Victims Without a Choice? A Critical View on the Debate About Sex Work in Northern Ireland

Abstract

In this paper, I argue that the implementation of the “Swedish model”—the criminalization of the purchase of sex—in Northern Ireland in 2014 provides an example of a morality-driven policy process in which the actual concerns of sex workers were distorted and dismissed. In the policy debate, sex workers were portrayed as victims who had no choice—a claim passionately refuted by many sex workers. As a result of the narrow focus on “victim vs. free choice,” there has been little room to discuss the actual working conditions of sex workers and the structural constraints that inhibit their freedom and negatively affect their well-being. In this paper, I present the contradictions and conflicts between the personal opinions of Northern Irish policy-makers on one hand and the actual experiences and views of sex workers on the other. By juxtaposing these views, I facilitate a belated conversation between policy-makers and sex workers—a conversation which can inform policy debates in other jurisdictions.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Amnesty International recently took a stance for the human rights of sex workers at their International Council Meeting in Dublin in 2015, see https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/global-movement-votes-to-adopt-policy-to-protect-human-rights-of-sex-workers/.

  2. 2.

    The video recordings of these oral evidence sessions are available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ve-0ykxdyS0 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iG1AOOeDRE

  3. 3.

    As a result of the discriminating public debate and in reaction to the implementation of the sex purchase ban in NI, the sex worker movement across Ireland (represented by the Sex Worker Alliance Ireland (SWAI)) has grown and is slowly becoming more publically visible.

  4. 4.

    From the outset of the debate, Justice Minister David Ford (Alliance Party) was skeptical about the effectiveness of the sex purchase ban as a measure to reduce trafficking.

  5. 5.

    Written submissions available here: http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/globalassets/documents/justice-2011-2016/human-trafficking-bill/written-submissions

  6. 6.

    This exemplifies how proponents of the sex purchase ban tend to homogenize the sex industry and fail to acknowledge the complex realities of those who sell sex.

  7. 7.

    Irish slang for idiot.

  8. 8.

    All names of sex workers have been changed to ensure anonymity.

  9. 9.

    No efforts have been made in Northern Ireland to address this problematic practice despite the lip service paid to the protection and decriminalization of sex workers throughout the debate.

  10. 10.

    The mixed methods design of the study was therefore crucial. The 1–2–h-long semi-structured interviews provided the space to explore these tensions and to discuss the complexity of selling sex with participants, including negative and positive aspects.

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Acknowledgments

I thank the sex workers who have shared their experiences with me and thereby made this work possible, and I am grateful to the people who provided useful comments on earlier versions of this paper: Ruari McBride, Jessica Ruthven, Evanson Sambala, Rachel Caesar, Lenore Manderson, Estelle Lucas, Laura Lee, and the three anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Susann Huschke.

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Funding

Parts of this study were funded by the Department of Justice Northern Ireland.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The explorative study was approved by the Ethics Committee of the School of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast in May 2013, and the comprehensive mixed methods study was approved by the Ethics Committee in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast in March 2014.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that she has no conflict of interest.

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Huschke, S. Victims Without a Choice? A Critical View on the Debate About Sex Work in Northern Ireland. Sex Res Soc Policy 14, 192–205 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-016-0254-9

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Keywords

  • Sex work
  • Agency
  • Moralities
  • Criminalization of prostitution
  • Sex trafficking
  • Northern Ireland