Why Don’t We Ask Sex Workers What They Think About Criminalizing Purchase of Sex?

6 Mar

When I was back in Ireland a few months ago I was approached by a young man who wanted me to sign a petition calling for the criminalization of the purchase of sex. I told him I would only sign it if I could be convinced that such a measure would protect people who are presently in some way victimized, and if it would not make things more difficult for sex workers.

He seemed to think it was obvious that criminalizing the purchase of sex would benefit those who sold sex and would only penalize those who purchase it. I got the impression that this young man believes sex work to be inherently a bad thing, that no woman would want to engage in it if she could help it, and that if the purchase of sex was illegal everything would be OK, except for those who wish to purchase it, of course.

But how about those who have no other option but to sell sexual services? What about those who choose to sell sex rather than earn their living doing any number of less well paid and probably no less odious jobs? If the purchase of sex were to be criminalized it would be harder for them to do their work, harder for them to get a good price for their work and no less easy to provide for themselves and their dependents.

Perhaps the best way to ensure that sex workers are not exploited by their clients, by police, by the legal system and by anyone else who fancies making a bit of money out of them is to decriminalize sex work. Then they can not be compromised by all those whose opportunity to exploit stems from the fact that certain aspects of sex work are illegal in Ireland.

These laws were designed to prohibit sex work rather than to ensure that people are not denied their rights. Many people can not earn enough money through other sorts of work to provide for themselves and their dependents, or they simply choose sex work as a way of making money. The law is not just indifferent to their rights, it completely fails to address their rights and fails to punish those who would deny them their rights.

Non-consensual sex, sexual assault, rape, underage sex and many other phenomena are, and should be, illegal. But laws against sex work neither prevent these crimes nor protect those who are victims of them. On the contrary, because sex work involves criminal behavior, victims of these crimes can be denied the protection of the law.

Apparently the criminalization of the purchase of sex is also being discussed in Scotland and the authors of an article on the subject in the Huffington Post mention the Swedish implementation of such a measure. Rather than citing the ‘Swedish example’, I hope those pushing for similar criminalization in Ireland, and anywhere else, do some research first rather than assuming that their long held (and, frankly, self-righteous) assumptions have any basis in reality.

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