The big blog post about Decriminalising Sex Work.

by Paddy Morris September 21, 2015

In 1993, Ireland decriminalised homosexuality with the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill.

In what could be seen as a placation of the right wing conservatives who were seemingly opposed to anyone having sex at all, the same law that decriminalised homosexuality took steps to criminalise aspects of sex work, although it stopped short at criminalising the sale or purchase of sexual services.

This included laws that were detrimental to sex workers safety, including restrictions on sex workers working together, and on landlords knowingly renting to those engaged in sex work. This was a great way to make women who engage in the trade more unsafe, as they have to work alone and in secret, with the fear they might be kicked out of their rented accommodation if their job became public knowledge, and/or charged with keeping a brothel if they worked with others for safety.

This week the cabinet agreed the laws necessary for Marriage Equality, but they also approved laws to criminalise those who consensually purchase sexual services from another adult. The more things change…


Who I have sex with, or my reasons for doing so, are nobodies business but my own as long as it is with a consenting adult. If some people choose to exchange sexual services for money, we should respect that choice, and stop trying to ‘mind’ those who are making a choice, and consenting to do so.

The Irish State, Magdalene Orders and the church 'minded' women in this country for long enough. Interestingly, as the Magdalene Orders wound down their operations  in the eighties and nineties, two of the orders who ran the Laundries were instrumental in founding Ruhama, who have been involved in the campaign to criminalise sex work here. This is not to minimise the important work that Ruhama do to help marginalised and vulnerable women, and provide them with access to caseworkers and support. However if your Board of Directors includes Nuns and your organisation was established by them, you are unlikely to support anything other further efforts to criminalise sex work as your policy.


The debate in 1993 on decriminalising homosexuality had some interesting quotes - the parallels are quite something. For instance, Eamon Gilmore (who will presumably support the bill criminalising the purchase of sex, as a member of government) said the following in 1993:

“The sexual activities of consenting adults in the privacy of their home are a matter for the people concerned and should not be the business of the Dáil, the Garda or anybody else, including the peeping Toms of the self-appointed moral police from whom we hear a great deal nowadays. Whether one approves or disapproves of the particular sexual practices of people is not the issue.”  


This August In the USA, where buying or selling sex is illegal,  several prominent LGBT groups, including the Transgender Law Center and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) supported the decriminalisation of sex work, stating:

“For many LGBT people, participation in street economies is often critical to survival, particularly for LGBT youth and transgender women of color who face all-too-common family rejection and vastly disproportionate rates of violence, homelessness, and discrimination in employment, housing, and education. Transgender people engage in sex work at a rate ten times that of cisgender women, and 13% of transgender people who experience family rejection have done sex work.

Whether or not they participate in sex work, LGBT people are regularly profiled, harassed, and criminalized based on the presumption that they are sex workers, contributing to the high rates of incarceration and police brutality experienced by these communities. As Amnesty International has clearly set forth, its resolution takes into account the negative impact of criminalization on the safety of sex workers, and furthermore, states remain obligated to protect the human rights of victims of trafficking and can use criminal law to address exploitation”.

Or as the Christian Post decided to put it, ‘'Marriage Equality' Groups Rally to Decriminalize Prostitution; Denounce Laws Against 'Sexual Exchange'. It will be interesting to see if any LGBT groups in Ireland decide to take a similar position.

Many who support the criminalisation of sex work are worried about trafficking and those being forced to have sex against their will. By definition, it is hard to get accurate figures for an underground activity liked forced trafficking, but there are a few things you can be sure of:

  • Most people who are being forced to work and trafficked are not sex workers, and the focus on the sex industry means limited law enforcement resources are not addressing the reality of trafficking, where up to 90% of cases are for other industries.  A 2010 report from the US State Department concluded, "Recent studies show the majority of human trafficking in the world takes the form of forced labor. The International Labor Organization estimates that for every trafficking victim subjected to forced prostitution, nine people are forced to work."
  • Even though an estimated 90% of trafficking is in areas other than sex work, no one is suggesting agricultural or domestic work be banned. While any case of forced labour is horrific, forced prostitution is obviously far worse - but criminalising all sex workers is unfair on those who are choosing to do so and rely on the sale of consensual sexual services for their income. It is also likely to simply drive the industry underground.
  • Criminalising clients of sex workers will mean that the police and courts will have to devote resources to enforcing this law. Given that we live in a world with limited resources, this will very likely reduce the amount of resources available to combat forced trafficking. 
  • In October 2014, a research report commissioned by the UK Department Of Justice and carried out by Queen's University showed that 98% of sex workers in Ireland and the UK supported decriminalisation. In a recent article, an Irish sex worker Caitriona O’Brien had this to say: “The proposed bill terrifies me as a sex worker, as it ignores evidence that criminalisation doesn’t work and, more importantly, ignores our voices. Sex workers’ voices often get drowned out by NGOs, because in their eyes we are not representative. According to research done by Queen’s University,  98% of sex workers didn’t want to see the introduction of legislation criminalising sex there. If that’s not representative, then I’m not sure what is.”
  • If you think anyone working in prostitution should have the option to leave, the New Zealand law allows any one sex worker to claim unemployment benefit there without any waiting periods or the restrictions that apply to self-employed workers in many countries, including Ireland. Ireland’s current system restricts access to welfare for those who are self-employed, and it should be changed for to allow all self-employed workers, including sex workers, to claim unemployment benefit if and when they need it.
  • Like drugs, the evidence on sex work shows that the best way to reduce the harm is to decriminalise. That is why an organisation like The Lancet supports decriminalisation.  In Ireland, our Minister for Equality, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has done some great work on putting drugs decriminalisation on the national agenda. Those working to provide the care and social support that those with addiction need so badly were invited by the Minister to a think-in in The Mansion House this summer, with Aodhán quoted by The Irish Times  afterwards as saying that there was “wide consensus within the room for decriminalisation…. [with] some question marks and some discussion points as to how to get wider society on board with the idea. People in the sector may be convinced but the terminology and the language is going to be important”. It seems strange to me that many people can look at the evidence for drug criminalisation and conclude that it is the best option, but still support the criminalisation of consensual sex work.
  • Criminalising clients will often reduce their numbers, but often this can have negative effects on those engaged in sex work. For example, if generally law abiding citizens stop purchasing sexual services, the number of purchasers in the market may be smaller. This means people who are completely dependent on sex work for survival may have less choice about who to see, as there are less clients to choose from.
  • It also means that clients are less likely to visit sex workers in the sex workers chosen workplace, as they fear arrest. This places pressure on sex workers to visit clients where the client chooses, meaning sex workers are less likely to be working in a place they choose as the safest for them.
  • Criminalising clients is unlikely to make them want to report any suspected trafficking they encounter to the police.
  • It is often the most vulnerable, migrant women, who are the ones most victimised by the Nordic model, as although it may not be a crime for them to sell sex, it can be a crime for them to simply be in the country, even if they chose to be there. So when their client is prosecuted for purchasing services, often migrant women themselves end up deported under separate immigration laws.

This week Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald launched the #AskConsent campaign. This is long overdue, and a welcome addition to the public discourse in Ireland. However in the context of sex work, the Minister criminalising clients of consenting sex workers is obviously problematic, and many of the organisations supporting the Ask Consent campaign also support the campaign to criminalise the clients of consenting sex workers.

Last year Frances Fitzgerald met with representatives from Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, who showed the current Minister evidence of how the proposed legislation would make their lives more dangerous. Sadly though, the Minister felt that deterring others from entering sex work was more important than looking at the facts and acting accordingly to reduce harm. In a recent Irish Independent article, one of the sex workers who met her, Catriona O'Brien, had this to say about the proposed law:

“All it's going to do is make things more dangerous for us. But (Ms Fitzgerald) told us she thought that would act as a deterrent for anyone considering being in the sex industry… what she's doing is using sex workers as collateral damage to send a message, and that's terrifying that any public representative could say that."

These days, the debate about this issue has gotten so strange that not all of those who are opposed to prostitution are even worried about sex workers being forced to have sex against their will. Sex workers are now seemingly the last cohort of women it is ok to victim blame if they are assaulted. A recent article in The Chicago Sun Times, by Mary Mitchell (who is also worryingly on their editorial board, although I suppose that explains how this piece got past the editor..) was quite explicit in its hatred of women who choose to sell sex:

“A recent case involving a prostitute and a john is making a mockery of rape victims. Authorities say Roy Akins went to Backpage.com and agreed to pay a prostitute $180 for sex. When the unidentified woman showed up at his Austin home for the transaction, Akins allegedly took her to the bedroom and, instead of handing over the cash, pulled a gun… I’m not one of those women who believe rape victims are at fault because they dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy into thinking it was his lucky night. But when you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, you are putting yourself at risk for harm… It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim. And because this incident is being charged as a criminal sexual assault — when it’s actually more like theft of services — it minimizes the act of rape.”

No, it does not. Sex without consent is rape. Attempting to have sex with someone at gunpoint is not the ‘theft of services’, it is a violent attempted rape - this sex worker is a victim and deserves support, not victim blaming, judgment and moralising because you do not agree with her sexual choices. Who anyone choose to have sex with, and their reasons for doing so, are nobodies business but their own -  and that includes sex workers.


For that matter, the moral panic does not stop at people engaging in prostitution, with George Hook recently featuring an academic who wanted to ban female sex robots because people might have sex with them. The academic in question has some good quotes, for example:

I propose that prostitution is no ordinary activity and relies on the ability to use a person as a thing, and this is why parallels between sex robots and prostitution are so frequently found by their advocates.. If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects.”

I find her inability to understand that sex workers can be actual independent ‘human subjects’ who can choose to have sex with their clients, and comparing sex workers to robots is actually quite literally dehumanising them, but seeing as how she has a book to sell I suppose she needs to say something controversial.

The panic about prostitution has become a rallying call for ‘moral police’ who believe that something must be done. As the war on drugs begins to be recognised for the epic failure that it is, I’d guess that in many places criminalising sex work will provide another decades long failed social experiment to take its place.

But to go back to where we started - the sexual rights of minorities who do not conform to what is ‘normal’ for the majority of society. The stigma and shame around sex work is still pervasive. LGBT rights and acceptance of sexual differences may have come a long way, but when it comes to sex workers we don’t seem to have learned much since the debates on the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill back in 1993...

"It is about freedom, tolerating difference and respecting the rights of other consenting adults. As Daniel O’Connell once said: “By extending freedoms to others you enhance and not diminish your own… I believe that in matters to do with private morality the law does not affect how people behave. We cannot rely on our courts, Garda and prisons to deal with difficult social issues such as prostitution, drug addiction and such matters…I share the Minister's view that by making something illegal we may drive those responsible underground. That is the reason I do not wish to see prostitutes or prostitution criminalised."

-  Mary Harney


"We are seeking to end that form of discrimination which says that those whose nature is to express themselves sexually in their personal relationships, as consenting adults, in a way which others disapprove of or feel uneasy about, must suffer the sanctions of the criminal law… Because some of the issues raised by this Bill are ones on which many people have deeply and sincerely held opposing views, it is perhaps inevitable that in the public debate the reality of what the Bill actually proposes to do can sometimes be lost sight of in the context of wider issues which tend to be raised. For this reason it is important to emphasise that the House is not being asked to take a view as to whether sexual behaviour of the kind dealt with in the main sections of the Bill should be regarded as morally or socially acceptable. Instead, what is simply at issue is whether it is right in this day and age that the full force and sanctions of the criminal law should be available in relation to such forms of sexual behaviour…


How can we reconcile criminal sanctions in this area with the fact that there is a whole range of other private, consenting behaviour between adults which may be regarded by many as wrong but in which the criminal law has no part to play?

This Bill stands on its own merits as a fundamental development in human rights which will put an end to unwarranted intrusion over a very long period into the private lives of adults."

-Maire Geoghean Quinn






Paddy Morris
Paddy Morris

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