Response to the Queen’s University Belfast review of the operation of Northern Ireland’s sex buyer law

By Luba Fein and Anna Fisher

In September 2019, researchers at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) published a review of the operation of the offence of purchasing sexual services that was introduced in Northern Ireland (NI) in 2015. The review was commissioned by the NI Department of Justice (DOJ) in response to a legal requirement to assess the working of the new law after three years. An equivalent study had been carried out before the introduction of the law, so that comparisons could be made.

In this article we provide a detailed critique of the review and we show that the study does not provide evidence that the Nordic Model in Northern Ireland “is a total failure“ or that it has led to a “dramatic rise in attacks on sex workers“ as has been claimed.

Rather the research findings indicate that there has been an utter lack of official commitment to the funding and prioritisation of prosecuting sex buyers (punters) and providing specialist services to help people exit prostitution.

In its assessment of the research, the DOJ concludes that there is no evidence that the change in the law has produced a downward pressure on the supply or demand for “sexual services” nor that it has had an impact on human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. We’re not sure what they were expecting given their failure to oversee the enforcement of the new law and the implementation of all the other factors that are required for a new and controversial law to succeed. But in spite of all these failures, the DOJ is forced to acknowledge that the law change does appear to have had a significant deterrent effect on punters’ behaviour.

Although the researchers found a small increase in crime against ‘sex workers,’ the DOJ quite rightly concludes that it is not possible to say that this was caused by the legislation – but they bizarrely accept as fact that the legislation has contributed to a “climate whereby sex workers feel further marginalised and stigmatised.” There are many other factors that are likely to have caused or contributed to this that the researchers did not consider.

In this article we show that the researchers relied in large part on advice, assistance and data from organisations who are not only ideologically opposed to the legislation but also have commercial vested interests in promoting its failure. Overall the research was biased, much of the data and methodology was questionable at best, and many of the conclusions were little more than hypothesis, with the researchers ignoring other relevant socio-economic factors – such as the brutal austerity measures that have disproportionately impacted women.

A note about the law

The offence of purchasing sexual services was introduced in NI in the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act 2015 (HT&EA). The offence itself is defined in Article 64A of the Sexual Offences Order (2008) and it was known as Clause 6 during the passage of the bill.

Key findings of the review

The findings of the review are listed in the DOJ’s assessment. They can be summarised as follows:

  1. Overall the legislation has had little impact on either supply or demand for prostitution.
  2. Since the law was changed, there has been a 5% increase in the number of online ‘sex work’ adverts and the number of “unique sex workers” has increased by 622, but there has been little change in the numbers who advertise per day (308 on average).
  3. On-street prostitution has halved (from 20 to 10).
  4. Serious crimes against ‘sex workers’ are rare but according to Ugly Mugs.ie, assaults have increased from 3 cases to 13, sexual assaults are up from 1 to 13, and threatening behaviour is up from 10 to 42 cases.
  5. ‘Sex workers’ reported a “surge in business” following the introduction of the legislation.
  6. ‘Sex workers’ reported a significant increase in anti-social and nuisance behaviour and higher levels of anxiety, unease, and stigmatisation.
  7. There have been 15 arrests and 2 convictions under Article 64A in the three years since its introduction.
  8. There have been 31 arrests and 5 convictions for human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation during the same period. (We have noticed some confusion regarding the number of these convictions. The QUB review reports two, while the DOJ’s assessment reports five.)
  9. Officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) who were interviewed reiterated concerns raised during the development of Clause 6 about the difficulties of enforcing the legislation for “consensual sexual transactions” and that they target their resources on activities that they deem “serious and with the highest level of harm to victims.”

On the basis of these findings, the DOJ concluded:

  1. There is no evidence that the change in law has “produced a downward pressure” on the supply or demand for “sexual services.”
  2. The legislation has had a limited deterrent effect on client behaviour.
  3. Although the research indicated a small increase in crime against ‘sex workers’ it is not possible to say that this was caused by the legislation. However, the increase in anti-social and abusive behaviours has led to a “heightened fear of crime” and has contributed to a climate where ‘sex workers’ feel more marginalised and stigmatised.
  4. There is no clear evidence that the legislation has had an impact on human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

However, the results are not as clear as they might appear on a superficial level. A serious, deep reading of the report reveals omissions and methodological problems that can explain both the anomalous findings and the contradictions between them. There are too many problems to cover them all in this article, so we focus on the most troubling points.

Ideological bias

The approach to prostitution policy that was introduced in NI in 2015 (known as the Nordic Model) is based on the understanding: that prostitution is a violation of the dignity of the person and therefore of their human rights; that prostitution is both a consequence of the enduring inequality between the sexes and a cause of that inequality; and that men’s demand for prostitution drives the billion-dollar international profits behind the trafficking of women and girls worldwide for the exploitation of their prostitution. This understanding is recognised in international human rights treaties, including CEDAW and the Palermo Protocol – both of which the UK has ratified, making their terms legally binding.

However, this is not how the researchers explain the approach in their introduction. Instead they misrepresent the thinking behind it – for example, saying that supporters “situate prostitution in the context of subordinate – dominant patterns of gender relations” – as if to suggest that male hegemony and the current epidemic levels of male violence against women and girls (VAWG) are a figment of our imaginations.

The researchers go on to explain the opposition to the approach, emphasising that because most of the countries that have adopted it do not have robust data of the prevalence of prostitution before it was introduced, it is not possible to say that it has decreased prostitution. They don’t explain the limitations of before and after comparisons when there have been other huge simultaneous socioeconomic and cultural changes (such as the introduction of brutal austerity measures that have disproportionately impacted women, driving large numbers into near destitution, and the unprecedented availability of hard-core porn, its exposure to children en masse, and its accelerated seepage into mainstream culture).

They repeat the trope that there is evidence from Sweden and Norway to suggest that risks to ‘sex workers’ have increased, quoting Amnesty’s study in Norway, which we have shown to be so flawed that no general conclusions can reasonably be inferred from it. In fact Amnesty’s study in Norway was cited about 10 times in the QUB report.

The report uses the ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ terms throughout and the authors even berate the Department of Health (DOH) for not using this terminology in its exiting strategy.

Supporters of the Nordic Model approach and those who perceive themselves as victims of the sex trade, avoid calling prostitution ‘sex work’ and those involved in it ‘sex workers’ because these terms obscure the harms involved in prostitution and suggest that the sex trade is a legitimate industry and that prostitution is a job like any other. The term ‘sex work’ is also used to cover a range of activities, some of which (like phone line work and web-camming) do not involve actual physical contact. The researchers do not seem to understand that some women find it alienating to be called ‘sex workers,’ because it obfuscates the reality, and undermines the understanding of the necessity of support and exiting services.

The researchers’ unqualified use of the ‘sex work/worker’ terms is a clear indication of their inherent ideological position. They appear to have made no attempt to mitigate this by using both sets of terminology, as the Bristol researchers did in their recent report into the nature and prevalence of prostitution in England and Wales for the Home Office.

But indications of the researchers’ bias do not end there. Consider the organisations they chose for advice and assistance: the Rainbow Project; the Sex Worker’s Alliance Ireland (SWAI); the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, Commercial Sex Workers Service (BHSCT); the Belfast Feminist Network; and Ugly Mugs.ie.

With the exception of BHSCT, all of these organisations either sent submissions to the NI Assembly opposing Clause 6 during the passage of the bill or are public about their opposition to it.

SWAI and Ugly Mugs.ie are actively involved in promoting the full decriminalization of the sex trade, which involves the removal all legal sanctions – from paying for sex, through pimping, to running mega-brothels.

Ugly Mugs.ie’s bias is deeper than merely ideological, however – it has close connections with sex trade profiteers. It started out as an offshoot of Escort Ireland, the biggest prostitution advertising website in Ireland. The Ugly Mugs.ie website was initially registered to Audrey Campbell, the partner of Peter McCormick, who is a director of Lazarus Trading, the company behind Escort Ireland. Both Peter McCormick and his son, Mark McCormick, who has also been involved in running Escort Ireland, have convictions in the Irish courts for pimping or similar offences.

Lazarus Trading, described as “a cash cow” for the sex industry, had a turnover in 2015 of over six million Euros and equity of over three million. It clearly has a strong vested interest in a thriving sex trade and discrediting the Nordic Model law.

It is unclear why the researchers would choose to collaborate with such a biased set of advisors, and why they didn’t try to balance this by seeking advice from organisations like Women’s Aid Federation NI which works with vulnerable women, including those with experience in prostitution, and who expressed support for Clause 6.

It’s unclear, that is, until you notice that Professor Graham Ellison, the lead researcher, himself sent a submission to the NI Assembly strongly objecting to Clause 6. Which leads to the question of why the DOJ would choose a researcher who has very partisan views on the subject. But then we notice that the DOJ themselves sent a submission strongly objecting to Clause 6.

We are reminded of the long history of biased and flawed research conducted on behalf of the tobacco and asbestos industries by researchers who were in their pockets in one way or another.

However, the roots of the sex trade extend much deeper than even the tobacco and asbestos giants – because prostitution is one of the key foundation stones underpinning the entrenched inequality in our modern society. As Carole Pateman so memorably put it:

“When women’s bodies are on sale as commodities in the capitalist market, the terms of the original contract cannot be forgotten; the law of male sex-right is publicly affirmed and men gain public acknowledgement as women’s sexual masters – that is what is wrong with prostitution.”

Meaning that not only do all men benefit individually from prostitution but so do the macro power structures – which also depend on the widespread acceptance of social and gender inequality.

The research strategy

The QUB research strategy can be summarised as follows:

  1. Review of the official response to the change in the law
  2. An online survey of 199 ‘sex workers’
  3. Narrative interviews with 13 ‘sex workers’
  4. An online survey of punters
  5. Analysis of adverts on adult services websites (ASW)
  6. Analysis of Ugly Mugs.ie reports

Review of the official response

‘A controversial law does not implement itself! You need to have political vision. Prostitution brings in a lot of violence, trafficking, drugs and money laundering – these have now gone.’ – Detective Superintendent Kajsa Wahlberg, the Swedish National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings

Introduction of the new law

Studies of men who buy sex consistently show that little will deter them other than a real risk that they will face criminal sanctions and/or exposure to their families and employers.

The official data uncovered by the researchers shows that in the three years since its introduction there have been only 15 arrests and two convictions under Article 64A. NI has a population close to two million – so in practical terms any individual man’s risk of being arrested for buying sex is close to zilch. It would therefore be surprising if the law were acting as a deterrent.

We have always argued that a Nordic Model approach will not be successful without a comprehensive and effective public information campaign, alongside education in schools; in-depth training for the police, prosecution service and other officials and frontline workers; the prioritisation and funding of its enforcement; and commitment and support from the leadership of all the main institutions. Clearly none of these things have happened in NI.

Instead there was a storm of scare stories in the media, claiming that the new law would drive the industry “further underground” and put ‘sex workers’ in real danger.

Police (non) enforcement of Article 64A

The QUB report goes into extensive detail about the official opposition the PSNI expressed during the passage of the bill. The PSNI claimed their opposition would not stop them enforcing the law, but no specialist police unit has been set up. Instead enforcement has been “mainstreamed” into local policing.

Local policing in NI follows the UK-wide NPCC guidance that sees prostitution as inevitable and not inherently harmful, and recommends taking enforcement action only when “organised crime” is involved. It explicitly advises against encouraging women to exit prostitution and by not mentioning the possibility of arresting sex buyers (punters), it implicitly advises against enforcing Article 64A.

Instead the guidance focuses on “safeguarding” women involved in prostitution but has few suggestions for how to do this other than sharing safety tips that are predicated on every single punter posing a threat to her life. For example, the safety tips include suggesting not wearing a scarf (in case punters use it to strangle her) and not allowing punters to penetrate her “doggy style” (because she won’t be able to see if he takes the condom off or moves to attack her).

That the NPCC takes this position is not surprising when you understand that their chief advisers were the UK National Ugly Mugs which, like Ugly Mugs.ie, campaigns for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade and against the understanding of prostitution as a form of gender-based violence.

It is little wonder therefore that the local NI police have not enforced Article 64A while labouring under this guidance – which we believe violates not only UK equality legislation but also binding obligations under CEDAW and the Palermo Protocol. See Through a Sexist Prism: National Police Guidance on Policing Prostitution for more on this.

When interviewed by the researchers, one of the NI police officers said:

“The points to prove for paying for sexual services are, physical presence, sexual touching for sexual gratification and payment made or promised. If any of these three proofs are not present no offence has been committed, therefore it can be very challenging for the police to gather evidence in the context of a transaction between two consenting adults and no other witnesses unless a suspect makes an admission.”

However, the accounts of the two successful convictions under Article 64A contradict this assertion. In both of these cases a man propositioned a female in a public place indicating that he wanted to pay her for a sexual act and this was sufficient to gain a conviction. In neither case did the female engage in any sexual activity and neither of them were involved in prostitution.

The QUB researchers bemoan the fact that these two cases were therefore nothing to do with prostitution – completely missing the point that the men’s behaviour was predicated on the acceptance of prostitution and this affects all women. It seems like the researchers’ ideological conviction that ‘sex work is work’ has blinded them to the blindingly obvious.

What these two cases demonstrate is that it should be relatively easy for the police to secure convictions if they really want to do so. However, they are unlikely to want to do so without support and prioritisation from above – and that is unlikely to come while prostitution is understood as inevitable and generally harmless.

These attitudes are like a throwback to how the police and criminal justice system used to view domestic violence – as ‘not serious’ and a private matter. Men were allowed to beat their wives and the idea of rape in marriage was considered an oxymoron because she was deemed to have given him perpetual and unconditional consent on her marriage day. After decades of feminist activism, attitudes around such matters have shifted and there is a change in the law, albeit not universally implemented. That it is so hard to change establishment attitudes to prostitution suggests that the establishment depends on its thriving existence.

Impact on human trafficking

The researchers report that there have been 31 arrests and two convictions for human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation since the introduction of the HT&EA. Like the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) in England and Wales, the HT&EA does not use the internationally agreed definition of human trafficking as laid out in the Palermo Protocol and instead centres the definition on the travel of the victim. Many of the criticisms that we have made about the MSA also apply to the HT&EA.

It is of major concern that the definition of human trafficking in the HT&EA obscures the link between human trafficking and prostitution, and incorrectly suggests that human trafficking requires extreme force – when the international definition makes it clear that coercion can be subtle, often taking the form of exploiting the victim’s relative vulnerability and not necessarily involving any physical force.

That the HT&EA deviates so significantly from the Palermo Protocol feeds the narrative much repeated by the researchers and the PSNI officers they quote that there is a qualitative distinction between “consensual prostitution” and “human trafficking.”

A similar cognitive dissonance displayed in the PSNI response to Article 64A can also be seen in what they say about human trafficking to the researchers. For example, a PSNI officer is quoted at the top of page 63 saying:

“We concentrate on the organised crime groups and will continue to do that, particularly in respect of human trafficking by forced prostitution. Crime gangs regard it as high yielding in hard cash and low risk.”

Leaving aside the fact that the international definition does not use the phrase, “forced prostitution,” this officer is clearly expressing the understanding that human trafficking for the purpose of the exploitation of a woman’s prostitution is a highly lucrative business – and that it is the money paid by men for prostitution that drives the human trafficking ‘gangs.’

The discrepancy between this and the claims made elsewhere in the report that prostitution and human trafficking are entirely separate is breath-taking – and so is the inability to see that the lure of easy money would be equally compelling to the small scale pimp who feeds off the prostitution of local women and girls, and that reducing the possibilities for prostitution would therefore reduce the possibilities of ‘gangs’ (and others) making huge profits from the misery of foreign (or local) women.

It is as if the ideological position of insisting that prostitution is harmless is crippling everyone’s ability to see what is in front of their noses.

Involvement of paramilitary organisations

The researchers appear to have taken statements by the PSNI officers they interviewed at face value. For example, page 63 states:

“It was confirmed by a PSNI officer with first-hand knowledge of this area that currently there are no known links between members of paramilitary organisations (or the remnants of them) and organised prostitution and human trafficking for sexual exploitation. This was because the bulk of organised criminality in relation to prostitution in Northern Ireland is international in orientation with crime gangs who operate well beyond the shores of the jurisdiction.”

This again illustrates the pernicious implications of the definition of human trafficking being predicated on travel and the police focus being on ‘organised crime’ implicitly defined as foreign gangs – it gives official sanction for local pimps and traffickers to fly under the radar.

A quick google search shows that there were reports in the press of paramilitary involvement in brothel keeping in April 2018. There is no explanation of why the PSNI officer does not consider this case relevant nor why the researchers didn’t mention it.

On page 26 the report states:

“The researchers did not under any circumstances endanger themselves by visiting places where organized crime takes place, such as illegal brothels.”

This is a curious statement because all brothels are by definition illegal in Northern Ireland and later in the report the researchers suggest that brothels are safer for women involved in prostitution than working alone and yet they consider them too dangerous for the researchers themselves to visit. Nor do they appear to have tried other means of investigating the prevalence of brothels in NI and whether the 88 brothels that were discovered by the BBC in 2011, many run by paramilitary organisations, are still in operation.

The exiting strategy

The NI Department of Health (DOH) has responsibility for implementing an exiting strategy for women involved in prostitution. The researchers found that the DOH had published a strategy document, which they criticised heavily, but no specialist services had materialised. Those involved in prostitution who come forward are simply referred to existing general services.

The researchers also note that there are no specialist exiting services for women involved in prostitution at all in NI and such specialist services as do exist are restricted to sexual healthcare.

The Nordic Model is a holistic approach that has the long term aim of bringing the system of prostitution to an end while providing genuine routes out to those caught up in it. It is well documented that women often struggle to exit prostitution and that specialist non-judgemental services make a huge difference to women’s ability to get out and build a viable life outside such that they do not need to return. It is also well documented that women’s poverty has been deepening throughout the UK during the years covered by the research and that this has driven many women into prostitution. That the researchers do not consider these realities is astonishing.

The official response in brief

The inescapable conclusion from the review of the official response is that neither the spirit nor the letter of the Nordic Model approach that the HT&EA introduced has been implemented. This must have been apparent to the DOJ before it commissioned the QUB study. That it implemented the requirement to assess how the law was working while not ensuring that the other terms had been properly implemented is further evidence that the DOJ has not acted in good faith.

The online survey of 199 ‘sex workers’

One of the key parts of the research strategy was an online survey of ‘sex workers,’ which yielded 199 responses. The main reasons respondents gave for entering ‘sex work’ were high incomes and flexible working hours. Most respondents claimed to be “very happy” or “somewhat happy” with ‘sex work.’ Most claimed to avoid drugs and alcohol completely while working.

This reported paradise is only disturbed by Article 64A. More than 50% of the participants reported feeling ‘sex work’ had become “much more dangerous” or “slightly more dangerous” since its introduction. But there’s no explanation as to whether this was just a feeling or a concrete experience.

The survey was in the form of a SurveyMonkey questionnaire. On page 38 the researchers explain how they distributed it:

“Contact was made with a number of support organisations such as UglyMugs.ie and Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) who publicised the survey on their webpages […]. Commercial firms such as Lazarus Trading S.L. and Adultwork also promoted the survey on their webpages and private forums […] The survey was also distributed via a number of social media forums where sex workers meet.”.

In other words, the survey was distributed through online pimping platforms, organisations that openly campaign to decriminalize the entire sex trade, and social media forums for self-identified ‘sex workers’ that may include pimps and others who are not engaged in actual prostitution.

The researchers mention that their sample may over represent those with a positive experience in prostitution – but it is difficult to measure and compare experiences of prostitution, or to know what a respondent means when they describe it as “positive” or “negative.”

The researchers do not say what form of ‘sex work’ the respondents were engaged in – whether it was prostitution per se or web-camming, phone line work or something else altogether.

What does seem likely – given how the survey was distributed – is that the sample represents a biased population, at least some of which had been mobilized to promote a competing agenda. Anonymous questionnaires were distributed via commercial platforms that profit from the sex trade – so there is no way of knowing who filled them out. Was it entirely an authentic population of persons engaged in actual prostitution or were some or many filled out by pimps and activists who wanted to skew the results? The truth might be somewhere in the middle.

Narrative interviews with 13 ‘sex workers’

The researchers conducted narrative interviews with 13 ‘sex workers.’ On pages 29-30, they describe how the interviews were documented, what ethical challenges they overcame and how they provided the interviewees with safety and anonymity. However, they don’t explain how they selected the participants. Were they again assisted by the sex trade lobby? Maybe even by Lazarus Trading and Adultwork? There is no way of knowing because the researchers don’t tell us.

What they do say, is that only seven out of the 13 participants had ‘worked’ both before and after the law change. And with a straight face they then claim:

“All sex workers in the narrative interviews noted that there was a surge in business in the period following the implementation of Article 64A. Sex workers felt that the media discussion around the legislation had publicized the idea of prostitution to those who had not previously considered it or did not know how to access a sex worker.”

Even those who were not prostituted before the implementation of the law reported a rise in business.

The full interviews were not published as appendices, and in the entire report, there are only a few short citations from six interviewees.

The online punter survey

The researchers conducted an online survey of punters, which they describe like this:

“A quantitative client survey with respondents in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland which generated 1,276 responses: 1,083 from ROI, and 193 from Northern Ireland. The client survey did not exclude clients from the ROI who purchased sex as there is no single place on the Internet that is for Northern Irish clients only.”

Findings include:

  • 5% of the respondents in NI and 54.2% in ROI reported that “they will continue to do this with the same frequency as before.”
  • 1% of respondents in NI and 28.8% in ROI reported that “they will continue to purchase sex albeit slightly less frequently.”
  • 6% of respondents in NI and 10.8% of clients in ROI reported that “they had either stopped purchasing sex or the law was likely to make them stop purchasing sex completely.”

These findings are interesting because they contradict the claims made by the ‘sex workers’ that there was “a huge surge in business” after the law came into force.

The researchers use the punter survey data as evidence of failure of Article 64A – too few punters promise to quit and the majority seem indifferent to the law. But they don’t consider that banning the purchase of sexual services is a long-term project.

Men do not normally rush to give up their ingrained sexist habits. If only in every area of ​​sexual crime (rape, sexual harassment, sexual assault) we saw a 10% reduction in readiness to commit a crime within three years.

“While our data suggest that a very small number of clients may stop purchasing sex there nevertheless remains the concern that these are the non-abusive and non-violent clients”.

It is important to note that this is the researchers’ hypothesis and not the findings of the study.

Analysis of online ads

The researchers analysed the commercial sex ads on the Escort Ireland ASW we mentioned earlier. They found that 173,460 advertising profiles belonging to 4,717 ‘sex workers’ were placed on the site between 1 January 2012 and 31 December 2018 – a period spanning three years before and after the introduction of Article 64A on 1 June 2015.

The researchers found that advertising for commercial sex on this ASW increased by 5% after Article 64A came into force. Was this an alarming increase? It’s not clear. Every source of data about Internet use worldwide shows that Internet penetration is on the rise. Between 2012 and 2016, there was an 8.1% increase in the number of users in Ireland (with only a 1.3% increase in population). There is no accurate data for 2017 and 2018, but there is a forecast that indicates a continued rise.

It is significant that although there was a 5% increase in the overall number of ads in the three years after Article 64A came into force compared to the three preceding years, there was a drastic drop in the number of ads over the last two years as shown in the following chart.

The QUB researchers compared the volume of prostitution adverts discovered in their study with the results of another study, conducted five years earlier and concluded the results were similar:

“We reach a figure of 308 for the number of sex workers in Northern Ireland advertising per day. This figure is not dissimilar to the figure of 300-350 noted by Huschke et al (2014) in their analysis of prostitution in Northern Ireland before the sex purchase ban came into effect.”

It is remarkable that at no point did the researchers acknowledge that pimps, rather than the women involved in prostitution, often place the ads. Nor was there any acknowledgement that the online pimping platforms provide new opportunities and mechanisms for pimps to control the women involved and for punters to control and harass them, as we explain in Online Pimping: A New Dystopia.

Analysis of Ugly Mugs.ie reports

As mentioned earlier, Ugly Mugs.ie was originally an initiative of Escort Ireland. Although it now describes itself as “volunteer-run not-for-profit technology initiative,” we understand that it retains links with Escort Ireland.

The Ugly Mugs.ie website describes its activities like this:

“We improve the safety of sex workers and reduce crime by bringing sex workers together to share information with each other about potential dangers.”

‘Sex workers’ in NI and the ROI can register as users and send in reports of punter violence and abusive and nuisance behaviour and Ugly Mugs.ie sends out alerts to warn others.

Page 135 of the report says:

“[Ugly Mugs.ie] provided the principal researcher (Ellison) with an anonymised dataset containing details of 2,556 separate incidents recorded from 1st January 2012 to 31st December 2018.”

This is an interesting way of describing the Ugly Mugs.ie data. For example, it doesn’t make it clear whether this dataset represents all of the incidents reported during the time period in question, or whether it is a sample of the total incidents – and if the latter on what basis the sampling was undertaken. There is also no information about any fluctuations in the numbers of registered users over the years it covers.

This contrasts markedly with the description of the dataset that was obtained from Escort Ireland, which made it clear that it covered all the NI advertising they had carried during the period and it begs the question of whether the Ugly Mugs.ie data was deliberately incomplete.

Page 138 of the QUB report has a graph that shows a quite shocking spike in the numbers of cases reported after 2016:

But when you look at the accompanying text more closely it becomes clear that the data is in fact an aggregation of 47 different “crime and non-crime” categories, including nuisance behaviour, such as punters not showing up to appointments. While the latter would clearly affect someone’s ability to make a living, it is a curious methodology to aggregate such data with cases of anal rape, strangulation and being held hostage.

The subsequent pages provide a more detailed analysis of the data, which shows that the number of cases of serious crime was extremely low (149 reported cases over the entire period 2012-2018).

In 2018 there were 13 reports of assault, 9 of robbery and 9 of groping / kissing without permission – whereas these crimes were hardly reported in 2012 and 2013. It is difficult to talk about the statistical significance of such data, or changes in it.

The QUB researchers do not appear to have made any attempt to consider other variables that may have contributed to the spike in cases from 2016. For example, without any accompanying data on the numbers of registered users, it is not possible to know if there was an influx of registered users at that time that would explain to some degree at least the increase in reports of incidents. Did Ugly Mugs.ie have a recruitment drive or were there reports in the media that might have contributed to an increase in membership at this time? The researchers’ silence suggests they didn’t ask these questions.

Nor did the researchers appear to consider other socio-economic changes that might have contributed to the increase in reports. For example, it is clear from the data that there was an increase in threatening behaviour and demands for ‘unsafe sex.’ However, this is a trend that has been widely reported in many countries and that has been linked to the ever-increasing availability of ever-more violent gonzo porn. The researchers appear to have no interest in investigating whether this was also a factor in these reported trends in NI.

Other major socio-economic changes that occurred during the same period include the bedding in of brutal austerity measures that have impacted women much more harshly than men, and the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the accompanying racist rhetoric, which has led to a worsening of behaviour towards migrants.

The sex trade does not exist in a vacuum – and so it would be reasonable to assume that these wider changes would have had some impact on punters’ behaviour towards the vulnerable population engaged in the sex trade.

We also need to bear in mind that an increase in reports of violence is not the same as an increase in actual violence. In fact the researchers give considerable attention to the fact that fear of crime is not always related to actual risks of crime. However, they didn’t consider how the change in the law was accompanied by widespread reporting of claims by those opposed to it that it would put ‘sex workers’ in danger and lead to more violence against them. It seems to us that this is the most plausible explanation for the reported increase in fear of crime.

General problems of external validity

There are many external validity problems in this research. We have already raised concerns that a significant portion of the study’s participants were mobilized and biased by ideology. The sampling methods selected by the researchers led them to some other incorrect conclusions.

On page 10 they say:

“It is difficult to identify the number of people who have exited prostitution given that the sex worker population in NI is neither static nor easily identifiable.”

They are right. Exited survivors are a hidden population – but not more so than the population actively engaged in prostitution. The researchers simply made no attempt to locate a rehabilitated population – through abolitionist organisations and welfare services.

On the same page, the researchers go on to say:

“Prostitution is something that some people dip in and out of as need and circumstances dictate; it does not appear to be a fixed identity.”

This is correct, but while falling back into prostitution is notoriously common, the researchers may have overestimated its scope. The virtual ‘sex worker’ organizations and communities may indeed concentrate on the “in and out” population. Exited sex trade survivors are found on different platforms.

On page 15, the researchers note that:

“Only a minority of sex workers in our survey availed of the services of Women’s Aid or Ruhama. Considerably more sex workers engaged with UglyMugs.ie and Sex Worker’s Alliance Ireland (SWAI). These organizations provide assistance and support to sex workers in Northern Ireland although what they can conceivably do is constrained by the fact that they are based outside the jurisdiction.”

A survey distributed by UglyMugs.ie and SWAI found that the participants are involved with these two organizations and not others. How surprising!

The researchers insisted that in Northern Ireland there was almost no prostitution other than that arranged through the Internet. To back up their claim, they presented the distribution of the responses to a question that asked punters where they usually buy sex.

All the punter questionnaires were distributed online. It is safe to assume that distributing the questionnaires in brothels would have produced a different result. As mentioned earlier, the researchers didn’t visit any brothels. But this doesn’t make brothels non-existent – and it is hard to believe that the 88 brothels discovered in 2011 have all disappeared within seven years.

Personal note from Luba Fein

In addition to all the problems with the research that we have documented above, there’s something else that caught my eye. On page 20, the researchers quote from a recent article that called the adoption of the Swedish model by other countries (such as France, Northern Ireland and Israel) “transfer of rhetoric and ideology.”

The QUB researchers go on to explain:

“It simply assumed that legislation devised for the unique context of Sweden (e.g. with high welfare state provision, high existing standards of gender equality, narrow income differentials) will simply ‘work’ in France, Northern Ireland, Israel or any other jurisdiction with different social, political and cultural circumstances.”

In other words, they are trying to tell us that less wealthy and egalitarian countries than Sweden cannot afford to prohibit paid rape. As an Israeli woman living in a less prosperous country than Sweden, this statement sounds racist, classist and violent. Indeed, my country is not as rich as Sweden, it is heterogeneous and divided. That said, I do not understand why our poorness should be an excuse for us to prostitute our women. Women in Israel, France, and Ireland are entitled to a life of dignity rather than a life in prostitution – just like women in Sweden. Our non-white and non-privileged bodies are not for sale either.

Conclusion

The QUB research makes it clear that the Nordic Model approach does not work by magic. The change in the law alone is unlikely to bring about significant change without the political will to enforce the law and implement, fund and prioritise all the things that are needed to bring about success – including training for the police, a public information campaign, high-quality exiting services and real alternatives for women, and championing from the top of all the relevant institutions.

It is clear that in NI, not only has the Nordic Model approach lacked support and champions at the highest levels, but there has actually been widespread official opposition to it, particularly in the PSNI and the DOJ and a chronic lack of resources in the DOH.

Did the DOJ deliberately choose researchers who were openly opposed to the approach in the hope that they would produce a report showing that the law was an abject failure, so they could quietly get rid of it?

If they did, they would have been disappointed because the findings led the DOJ to conclude that there was no evidence that the change in the law had had any measurable impact at all other than a limited deterrent effect on male punters.

So even though the law has not been enforced, and there has been no training for those tasked with implementing it, no public information campaigns, and no exiting services have been set up, and there has been widespread opposition from the PSNI and the DOJ, it has still had a measurable impact on men’s behaviour – making them less likely to go out punting.

Just think what this approach could achieve if it were implemented properly and wholeheartedly.

Download

Download a PDF version of this report.


Luba Fein, is an Israeli activist and member of a women’s coalition against the sex trade in Israel.

Anna Fisher is the current chair of Nordic Model Now!

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