#IWD16: “Sex Workers Want Decriminalisation – Time to Listen”

 “Sex Workers want decriminalisation – we should listen to them.” With International Women’s Day around the corner, Danielle Roberts talks to The Last Round about the struggles of Sex Workers here in NI, this post was originally published on the Belfast Feminist Network’s blog.

In October 2014 Stormont Passed the Human Trafficking & Exploitation Act NI. Tacked onto this legislation was a clause which criminalises the purchase of sex. Laura Lee of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland is challenging this legislation and other measures which prevent sex workers from working together for safety. The first day of the hearing is in the High Court on Friday 19th February.


There are a few problems with clause 15 (previously known as clause 6). Including a measure relating to sex work in a bill which is framed around human trafficking only serves to conflate the two issues. To be clear, human trafficking is a horrendous crime, and no one should be trafficked into any industry or coerced to sell sex. In reality a minority of trafficking victims in Northern Ireland are in the sex industry, many more are in hospitality, farming or domestic work. It is right that victims of trafficking receive support if they need it, and that traffickers are brought to justice. Research commissioned by the Department of Justice shows that the majority of sex workers in Northern Ireland have not been trafficked.

Clause 15 criminalised the purchase of sex, meaning that NI has adopted a version of the Nordic model. You can read more about the Nordic model here. The key points? Sex workers in Sweden report that they feel less safe and are less likely to report incidents to the police, while the police say it has not reduced trafficking.

We already have legislation that makes coercion and violence illegal. The Nordic model makes it less likely for sex workers or third parties to report attacks to the police, and pushes potentially vulnerable people out of the reach of support services. Criminalisation of purchase means that sex workers can’t carry out safety checks on clients like before as clients are nervous about getting caught. Clause 15 puts sex workers in danger.

The Nordic model also does not decriminalise sex workers. Sex workers can still be prosecuted for offences such as working together or soliciting. Laura Lee is also challenging some of these measures.

Recently Amnesty International has come out in support of decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work. Amnesty International is just one of a number of multi-national bodies, such as the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, which support decriminalisation. Amnesty recognised that sex workers are often marginalised and may be exposed to violence and excluded from things like social housing and healthcare. For Amnesty, sex workers rights are human rights, and we agree.

The issue of sex work has long been a source of debate across the many strands of feminist thought. Recently many high profile people identifying as feminists, such as Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham, spoke out about Amnesty International’s change of policy. Belfast Feminist Network had an event in 2013 to discuss what we really thought, I am pleased to say that even though there were varying attitudes the majority favoured harm reduction and centred the opinions and experiences of sex workers. You can read more about what Belfast Feminist Network has to say on the issue in this document.

A move towards criminalisation of purchase or the ‘Nordic model’ is not unique to Northern Ireland. It has also been considered in the Republic of Ireland and there is currently an inquiry being carried out by the Home Affairs Committee on whether criminalising purchase should be brought in across the UK. Belfast Feminist Network will be making a written submission opposing criminalisation of purchase. You can make a written submission here, by the 18th February 2016. An upcoming Symposium on the Legal Regulation and Policing of Commercial Sex, Queen’s University Belfast in March will focus on developments that are ‘occurring in Ireland‘ (North and South), issues around commercial sex in other jurisdictions including Britain and Sweden / Norway will also be considered’. The symposium will also include a panel on feminism(s) and sex work. This symposium is free, and no media will be present – a measure taken for the comfort and safety of sex workers.

Overturning Clause 15 is not going to result in all sex workers magically being able to work safely and free from stigma. There are recent reports of sex workers being attacked, and even murdered. These attacks can occur when sex workers are working in compliance with the law, indoors and alone. Sex workers should be able to work in safety and access support services when needed. This is the case in New Zealand which has adopted decriminalisation. This Sex Workers Alliance Ireland document highlights the differences between criminalisation, legalisation and decriminalisation in practice.

Research carried out by academics at QUB found that 98% of sex workers did not support Clause 15, 85% believe it will not reduce trafficking, and 61% feel they will be working in a more dangerous position. Politicians ignored the voices of sex workers, the people who have been impacted by this legislation. Belfast Feminist Network won’t. We stand with sex workers in their struggle for the right to work in safety, just like anyone else.

Follow @GlasgaeLauraLee and #DecrimNI for updates on the judicial review. You can donate to Laura’s fighting fund here.

Danielle Roberts is a PhD candidate researching gender and politics in Northern Ireland, and is an active member of Belfast Feminist Network, who are holding a ‘Diva Disco’ fundraiser on the 27th February as part of the International Women’s Day 2016 programme of events. You can keep up to date with Belfast Feminist Network on Twitter and Facebook.


One response to “#IWD16: “Sex Workers Want Decriminalisation – Time to Listen”

  1. Pingback: “We Are Compelled to Work Alone, Attackers Know That” #DecrimNI | The Last Round·

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