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Sex work and Abortion in Ireland

Those alarmed by the bigotry-driven abortion policy, on both sides of the Irish border, should similarly be concerned by policies on prostitution that undermine sex workers’ safety.

Frankie Mullin16 June 2017

Sex work and Abortion in Ireland

Those alarmed by the bigotry-driven abortion policy, on both sides of the Irish border, should similarly be concerned by policies on prostitution that undermine sex workers’ safety.

As the slow-motion catastrophe of a Tory deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) unfolds, UK-wide attention has belatedly turned to the controversial positions held by the DUP on LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, climate change, and abortion. Unsurprisingly, feminists are appalled.

It wasn’t so in 2015, however, when Northern Ireland became the first region of the UK to adopt the so-called Nordic model, which makes the purchase of sex illegal. The bill was led by the DUP and was celebrated by many as a feminist victory; Lord Morrow, who tabled the bill, believed to be driven by enlightened compassion.

Ava, a Northern Irish sex worker, rolls her eyes at mainland UK’s sudden outpouring of horror over the plight of women and minority groups in Northern Ireland.

“It’s frustrating because we could have had this conversation in 2014 when Lord Morrow brought in his bill [to criminalise the purchase of sex],” she said. “But at that stage feminists managed to forget about all the things the DUP were doing to women. It’s a horrible alliance.”

Since the bill was implemented in Northern Ireland, several clients have been arrested for buying sex but none have been prosecuted. Meanwhile, women continue to be arrested for brothel-keeping. Given that a “brothel” may simply be a flat in which more than one woman works, something is clearly amiss in claims that the Nordic model benefits the welfare of sex workers.

In February this year, the Republic of Ireland followed Northern Ireland’s lead, criminalising the purchase of sex. The legislation also increases the penalty for sex workers working together and allows the authorities to confiscate the earnings of sex workers as ‘proceeds of crime’.

In curbing demand, the Nordic model is supposed to prevent trafficking and exploitation. Trafficking victims have been located by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), both before and after the implementation of the policy. But, as the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) points out, “It is the workers who're best placed to witness this. The law has created even more barriers to reporting, and does nothing to address the poverty and desperation that leads to a willingness to engage with traffickers in the first place.”

Sex workers report feeling less safe since the Nordic model came into force.  “People are ringing from hotel phones or new pay-as-you-go phones and refusing to give any information at all so it’s very hard to track bad clients,” Ava says.

At the time of the bill’s introduction, 98% of Northern Irish sex workers opposed the criminalisation of clients, which, de facto, makes sex workers’ bodies the scene of a crime. In April this year, Laura Lee launched a legal challenge to overturn the prohibition, saying that the law made work less safe. She is supported by SWAI, a sex worker-led group which, like the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement and the English Collective of Prostitutes, campaigns for full decriminalisation.

Horror from mainland UK at the prospect of a Tory-DUP deal has focused mainly on issues around abortion, and scandalised we should be. But, the feminists who now decry the opposition of the DUP to abortion are those who climbed into bed with them on the Nordic model. 

Across the UK, both sex work and abortion are criminalised to some degree and there are strong parallels between arguments for the decriminalisation of both.

It’s not simply a matter of “my body, my choice”, however. Of course, the state has no right to determine what we do with our bodies but what if our “choices” are so constrained by circumstance the word loses all meaning? 

Coined by Black women in the US, the idea of reproductive justice links abortion rights to the wider material and social context people find themselves in. 

“We believe that the ability of any woman to determine her own reproductive destiny is directly linked to the conditions in her community and these conditions are not just a matter of individual choice and access,” writes Loretta J. Ross, National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. “For example, a woman cannot make an individual decision about her body if she is part of a community whose human rights as a group are violated, such as through environmental dangers or insufficient quality health care.”

Likewise sex work. An austerity-driven rise in prostitution lays bare the lack of options behind the entry of many people into transactional sex. As in agriculture and domestic labour, some people are trafficked into the industry. Others work undocumented, through brute necessity. And in between is a vast swathe of people who neither love their work nor hate it but for whom selling sex is just a way of paying the bills.

And just as criminalising abortion does nothing to prevent people from needing abortions, criminalising sex work – even as a last-ditch survival route – does nothing to alleviate your situation when you’re about to become homeless and your benefits have been sanctioned. Thus sex worker-led organisations position full decriminalisation as just part of a host of reforms needed to make people’s lives more secure: better social housing, a reversal of austerity measures, childcare, renewed funding of women’s refuges, healthcare access, and a reformed immigration system.

If anyone was still labouring under the assumption that the introduction of the Nordic model in Northern Ireland was some grand gesture of magnanimity towards sex workers, the treatment of Laura Lee giving testimony in Stormont lays waste to that.

“I was asked about my relationship with my father and my personal sex life,” says Lee. “And finally, I was told that I target vulnerable disabled men. I'm not exaggerating when I say my jaw hit the floor. 

“It’s interesting to see the same techniques being employed in the abortion debate: exaggerating, all-out lying, throwing personal abuse at Repeal the Eighth campaigners.”

Lee’s formal complaint about her treatment by the DUP came to nothing.

Irish attitudes towards sex work and abortion in Northern Ireland and the Republic are deeply entwined with religion. “To really understand the Democratic Unionist Party, you need to appreciate its fundamentalist Christian roots,” writes Kevin Meagher for In the Republic of Ireland, a key backer of the Nordic Model is the women’s organisation Ruhama – a group formed from the religious congregations that ran Magdalene laundries.

The crisis in abortion access in both the Republic and Northern Ireland has been heavily condemned by countless social justice organisations and by Amnesty International which – along with the World Health Organisation and several UN agencies – likewise calls for the decriminalisation of sex work.

Those alarmed by the bigotry-driven abortion policy, on both sides of the Irish border, should similarly be concerned by policies on prostitution that undermine sex workers’ safety.

Ava says she wants the UK’s anger to remain heightened.

"I’m worried that, once people are given assurances this won't affect anyone on the mainland, it’ll all go quiet again."


Frankie Mullin is a freelance journalist based in London. She tweets @frankiemullin.

Filed under: feminism, sex-work