With a new campaign highlighting the vulnerability of those working in Ireland’s sex trade, Bríd Doherty examines the extent to which prostitution is a problem in Ireland
Prostitution is the oldest profession in our world. It is also a profession that has brought cruelty, sadness and exploitation to the lives of many. On our own island, prostitution is flourishing. The media is awash with discoveries of brothels in which women are enslaved. Although we may wish to turn a blind eye, the facts show that each and every day women make a living by selling their bodies to those who wish to pay.
A group of prominent Irishmen and groups working with prostitutes are seeking to reform the laws as they currently stand. At present it is a criminal offence in the Republic to solicit on the street for the purposes of prostitution. A prostitute can be prosecuted, as can a man trying to buy sex. However, it is not a criminal offence here to buy or sell sex.
The new campaign, ‘Turn off the Red Light’, is organised by Ruhama – an organisation working for the protection and safety of prostitutes. It’s a campaign run by a new alliance of civil society organisations with the aim of ending prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland. The ultimate objective is to inspire the introduction of legislation aimed at criminalising male clients and focusing police attention on them instead of on the prostitutes themselves.
Trafficking women and girls for the purposes of sexual exploitation is a modern, global form of slavery. Therefore, the best way to combat this is to tackle the demand for prostitution by criminalising the purchase of sex.
This form of legislation has been initiated in many Nordic countries and has evidently deterred men from seeking out prostitutes. The perfect example of this is Sweden. Such laws were introduced over ten years ago and this has dramatically reduced the presence of prostitutes in Sweden, with the number of women working on the streets now halved. It has also lessened human trafficking into the country.
A clear ban on the purchase of sex would not only reduce the demand for prostitutes, it would also greatly aid the Gardaí in prosecuting male clients. Women could still be prosecuted for soliciting, but not for the sale of sex. As it stands, the majority of prostitution in Ireland is conducted in apartments and houses hidden from public view. Most brothels masquerade as escort agencies or massage parlours and this can make prostitution very difficult to stop.
Ultimately, Ireland should perhaps consider following in the footsteps of Germany and the Netherlands and legalise prostitution. It seems like a logical course of action to take given the more liberal times in which we live. This step would take prostitution out of the hands of the criminal gangs that are at the forefront of the Irish sex trade.
In the hands of the government, prostitution could be properly regulated, making the entire process safer for both punters and prostitutes. In the Netherlands, prostitutes must undergo weekly STI tests, thus protecting their health and that of those with whom they sexually engage. The existence of safe, legal brothels would provide a secure environment for prostitutes to work in. Taking our current economic situation into consideration, we may even benefit from the revenue generated by the sex trade.
There is also a need for transparency in our society. Prostitution is a fact of life. Pretending that it doesn’t exist because it’s illegal is pointless. It is not something that can be swept under the rug. Although it is not a pleasant thing to see, it is real and life isn’t always pleasant. It should be out in the open and made safe for those who want to engage with it and make a living from it. Statistics have shown a great reduction in the levels of human trafficking in both Germany and the Netherlands in the wake of the legalisation.
Effectively tackling sex trafficking in Ireland will require a response to deal with the demand from men to buy sex. The sex industry, which exploits and harms women, exists because there is a demand from men to buy sex. The alliance is therefore calling on the Irish Government to learn from those countries that have established good practice for dealing with sex trafficking. Practice shows that this approach reduces demand for prostitution and incidences of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
The alliance believes the Irish Government must recognise the need for a modern approach to prostitution that reflects best international practice. It is clear that tackling the demand for paid sex should be central to this approach of combating the exploitation of women, men and children in Ireland’s sex industry.
Such an approach will be most effectively achieved by penalising the purchase of sex, along the lines of legislation that has been demonstrated as effective in Sweden. Irish legislation needs to move out from the grasp of the past and update itself to the age in which we live so that the safety of one of the most vulnerable contingents of society is protected.