New research has been released analysing the impact of criminalisation of sex work in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland criminalised the purchase of sexual services in 2015 through the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act, and two or more sex workers working together are also criminalised.
The new research, commissioned by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice (DOJ) from Queen’s University Belfast, shows ‘no evidence’ that the law has led to a decrease in demand for sexual services, and has had a ‘limited deterrent effect on client behaviour’. The research also highlights increases in anti-social behavior and stigma towards sex workers, and higher anxiety and fear of crime among sex workers.
The report shows that a majority of clients (53%) would continue to purchase sex ‘with the same frequency’ and that the law has made ‘no difference to how often [clients] purchase sex’.
“Almost 76% of those surveyed felt that the law had no impact on the ease with which they purchase sex. The research also found that there had been no reduction in sex worker advertising, which would have been expected had demand fallen post 2015.”
The research acknowledges there has been an increase in reports of violence against sex workers to Ugly Mugs since the law was introduced, and shows that there has been an increase in anti-social and abusive behaviours against sex workers since 2016. The research suggests that ‘the legislation has contributed to a climate whereby sex workers feel further marginalised and stigmatised’ and sex workers now have a ‘heightened fear of crime’. 56% of sex workers reported they felt the law had made sex work less safe. The main report recommends an 'immediate' policy change to brothel keeping laws to end sex workers having to work alone, as this ‘would contribute to an overall feeling of safety among sex working populations’.
The full report states:
“… the terrain of commercial sex now seems much riskier and more underground than it was previously with both clients and sex workers taking steps to avoid detection. For a law whose rhetoric is about ending violence against women it is somewhat paradoxical that it appears to have subjected many women (and of course male sex workers) to a highly unsafe work context, resulting in a heightened state of anxiety.”
The change in the law was opposed by 98% of sex workers when it was introduced, and SWAI has also drawn attention to the negative impact on sex workers’ mental health caused by an increase in threatening behaviour.
Kate McGrew from Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) said:
“If the purpose of the law was to decrease demand it has failed. If the purpose of the law was to help sex workers it has failed. In the north, it led to a massive increase in advertising (on one site alone over 1700 new ads) and demand (in one jurisdiction by 134%) and a 200% increase threatening behaviour in clients. In the south, it led to an increase of violent crime against sex workers by 92%. The law is a failure on the entire island of Ireland”.
The full report also responds to the assumption that ‘Nordic Model’ laws lead to a reduction in sex work:
“It may be disappointing for proponents of this legislation that the research did not uncover more evidence of a reduction in prostitution in Northern Ireland, particularly since this was hailed as such a success in Sweden, and one of the main reasons why the Nordic model (so termed) has been exported internationally. However, we would respond by suggesting that the evidence base from Sweden and the Nordic countries generally is simply not strong enough to support the proposition that sex purchase legislation has led to the massive decreases in prostitution and human trafficking that are alleged to have occurred in those jurisdictions. We… are not aware of any prevalence studies from the Nordic regions relating to before and after the legislation was introduced… Certainly, the evidence from Northern Ireland based on a comparison of the before and after data suggests very strongly that Article 64A has had minimal to no effect on the demand for prostitution, the number of active sex workers in the jurisdiction and on levels of human trafficking for sexual exploitation.”