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Criminalising sex work does more harm than good

There appears to be something of an emerging international political and moral panic about 'prostitution' and sex-trafficking.

Various national, state and local governments have introduced, or attempted to introduce, legislation designed to either tightly control the location, number and practices within the sex industry, or eliminate certain aspects of the sex industry altogether.

A private member's Bill on regulating prostitution is being considered in the Scottish parliament. New laws are also being explored in the Irish Republic.

In Australia, where the legal status of sex work varies from state to state, a number - Western Australia, Tasmania, South Australia and New South Wales - have either attempted to, or are exploring, new legislation to control sex work.

In New South Wales, where sex work has been 'decriminalised' since 1992, the current conservative Liberal government is considering introducing a licensing model to regulate brothels.

Having 'successfully' eradicated lap-dancing clubs from Northern Ireland, some lawmakers now have sex work and human trafficking firmly in their crosshairs.

Lord Morrow's draft Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill has two aims. First, it seeks to put in place a support infrastructure for victims of trafficking.

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However, even the victim support aspect to Lord Morrow's Bill is problematic. It hasn't been adequately costed. It proposes a huge package of benefits that, in the current economic climate, are unsustainable.

Second, it seeks to introduce the so-called 'Swedish model' to regulate sex work. In practice, this criminalises all aspects of sex work - pimping, selling and purchasing.

By placing the criminal onus on purchasers, Lord Morrow effectively argues that his Bill will quash the demand for sexual commerce. In doing so, this will help 'rescue' all women involved in sex work.

The overall intent and specific proposals being put forward by Lord Morrow are akin to cracking a nut with a sledgehammer.

Put another way, policymaking in relation to sexual commerce in Northern Ireland appears to be premised more on ideological and religious beliefs, rather than a concrete evidence-base.

Who really makes and shapes policy in Northern Ireland? In relation to the regulation of sex work, it would appear that policy is being shaped by lobbying from a constellation of Left-leaning feminists and Right-leaning religious organisations, who advocate prohibition.

History tells us that prohibition is an ineffective policy remedy. Look at what happened with the prohibition of alcohol in the US during the 1930s. A similar outcome is likely to occur within the sex industry here if Lord Morrow's Bill is passed.

We fully agree that people trafficked against their will and held as some kind of 'economic slave' is morally reprehensible. However, the supposition that all women (and men) engaged in sex work in Northern Ireland are the victims of trafficking and under the control of criminal gangmasters is, at best, delusional.

Lord Morrow's Bill and supporters of it take a myopic view of the nature and structure of sex work and how and why people work within the sex industry.

Let's be clear about a few simple facts to dispel the stereotypes about sex work. All sex workers do not work on the street - only an exceptionally small proportion do; the vast majority work indoors in spaces such as brothels, bars, hotels, casinos, and houses/flats.

They are not all drug addicts - there is no evidence to suggest that sex workers' drug dependency is greater than the general population.

Sex work is not a female-only profession - the industry is dominated by women, but women are also the purchasers of sexual services from men.

Nor is it the preserve of heterosexuals - gay/lesbian and transgendered people both work within the industry and purchase the services of sex workers.

Sex workers come from all manner of social class and educational backgrounds - Dr Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle du Jour) worked (and blogged) about her time as sex worker while studying to become a research scientist.

Most people who are engaged in sex work are there as a result of varying degrees of 'choice'. Some are there due to 'constrained choices' (economic hardship, limited formal skills), while others, arguably the majority, are there because they are good at their job, the pay is good and better than what they could get in other occupations.

In essence, there is a need for politicians, policymakers and wider society to recognise that many, if not the majority of people who work in the sex industry, do so because they want to.

Policymakers need to become more critical of existing assumptions and directly engage with sex workers and sex-worker organisations to understand the realities, so that they can make informed, evidence-based policy decisions.

We do not pretend that the sex industry is perfect. No industry is perfect. But the policy approach advocated in Lord Morrow's draft Bill to criminalise sex work will arguably do more harm than good.

And, while the criminalisation of sex work may well drive 'prostitution' off the streets, the evidence shows that it will be driven underground.

This will undermine the safety, health and well-being of sex workers - the very things that Lord Morrow claims his Bill will improve.

Past efforts to abolish sex work have all failed. There is no reason to conclude otherwise for the current draft Bill.

If Lord Morrow is sincere about his intentions to help women involved in 'prostitution', he should consider decriminalisation.

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