Why new law banning the purchase of sex is patronising and problematic

Opinion: Turning off the red light in Northern Ireland

‘Independent research by Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice showed that no locally-based sex workers surveyed supported criminalising the purchase of sex.’ Above, sex workers wearing masks to protect their identity protested against the  human trafficking Bill at Stormont last week. Photograph:  Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

‘Independent research by Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice showed that no locally-based sex workers surveyed supported criminalising the purchase of sex.’ Above, sex workers wearing masks to protect their identity protested against the human trafficking Bill at Stormont last week. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

Stormont may be collapsing around their ears – broke, rancorous and dysfunctional – but if there’s one thing on which Northern Ireland’s divided politicians can always be sure to agree it’s the regulation and control of women’s bodies. All for their own good, of course.

That’s why the Northern Ireland Assembly has voted overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on the purchase of sex. The new law – part of DUP peer Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, and inspired by the so-called Nordic model – would seek to “target those men who buy sexual services and support those trapped in prostitution to exit it”.

But Sinn Féin and the DUP are not the only ideologically opposed groups to find common purpose in this enforced rescue mission for “fallen” women. Care, the conservative Christian organisation which campaigns against abortion, and Women’s Aid, which assists victims of domestic violence, are also united in their enthusiastic support for it, bolstered by the absolutist conviction that all commercial sex is a form of violence against women.

Such curious political bed- hopping, together with a loose and highly selective approach to evidence-gathering and factual analysis, are the hallmarks of the modern abolitionist movement. This isn’t surprising: when radical feminists and religious fundamentalists join forces, facts tend to go out the window, often with dangerous consequences for those they seek to “save”. Sex workers themselves – for whose benefit such legislation is supposedly being enacted – are, ironically enough, the very last people from whom the abolitionists want to hear.

Sex workers surveyed

If they had listened to active escorts they would have heard the truth: that criminalising clients doesn’t protect sex workers, it endangers them. Independent research by Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice showed that no locally based sex workers surveyed supported criminalising the purchase of sex, with 61 per cent believing it would make them less safe and 85 per cent saying it would not reduce sex trafficking.

Even the most vulnerable sex workers – those who had been raped, beaten and pimped – were opposed to further criminalisation. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women strongly opposes criminal penalties against clients, stating that they “not only threaten the effectiveness of anti-trafficking efforts, they often place sex workers at greater risk of violence and exploitation”.

Already the Stormont vote has provided added impetus to similar moves at Westminster and to the Turn Off the Red Light campaign: during the Assembly debate Caitríona Ruane of Sinn Féin said she expected similar legislation to be published in the Republic before Christmas.

Language of exploitation

Turn Off the Red Light is a mirror image of Lord Morrow’s abolitionist coterie, right down to the odd mix of ideologues who drive it – with religious orders taking on the role played by hardline Protestant evangelical groups in the North – and the near- hegemonic control of political opinion they exert. The language of exploitation and trafficking, the paternalistic insistence on defining all sex workers as victims of violence, regardless of how they define themselves, is identical.

There has been surprisingly little emphasis on how the agreed law would be put into practice. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has long made it clear that, with severely limited resources, it would not be in a position to enforce it. Garda sources admit that the same is true in the Republic: such a law would be unworkable.

Indeed, even after the Stormont vote, there seemed to be a great deal of ignorance about the means by which police could pursue offenders. Alban Maginness, a barrister and SDLP member of the Justice Committee, said clients would be identified through their credit cards or by surveillance evidence. Even the most cursory glance at the issue establishes that sex workers and their clients don’t use credit cards, and the legal framework in the UK does not permit the kind of surveillance evidence Sweden uses to prosecute purchasers.

But then enforcement was never the point of it all. Neither the punishment of clients nor the protection of sex workers has ever been the real concern of abolitionist campaigners. Instead, they seek the satisfaction of a symbolic victory: the ability to declare our shores closed to prostitution, in exactly the same way that anti-abortion activists like to proclaim Ireland free of abortion. It’s a myth of moral purity that makes feminists and fundamentalists swell with pride while stopping their ears against the painful, inconvenient facts and the voices of those they claim they want to protect.

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