Prostitution: the pros and cons of decriminalisation

Oct 22, 2014

Northern Ireland votes to ban paying for sex but campaigners say the move will put sex workers at higher risk

Paying for sex will be banned in Northern Ireland after members of the Stormont assembly voted in favour of the motion this week, but sex workers say the bill will put them in danger and are calling for prostitution to be decriminalised.

The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill is based on the Swedish model, which targets consumers rather than workers in the sex industry and is intended to reduce human trafficking.

It is currently legal in to pay for consensual sex in Northern Ireland, as it is the rest of the UK, but soliciting, advertising sex, pimping, running a brothel and kerb-crawling are against the law.

The move was welcomed by the religious community, with the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland praising it as a "step in the right direction".

However, campaigners argue that prostitution should be decriminalised in order to protect the lives of sex workers and are calling for the practice to be decriminalised entirely. A survey commissioned by the Department of Justice showed that 98 per cent of sex workers were against the bill, The Guardian reports.

"We ask the Assembly to reconsider this law and look at the evidence," sex workers told the Belfast Telegraph.  "It will not reduce trafficking and it will make working conditions more unsafe."

Decriminalisation: the pros and cons

Con: Prostitution exploits women

Many feminists argue that prostitution is the patriarchal oppression of women and is an affront to gender equality. The Right of Women organisation argues that current legislations "enshrines men's right to buy women".

Pro: Sex work is a choice and empowers women

Sex workers' rights groups argue that many sex workers enter the industry voluntarily. The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) argues that current legislation "treats our consent to sex as less valid than that of other women".

"Neither having sex nor getting paid [for it] is inherently degrading, abusive, exploitative or harmful", says the IUSW.

Pro: Human rights and medical experts support it

Earlier this year Amnesty International published a draft policy arguing in favour of decriminalisation, saying sex workers should be entitled to the same rights as other workers. It argues that the criminalisation of prostitution "threatens the rights to health, non-discrimination, equality, privacy, and security" of a sex worker.

The World Health Organisation also condemns the criminalisation of sex work, and backs the new research by The Lancet which shows that decriminalising prostitution would help lower rates of sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV/Aids. 

Con: Prostitution is dangerous

Many campaigners and feminists argue that prostitution, whether voluntary or not, is a form of violence against women. Care, a Christian charity argues that physical abuse and rape is commonplace in prostitution and campaigns for the criminalisation of all purchases of sexual services. In London, sex workers suffer a mortality rate that is "12 times higher than average", according to their research.

Pro: Decriminalisation will actually make sex worker safer

Rights groups argue that criminalising prostitution means that sex workers are less likely to contact the police to report abuse. The laws in the UK also takes sex workers' right to work together. If sex workers are allowed to work together in one building, they will be safer, says IUSW.

"If I decided I was too nervous to work alone, I would not be allowed to have a friend over to work in a pair for safety: it would technically mean I was running a brothel," explains one sex workers to the Independent.

UK laws "make life harder for those it purports to protect by precluding the possibility of establishing informal networks of self-regulation and protection" argues Luke Gittos, law editor for Spiked Online.

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