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Legislate against the sex trade

Last update - Thursday, August 15, 2013, 13:05 By Ronit Lentin

The proposal by the Oireachtas to adopt the ‘Swedish model’, which seeks to abolish prostitution by criminalising the buyers rather than the sellers of sex, has incurred opposition by several Irish academics.

. In a recent Irish Times article, Dr Eílis Ward of NUI Galway criticised the lack of evidence for this proposal, based on the ‘Turn off the Red Light’ campaign. Her liberal feminist argument that women should be free to be sex workers ignores the violence, coercion and abuse that dominate the sex trade, both in Ireland and throughout the world. Prostitution, she argues without a shred of evidence, cannot be abolished.

Unlike Ward, I did research the topic. In April 1981, Geraldine Niland and I published a two-part series in The Irish Times on the lives of real prostitutes in Dublin. We spent several weeks ‘on the beat’ interviewing many prostitutes and male clients. The women insisted that without clients, prostitution would not exist. Clients came from all walks of life, from married men seeking casual sex on the way home from the pub, to priests whose dog collars on the back seat gave them away – men described as “taking from the poor to give to the poor”.

Many of the women were abused as children, most had a drug habit and all spoke of their wish to leave prostitution. For many, the decision to enter ‘the life’ was a lack of real choice. Most of the women we interviewed would agree with how one of them described herself: “You’re dirt, and no good to anyone.”

Since 1993 prostitution in Ireland has moved off the streets into private flats and brothels, often kept by traffickers, where women are coerced to have sex with many men through violence or threats of violence. According to former prostitute Rachel Moran, the level of violence has increased since prostitution went indoors. And there is a racial element to sexual violation; according to Moran, more than 90 per cent of people prostituted in Ireland are young women from impoverished countries.

Moran is co-founder of Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment (Space), an international group of sex-trade survivors spanning Ireland, the UK and the US. They aim to change the law to protect the 800 prostitutes across Ireland and penalise those who buy sex. “Pimping and trafficking gangs, both foreign and home-grown, have a stranglehold on prostitution in Ireland,” Moran said recently. “Legislation is very important because it will make trafficking a non-viable business choice.”

In her insightful book Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, she reiterates what prostitutes told us in 1981: “Prostitutes are routinely violated... The most potently damaging element in the prostitute experience of violation... is the voice that communicates with actions. It says: you are nothing.”

The Oireachtas Committee on Justice recommended making accessing online brothel directories a criminal offence; providing more support for women exiting the industry; and getting the Criminal Assets Bureau to target the flow of money to criminal organisations. In response to advocates of legalising prostitution, Israeli journalist Vered Lee of Ha’aretz writes that, based on the Dutch experience, legalisation recognises pimps and prostitutes as proper professionals but does nothing to eliminate violence and abuse.

Contrary to the objection of academic feminists, Lee argues that since Sweden criminalised the buying of sex in 1999, the number of prostitutes has gone down by two thirds, and the number of women trafficked into Sweden for sex work has gone down significantly.

Lee also documents the lowering of prostitutes’ age and says that at its lower end, prostitutes charge just €1 per ‘contact’. “It is time,” she writes, “that the buyer of sex pays the real price of dehumanising sex workers, and be treated as a criminal.”

It may indeed be hard to abolish prostitution, but criminalising the men who trade in women’s bodies, pimps, traffickers and clients, and supporting women who wish to exit the industry, can go a long way towards reducing it.


Ronit Lentin is associate professor of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Her column appears fortnightly in Metro Éireann.



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