The Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) welcomes the news that the first country in Europe has decriminalised sex work. “Belgium has shown us that decriminalisation of sex work in Europe is possible and Ireland must sit up and pay attention to the mounting evidence that criminalisation of sex work creates vulnerability and increases violence.”
“Belgium has taken the historic step to ensure that sex workers’ safety is prioritised. By listening to sex workers and allies they removed sex work from criminal laws which allows it to be regulated like any other profession.”
These laws were brought in while increasing sentences for rape and centring consent within the law. Sex workers have been actively excluded from discussion on consent in Ireland which is extremely dangerous and short-sighted. The decriminalisation of sex work recognises in law that sex work and sex trafficking are separate. Laws that aim to reduce trafficking by “ending demand” for sex work, such as we have in Ireland, have led to sex workers becoming more vulnerable.
Belgium’s new laws state ensures that minors selling sex remains illegal as does pimping. The law now allows for sex workers to be legitimate employees, with all the rights granted to any other person in the labour force.
Allowing sex workers to legally hire 3rd parties such as accountants means that they are less open to exploitation. Sex work tends to be a cash business as banks in Belgium were prohibited from allowing sex workers to open an account. This law ensures sex workers can use banks and reduced the precarity that sex workers face. This also means that landlords are no longer prohibited from renting to sex workers. In Ireland, so-called Garda welfare checks have led to the eviction of a number of sex workers this winter.
Some aspects of the law remain a concern such as advertising remaining illegal. Bans on advertising lead to stigmatisation and sex workers being kicked off social media platforms. Without advertising some workers will be forced to return to outdoor working which is markedly less safe because sex workers have little time to screen their clients on the street.
We await the full details of this law but this news has given us hope while we await the overdue review of our own laws which has seen violence against sex workers increase by 92%. Sex workers deserve to be heard in Irish Society and Ireland must emulate Belgium by listening to active sex workers about what they need.