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:
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