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Decriminalise outdoor prostitution.

By Sarah Benson.

Buying sex is not illegal in Ireland. Neither is selling sexual services. The law protects these transactions as agreements between consenting adults.
Some activities associated with prostitution are outlawed, however, as public order offences. These include curb-crawling, soliciting in public, loitering in public places, brothel-keeping and living off immoral earnings.

Until passage of the 1993 Sexual Offences Act, most female prostitutes worked on the streets, but, since this time, brothels marketed as escort agencies have been the most prevalent form of prostitution. Advertising in print publications is illegal, but a very developed Internet market prevails.

Last November, the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald finally published the Sexual Offences Bill (the “Heads”) which will make buying sex illegal, finally. Ruhama recognises this legislation as a landmark step for the Government in the fight against exploitation of prostitution and sex trafficking. However, there is a gap in the legislation which, if filled, could enormously enhance the positive impact on the most vulnerable in prostitution; the policing of the Bill and the overall normative message about prostitution the Bill will convey to the public.

The Heads of the Bill are extensive, running to 101 pages, and will undoubtedly evolve before becoming law. They cover many important areas including very welcome measures to address child grooming and exploitation and child pornography. This article will, however, focus on Heads 10 and 11 of the Bill: offences of purchasing sexual services.

We have advocated for legislation to reflect societal compassion towards those prostituted for the sexual satisfaction of a small minority of Irish men. Only one in 15 men in Ireland purchase sex compared to far higher numbers in other jurisdictions. In Spain it’s one in three. And yet every day we witness the misery perpetuated by this small cohort, and the organised criminals who are largely responsible for ensuring that there are sufficient women available to service them.

Minister Fitzgerald stated of Heads 10 and 11 when launching the Bill: “I strongly believe that this proposal…sends a clear message that purchasing sexual services contributes to exploitation… The proposal … reflects an All-Island consensus to targeting the predominantly exploitative nature of prostitution”.

This gives a strong indication of the intention to protect the most vulnerable. The sentiments echo those of the Joint Oireachtas Justice Committee that produced the report unanimously recommending legislation addressing the demand for prostitution (the buyer) and the problems of organised crime (pimps, traffickers etc).

The statement accompanying the launch of the Bill clearly states that, in respect of any offence for purchasing sex: “The persons selling the sexual service will not be subject to an offence”. This will protect those in indoor prostitution, but there is a need to repeal the soliciting offence for selling sex in on-street prostitution contained in the 1993 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act.

Similar legislation in Sweden, Norway, Iceland (known as the ‘Nordic approach’) and in Northern Ireland where it has just been introduced, criminalises the buyer while also taking the critical step of explicitly decriminalising those vulnerable persons working in prostitution. This is on the premise that no one should face conviction for their own exploitation. Irish law will not truly reflect the ‘Nordic approach’ if those in prostitution on the streets are not also protected from criminalisation.

The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act in Northern Ireland, included a declaration that those in prostitution are not liable for an offence for selling sex, and also repealed the existing soliciting offence for the ‘seller’ in on-street prostitution. The law importantly maintains the ‘kerb-crawling’ offence. There was cross-party support there for the provision.

The approach of targeting only the buyer in an ‘on street’ setting in the Republic has already proved effective in practice in North Dublin. Through ‘Operation Kerb’ Gardaí in Dublin 7 targeted sex buyers ‘on-street’. At the same time they took a more compassionate approach to vulnerable people in prostitution. Rather than arresting women Gardaí engaged with them and made referrals to local drugs projects, support and health services (if women themselves requested this).

This approach had the positive impact of supporting the sharing of intelligence from women who felt more empowered to speak to the Gardaí about a number of violent offenders targeting those in prostitution. Making the law clearer in its express intent to tackle demand and protect the vulnerable would support expanding efforts by An Garda Síochana nationally to work from a human rights perspective with persons in prostitution, indoors or outside. •

Sarah Benson is CEO of Ruhama