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A new law in Northern Ireland criminalises sex work – and endangers sex workers

Many think the law, which is supposed to protect sex workers, is instead a Trojan horse for Christian morality.

Erin*, a Belfast-based sex worker, didn't know what to expect when legislation in Northern Ireland changed with little fanfare four years ago to make it a criminal offence to pay for sex. “I didn’t start to worry about the impact until I was affected by it. It's like all politics, I guess, you don't care until you're affected personally and then – you really care.”

Now, she says she's one of many sex workers in Northern Ireland whose lives are put at risk on a daily basis under the region's recent anti-prostitution laws: "It's not just the violence [from clients]. It's the difference in being able to report attacks. The laws clearly don't protect us. It's made everything worse."

In 2015, Northern Ireland became the first – and currently remains the only – part of the UK where it is a criminal offence to pay someone for sex. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, a private member’s bill spearheaded by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Peer Lord Maurice Morrow represented a major shift in UK policy around the policing of payment for sexual acts. Under the new law, a sex worker who sells a sexual act is not committing an offence; rather, it’s their client who is breaking the law by buying sex. 

Legislation and public policy discussions around sex work in Northern Ireland have proven highly controversial, reflecting an acrimonious split that divides feminists: between those who believe individuals should be able to choose to work as sex workers, and should be supported in doing so safely, and those who think the industry is inherently exploitative and harmful. Canada, Sweden, Norway and the Republic of Ireland are among other countries to criminalise those who pay for sex. 

Outside of Northern Ireland, paying for sex is strictly speaking legal in the rest of the UK, although much of the activities associated with sex work – like running a brothel or soliciting in the street – are illegal. In effect, this means that many aspects of sex work continue to be criminalised and remain underground.

While some proponents of the Northern Ireland law have viewed it as trial run which could see criminalisation of clients extended to the rest of the UK, others think the law has been a Trojan horse for Christian morality. Though its objective is ostensibly to protect women, the effects of the law have instead put sex workers at greater risk of harm.

During a 2014 debate on the Stormont law, one DUP politician, Edwin Poots, told the chamber: “We need to lay bare the lie that prostitution is something that is largely carried out by people willingly, that it is something that is being carried out by people who are doing degrees and starting up businesses and who may be carrying it out in some well-appointed apartment in a reasonably leafy suburb of a city

“Let us cut away the flimflam and get down to the fact that it is a dirty, seedy business.”

However, some of the DUP’s political opponents questioned the motivations of the legislation. Anna Lo, a politician for the liberal Alliance Party, told the chamber she was concerned that people of a more evangelical persuasion, who possibly seek to ban prostitution for religious and moral reasons” were in fact driving the move. The DUP denied the policy change was motivated by evangelical Christian groups in Northern Ireland. 

Yet, in a 2018 interview with the media wing of one evangelical Protestant group Evangelical Alliance, Morrow cited his motivation for the bill as stemming from a conversation with a director at the lobby group Christian Action, Research and Education, with whom he says he "share[s] the Christian faith", which became a "catalyst" for discussions on the "evils of trafficking". When approached for comment by the New Statesman, the DUP did not respond.

Academic research commissioned by Stormont as part of the legislative process warned against changing the law. Susann Huschke, an anthropologist at the University of Limerick, was the lead researcher on the 2014 research project. She says that politicians voting on the bill largely dismissed and ignored researchers’ findings – opting for a political rather than an evidence-based approach.

“There simply is no evidence internationally that criminalising clients would improve the lives and working conditions of sex workers”, Huschke says by email from Limerick. “We said very clearly in our report that it is likely to make it harder for sex workers to screen their clients before meeting them and drive them further away from seeking support from NGOs or collaborating with the police.” 

Indeed, some sex workers say that criminalisation of clients puts them at risk, as it means clients are more likely to conceal their identities for fear of prosecution. Sex workers often use shared databases to catalogue violent clients and alert colleagues not to accept work from them. Such databases can involve clients’ names or phone numbers. This becomes impossible when clients refuse to share their real names, or contact sex workers on burner phones or hotel room landlines.

Ciaran Moynagh, a partner at the Belfast-based law firm Phoenix Law, who has represented sex workers in Northern Ireland, contends that the change has made sex workers less willing to report matters to the police, and increasingly concerned about clients who withhold or provide a fake identity. “They find it near impossible to use safety tactics or screening measures”, he says – meaning that sex workers “knowingly but with little choice put themselves in more risky situations”.

In 2018, the first person was charged on the basis of the new law: a 23-year-old man was found guilty of approaching a petrol station staff member in Dungannon in the early hours of the morning and offering her payment in exchange for oral sex. Months later, a 26-year-old man followed a 14-year-old girl in Lisburn, and was found guilty of offering her money in exchange for a sexual act.

But other cases have been less straightforward. Earlier this summer, a Romanian woman who was trafficked to Northern Ireland was convicted of conspiracy to traffic and money laundering, after allegedly helping to drive another trafficking victim in her car to meet a client and sending some of the money she received back to her family in Romania.

The woman’s defendant barrister said the case was “wholly exceptional”, not least because the trafficked woman ended up facing prosecution. The judge told the court that while the offences committed by the woman “are always serious, the court cannot lose sight of the fact that the National Crime Agency also consider you a victim”. She was given a one year sentence, suspended for two years.

Moynagh represented Laura Lee, a well-known sex worker and campaigner for sex workers’ rights when she began a 2016 attempt to secure a judicial review of the law on the grounds that it breached her right to a private life under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Following Lee’s death in 2018, no other sex workers were willing to continue the legal challenge in her place, and the case was withdrawn. According to Moynagh, many didn’t have standing as they didn’t work in Northern Ireland; others were “petrified” by the prospect of standing before the Department of Justice or Attorney General for Northern Ireland.

A review commissioned by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice analysing the law’s impact was due to take place several years ago, but has been delayed in the absence of a government at Stormont following the collapse of power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin two and a half years ago. The review is now due to be published later this summer.

Elsewhere in the UK, Leeds has also introduced radical policy changes in how it approaches sex work. Contrary to Northern Ireland, it has taken a more liberal approach and has agreed not to criminalise workers for many of the “associated activities” involved in sex work, such as soliciting. In 2014, it created a “managed red light district” in an industrial estate as part of a pilot scheme, allowing workers to engage in sex work provided they avoided soliciting in residential areas or outside businesses, working during daylight hours, or public drug use. 

The scheme attracted national attention in 2015, following the murder of 23-year-old worker Daria Pionko. It has been subject to protests by local residents and anti-prostitution campaigners. Last year, a new police unit was brought in to patrol the district and Leeds City Council has pledged an independent review of the scheme to decide whether it’s viable.

Huschke, the academic who advised Stormont during the drafting of the Northern Ireland legislation, says policies to address sex work are often too narrowly focused, and miss the larger structural issues at play. “We live in a world that marginalises a lot of people, where low wages, insecure jobs, expensive higher education, limited access to social housing and insufficient social welfare are the reality of many people. 

“If we want to make it possible for sex workers to do something different to make a living – if that's what they choose – we need to fix our social system, our economic system, our educational system”. Above all, Huschke notes, focussing on the criminalisation of clients “distracts from the real issues and… causes of exploitative working conditions.”

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.