Let’s talk about sex work…in Northern Ireland

Let’s talk about sex work…in Northern Ireland

In 1999, Sweden passed the Law against Procurement of Sexual Services, criminalizing the purchase of sex, which punishes johns but not prostitutes.  Worldwide, the law is considered a progressive way to improve the lives of sex workers while also combating the root causes of exploitation in the industry. Currently up for debate in Northern Ireland’s government is a similar measure, a new law, titled the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, which seeks to limit human trafficking in Northern Ireland. Clause 6 of this bill emulates the Swedish model in an attempt to criminalize those who pay for sexual services. Problematic, however, is the lack of distinction made between individuals who choose to become sex workers and those who are trafficked.

Having only heard positive reviews of Sweden’s progressive model, I was initially pleased to hear about this bill. Clause 6, however, reveals a lack of insight into the complexities of sex work in Northern Ireland. The clause presents prostitution in Northern Ireland as one homogeneous problem, without acknowledging the difference between consensual sex workers and trafficked victims. 

Stop Human Trafficking. Flickr

Contrary to ordinary protocol, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has responded to the announcement of this bill by stating that they do not support the liberalization of prostitution laws. Chief Superintendent Marshall, who leads the PSNI’s response to human trafficking, said “there needs to be wider social debate and understanding about what prostitution actually is in Northern Ireland before we consider what the right policy might be.”

The current law on prostitution in Northern Ireland, The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, holds that it is an offense to knowingly procure sexual services from a victim of human trafficking. It is not, however, illegal to sell or buy sexual services from consenting adults. (Associated activities such as organizing prostitution or soliciting in a public place are illegal). The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill won’t change this.


This proposed legislation on Human Trafficking, and the subsequent reactions to it, reveal how some representatives in the Northern Irish government view sex work. To automatically conflate prostitution with human trafficking demonstrates a failure to understand both situations thoroughly. Though sex work and human trafficking are obviously linked, there is a world of difference between the person who performs sexual acts consensually and a person trafficked. Amnesty International has outlined Human Trafficking in Northern Ireland as including, but not limited to “the movement of women and children within or between countries for forced prostitution or other sexual activity; forced or bonded labour of migrants in the construction, catering, agriculture or hospitality sectors of developed countries such as UK and Ireland; exploitation of children in fraud or other criminal activity.” The legislation both discounts the agency for those who choose to work in the sex industry and lumps human trafficking into one uniform evil when, in reality, human trafficking takes many horrific forms.

The language used by politicians debating this bill exposes this conflation and denial of agency. Mr David McIlveen, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) said “I refuse to accept that any form of prostitution is done under the banner of consent. If you went into a school today and asked a boy or girl what they want to do when they leave school, which of them will say that they want to be a prostitute? Nobody does it because they want to.”

MLAs who support the Bill, like Diane Dodds, hope that criminalizing the purchase of sex in Northern Ireland will reduce the demand for prostitution as it has allegedly done in Sweden. I find it incredibly naïve for a government in Northern Ireland to believe a Swedish law could be so easily implemented and have the same effect. Sweden is miles ahead of Northern Ireland when it comes to feminist education and gender equality in many ways. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, has extremely limited access to abortion, poor sex education (never mind gender education), and low levels of female political representation. Northern Ireland is also a post-conflict society – a very different political atmosphere from Sweden.

That’s not to say that Sweden is a feminist utopia. Another reason why this bill should be re-considered is the evidence presented that Swedish law may not actually have worked as intended. It has been suggested that these laws have actually served to push the sex industry further underground and created a stereotype of sex workers as “committing ‘self-harm’, ‘romanticising’ the sex industry, and unable to identify [their] own best interests”. The idea that demand has been reduced following the Swedish legislation is also in doubt. Petra Östergren, a writer and social commentator specializing on gender politics and prostitution issues, interviewed 20 sex workers in Sweden since 1996. Östergren concludes that :

“Sex work is officially not considered work in Sweden. Rather, prostitution is seen as a social ill and a form of men’s violence against women. Women who sell sex are considered victims who need protection by the state. Male or transgendered sexworkers are rarely spoken of. In the task of creating a better and more equal society, the Swedish state has determined that prostitution has to be abolished. This is an opinion rarely called into question.”

That this viewpoint is less known internationally demonstrates how little sex workers’ input is regarded into the prostitution debate.

Sex Worker Rights. Flickr

To date there has been no consultation with sex workers in Northern Ireland. This bill sets up all sex workers as female and all as victims. It negates consensual sex work as an act of agency.

That’s not to say that this bill is totally without merit. However, with the inclusion of Clause 6, and the lack of distinction made between individuals who choose to become sex workers and those who are trafficked, it remains problematic. Though this bill is supported by organizations I respect and who are much more informed on Human Trafficking and Prostitution issues, without a clear separation between sex workers and trafficked victims, as well as a consultation with those who are on the ground in the industry, I worry that this bill, should it pass, could fail to reduce human trafficking or improve working conditions for sex workers. Northern Ireland should continue to take its lead from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings as well as the 2011 EU directive. These clearly outline a victim-centric approach, one that aims to tackle the root causes of trafficking as a preventative measure while simultaneously providing exit strategies for those that seek to leave the industry. An approach to eradicating human trafficking must be victim-centered to make sure that a response does not further victimize them.

Featured image caption: Sex Worker Rights Protest. Flickr

I am Founder & Director at Hollaback! Belfast. I have a Master’s Degree in History and Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Wyoming. My academic work focuses on the role of women in post-conflict societies, with a particular focus on grass roots activism. I write for a number of feminist leaning blogs, am active in local feminist groups in Northern Ireland and an active speaker on Women & LGBTQ rights.