Ireland should adopt a ban on purchase of sex

Opinion: ‘Irish prostitution is highly organised and highly profitable. It is also highly exploitative’

‘Many women enter prostitution while under 18; many are pimped by a third party. Exploitation, trafficking and coercion of vulnerable young women represent the reality of prostitution in Ireland today.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Many women enter prostitution while under 18; many are pimped by a third party. Exploitation, trafficking and coercion of vulnerable young women represent the reality of prostitution in Ireland today.’ Photograph: Getty Images

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Prostitution has recently been presented in this newspaper as a freely entered commercial transaction between consenting adults. Commentators have suggested that the introduction into Irish law of the ‘Swedish model’, where the sale of sex is legal but its purchase is criminalised, would represent a paternalistic attempt to restrict women’s choices. I strongly reject these arguments, and urge those hostile to the Swedish law to read the report on prostitution published in June 2013 by the Oireachtas Justice Committee, of which I am a member.

We recommended unanimously that Ireland should adopt a ban on the purchase of sex, similar to that introduced by the Swedish government in 1999. The current “Irish model” for regulating prostitution is flawed; its focus is on prohibiting the visible display of prostitution, through criminalising public solicitation, kerb crawling, etc.

Yet prostitution is widely available across the State, provided increasingly by migrant women, as research from the Immigrant Council of Ireland shows. Empirical evidence shows Irish prostitution is highly organised and highly profitable. It is also highly exploitative. Those convicted of prostitution-related offences are overwhelmingly female. Many women enter prostitution while under 18; many are pimped by a third party. Exploitation, trafficking and coercion of vulnerable young women represent the reality of prostitution in Ireland today.

Freely chosen

During our hearings we did receive evidence from individual women who asserted that their entry into prostitution had been freely chosen; but even they admitted that they do not represent a majority of those engaged in prostitution. We also heard concerns that the Swedish law might drive prostitution underground. But when we travelled to Sweden to investigate the experience there, police officers told us that prostitution cannot ever be entirely underground; clients must be able to access it. If they can find relevant websites, so can the police.

Criminalising the purchase of sex makes a country much less attractive economically for human traffickers. The law also has a strongly positive effect on changing social attitudes to sexuality and gender. The legal change in Sweden has decriminalised women selling sex; this helps reduce their social stigmatisation; and facilitates better access to support services. Indeed, based on the Swedish experience, we recommended that legal change should form part of a policy package, including initiatives to support those quitting prostitution.

Our report is being considered by the Minister for Justice, and we hope the law will change as a result. Iceland and Norway have adopted what has become the Nordic model; the Northern Ireland Assembly recently voted in favour of it.

The European Parliament has approved a resolution calling for its adoption throughout the EU. Support for the Swedish law is gathering momentum, because no other model works.

The Irish model is patently not working. Effectively, it only criminalises women, not clients; it is ineffective in reducing harm or supply; and does not even attempt to tackle demand. The Swedish approach, on the other hand, is effective because it focuses on reducing demand, while recognising the inherently unequal nature of prostitution. And this is the fundamental point.

Sexual gratification

There is a clear distinction between adult consensual sex and prostitution. Of course, adult consensual sex is not an offence; but the buying of a person – invariably a woman — for the purpose of sexual gratification should be. The “consent” of the person is not free, because it is obtained within an inherently exploitative context. One party is agreeing to sexual acts which otherwise they would not voluntarily allow with the other, out of financial need; the other party has money, and can demand the sexual acts of their choice.

This is the commercialisation of sex as a product to be bought; it is not two free individuals engaging in a mutual sexual experience. As a lifelong feminist, I find the Swedish model persuasive. I have always believed in women’s liberation and right to choose. But I cannot believe that the “freedom” to enter prostitution, where the vast majority of prostitutes are women in poverty, and the vast majority of clients are men with money, represents any sort of real feminist aspiration.

Ivana Bacik is Senator for Dublin University and Reid professor of criminal law at Trinity College Dublin

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