Belfast Telegraph

Morrow’s campaign isn’t based on helping women

By Fionola Meredith

Consensus — the establishment of common ground between radically opposed groups — is generally assumed to be a desirable thing. Often it is.

But a shiver runs up my spine when I see fundamentalists and feminists getting cosy together. It may look like they're in agreement, but you know that it will all end in tears.

Take Lord Morrow's Bill, currently out for consultation, which would make payment for sex illegal. The Free Presbyterian DUP MLA wants a zero tolerance approach to human trafficking and prostitution.

Lord Morrow said he was motivated to act both by a desire to reduce the harm done by the sex trade, as well as by his own moral viewpoint.

If it is passed into legislation, the proposed Bill would establish Northern Ireland at the sharp end of UK human trafficking law and it has been broadly welcomed by women's rights campaigners here.

So that's a good thing, right? The perpetrators of the repugnant crime of human trafficking — in which women are effectively turned into powerless sex slaves — will be thwarted and their victims freed, while the callous men who pay for sex will be punished.

The feminists are happy, because these unfortunate women are no longer being exploited, while the fundamentalists rejoice at a moral victory over sin, the world and the devil.

Look a little closer, though, and the picture doesn't appear quite so rosy. The Evangelical Alliance (EA), which has been actively lobbying on the issue of human trafficking in Northern Ireland, commended Lord Morrow for advocating the ‘Swedish Model’, which outlaws the |purchase of sexual services. But Northern Ireland is not Sweden, in more ways than one.

You cannot simply import a Swedish law, flat-packed Ikea-style, and expect it to provide a solid, durable, locally-relevant solution to the complex problem of prostitution in this country. More likely, you will get a wobbly edifice, poorly put-together, which will collapse at the first sign of pressure.

Sweden is well-known for its progressive, enlightened approach to gender politics. Women have a good deal there: they are well-represented in politics and public life, they have full access to reproductive rights and sexual health programmes, there are impressive prosecution rates for violence against women and the pay gap between the genders is small.

Turn all that upside down and you get a fair picture of the shabby, impoverished situation for women in Northern Ireland. We can only watch and weep with envy while our carefree Swedish sisters stride ahead.

And that's why Swedish-style legislation criminalising the purchase of sex won't work in Northern Ireland. Without the deep, socially-engrained foundation of gender equality, which genuinely protects, respects and enables women, such a law is bound to fail.

In fact, if it is imposed here, it will make the situation worse for many sex workers, further marginalising them, driving them into darker, more dangerous corners and ensuring it is even more difficult for them to seek help when they need it.

They will be more vulnerable, more dependent on pimps — not less so.

Similar prohibitions on payment for sex have been opposed by police in Scotland, for much the same reasons. As well as being almost impossible to enforce, officers say that such a law will make it harder to identify — and thus to protect — at-risk women.

Besides, as Dr Graham Ellison of Queen's University has pointed out, the PSNI is already equipped with sufficient powers to go after pimps and traffickers and should not hesitate to do so.

What some feminist activists have failed to realise is that this is just another DUP moral crusade, dressed up in the language of equality and respect.

It is not motivated by real concern for the safety and well-being of prostitutes themselves, but by a desire to expunge sin from the pure green fields of Ulster.

In that respect, it's not unlike the disgraceful de facto exportation of abortion services, forcing women to take their problems elsewhere, in order to keep the homestead holy and unsullied.

Likewise, Maurice Morrow is no swashbuckling human rights campaigner, a white-suited champion of oppressed womanhood. He is, in fact, a Free Presbyterian with an agenda.

Christian fundamentalists are no friends of women's rights. Their blinkered, absolutist creed blinds them to the complex needs of real human beings.

And that is not just at the expense of Northern Ireland's prostitutes, but of all of us.

Belfast Telegraph


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