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Revive Sex Offences Bill

Bill decriminalised sex workers, criminalised those purchasing sex, and changed evidence rules

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 had passed through the Seanad and was before the Dáil. However, unfortunately the Bill will not be passed through the Dáil before the 2016 General Election.

It is now vital to ensure that it is restored to the Dáil at the same stage it had reached very early in the term of the incoming government. The Bill represented groundbreaking reform of sexual-offences law.

The Bill contains welcome changes to criminal-evidence rules in sex-offence cases, for example by setting out precise criteria restricting disclosure of victims’ counselling records to the defence, a practice which currently causes great distress for victims. Other important changes protect child witnesses from being cross-examined in person by defendants in sex offence trials; and prevent judges and barristers from wearing wigs and gowns when a child witness is giving evidence in such trials.

The sections that have received most attention are those dealing with prostitution law. These sections would criminalise the purchaser of sexual services (the client), while decriminalising the seller (the person engaged in prostitution). This change is based on a law introduced in Sweden in 1999. It would radically
reform our deeply awed prostitution law, under which both prostitutes and clients are criminalised. By criminalising buyers of sex, it will pave the way for an approach to regulating prostitution that recognises the lived reality of those in prostitution, and that genuinely seeks to tackle sexual exploitation of women.

Current Irish law focuses on prohibiting the visible manifestation of prostitution through criminalising offences of ‘loitering’ and ‘soliciting’. While these offences are gender-neutral, most prosecutions in practice are brought against women, who will typically be convicted of ‘soliciting’ and ordered to pay a ne (which many will go back to prostitution to pay). This model clearly has not succeeded in reducing the numbers of those engaged in prostitution; or in addressing the real exploitation experienced by many of these women.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality recently conducted a review of prostitution law in recognition of the problems with our current law. We received 800 written submissions, 80% of which favoured the Swedish approach. These submissions were drawn from a broad cross-section of civil society, including trade unions, frontline medical workers, service providers and those working with migrant women. We heard evidence from Sweden that their law has been effective in reducing prostitution levels, and has had a positive normative effect on social attitudes to sexuality.

The Committee also held a series of public hearings, with input from those both for and against the Swedish approach, and from those directly engaged in prostitution. We heard that women enter prostitution in Ireland at a young age, many under 18. Many people are trafficked into prostitution and the vast majority are subject to control by a third party, or pimped.

The report of the Committee, published in 2013, concluded that prostitution is widely available across Ireland. It is highly organised, highly profitable, highly exploitative and largely controlled by organised crime interests. That is the actual reality of prostitution. Current Irish law has failed to tackle this. We unanimously recommended a radical change with the adoption of the Swedish approach to criminalise only the client, the purchaser of sex.

This Swedish law is based on a view of prostitution as inherently exploitative, amounting to gender-based exploitation. Laws based on this approach have already been introduced in other countries, including Canada, Norway, Iceland and most recently Northern Ireland. The changes we recommended were supported by a wide range of organisations, including the Immigrant Council of Ireland, the National Women’s Council and the Turn Off the Red Light campaign. Ultimately, they were adopted by the Government and included in the 2015 Bill. The Bill was debated at length in the Seanad over December and January.

The campaign for this Bill must now continue into the next Dáil.

Its offer of important changes to sex-offences law generally, its provisions to decriminalise those engaged in selling sex and to criminalise those purchasing sex, and its promise to tackle sexual exploitation, particularly of children and those engaged in prostitution must be defended and realised without delay.

Ivana Bacik