Head to head: Why the purchase of sex should not be a criminal offence

‘My Twitter feed was full of sex workers from Ireland to Thailand to Kenya to the US celebrating Amnesty’s decision’

Sex workers globally celebrated when Amnesty International recently passed a resolution to develop a policy on the decriminalisation of sex work. My Twitter feed was full of sex workers from Ireland and Thailand to Kenya and the US celebrating Amnesty's decision. What they had done was listen to sex workers, looked at the evidence and found that criminalisation, including the buying of sex, made sex workers' lives more dangerous and more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

Amnesty came to this decision after two years of research, looking at four countries which had introduced criminalisation. This included Norway, which criminalised the purchase of sex in 2009. Amnesty spoke to migrant sex workers in Norway and found the workers had faced increased discrimination and stigma since the legislation was introduced. Sex workers in Sweden reported the same experience during the Swedish department of justice's 2010 evaluation of criminalisation legislation there. The Swedish government's interpretation of sex workers' concerns regarding increased stigma and discrimination? "A positive effect of the ban."

Amnesty’s research also found sex workers in Norway did not have a good relationship with the police as a result of the laws. Workers felt the police were more concerned about enforcing prohibition than protecting their human rights. Workers did not report violence to police, as they were afraid of being targeted and losing their income.

One sex worker said: “If a customer is bad you need to manage it yourself to the end. You only call the police if you think you are going to die. If you call the police, you lose everything.”



The Norwegian police told Amnesty they use condoms as evidence of sex work when seeking prosecutions. This is dangerous, as workers stop using condoms for fear it will result in police interrogation or the arrest of clients.

Amnesty’s proposal will not affect its policy against trafficking. The criminalisation of purchasers of sex does not prevent trafficking. Swedish police are still finding trafficking victims, according to their own reports.

We should look at places which have decriminalised the purchasers of sex. The Global Alliance Against the Traffic in Women reported that decriminalisation in New South Wales, Australia, made it easier for outreach services to identify and help trafficking victims.

Decriminalisation and legislation are not the same thing and this is an important distinction when it comes to sex workers' rights. Decriminalisation removes laws regarding the purchase and sale of sexual services from criminal law. Legislation recognises sex work as a commercial activity and adds extra regulation. We are not looking for a model like those in the Netherlands and Germany, but a model similar to the New Zealand one tailored to the Irish context.

Working conditions

In New Zealand decriminalisation of both the purchasers of sex and sex workers was introduced in 2003. The government did an evaluation of the law in 2008 to examine the impact of decriminalisation on sex workers. It reported that overall sex workers found working conditions improved as a result of decriminalisation.

Sex workers felt they had a better relationship with police and could report crimes against them as a result of the law. One transgender street-based sex worker said: “[Decriminalisation] made me feel safer, made me feel better about the police.” Sex workers felt they had greater powers to negotiate terms and conditions with clients, as they knew they had legal rights with decriminalisation.

Catherine Healy is involved with the New Zealand Collective of Prostitutes (NZCP), which was central in the drafting of the legislation on the decriminalisation of sex work.

“My memory is very long and it goes back to when police lectured a sex worker. I can well recall sex workers didn’t report to police,” she said. “Things have changed significantly since then. I remember [more recently] when a client didn’t pay and police arrived and escorted him to ATM to withdraw the money.”

Amnesty is joining a growing list of international bodies such as UNAIDS, the WHO, the Open Society Foundation and the Lancet medical journal that are calling for the decriminalisation of the purchasers of sex as well as sex workers. We need evidence-based policy and the evidence shows that sex workers are some of the most marginalised people in the world. They don't need criminalisation. They need their work to be decriminalised and their rights and safety protected.

This is not about pitting “privileged” workers against vulnerable sex workers or victims of trafficking. Decriminalisation of purchasers of sex and sex workers ensures an environment with better supports and protections for everyone. We sex workers need human rights, not legal wrongs.

Catriona O’Brien is a sex worker and a member of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland

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