The article by Eilis Ward on prostitution is in line with my opinion
which I hold strongly. It is a nonsense to interfere in the personal
choices of consenting adults in sexual matters. The blatant conflation
or attempted parallelism of human trafficking and prostitution is
disingenuous. The whole subject should be licenced and zoned. I agree
with Ms Ward on the rights of migrant workers. The issue of pimps and
protection rackets must be made illegal. But the Swedish model – I
heard some self-regarding self-righteous Swede on the radio about two
weeks ago explaining about the success of the Swedish laws. There is
one characteristic that Catholic countries have in difference to the
puritanism of fundamentalist protestants – Hypocrisy. It is a trait
worth preserving in sexual matters as it allows tolerance to flourish.
Man an tSagart and Mac an Easpaigh. Lets have some more of that. I
though Eamonn Casey was OK – Seemed normal to me. Cleary – on 98FM –
No thanks – even he was too much for me.

Prostitution law may cause harm to women

October 19th, 1993


OPINION: THE NEWS that the Minister for Justice is taking advice from
the Attorney General on the criminalisation of the purchasing of sex
is welcome. This is not to say, however, that such a policy
constitutes the best or wisest response. Rather it is to suggest that
perhaps it is time to have a full, open and mature public debate about
the challenging issue of prostitution and what kind of public policy
we want towards it in Ireland.

This means that we must be willing to consider aspects of the debate
that many find intolerable. Debating the “intolerable” is necessary
for democracy. But, perhaps more importantly, our public policies and
laws need to be informed by the reality on the ground and by
consideration of the hidden or unintended consequences of any

As a researcher, feminist and academic I have long been concerned
about the way in which the debate about the relationship between the
sex industry and sex trafficking has developed, culminating now in
Ireland in the proposal to adopt the Swedish approach: criminalising
the purchasing of sex. It is argued that this approach cuts the demand
for commercial sex and, consequently, the sex-trafficking of women
into the state.

I do not believe that prostitution constitutes a career or a good way
of making a living. Nor do I believe that criminalising is the answer.
Not least of all it is a crude mechanism which might, indeed, reduce
sex-trafficking. But it may have the effect of rendering women in
prostitution, those this proposal seeks to protect, even more
vulnerable to harm. This is what we need to debate.

It is important to remember here that not all women in prostitution
are trafficked. Not all women in prostitution consider themselves
victims in need of rescue. Nor do they all believe that selling sex
means that an act of violence is committed upon them. Moreover, not
everyone in prostitution is female and not all clients are male.

Finally, despite the easy media image, not all women who migrate for
economic reasons and end up in the sex trade have been duped, lied to
or forced. Many are. Many, and I have met some, see undocumented entry
into European states to engage in sex work as a way out of severely
constrained circumstances. I have heard a very compelling case made by
some of these women for recognition of their rights as migrant

Anyone researching both prostitution and sex-trafficking will know
that it is clear that for every neat victim/perpetrator dichotomy
there are many complex layers of relationships, decisions, contexts
and, yes, choices. The law, unfortunately, doesn’t work well with
uncertainty. Using law in an exemplary fashion or to engineer social
attitudes or practices is consequently fraught.

But more to the point, there is a considerable body of evidence,
informed by scholarly work, that tackling prostitution through legal
mechanisms is very problematical.

Criminalising demand works initially in that it clears
street-prostitutes from visible soliciting and shuts down premises. It
works, too, when the state has deep and comprehensive surveillance and
enforcement capacities. Such powers may challenge our notions of civil
liberties and come at great cost, particularly when, as is the case in
Ireland, most prostitution goes on beyond the reach of the state. It
works when prostitutes themselves are willing to turn witness to the
act in court. The record so far on this from Sweden has not been

But these operational aspects aside, there is a more fundamental
question. That relates to the increased vulnerability of women who,
usually for economic reasons, take to prostitution. Research, from the
UK and elsewhere, has shown that criminalisation serves to send these
women into riskier, more dangerous situations where they are less
likely to look for assistance and to co-operate with the police and
more likely to seek “protection” from pimps.

It is exactly because of this reality that women in prostitution
frequently suggest that regulation – through managed zones for
instance – is the best solution. Irish women in prostitution, when
asked by researchers, also gave this preference.

Like all ethical or moral issues, this topic is complex. It does not
help when sex trafficking and prostitution become conflated as one
problem requiring one solution. It does not help when one view of
prostitution (that it is by definition a form of violence against
women) dominates debates to the degree that any opposing or nuanced
views are not heard.

I write here therefore to suggest that we open up this debate.

The history of Irish state policy towards prostitution has been almost
entirely one of contradictions and unintended consequences, the result
of legal change not marked by public deliberation and little of which
brought much improvement in the lives of those in prostitution.

If we are about to embark on another legislative process, which may
have far reaching and harmful consequences for some women, then let’s
have a full and open debate so that we can consider all consequences
and all complexities without prejudice.
Dr Eilís Ward lectures in the School of Political Science and
Sociology, NUI Galway.