The only way to end prostitution is to cut off demand, the Dáil was told as a Bill to criminalise the purchase of sexual services was introduced.
The legislation is similar to that operating in Sweden where since its introduction in 1999, street prostitution had halved, Independent TD Thomas Pringle said.
In 1995 there were an estimated 3,000 women involved in prostitution in Sweden with 650 on the streets. In 2008 there were 350 advertised prostitutes on the internet and 300 on the street, the Donegal South-West TD said.
Introducing the Criminal Justice (Sexual Services) (Amendment) Bill, Mr Pringle said “nothing else curbs human behaviour like legislation”.
He told the House “when people make a conscious decision to purchase the body of another human being to do with it what they see fit, that is unacceptable human behaviour, which should not be tolerated or accepted as the norm”.
He said “gender equality is not achievable as long as women are for sale”. He said the sex industry “is a cruel and disturbing place that is run by criminals. The only feasible way to bring this industry to its knees is to cut off the demand. Members need to send a clear message to traffickers and pimps that women are no longer for sale in Ireland and this is the time in which to take those steps.”
The legislation provides for on-the-spot fines, moving to prison sentences for repeat offenders, initially for four weeks.
Mr Pringle said Ireland’s approach to prostitution is based on the assumption that it is a “private contract between consenting adults” and is not criminalised provided it is conducted “out of public view”. Pimping, soliciting in public and brothel-keeping are crimes.
The Bill however is unlikely to be accepted when the Dáil votes on Tuesday. Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan said there would be a further debate in the House on a report currently in preparation by the Oireachtas justice committee, is published.
Speaking for Minister for Justice Alan Shatter who was unable to attend the debate, he said he could not comment in any detail on the Bill or on any "alternative legislative proposals that would pre-empt the consultation process and the joint committee's report".
Fianna Fáil supports the legislation and its justice spokesman Niall Collins said in the past decade street prostitutes had largely been replaced by off-street prostitutes, contacted over the internet or by telephone. He said the “massive explosion” in the number of foreign prostitutes in Ireland “raises questions on the extent of the trafficking of women into and within Ireland for sexual exploitation”.
He added that at a seminar organised by the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign, former prostitutes “often misrepresented their age to clients because the younger they pretended to be, the busier they became. The demand led nature of prostitution in Ireland creates a sinister market of men who desire underage prostitutes.”
Sinn Féin justice spokesman Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said it made him very angry when people spoke about “sex workers”. He said prostitution “is not work and has no connection with the workers’ rights for which we fought. We want to support the women and small number of men involved in prostitution, those who moved to Ireland from abroad, were trafficked here or found themselves addicted to drugs or in economic hardship, by offering them a means to exit the industry.”
Independent Dublin North-Central TD Finian McGrath expressed annoyance at politicians expressing reservations about the legislation. “It also gets up my nose when I hear wind-bag Senators say at meetings..that they do not know whether they can support the legislation. One is either against exploitation or one is not. That is what Deputy Pringle’s Bill is about. He is trying to protect young, vulnerable women and young teenage girls and boys from exploitation and to deal with human trafficking.”
Independent TD Catherine Murphy said a change in the law could change culture but it had to be accompanied by many other actions. "There must be a properly resourced, realistic route out of prostitution for people who wish to get out," and An Garda Síochána should be adequately resourced to deal with people trafficking.
United Left Alliance TDs opposed the legislation. Dublin North TD Clare Daly said the Bill "does not deal with organised crime, sex trafficking or violence against women. It simply proposes that demand can be restricted by criminalising the purchase of sex. I do not believe that is the case or that there is evidence to support that claim."
But she hit out at the Government for "waffling on" about concern for women when it was involved recently in Manwin, the biggest pornography company in Europe, merging and purchasing RK Netmedia".
She said the Minister for Enterprise had "failed to use powers in his control under the Competition Authority to stop that merger in order to facilitate the biggest pornography company in Europe operating and trading out of the IFSC".
Independent TD Mick Wallace said that for many prostitutes “sex work is their only source of income and their means of providing for their families. Criminalising their clients will put these sex workers at increased risk of poverty, and lead to further stigmatisation and marginalisation.”