home Sexpress Reflections on the Red Light District: The Power of Decriminalising Sex Work

Reflections on the Red Light District: The Power of Decriminalising Sex Work

By Chloe Boland

This week, Chloe Boland, chairperson of UCC’s Feminist Society will be discussing the role of the law in the sex work industry, and how it can affect the safety of sex workers- 

Walking along the canals of Amsterdam in the Red Light District was certainly an interesting experience, and put many questions into my mind. What exactly are the laws regarding sex work in the Netherlands? How is the attitude to sex work so different from here in Ireland? Do the different attitudes and laws create a safer environment for sex workers in comparison to Ireland? 

Amnesty International recently released a report regarding the laws on sex work in Ireland. The report, entitled, “We live within a violent system”: Structural violence against sex workers In Ireland”, shows clearly how the criminalization of sex work puts sex workers in Ireland in more danger. Before getting into the laws around sex work, it is important to understand what is actually meant by sex work as per Amnesty’s report. Sex work refers to a consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for some form of remuneration – money or goods – with the terms agreed between the seller and the buyer. 

Ireland has a very closed off and ignorant attitude towards sex as a whole. We can see this all around us, especially in our education system where fear-mongering and abstinence are still featured heavily in sex ed classes. The Catholic Church’s influence can still be felt all around us in this country’s attitudes towards sex, and the laws around sex work are, unfortunately, and dangerously, no different. The laws regarding sex work in Ireland claim to exist to protect sex workers, but by listening to sex workers’ lived experiences, we can see this is not the case. As of 2017 when the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act made amendments to the preceding 1993 Act, the purchase, but not selling, or sex between two adults became criminalized – this is known as the “Nordic Model”. Furthermore, “the organisation of prostitution” and the “advertising of brothels and prostitution” are prohibited. What is very important to note from the 1993 Act, which is still in place today, is that “brothel-keeping” refers to two or more sex workers selling sex work from the same premises, and this is currently criminalised. The serious implication of this is that it can prevent two or more sex workers from working together even if it is for safety reasons. Many of the sex workers interviewed in Amnesty’s report reported that they share premises with other workers to help them improve their safety. However, many also reported that they were too afraid to do this, even if it would improve their safety, as there is the risk of being criminalised. It is clear from Amnesty’s report that working together improves sex workers’ safety but as this is criminalized under Irish law, many sex workers are in even more danger as a consequence.

As with all feminist issues, intersectionality is really important to consider, and this is no different in the sex work industry. The criminalisation of brothel-keeping affects all sex workers’ safety but can also pose even more issues for migrant sex workers and sex workers of colour. Migrants and people of colour are more likely to be prosecuted if they are caught working in a brothel (bear in mind, under Irish law this can simply mean two or more sex workers working in the same premise). So while many sex workers are willing to take the risk of prosecution of working together so that they are safer while working, this is a much greater risk for migrants and people of colour – putting them even more at risk. The safety of sex workers is not a priority in Ireland, despite the current laws claiming they were put in place for safety reasons. Listening to sex workers and reading Amnesty’s report, it is obvious that sex workers are not safe. 

On the question of what needs to change to improve sex workers’ safety, the majority of those interviewed for Amnesty’s report said that they want it to be legal for sex workers to work together. As some of the interviewees remarked, they work together for their safety because it is dangerous for them to work alone. Furthermore, the majority of participants in the report are calling for the complete decriminlisation of sex work in Ireland. Coming back to intersectionality, the vulnerability of sex workers is impacted by numerous factors such as their gender, race, sexuality, disability, migrant status etc., and completely decriminalising sex work would create a safer environment for all sex workers across the country.

Total decriminalisation of sex work brings us to the Netherlands. Prostitution was legalised in the Netherlands in 2000, and this included lifting the prohibition on brothels. This decision was made by the Dutch government with the aim of improving working conditions and giving sex workers more autonomy over their labour. The Netherlands has been remarked as a global leader in the decriminalisation of sex work. In the case of Amsterdam’s Red Light District, there is management, police, a safety network and colleagues nearby which improve the safety for the people working there. In comparison to Ireland, where workers can be criminalised for being with other workers (which as seen in Amnesty’s report, is mostly done for safety reasons), and are in most cases too afraid to call the police if they find themselves in danger, these seemingly small elements make a huge difference to the safety of sex workers. Of course, it is important to note that the Netherlands is not perfect, and there are still many issues pertaining to sex work. There is still a major stigma surrounding sex work, and still, sex workers do not have access to the same rights asthe rest of the labour force. There is certainly a long way to go, but there is evidence that allowing brothels to run, and decriminalising sex work as a whole actually increases sex workers’ safety. 

Advocating for sex workers’ rights goes beyond advocating for better safety or total decriminalisation, it is also advocating for better housing, and for better support for the most marginalised people in our society. Something that is included in Amnesty’s report but is often overlooked when we talk about sex work is the reasons that lead people to begin sex work. People start sex work for a variety of reasons, but for many sex workers, it is because they have already been abandoned by the state and it has become the only viable option for them to make money. Many sex workers are already marginalised in our society. One of the participants in Amnesty’s report talks about their experience of living with Multiple Sclerosis, and how this led them towards selling sex online. The lack of support from the government with regards to the Disability Allowance, which was not enough for them to support themselves, and the nature of Multiple Sclerosis making it difficult to keep a “normal” job, led them to online sex work as a means of being able to support themselves. A quote from another participant that really highlights this point is, “We’re doing sex work because we need to survive because nobody will hire us”. There are many reasons why people find themselves doing sex work, and it is no one’s place to judge someone for the work they do to survive. Sex work is a feminist issue and as feminists it is our job to look at the ways our society oppresses and marginalises people, putting them in positions where their only option is to work in a sector that puts them in danger. It is also our job to advocate for better laws and supports for sex workers, both worldwide and in Ireland, so that they can simply do their job without putting themselves in danger, so that they can have the same support and security as all other workers. 

If you want to read Amnesty’s report it can be accessed here: https://www.amnesty.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/EUR2951562022ENGLISH.pdf. If you want to learn more about sex work in Ireland more generally, Red Umbrella Front is an incredible organisation that supports sex workers and adovcates for their rights. The only way we can make sure that we are properly supporting sex workers is by listening to what they have to say. I can write, and I can talk, and I can give you all the information I can find, but if we’re not actually listening to sex workers –  the people affected by all these issues – we will never achieve any meaningful progress.