Upcoming Review of Sexual Offences Act Must Be Sex Worker-Led

Caroline West

Caroline West is a lecturer in sexuality studies and host of the Glow West podcast which explores sex, sexuality, and the body. Find her at www.iamcarolinewest.com.


In February 2017, life for sex workers in Ireland changed drastically.

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 was introduced into law, bringing with it a multitude of positive media headlines about its provisions. These included an expansive definition of sexual consent, protection for child victims of sexual exploitation, and updating current legislation on incest.

However, not everyone was celebrating the introduction of this act. For sex workers, their working conditions were about to become more dangerous and isolated. This law criminalised the purchase of sex, while the selling of sexual services became legal.

The law is up for review, with the Department of Justice assigning an independent expert to assess its impact, opening up a public consultation process, due to close on 11 September. There are many facets to this law that are actively harmful to sex workers in modern day Ireland, particularly those from migrant backgrounds, and it’s important that any review has a sex worker-led approach.

The ideology behind the current law was that the sex worker would not be prosecuted and could be supported if they wished to exit the industry, while criminalising the buyer aimed to end demand for buying sex. Championed by a coalition of groups such as Ruhama and the National Women’s Council of Ireland, this approach to sex work, called the Nordic Model, is often promoted by feminist groups who are morally opposed to sex work, but rejected by Amnesty International and many sex worker peer-support groups.

When consulted about this law whilst still being drawn-up, sex workers stated that they feared that they would be left vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Sadly, it appears this fear has materialised.

In November 2019, gangs targeted sex workers working alone and violently robbed them. Ugly Mugs, an organisation that works to protect sex workers from dangerous clients, reports that when the new law came in, violent attacks rose by 92 percent and increased from just over 4,000 in 2015-2017, to over 10,000 from 2017-2019.

Often sex workers stated that they did not report these crimes to the guards for several reasons, such as fear of being deported or even fear of their clients being arrested. This is a real fear as often people who are engaged in survival sex work are migrants fleeing worse conditions in their home country, and being deported may mean life or death.

Under this law, sex workers cannot work together for safety, and can be charged with brothel keeping as seen in June 2019, when two migrant sex workers, one of whom was pregnant, were sentenced to nine months in jail for brothel keeping.

In fact, the majority of the people arrested under this law have been migrant women. Given that this law is purported to support those working in the sex industry by decriminalising workers and criminalising clients, it is crystal clear that this has not been the reality. Human trafficking has increased in Ireland, despite the existence of specific trafficking laws.

There is a division between ideology and the reality of sex work. The morality of sex work is weighed up and debated on TV shows and social media, dominating the conversation. However, this debate takes the focus away from meaningful explorations of realistic solutions to the fact that sex work will continue to exist despite disapproval of it. However, one thing is clear — the motto many sex worker advocacy groups have of “nothing about us without us” is very timely given the upcoming review of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act and it is important that the experiences of those affected by this law are heard.

Kate McGrew, director of the sex worker-led organisation, Sex Workers’ Alliance Ireland (SWAI), says that as the law impacts current sex workers, their voices must be prioritised. She says that sex workers were not informed initially of the open call for submissions for the current review.

The upcoming review is timely considering that sex workers say that demand for sex work has increased during the Covid-19 lockdown. Despite the risks, SWAI reported clients offering twice the amount in payment trying to cajole workers out and threatening to terminate the relationship if they don’t comply.

Going forward, it would be progressive to see the government listen to the people who are doing this job, and recognise that morality does not take precedence over reality.

One way to address sex work is a harm-reduction approach, which explores ways that sex workers can work in safer environments, or experience increased ease of access to supports such as health, housing, or mental health services. This involves funding sex-worker support services, increased staff training in support services via staff training to reduce stigma so that sex workers feel comfortable being honest with them.

During lockdown, we discussed the right to a safe environment for frontline workers during Covid-19. It is time we include sex workers in this conversation and recognise that despite ideology and wishes from some that sex work cease to exist, it does exist and we need to protect the people engaged in this type of work.

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Caroline West: Caroline West is a lecturer in sexuality studies and host of the Glow West podcast which explores sex, sexuality, and the body. Find her at www.iamcarolinewest.com.

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