Ireland Passes Law Criminalising Clients of Sex Workers

European Regional Correspondent

A new sex work law has been adopted in Ireland. The Sexual Offences Bill criminalises the purchase of sexual services and increase the penalties for indoor sex workers. Ireland has become a seventh country (after Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, and France) to adopt the “Nordic Model” of criminalising the clients of sex workers.

Selling and buying sex was not illegal in Ireland. Communicating about sexual services in public was prohibited and third parties were criminalised. It was also illegal for sex workers to work together indoors.

The new law makes buying sex illegal and it increases the penalties for sex workers who work together indoors. The Bill also allows the police to confiscate the earnings of sex workers as 'proceeds of crime'.

The law will have a three-year review and it provides limited decriminalisation of street-based sex workers, following extensive lobbying by the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) and others. Ireland has been recently questioned about sex workers’ rights by The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women Committee of United Nations.

SWAI have issued a statement regarding the new law. “Our biggest concern is the safety of sex workers, particularly the most vulnerable. Frances Fitzgerald’s plan to criminalise the purchase of sex does not magically create options for the migrants, trans people, single parents and others who turn to sex work in order to survive. The Tanaiste’s bill contains absolutely no provisions to create viable alternatives to working in the industry: it is an empty gesture which will cause harm to the most marginalised in society,” they said in their statement.

“Under new law, SWer will b fined 5,000 and/or 1 year jail. Client will be fined 500. It's like they got tired pretending law was 2protect us,” SWAI stated on its Twitter feed.

ICRSE has also denounced the bill in its statement. “This Bill by criminalising our clients and doubling penalties for indoor workers working in duo or in group will only increase the precariousness and vulnerability of sex workers in the Republic of Ireland.”

NSWP released a Community Guide: The Real Impact of the Swedish Model on Sex Workers. In the guide. It states that “this model has damaging consequences for sex workers’ health, rights and living conditions. However, these negative impacts are rarely discussed, and sex workers’ voices are consistently silenced.”

Edel McGinley of the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI) said the new laws will not protect the most vulnerable, including migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees doing survival sex work. She said, “it promotes harmful stigmatisation and obstructs access to justice. We know from our decade of work on human trafficking and forced labour that this approach will not help victims of trafficking.”

Niall Mulligan, Executive Director of HIV Ireland said, “criminalisation of the purchase of sex drives sex work further underground, forcing workers to take more risks and work less safely. This in turn risks increasing the rate of HIV transmission. With new HIV diagnoses averaging almost 10 per week, this law will compound what is already a growing HIV crisis in Ireland."

Amnesty Ireland opposes the new law as well. "After two years of research and investigation, Amnesty International adopted a global position in favour of the decriminalisation of sex work and against the Nordic model. Our research highlighted the dangers of criminalising any aspect of consensual sex work, as evidenced from Argentina, Hong Kong, Norway, and Papua New Guinea,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.

“The conversation has shifted, people are waking up to the reality of how criminalisation and stigma affect us, and beginning to acknowledge us for what we are: an extremely diverse group of people struggling to get by. SWAI will continue to support all sex workers in Ireland and we will continue our fight to live and work in safety and with dignity,” concluded SWAI in their statement.