The Sexual Offences Act – The Sex Worker’s Perspective

As the “Nordic Model” becomes law in Ireland, Rosemarie Gibbons looks at both sides of a contentious debate.[br]THE Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 was passed in the Dáil on the 15th of February of this year. The Act aims to crack down on an extensive list of sexual offences against children and other vulnerable people. When presented by the current Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, for its second reading in the Dáil in October 2016, she labelled the act “the most comprehensive and wide ranging piece of sexual offences legislation to be introduced in almost a decade”.Part Four (Purchase of Sexual Services) of the Act has elicited perhaps the most debate between Irish activist groups, NGOs and TDs themselves. Coalition groups such as the ‘Turn Off the Red Light’ campaign have long pushed for the Act’s publication; whereas some sex workers’ rights groups, such as Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, have questioned the act’s attention to the welfare of the women the act will impact.
“It is something that we believe will make it safer, but we know that it [the sex trade] will never be made safe”
The Observer spoke to Sarah Benson of the Irish NGO, Ruhama (who are also a part of the ‘Turn Off the Red Light’ coalition), about the question of safety for current sex workers in Ireland in the Act.“The legislation’s aim itself is not specifically about safety, though of course that’s a by-product of it, because if you reduce the numbers who are either exploited in the trade, and you ensure that resources are put in place to support people to end [their involvement] if that’s what they want to do, then you will de facto reduce it”. She added further: “it is something that we believe will make it safer, but we know that it [the sex trade] will never be made safe”.The ‘criminalise the buyer, decriminalise the seller’ ethos in the Act shows ambitions within the recent Irish legislation to follow ‘the Nordic model’ of sex work legislation. The Nordic model aims to decriminalise the sex worker and prosecute the buyer in order to ‘protect the worker’, by making it increasingly difficult for people to purchase sexual services, therefore decreasing demand.
“There is still a somewhat evident grey area as far as how protected sex workers are by the new legislation”
Benson sees the law as focusing on equality: “it’s about recognising the intrinsic exploitation of prostitution, that [people who are] in prostitution are overwhelmingly women and girls… the ones who maybe have no support system, who are vulnerable through the care system, who don’t have other people looking out for them, who don’t have educational opportunities”.Critics of the Nordic Model, such as the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) and TDs such as Brid Smith, claim the legislative model makes those working within the sex trade “more at risk”. Smith proposed a now-defeated amendment to the Act on February 1st, arguing that “the reporting of violence, aggression and attacks has decreased among sex workers because they find complaints they make to the police often result in their being more harassed. There is no evidence that the criminalisation of the purchaser reduces the discrimination, stigma and violence experienced by sex workers. In reality, the Nordic model has increased the danger for sex workers”.There is still a somewhat evident grey area as far as how protected sex workers are by the new legislation. A controversial ‘public order’ clause added to the initial 2015 Act retained that loitering for the purposes of selling sexual services was illegal, whilst the Act aimed to decriminalise the sex workers themselves.This created a paradoxical law where Gardaí cannot arrest someone for prostituting themselves, but can ‘move along’ someone suspected of soliciting. Minister Fitzgerald initially defended the inclusion of the rule during the Dáil debates of the Act, saying “Gardaí will still have the power to move persons offering sexual services on from a public place, when necessary”.Benson says of the public order Act: “when the public order thing came up, we would have not only met with the Tánaiste about it, but we also [have] met with the Gardaí at the highest level to argue the point that this was a pointless legislative burden to put on the person [involved in] prostitution, and they accepted it.”It was later removed by the Department of Justice during the committee stages of the Act. Benson remarks that the clause had “contradicted the initial spirit of the law, so I’m very pleased to tell you that that’s gone”.The issue of the now-removed public order, in addition to the legislation’s supposed parallels to the Nordic Model, has seemingly done little to placate its critics. An official statement by the SWAI on the passing of the Act (released on their Facebook page) described the Government’s push on criminalising the purchase of sexual services “a thinly veiled moral crusade”.They further condemn the Act’s criminalisation of purchasing sex for the effects it may have on, and lack of alternative options for, “the migrants, trans people, single parents and others who turn to sex work in order to survive”. They further added that “the Tánaiste’s act contains absolutely no provisions to create viable alternatives to working in the industry: it is an empty gesture which will cause harm to the most marginalised in society”.With such different opinions on the act, it is still unclear how it will actually impact sex workers in Ireland.