There is no evidence that prostitution can be abolished

Internet sources are notoriously unreliable, especially in the world of transactional sex

 Women on their way into the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality hearings  at Leinster House. Photograph: Eric Luke

Women on their way into the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality hearings at Leinster House. Photograph: Eric Luke


Ireland has moved closer to changing its prostitution laws. A joint Oireachtas committee recently recommended the adoption of the “Swedish model”, an approach that seeks to abolish prostitution through criminalising the buyer of sex and not the seller.

While debate about this policy proposal is by no means over, the odds are good in favour of its adoption. It seems as if, to use the popular metaphor, all the ducks are lining up for Ireland to become an abolitionist state.

Many will celebrate and the Turn off the Red Light campaign organisers can enjoy their success thus far. It was a brilliantly run campaign. But it rested on a shaky foundation, that of limited comprehensive knowledge about the actual nature and extent of prostitution in Ireland.

During the past months, for instance, versions of the assertion that “1,000 women per day” sell sex in Ireland became commonplace. Wild claims may be part of a competition to dominate a discourse, but belief as to this “fact” illustrates a deeper problem: this debate has been very short of the evidence a state needs when changing and evaluating any law.

Proponents of the Swedish model in Ireland argued statistics from two sets of data: those produced for a television programme and from a report commissioned by the lead organisation in the Turn off the Red Light campaign. The former was good television journalism, the latter a good piece of advocacy research – that is, research that seeks to frame and produce a desired outcome.

Unreliable research
Both pieces relied on evidence culled from internet escort sites for their heavy-hitting data alongside sample personal narratives. No matter how apparently “real” it seems, what happens in the virtual world is no substitute for the actual.

Internet sources are notoriously unreliable, especially in the world of transactional sex where particular methodological problems arise. One is that of multiple representations by single individuals who are seeking to sell sex, using perhaps several internet personas. A second relates to accounting for time in a world where those single individuals can move in and out of activities erratically. A third problem is that of generalising from any particular group.

It is the norm in academic circles that researchers make utterly clear the tools they used to count anything, who used them, when and how and in what conditions. This gold standard ensures other researchers can subsequently retest or interrogate with a view to verification. Such transparency of methods is necessary to lift findings from being merely indicative to being fully reliable.

Despite these challenges, statistics wielded during the debates were embraced without caution as if what goes on in the internet is sufficient to tell us the scale of prostitution in Ireland and its many, varied, complex dynamics.

My own opposition to abolitionism is informed by many arguments, not least of all is the one raised briefly here about evidence. While proponents of abolitionism here argued that the symbolism of the Swedish approach (its message) was as important as its actual potential effect, law and policy cannot be driven by symbolism.

We need to know what precisely is going on in Ireland (and not what is claimed on the internet) to develop appropriate interventions and data that will allow us measure the effect of any change.

Sex trade evolution
Although we do know some things about the sex trade here, we do not really know what it is on the ground that we are trying to abolish. We will not know if the proposed law has worked, a challenge indeed given the evidence the sex trade adapts and changes, regardless of what laws come and go. All evidence seems to point to one conclusion: that prostitution is not abolishable.

Dr Eilís Ward teaches at
the department of political science and sociology at NUI Galway

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