unfortunately we have observed a shift in prostitution policy in England since the defeat of Labour in 2010. Before that, perhaps partly because of the increase in the number of female MPs and partly because of international concern about sex trafficking, there was a shift away from the patriarchal view of prostitution as a problem of managing the women and protecting the public from “moral harm,” infectious diseases and nuisance, to seeing it as part of the continuum of male violence against women.

But changing the legislation in the male dominated parliament is easier said than done. Eventually the Policing and Crime Act 2009 was passed introducing an offence of paying for the sexual services of someone who has been forced, threatened or coerced. But it had been so watered down in its passage through parliament that it remains largely ineffective.

There have been only five prosecutions in the past three years – in spite of the fact that in 2010, the police did a study of migrant women in indoor prostitution in England and Wales and estimated that 2,600 of them were trafficked and a further 9,600 were deemed “vulnerable”, which means there is a high chance they had also been forced, coerced or deceived. So out of the millions of men who have bought women who have been coerced into prostitution over the past three years – only five were prosecuted.

This 2009 law is ineffective because it requires proof that the prostituted person was coerced by an identified individual, which takes considerable resources that the police are not prepared to commit when the maximum penalty is a low level fine.

This then is a strong argument for the Nordic Model where simply buying a person for sex is an offence – which makes it much easier to police effectively.

Unfortunately since 2010, we have seen a shift in public policy away from tackling the demand for prostitution, which ultimately drives the pimps and sex traffickers, to supposedly reducing the harms involved. As if this were simply a matter of issuing hard hats.

As in earlier crises of capitalism, women are being thrown under a bus. They are being used as commodities in the crudest way, as resources for primitive accumulation of capital, while men’s complicity is bought with flattery and power over women as a class.

If we are to change this, we need to crawl out from under the distorting cultural lens that defines females as less valuable than men and to assert women’s inalienable human right to dignity and freedom from commercial sexual exploitation. We need to learn from the Irish and form great coalitions to oppose the inhumane practice of prostitution, and to call for the Nordic Model.

Ten days before the new laws took effect in Ireland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) voted at its annual conference to endorse the Nordic Model approach. As this is also the policy of Scottish Labour, it makes the adoption of the Nordic Model in Scotland a real possibility.

This means that England and Wales may soon be surrounded by countries that have listened to survivors and introduced the Nordic Model. If we’re not careful, we will join Germany and The Netherlands as sex tourist destinations of Western Europe.

This article first appeared in The Morning Star.

Anna Fisher

6 thoughts on “Lessons from Ireland on Prostitution

  1. When talking about the UK Home affairs select committee you say “With breath-taking hubris the report claims neutrality while dismissing as “emotive reactions” and “moral values” the evidence about the devastating consequences of prostitution and the effectiveness of the Nordic Model”

    The full quote (p7) is “This is the first inquiry that the Home Affairs Committee has ever held into prostitution. It was originally intended to be a short inquiry. However, the evidence made clear to us that the views on the legal approach to prostitution are strongly held and highly polarised. The different viewpoints often arise from moral values and people’s reactions are frequently emotive. The challenge of making a rational assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of the range of models is compounded by the lack of robust evidence, which arises at least in part from the covert nature of prostitution and the understandable unwillingness of those involved to identify themselves as sellers or buyers of sex. It should also be borne in mind that sex work is often linked to criminality, including trafficking, coercion, and illegal drugs.”

    so this is not quite the slant that you wish to put on it.

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