As the government reviews the current legislation on prostitution, Victoria Sewell looks at the approaches other countries have taken
Prostitution is often referred to as the world’s oldest profession. While accurate evidence of this is hard to come by, no one would deny that it is something that has been present in societies almost as long as societies have existed and is unlikely to disappear any time soon. This leaves governments in a difficult position with regard to how best to approach the issue.
Prostitution itself is not illegal in Ireland. However, most activities surrounding prostitution, such as brothel keeping, forcing others into prostitution and trafficking humans are against the law. In June, the Department of Justice and Equality released a paper on the future of prostitution legislation in Ireland. They determined five main legislative approaches to prostitution, each with inherent benefits and drawbacks. These range from full criminalisation; partial criminalisation (as exists in Ireland); criminalising the purchase of sex, but not the sale; decriminalisation and full regulation.
It is undeniable that prostitution can be one of the most high-risk industries for people to become engaged in, particularly in countries where it is illegal and exists as a black market. Prostitutes are the highest risk group in society to be the victims of violence, rape, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol abuse. There is also evidence of a greatly increased mortality rate amongst prostitutes, as well as a far greater risk of being the victims of murder.
In Ireland, prostitution is often seen as being linked with organised crime, and only taken up by those with little or no other options. However, in many countries (particularly Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and New Zealand) it can be deemed an acceptable form of employment, and many sex workers would view themselves as providing a necessary service. There are even some brothels in these countries that offer “sexual assistance services” to the elderly or disabled. In many instances where prostitution is regulated, prostitutes work in safe, secure environments, pay taxes, and are obliged to meet health and safety standards.
Officially the Irish government is not concerned with the exchange of money for sexual services, as long as two willing adults do it in private. It is however concerned with protecting those who would be exploited and being forced into prostitution. Even in cases where prostitution is regulated and accepted as a legitimate form of work, it is essential that governments strive to protect those at risk of exploitation. An Garda Siochana last year reported 57 confirmed cases of human trafficking, of whom nearly 70% were alleged victims of sexual exploitation.
One example of legislation often provided is that of Sweden, where it was made illegal to purchase sexual services, but not to sell them. The objective was to criminalise the act whilst protecting women working as prostitutes. According to the Swedish government, this has succeeded in reducing the number of prostitutes by nearly 90%, and removing the demand for both prostitution and human trafficking. However, critics of the legislation have argued that it has merely pushed the industry deeper underground, thereby increasing the risks to those involved and isolating them further from society.
The contrasting example often used is that of Germany, which legalised and regulated prostitution in 2002. In the last ten years, prostitution as an industry has been incorporated into the mainstream economy, the objectives being to increase the social and legal protection of those in the industry; to increase their access to medical care; to reduce the spread of disease by enforcing the use of condoms; and to reduce the amount of human trafficking. Large-scale prostitution is now commonplace in Germany, with many “Eros Centers” (or “Love Centres”) across the country. “Pascha” in Cologne is Europe’s largest brothel, with 120 prostitutes spread over 12 floors and up to 1000 customers each day. The prostitutes working here are offered security, medical care and meals. Each room is equipped with an alarm in case of emergencies, and the use of condoms is enforced to protect both workers and customers. Pasha’s website even offers a (rather surreal) “money-back guarantee”.
The German approach appears to promote respect for prostitutes by normalising the industry. The authorities there even attempted to tackle trafficking by encouraging customers to notice and report any signs that prostitutes may have been trafficked or forced into the industry. However, many reports have concluded that the regulations have provided little improvement in the lives of those working in the sex industry, or had increased the transparency of it for the authorities.
Illegal brothels still exist and operate throughout Germany, and several sources indicate an increase in the numbers trafficked in to the country for sexual exploitation since 2002. Also, a widely circulated report highlighted the theoretical situation that could occur, where prostitution is considered a legitimate job, those unable to find other employment may be forced to take work within the sex industry, which does nothing to increase freedom of choice.
While there may be benefits to legalising and regulating prostitution, in that it provides better access to supports and rights for all those involved, it is clear that it is not a simple solution to an age old problem. Even in situations of full legalisation and regulation, more work must be done constantly to protect those who may be abused and exploited. Prostitution has been with us for an immeasurable time, and is likely to remain with us. Overall the objective should be to establish rights and respect for all men and women, and ensure that all those who engage in sex work do so voluntarily and of their own free will.