Head to head: Why the purchase of sex should be a criminal offence

Evidence from around the world shows that legalisation of the trade as a whole fails to protect the most vulnerable

‘Every year Ruhama works with more than 300 women in Ireland whose lives have been seriously, and in some cases irreparably, damaged by prostitution.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Prostitution exists because there is a demand for it. The sex trade is driven by sex buyers. But the number of women who freely and actively choose to sell sex is low. Hence the gap between demand and supply has always been filled by vulnerable women and girls who have been drawn into prostitution as a result of poverty, childhood abuse or other vulnerabilities, and in the some cases directly coerced or trafficked. In Ireland the majority of men never buy sex, but those who do fuel an exploitative trade which is strongly connected to organised crime.

Not criminalising the purchase of sex sends a clear message to men and boys that they are free to pay for sexual access to women's bodies, regardless of the circumstances that brought them into prostitution in the first place. Every year Ruhama works with more than 300 women in Ireland whose lives have been seriously, and in some cases irreparably, damaged by prostitution.

At its international council meeting in Dublin recently, Amnesty International rightly recommended that no one who sells sex should be criminalised for doing so. We couldn't agree more: Ruhama has been advocating for the full decriminalisation of women in the sex trade for years.

But at the same time Amnesty also advocates for policy that "supports the full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work". This may sound relatively innocuous, but what it means in reality is that anyone who facilitates prostitution, whether as a buyer, a brothel owner, an "organiser" or indeed a pimp, should not be subject to criminal sanctions.



In adopting this position, Amnesty chose to ignore the many thousands of women’s rights organisations and sex-trade-survivor organisations and individuals from across the globe who appealed to them not to make this move.

It also chose to ignore the evidence on the ground: all states around the world that have relaxed their laws regarding prostitution, through the decriminalisation or legalisation of the trade as a whole, have failed to protect those in prostitution from its inherent harm. In New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands more women and girls, including the very vulnerable, have been drawn and indeed trafficked into prostitution; more men are buying sex as the practice becomes normalised; violence and human-rights abuses persist, generating more profit than ever before for the exploiters. To advocate for the decriminalisation of those who use or profit is clearly not the way to vindicate the human rights of the vulnerable.

Calls for full decriminalisation contravene existing human-rights conventions. The UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others is clear in identifying prostitution as an intrinsic violation of human rights, and the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women also clearly emphasises the exploitation of prostitution as a form of violence against women and girls.


Amnesty will move now to develop its policy; however, the statement and resolution on which it will be based appear confused.

On the one hand it calls for “full decriminalisation”, while at the same time declaring: “States can impose legitimate restrictions on the sale of sexual services.” So the buyer is to remain always decriminalised, but the seller may not? It is hard to gauge how a coherent policy will emerge from these contradictions. Is this policy to be more about the protection of male entitlement than the human rights of those in prostitution?

Where does this leave us in Ireland? Thankfully, we have already had a much more robust and transparent debate on these issues over the past five years, which leaves us with absolute clarity. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice's review of Ireland's prostitution legislation received more than 800 submissions and held weeks of oral hearings that included representatives from both sides of the debate.


Based on sound evidence, the committee reached the unanimous conclusion that Ireland should adopt the "Swedish approach" by criminalising the purchase of sex while simultaneously decriminalising the sellers – the same approach most recently enshrined in law in Northern Ireland.

This is the approach advocated by Ruhama and the 72 other partner organisations in the Turn Off the Red Light campaign. We await the publication of new legal provisions for prostitution in the forthcoming Sexual Offences Bill with great optimism, and stand firm about the consensus that this approach is the right one to minimise the harms of prostitution and trafficking. Ireland is on the cusp of a historic move to enshrine in law the human right to bodily integrity. There is no human right to buy sex.

Sarah Benson is chief executive of Ruhama; ruhama.ie

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