Now just over three years in force, the 2017 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, which criminalises the purchase of sex, has made a “promising” start in interrupting the demand for prostitution, a landmark report from UCD’s Sexual Exploitation Research Programme concludes. The report, commissioned by the Department of Justice, makes for uncomfortable but optimistic reading. It details a world of endemic violence, rape, coercion and entrapment. It describes graphically the abusive demands of the buyers of sex.
We read too of the long term harms of prostitution on the women involved – including physical injuries, sexual and reproductive health impacts, long-term chronic pain, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, self-harming, drug and alcohol dependency, depression and low self-esteem.
The shift in law enforcement policy ushered in by the legislation – from prosecuting the sellers of sex to the buyers – was long campaigned for by a myriad of civic and civil society groups in the Turn Off the Red Light campaign. Others who freely identify as sex workers opposed it, however, fearing it would push the industry "underground" and make women less safe. It is unfortunate these women, represented by such organisations as the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland, were not interviewed for this report.
Successes however are evident. The number of prosecutions for soliciting or loitering have fallen from a high of 151 in 2011 to 16 in 2017 and eight last year. In contrast prosecutions for the purchase of sex increased from 10 in 2018, the Act’s first full year in operation, to 92 last year.
An Garda Síochána has shown itself capable of culture change in shifting its focus from the sellers to the buyers. A culture shift across society is needed too. The vast majority of, though crucially not all, women have been coerced into the industry. The supports they need to exit it require more than well-meaning words. Most immediately they need access to housing, education, immigration regularisation, and social welfare, as well as psychological and medical supports.