Repression in the Name of Rescue: The Oireachtas Justice Committee’s Sex Work Proposals

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Wendy Lyon of Feminist Ire on the barely noticed draconian measures recommended by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality to be included in the forthcoming legislation to criminalise the purchase of sex.

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Last month, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality announced its support for legislation to criminalise the purchase of sex. While this received some media coverage, little notice was taken of the related recommendations put forward simultaneously by the Committee – some of which are frankly draconian.

These include the following: 

  • “An offence of recklessly permitting a premises to be used for the purposes of prostitution”. Although a sex worker who operates alone out of a premise is committing no crime under either the present or proposed legislation, this would effectively criminalise indoor commercial sex by penalising a landlord who fails to act against it. According to a report commissioned by the City of Oslo, a similar provision in Norway’s penal code (enforced under the ominously-named “Operation Homeless”) has led to the eviction of sex workers from their flats, and makes them less likely to contact police about crimes committed against them lest the police then threaten their landlords. It has also led to the racial profiling by landlords of “nationality groups associated with prostitution”, who now find it difficult to rent premises and must depend on third parties to secure accommodation for them. 
  • “power for An Garda Síochána to have disabled or vested in them any telephone number in use in the State that is suspected on reasonable grounds of being used for the purposes of prostitution”. This provision could cut off sex workers’ access to communication by phone – which would affect them in all aspects of their life, not merely their sex work activity. (While many sex workers use one phone for personal calls and one phone for business, it’s unlikely the Gardaí could easily distinguish between the two unless they were prepared to listen in to all calls made or received by a suspected sex worker – a civil liberties breach reminiscent of the Snowden revelations.) Denying sex workers the right to use telephones could also have adverse effects for their safety, by making it impossible for them to use “ugly mugs” schemes that alert them to dangerous clients, or preventing them calling for help if attacked. 
  • “that the accessing of web sites – whether located in the State or abroad – that advertise prostitution in the State should be treated in the same way as accessing sites that advertise or distribute child pornography”. Leaving aside the question of whether it is appropriate to treat seeking out sex from an at least potentially consenting adult as comparable to seeking out abuse of a child, this proposal makes no distinction between those who seek out sex and those who advertise it. Thus, sex workers themselves could be liable to prosecution (and presumably placement on the sex offenders’ registry) by accessing these sites for the purpose of advertising. Outreach health and social service workers who engage with sex workers through these sites, as well as sex industry researchers, would also be affected. It goes without saying that this proposal would require a significant expansion of the apparatus already in place to monitor Irish internet usage. 

Shockingly, these proposals received unanimous endorsement from the Committee – which includes Labour members Ivana Bacik, Anne Ferris and Seán Kenny; Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn; and independents Finian McGrath and Katherine Zappone, all of whom might have been expected to have at least some concerns for the civil rights and liberties that would be eviscerated by the recommendations. 

Of course, support for repressive legislation is nothing new among the Irish moderate-left. It was, after all, a Labour minister that extended Section 31 to ban Sinn Féin spokespersons from the airwaves, and Labour and some of the “left” independents vote to renew the Offences Against the State Act every year. But it is one thing to support measures like these against persons suspected of paramilitary or gangland involvement, and quite another to support them against persons who – in the ideology of those leading this campaign – are believed to be victims themselves. It is deeply ironic that at a time when the State is facing a multi-million euro payout to women of a previous generation whose human rights were suppressed in the name of “saving” them, an Oireachtas committee is now making new proposals to do the same.

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