The Phil debates the legalisation of sex work in Ireland

Last week’s controversial debate on legalising sex work was a success for the Phil as their first debate of the term

Last week, the University Philosophical Society held their first debate of the term in the GMB. The debate’s motion, “This House Would Legalise Sex Work”, was starkly different from last week’s comedy debate on “This House Believes Size Matters”. This perfectly encapsulates the scope of issue covered in Phil debates throughout the year. A variety of guest speakers experienced with the issue spoke passionately on the motion.

Up to the podium first and opening the debate as a whole was Kate McGrew- the director of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland. McGrew spoke about Sweden’s sex industry model and how it is so often praised — these laws are held high above the standard of current regulations affecting sex workers in Ireland. “Sex workers need labour rights”, argued McGrew. She asked the NGO Ruhama — and Senator Ivana Bacik, to sit down with sex workers and to negotiate and properly examine the issue. “We must afford people in sex work labour rights”, McGrew drew her speech to a close by saying that full decriminalisation of sex work would be the only solution to the numerous problems that sex workers in Ireland face.Opening the argument for the opposition was Senator and Trinity Professor of Law Ivana Bacik. Bacik began her debate by refuting the claim that she was a “bourgeois feminist” which she has been called due to her stance on sex work. Bacik pointed out that she believed in the argument of autonomy and choice but that she did not agree with the term “sex work”, and that she viewed it instead as “sexual exploitation”. It was her opinion that the women she knew and talked with on this issue were forced into this work. Bacik drew the audiences attention towards the Swedish model of law surrounding sex work, with regard to how now the selling of sex is decriminalised for those selling it, but still is illegal on the end of the purchaser, and how this was seen as progressive in comparrison to Irish law. This was an element which interested her as a policy maker. Bacik recalled the woman she met who had been brutalised and abused during their time in sex work, and closed her argument by saying, “We’ve legalised abortion in Ireland — it was a victory for bodily autonomy, it was a victory of choice. It is not a feminist victory to win the right for men to buy our bodies”.

Neasa Ní Fheinneadha from Ruhama spoke in opposition to the motion. Ruhama is an NGO that supports women who have been affected by prostitution and sex trafficking. Ní Fheinneadha began by saying that she works with over 300 women each year: seeing these women being abused, forced into sex work and raped were what led her to stand with the opposition. Victims of trafficking — “the most vulnerable women in this trade” — are the women that she primarily deals with in her role. She spoke strongly about the position of these women in Irish society. “Fully controlled, trafficked and women who are in this trade by choice” are all different types of women with different circumstances for entering into sex work, but “it’s the women in traffiking that we need to protect with these laws”.

One student who spoke pointed out that sex work is not only prostitution — it’s selling nude images, porn, being a “sugar daddy” or a “sugar baby”, and so on. They stated that they believed that the Irish legislation and laws that deal with prostitution are unfair and out of date, and looked at how we go about legalising sex work. They advocated for licensing and regulation that is feasible. They ended their speech quickly but were met by rapturous applause from the audience.

Lucie McKnight, the Phil’s own Debates Convenor spoke for the opposition and opened her debate strongly by saying that the law is wrong- however she also felt that changing it in the current climate would be harmful, as we live in a state that does not believe or want to listen to sex workers. “A bias exists in government and in society against sex work”, argued McKnight, claiming that “until our government gets it right, we cannot move forward”.

Up last for the proposition was Evgeny Shtorn, representing MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland). Shtorn claimed that the young boys and men he knows who are involved in sex work have been forced into it due to the opressive system of Direct Provision and how little they have to live on. They chose this line of work, he said, because of the institutional poverty in our society and the lack of other options and avenues open to them to earn a livable wage. “There is no need to implement legislation that will hurt these people, they are already at risk”, said Shtorn as he called for the end of Direct Provision, the legalisation of sex work, and other things that he felt would protect the most vulnerable in society.

Closing the debate was Aislinn Carty, arguing for the opposition and also a member of the Phil committee. Carty called on the fall of the motion if it would protect the majority. Carty spoke about the lines of consent becoming blurred when monetary transaction is involved- that money is power, so the woman loses her power to the man who has paid her. Bloom challenged her view on this. Carty apologised for any miscommunication and spoke about the impact of this power imbalance, and how logistical issues of this affects sex workers, and that it leaves them in vulnerable positions. “We need to revisit the legislation,” said Carty as she summed up her argument that legalising and decriminalising were not the same thing, and urged the audience to consider opposing the motion.

As the controversial debate concluded, the Phil President, Ryan Grunwell, asked the audience to vote either for or against the motion. The motion passed to applause from the audience and the debate officially came to an end.

Niamh Herbert

Niamh Herbert is a Deputy Comment Editor of Trinity News.