A major surge in harassment of sex workers following the introduction of the so-called ‘Swedish Model’ in Northern Ireland was among the main findings in a review of the impact of the legislation, Dr Caoimhe Ní Dhónaill, co-author of a report commissioned for the Northern Ireland Department of Justice said at a meeting in Dublin tonight (Sunday, October 6th).

The meeting was organised by Kate McGrew and the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland as one of the first in a series of six events related to a similar review in the Republic of Ireland.

Caoimhe Ní Dhonaíll, a Queens University Belfast based academic, said that the report, the first in any country to compare data both before and after introduction of the ‘Nordic model’, says there appears to have been no impact on the number of sex workers, while support services remain paltry.

“While levels of serious and violent crime appear to have remained static, responses from sex workers indicate that almost three quarters (73%) reported ‘abusive or threatening phonecalls’ in the past year, while half reported abusive or threatening behaviour. This compares with only one in eight reporting similar abuse in the previous five years.

“These findings are almost identical to those from Uglymugs, an organisation documenting sex worker health and safety, that between 2016 and 2018 self-reported assault increased by 225%, while ‘other sexual assault’ increased by 300%. This includes threatening to call landlord/police, threatening to damage the sex worker’s reputation and unauthorised photography as well as seeking free sex.

The report, ‘A Review of the Criminalisation of paying for Sexual Services in Northern Ireland,’ was published in September by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice. It showed only 11% of clients stated an intention to stop purchasing sex.

“Evidence from the Médecins du Monde study of similar French legislation introduced in 2016 suggests it has no effect on abusive or violent clients, rather it is those who are non-abusive and non-violent who seem to be dissuaded. We, therefore, may simply be placing sex workers in more danger by imposing the Nordic model.

“Commercial sex now seems much riskier and more underground than before the Nordic model. A law claiming to tackle violence against women appears to instead facilitate an unsafe work environment.

“Worrying evidence also emerged that it is mainly sex workers themselves rather than statutory agencies who provide help and assistance in the area. “Only a minority of sex workers in the Northern Ireland survey accessed of Women’s Aid or Ruhama. Considerably more engaged with UglyMugs.ie and Sex Workers’ Alliance Ireland (SWAI), both based outside the jurisdiction.

“Neither does the law seems to have impacted on numbers entering sex work. 35 people started selling sex after the legislation was implemented in June 2015 which represents 21.6% of those that responded to this particular question. An estimated 308 sex workers are advertising across Northern Ireland on a daily basis, showing no reduction from figures cited in official research in 2014.

It also appears that many people dip in and out of sex work as need and circumstance dictate. For example, 39.4% of respondents had left for periods of up to six months but then returned,” Caoimhe Ní Dhónail said.

“The government here should instigate similar detailed research as part of the review of legislation in the Republic of Ireland,” Kate McGrew, Director, Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, said in response.

“Legislation here follows the same Swedish Model approach that is clearly shown in Northern Ireland to be grossly defective. SWAI is increasingly aware of safety and health concerns affecting sex workers, particularly those working alone. The government must not continue to turn a blind eye to the facts,” she said.

“The national coordination body for police services in the UK, The National Police Chiefs Council, has advised UK police services not to equate all sex work with trafficking in its operational guidance issued in January 2019. It is time that the law here also clearly separates sex work that women undertake by their own decision from instances of trafficking and other abuses,” she said.

Sex Workers Alliance Ireland welcomes the judgement today Friday September 23rd, in the Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast, to allow sex worker Laura Lee to proceed with her Judicial Review challenge of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. Lee’s legal team argued that the recent law passed in Northern Ireland which criminalizes the purchase of sex is an infringement on her human rights, her labour rights and her ability to keep herself safe in her work. The case will also challenge pre-existing brothel keeping legislation. This judgement means the case is allowed to progress further to a full hearing of all arguments.

Speaking from a meeting of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, SWAI Coordinator Kate McGrew said. “SWAI fully supports and commends Laura Lee in her legal fight. The Government here in the South is set to pass similar criminal proposals in Part IV of the Sexual Offences Bill. These proposals do not decriminalise workers as supporters of the Bill will claim. The vast majority of workers, those working together for safety, and the most vulnerable workers, those working on the street, remain criminalised and actually will face steeper penalties. SWAI opposes these proposals entirely, as it forces sex workers underground. It gives clients more bargaining power, as the clients’ protection from arrest becomes the priority for both parties. Laws like this force the transaction to happen in unfamiliar environments further away from authorities and support services, therefore giving impunity to perpetrators posing as clients, whilst enforcing criminal sanctions that prevent workers from safely accessing the justice system. We urge Governments North and South to actually speak to, listen and learn from the experiences of current sex workers before introducing any new laws or policies. Evidence based policy developed with sex workers is the only way to ensure the rights, safety and health of sex workers are protected”.

Luca Stevenson Coordinator of ICRSE said, “ICRSE supports any sex worker who takes the brave step to challenge criminal laws which are detrimental to their safety and rights. Laura Lee’s case challenges the Northern Irish Government on the basis of her human rights protected by European Law. This case therefore could have a wider impact on the rights of sex workers in other European States and we will be monitoring it closely. Our members across Europe face criminal laws likes these everyday, forcing them to work in unsafe conditions and put them at risk of violence and abuse. Governments need to accept that criminalising sex work is not working. Its hurting people”.