home Features Sex Work in Ireland: The Case for Decriminalisation

Sex Work in Ireland: The Case for Decriminalisation

Elisha Carey, Features Editor

Last month, the Garda National Protective Services Bureau launched the Garda’s Organised Prostitution Investigation Unit, aimed at targeting men who pay for sex. The Unit will be present at major rugby, soccer and GAA games as well as horse races, concerts and festivals, where large numbers of individuals are spending nights away from home. This focus on the buyer is reflective of Ireland’s relatively new approach to sex work. In 2017, via the enactment of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, we adopted the Swedish or Nordic model, which criminalises the purchase of sex rather than the work itself. Proponents of the Swedish model suggest that it will reduce both the demand for sex work and the number of women entering the industry, but the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) cite evidence that these laws increase harms to sex workers.

Ireland has come a long way in terms of its attitude to sex work. Kate McGrew, Director of SWAI, in conversation with University Express, said that the growing numbers of Irish people on sites like OnlyFans and IsMyGirl, “have continued to provide the opportunity to discuss sex work as a labour rights issue, and also the lingering problem of stigma around sex-out-of-bounds.” However, while the cultural conversation has moved on, Kate explained that the current laws remain “regressive” and “not fit for purpose.”

Why are sex workers against the Swedish Model?

Sex workers are still facing arrest

70% of participants in a recent study by SWAI say that despite the client criminalisation model, they still fear arrest themselves.

This fear is not misplaced. SWAI report that there have been 55 arrests of sex workers for working together since the introduction of the new law. In fact, the penalty for sex workers working together was doubled under the 2017 Act and now has a jail sentence attached. In 2019, two migrant sex workers, including one woman who was pregnant were jailed for nine months after they were discovered to be running a brothel in a house in Kildare. SWAI has explained repeatedly that sex workers work together for safety reasons. 

Ms. McGrew noted in a recent blog post that Gardaí are also using the Covid regulations to move on and detain workers. 

People continue to enter the industry

SWAI’s study was able to conclude that the introduction of the Swedish model has not prevented people from engaging in sex work.  

Two-thirds of the sex workers surveyed by SWAI think that the law has had no impact on preventing sex workers from entering the industry. SWAI points out by dealing with sex work entirely through the criminal law, Ireland ignores the reasons workers may enter and stay in the industry. “There is not a single corner of the world where sex work does not occur. The existence of a sex industry, in every single country on the planet, is due to structural inequalities and poverty”, Ms. McGrew said, “it is not men’s desire to buy sex that drives the sex industry, it is the reality of this type of labour being these individuals’ best, only, or preferred option.”

None of the sex workers surveyed by SWAI said that they left sex work because of a change in the law. Participants cited their reasons for leaving the industry as, a fear of or the experience of an assault, finishing college, gaining alternative employment or, being threatened with exposure.

Bargaining power diminishes

Since the criminal risk shifts from the worker to the client under the Swedish model, many clients are reluctant to submit to the screening processes the worker has in place. In addition to this, over a quarter of sex workers surveyed by SWAI said that since the client is the one risking arrest, they have felt pressured into performing unsafe sexual practices and many more have taken on clients they would not have previously considered. 

One participant in the study described how this loss of bargaining power has put them in danger, “potentially aggressive clients are more likely to call than genuine clients.”

Violence increases

In the first year following the introduction of the 2017 Act, UglyMugs.ie, an information sharing platform for sex workers reported a 92% increase in violent crimes against sex workers. Less than 1% of sex workers reporting crimes to UglyMugs.ie said that they have or will also report to the Gardaí.

Obstructs HIV prevention

The World Health Organisation has said that the full decriminalisation of sex work could lead to a 46% reduction in new HIV infections in sex workers over 10 years and similarly, that eliminating sexual violence against sex workers could lead to a 20% reduction in new HIV infections. UNAIDS is in agreement, stating that, “many of the human rights challenges, vulnerabilities and barriers sex workers face in accessing HIV services are due to criminalisation and the restrictive laws, regulations and practices they face.”

What next?

In September of last year, Amnesty International Ireland made a submission under the three-year review of the 2017 Act, urging that the review assess how the Swedish Model has impacted the human rights of sex workers in Ireland, including the particular consequences for migrant and transgender workers.

Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, Colm O’Gorman said “A law aimed at protecting sex workers has to actually do that. While criminalising the purchase of sex may have intended to shift police focus away from sex workers themselves, the reality is that it can actually force them to take even more risks,”

The organisation recommended the decriminalisation of the purchase of consensual adult sex as well as the repeal of the “brothel-keeping” offence under which sex workers working together can be prosecuted. Amnesty International Ireland also stressed the need for any review of the legislation to take into account the views of sex workers and their lived experiences at the hands of the Swedish model.