Does the Nordic model work? What happened when Ireland criminalised buying sex

A year after the law was passed, some argue sex work has become more dangerous. 

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One year has passed since Ireland criminalised the purchase of sex. On 23 March 2017, Ireland followed Canada, Norway, Sweden and others by punishing men who use prostitutes. Buyers now face a fine of between €500 and €1,000, or up to five years in prison if the sex worker has been trafficked.

The so-called Nordic model is intended to cut demand on what proponents say is an inherently violent and misogynistic trade. But so far in Ireland, it has been ambiguously enforced by police. Critics say it has compromised the safety of workers.

Reported incidences of violent crime against sex workers, from threats to assaults with weapons, have risen, according to UglyMugs.ie, an organisation that collates reports from those working in the sex industry. There were 900 in the year preceding the change, and more than 1,400 since, an almost 50 percent rise.

“People who are doing the worst of the crimes are not deterred at all by this law,” says Kate McGrew, director of the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland. “People see as us even more outside society, as vulnerable, as even less likely to call gardai [police] or draw attention.”

The law has interfered with the safety screening tactics employed by workers, putting them at higher risk of danger, according to McGrew. One particular red flag is if a client asks by phone whether a woman is alone, since it is a sign they may be planning a robbery or physical attack. But now even unthreatening clients, worried about being caught up in a brothel raid, routinely enquire.

There are at least 1,000 people working in the “indoor” sex industry in Ireland, though some estimates go much higher, and do not count women who travel to Ireland for “tours” advertised on escort websites.

Campaigners for the legislation say it is too early to tell its effects, but have expressed concern at the lack of progress made in enforcing or raising awareness of it. There have been no major media campaigns by the government to advertise the change, and those in the industry believe many police officers have not been trained to adopt new best practices.

“Unless we promote the change in law, unless we actively and visibly enforce it and communicate that enforcement, then the social change doesn’t happen,” says Denise Charlton, chair of the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, which led the call to change the law last year.

It remains unclear if any arrests or prosecutions have been made since the law was introduced. Non-governmental organisations and sex worker groups said they were not aware of any incidents of buyers being charged. A representative for An Garda Síochána, Ireland’s police service, says no statistics are available and declines to comment further.

“We're not sure that there's been much progress made in tackling the demand and we really want to see more done about that,” says Ruth Breslin of Ruhama, an organisation which supports women affected by exploitation and trafficking in the sex industry.

“If you’re bringing a law... you need to tell people, and there's been no progress on the government side.”

Another effect of the legislation was to double the punishment for brothel-keeping in an attempt to crack down on pimping. Irish law defines a brothel as a place where two or more people work, meaning women working in pairs for safety reasons can be charged for pimping each other.

An UglyMugs.ie analysis found over 90 per cent of those convicted for brothel keeping between 2008 and 2013 were themselves sex workers, profiting only from their own work.

But Breslin contends the law is a necessary bulwark against organised crime gangs which she says dominate the trade in Ireland. Police are reportedly now more sympathetic to workers and less likely to enforce the letter of the law where it would needlessly punish them.

Indeed, both sides point to growing understanding from the police force, which last year appointed dedicated liaisons for sex workers. These allow sex workers to report crimes committed against them in confidence, without fear of self-incrimination, jeapordising their immigration status, or damaging relations with employers or landlords.

It’s an important step towards tackling violence in the sex industry, something campaigners say has not previously been a serious priority.

“At the end of the day it is a job,” said McGrew, who feels that attitudes are slowly changing towards understanding sex work as a legitimate occupation.

“The sex industry more than other industries has suffered criminalisation and stigmatisation longer than any other. That's particularly why sex workers need our rights.”

Ruairi Casey is a London-based Irish journalist.