Should the purchase of sex be illegal?

What we really need is the end of poverty and the socio-economic conditions that make the sex trade so profitable


Were the motorcar to be banned, it would stand to reason that manufacturers in the automotive industry would stop shelling out hundreds of millions of euros on top-dollar advertising. This would be the same for any industry throughout the economy if the product itself could no longer be sold. Sex, however, owing to it being one of the primal drives of the human psyche, has flouted and will always flout this marketplace law.

Sex and sex appeal sell. Marketing departments and advertising agencies have used sex to sell everything from cheap deodorant to new cars, and all because they understand that in one way or another, the consumer wants to buy sex. As Avenue Q lyrically pointed out, it’s no secret that the demand for online pornography is almost limitless, making porn a ubiquitous fact of the internet. Worldwide, the porn industry, an industry to which both the sale and purchase of sex are indispensable, is worth in excess of $97 billion, and whether we like it or not, its online demand and consumption makes every online viewer complicit in the sex trade.

Of course, when we ask about the legality of the purchase of sex we aren’t really interested in pornography. We’re talking about prostitution: the exchange of money or something else of value between persons for the performance of a sex act, even though the distinction between this and pornography is paper thin.

By and large our society has made its peace with pornography, but it remains squeamish when it comes to the more private, less voyeuristic – one for everyone in the audience – reality of prostitution. Historically our Western legal systems have treated it as the sin of fallen women leading men astray – assuming most prostitutes to be women – and so it was the seller and not the weak-willed buyer who felt the force of the law. Syphilis and ultimately the need to keep easily led soldiers fighting fit finally put an end to medieval Europe’s relative comfort with prostitution, and naturally it was the female seller who was demonised and criminalised.

Centuries of legislation, censure, and changing social norms have failed to end prostitution. Instead it has thrived in brothels, private apartments, and on street corners – maintaining, for the most part, an undisturbed relationship with the economic conditions of those involved. With very few exceptions buyers buy when they have expendable income, and sellers sell when they are in financial want.

Global income inequality, coupled with the lucrativeness of the sex trade, has fuelled an international slave trade. Highly organised criminal gangs have amassed fortunes by trafficking women and children across borders for sale as prostitutes in wealthier countries. Risking punishments of increasing severity, these thugs are prepared to continue their business because the demand for sex makes their efforts worthwhile. Every year during the Super Bowl in the United States, for example, arrests pertaining to human trafficking offences spike. The last time Ireland’s soccer team played in Poznan it was reported by the authorities there that women from around Poland travelled to the city to satisfy the expected demand for sex, and many of these women were either trafficked or engaging in casual prostitution to supplement low incomes.

Yes, it’s true – as it is with all rules – that there are exceptions, but in the main, the supply side of the prostitution equation is linked to poverty. More enlightened and compassionate social thinking in North America and Europe since the 1970s has put greater emphasis on understanding the plight of prostituted people, giving attention to the complex reasons behind the sale and purchase of sex, and the causes and nature of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Changes in legislation and social policy in various places – Ireland included – have reflected these developments. Yet the shift in the focus of criminal justice systems from the seller to the buyer has not been without its difficulties.

Following two years of consultation, the International Council Meeting (ICM) of Amnesty International voted in favour of a policy advocating the complete decriminalisation of prostitution and all forms of sex work last August in Dublin. This massively controversial position, supported also by Human Rights Watch, has flown in the face of Irish government plans to legislate against the purchase of sex in the state and the abolitionist Turn Off The Red Light campaign, which has been headed by the Immigrant Council of Ireland with the broad support of women’s organisations and trade unions.

Quite rightly, Amnesty, in its official statement on the 11 August ICM decision, said that “Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse”. While the objectives of safeguarding the human rights of prostituted persons and furthering the global fight against human trafficking are to be commended, the trouble begins for this line of argument when it comes to defining who is and is not a “sex worker”.

In the Twitter storm that erupted as a consequence of the Dublin vote, many Twitter users who spoke out in support of Amnesty identified themselves as sex workers. What was noticeable, however, was that without exception these people, predominantly from Los Angeles, New York, and London, fit the category of the so-called high-class escort; mostly young, educated women in reasonably comfortable circumstances with access to other opportunities who chose sex work. As previously mentioned, these sex workers are by no means representative of the majority of people in prostitution.

César Sandino, in a 2012 article for The Prisma, observed that in Britain, over seventy percent of sex workers were young single mothers who were not in receipt of social welfare. Economic depression and a government policy of benefit sanctioning have severely reduced the income and employment opportunities of people pushed into poverty, and have made sex work more a necessity than a choice. Other research across Europe and the United States – based on the testimonies of people involved or formerly involved in street prostitution and the organisations that work with them – draws much the same picture. Around sixty to seventy percent of sex workers are motivated by extreme poverty and the need to care for dependent children, and the greater part of the remainder by varying degrees of poverty and alcohol or drug addiction. Those not driven by poverty and addiction – the “high-class” escorts – account for a tiny minority of the whole internationally.

Moreover, as discussed in some depth by Catherine Arnold in her 2010 book City of Sin: London and its Vices, the high-class call girl or courtesan (in the historical rather than the pejorative sense) has, with the protection of people in high places, never truly been the subject of concerted legal censure. This is evident in both Britain and Ireland in the preponderance of websites advertising escort services.

In a number of instances support for Amnesty’s proposal came from others who openly admitted to being “in management”. The proliferation of urban based escort agencies in what is a highly profitable industry has meant that those who had been heretofore labelled “pimps” – responsible for sexual exploitation, sometimes trafficking, and sometimes the procurement of the trafficked – have been able to successfully rebrand themselves as sex industry administrators, and therefore sex workers.

The inconvenient fact of the insidiousness of the organised criminal element throughout the entire sex industry has returned already to haunt Amnesty. Indeed, Amnesty International did consult with sex workers and human rights organisations. It just so happened that one of those human rights organisations, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), had a problem. Its vice-president, Alejandra Gil, was a “sex worker” who was convicted and imprisoned for fifteen years after these consultations for human trafficking.

Of course an incident like this might be explained by saying that Gil was one bad apple who was ultimately caught and brought to justice – if it were not for the fact that her influence on Amnesty and others was significant, to say the least. Writing for The Guardian (22 October 2015) Kat Banyard broke it down:

“Amnesty’s draft policy also cites as evidence a report written by the NSWP; a report annexe written by the UNAids ‘advisory group on HIV and sex work’ – which is co-chaired by the NSWP; and a World Health Organisation (WHO) report in which Gil is personally acknowledged as one of the ‘experts’ who helped develop its recommendations.”

Hidden in plain sight as legitimate sex workers, characters like Gil, who was convicted for the sexual exploitation of over two hundred women, are free in a climate of libertarian ethics to infiltrate otherwise well-meaning organisations to further their business agendas for the legitimisation of what amounts to a slave trade. Revelations of this nature alone should be enough for Amnesty to rethink its recent policy decision. Everyone makes mistakes.

Back in July 2015 Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York, tweeted (@KenRoth, 31 July): “It’s a bad option, but if no coercion, who are we to deny poor women the option of sex work?” along with a titillating image of a young woman in her underwear enjoying a cigarette. Roth, a Yale Law School graduate and former US federal prosecutor, when speaking of poverty and prostituted women – while reducing them to the caricature of the “Happy Hooker” – betrays his ignorance of the economics of prostitution for the poor. Perhaps it is easy to think this on a salary of $345,000 per annum.

In 2008 it was reported in the Independent that a half hour “service” with a Dublin escort cost €150, but today according to the prices listed on the same website quoted by the paper that has fallen to €50. It has to be assumed that the women are either worth-less, or the going rate reflects the reduced state of the national economy. It is to be remembered as well that this is at the “high” end of the industry.

Where EU-directed austerity has hit harder, the picture is worse. In November of last year, a flurry of reports on prostitution in Greece revealed that more extreme hardship had pushed the cost of sex down as low as €2 per session, with many sex workers operating on the streets of Athens exchanging sex for something to eat. The only available conclusion here is that prostitution is not a way out of poverty. At best it is a dehumanising act of desperation.

Should then the buyer rather than the vendor be punished? It is hard to say. The reasons why men – and some women – pay for sex are as complex as the reasons others sell it, and arguments claiming that all buyers are rapists are too simplistic. There is some merit to the position that complete – and enforced – criminalisation will merely drive the sex trade further underground, putting already vulnerable people in more danger.

It does seem to be the case that both sides of this discussion are responding to a wider political red herring. Centuries of the criminalisation of the sale of sex have done nothing more than put the predominantly female sellers in jail. A shift in focus to the buyer will result only in buyers going to jail. In either case someone is going to jail, because prostitution is not going anywhere. As a consequence of poverty – national and international – prostitution is here to stay until its underlying causes have been addressed.

As a motion to criminalise the purchase of sex gets closer to the chamber of Dáil Éireann, what we are actually witnessing on the side of the abolitionists and on that of those seeking full decriminalisation is a diversionary tactic. Neither position truly has the capability of ridding Ireland or indeed the world of sexual exploitation, abuse, and human trafficking. What is needed, and what is capable of bringing about this change is the end of poverty and the socio-economic conditions that make the sex trade so profitable. This, we must fear, is the real pipedream. Too many powerful individuals and institutions – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch included – are invested in this system.