Opinion: Ban on buying sex will put women in greater danger

Ruth Jacobs said a similar bill in Sweden has not reduced sex trafficking
Ruth Jacobs said a similar bill in Sweden has not reduced sex trafficking

Those who supported the Stormont vote on Monday claim that criminalising sex buyers will reduce sex trafficking.

But this did not happen in Sweden where a similar law was passed in 1999. A Swedish police report says trafficking cannot be measured and Dr Jay Levy, who conducted fieldwork in Sweden, noted: “There is absolutely no empirical evidence that overall levels of sex work or trafficking have decreased following the introduction of the law in 1999; instead, sex work has simply been displaced off-street.”

Trafficking has been used as a smokescreen in a moral crusade to end prostitution. Justice Minister David Ford does not believe banning the purchase of sex will reduce trafficking. He believes prostitution and human trafficking should be dealt with separately and that criminalising buyers will endanger sex workers. Queen’s University research found 61 per cent of sex workers in Northern Ireland believe criminalising clients would make them less safe, a view also held by UNAIDS.

Northern Ireland escort ‘Kate’ told me that trafficking is “evil” but that Queen’s research shows most sex workers in Northern Ireland are there of their own free will.

“So surely they have the same rights as any other workers to support themselves, and members of their families,” she said. “It’s already difficult to go to the police and if clients are criminalised, it would be impossible.”

In 2011 the Department of Justice (DOJ) held a conference on prostitution – but not one of the 45 delegates was involved in prostitution.

The conference did not discuss the high rate of crimes against women in prostitution and the lack of reporting same to police.

Had increasing safety – not ideology – been their priority, perhaps the Merseyside hate crime model would have been passed at Stormont on Monday. By working with sex work projects in Merseyside, police have achieved the highest UK rates of convictions for crimes against sex workers – and the number of women involved in on-street prostitution has halved.

The DOJ conference also revealed a perceived risk around providing sex worker outreach, which is reflected by the lack of outreach and harm reduction services in Sweden.

“[Sex work] has been increasingly stigmatised, following through into discrimination from service providers, healthcare providers, and the police,” Dr Levy says. “The legislation has been hugely detrimental in terms of the health, safety, and wellbeing of sex workers.”

Likewise, supporters of Lord Morrow’s Bill eliminated the safety of the very women they claim are vulnerable from their agenda.

Ruth Jacobs is a former sex worker who campaigns for sex worker safety.