Gender red light district

Published on July 18th, 2016 | by Stand

Regulating prostitution: is criminalising the buyer the answer?

Ariane Allex explores the Swedish model for regulating prostitution and considers arguments both for and against it.

In the 21st century, an increase in migration and the changes in labour markets have created the conditions for an increase of individuals turning to sex work. As a consequence, many countries have begun to change or at least consider changing their regulations regarding sex work.

There are three main models of prostitution legislation: abolitionist, where the aim is to eliminate prostitution from society completely, regulatory, where selling and buying sex itself might not be illegal, but the activities around it are regulated, and legalisation, where prostitution is decriminalised. In 1999, Sweden adopted an abolitionist model but with a unique approach: it is illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell them. Since then, many countries have adopted similar models, including Norway, Iceland, France and soon Ireland.

Currently in Ireland, prostitution is legal and follows a regulatory model. However, most activities surrounding it, such as curb-crawling, soliciting in public, loitering in public places, brothel keeping and living off immoral earnings, are not.

Turn off the red light

Since the 2011 elections, many discussions and debates emerged on the potential of a law reform. More than 70 organisations have come together and started a campaign called “Turn Off the Red Light”. The campaign declares that: “Trafficking women and girls for the purposes of sexual exploitation is a modern, global form of slavery. We believe that the best way to combat this is to tackle the demand for prostitution by criminalising the purchase of sex.”

Turn off the Red Light has been advocating for an abolitionist model where the government would aim to eradicate prostitution by making the purchase of sex illegal. In September 2015 the new “Sexual Offences” bill outlined provisions which criminalise the payment for sexual activity, while the person offering sexual acts would not be guilty of a criminal offence.

The Swedish model was first implemented in 1999. It made purchasing sexual services a criminal offence, which is punished with a fine and/or up to one year of imprisonment. Although to this date, no imprisonment has been made. Special groups in the Swedish social services were set up, called KAST, to motivate potential and active sex buyers to change their behaviour and never to purchase sex. It also set up programmes and services to provide free healthcare and counselling to prostitutes, financed by the fines collected from the committed sex buyers.

Turn off the blue light

While the Swedish model continues to get more praise, there are still important criticisms and opposition by various groups in Ireland, in particular Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI). A counter-campaign to “Turn off the Red Light” was set up called “Turn off the Blue Light” but received less traction. In 2015, Amnesty International decided to advocate for the decriminalisation of prostitution, despite much criticism.

Is the Swedish Model a step towards the right direction, or a step backwards?

It can often be difficult to answer this question when articles and research reports on the subject tend to contradict each other. The debates around the Swedish model are often based on various reports supported by different organisations with different agendas.Researching sex work can also be very difficult due to its sensitive nature.

Impact for sex workers

Many countries are considering the Swedish model for the potential effect it has on human trafficking. Criminalising the buyer and enforcing tough laws on traffickers have led to the decrease of human trafficking in Sweden. This claim has been supported by the majority of reports. However, other reports argue that the model has just pushed its human trafficking market onto its neighbours: Norway and Denmark.

In Sweden, prostitution in the streets, argued by many as the most dangerous environment for sex workers, has significantly reduced. The Swedish Institute reported that danger of violence has decreased overall as the sex workers, who are not criminalised, are now free to contact the police and seek help. Critics of the model however, argue that while visible prostitution may have decreased, underground markets and internet prostitution has increased in Sweden. They further argue that by criminalising prostitution, sex workers are pressured to stay hidden, which puts them in further danger of violence.

A similar point can be said of the healthcare of sex workers. While the overall well-being of sex workers is reported to have increased since the 1999 Act, it is difficult to tell if the healthcare of sex workers in hidden markets has improved or worsened.

Pye Jakobsson, a Swedish sex worker, has spoken many times of her and other sex workers’ experience of the Swedish model. She is convinced that the law is ineffective as it drives prostitution in Sweden more underground and because it strips women of their agency and their rights to do with their body as they wish to. She currently campaigns for decriminalisation in Sweden.

Excluded voices

The most important criticism of the model is that often, the government putting in place the legislation did not consult the main persons affected by it: the sex workers themselves. The UNAIDS 2010 report states that the policies and programmes which aim to reduce the demand for sex work, and which ignore the voices of sex workers, often result in unintended harms including an increased risk of vulnerability of HIV for sex workers and their clients.

In “The laws that sex workers really want” Ted Talk, sex worker Toni Mac outlines this issue. Before implementing a legislative model for prostitution, governments rarely consult the individuals most directly affected by it, which can often lead to unwanted, sometimes disastrous, consequences for them.

SWAI campaigns for their voice to be heard: “SWAI believes sex workers themselves should be at the centre of the development of policy which directly impacts upon their lives.” Campaigns including Turn off the Red Light often portray a very negative dimension of sex work, while others can have a very different message. SWAI declares: “SWAI supports a human rights and harm reduction approach to policy and laws around sex work. We believe sex work should be decriminalised and that sex workers be allowed to work in safety without fear, judgment or stigma.”

In Ireland, the change of legislation is now well on its way, and soon sex buyers will be criminalised. It is crucial that the effects of its implementation are reviewed and carefully researched in a non-biased way in order to identify whether the model is an improvement for society, but most importantly whether it improves the lives of sex workers.

Author: Ariane Allex

Photo credit: Red light district, Stoha, Creative Commons License.

Ariane Allex currently works as a Governance specialist in the Institute of Public Administration. She previously volunteered with Tallaght Drugs Task Force and St Vincent De Paul. Ariane recently graduated with a Master in Public Policy from UCD specialised in Drugs, Health and Community policy. Causes she cares about also include economic empowerment and the Environment.


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