Why decriminalising sex work is a feminist issue

Anna Lyons explores the criminalisation of sex work in Ireland and why decriminalisation may in fact be in the best interest of those who work in the industry

What is it about women’s bodies that have made them subject to continuous scrutiny, objectification and control? Like many other feminist issues, people can be quick to put sex workers in a box, to label them as “good” or “bad”, to blame them for the exploitation of sex as a commodity, or to vouch that they should simply quit the profession. The view of sex work as black and white and the belief that sex work is always a choice is a simplistic stance that ignores the nuanced realities of working in the sex industry. 

So what exactly is sex work, and what does the decriminalisation of it look like? Sex work is employment in the sex industry, which can include direct or indirect contact or communication between buyers and sellers. Sex work only refers to voluntary transactions between consenting adults. The decriminalisation of sex work calls for the removal of all laws and policies that make sex work a criminal offence. In the Irish context, these offences are detailed in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, and criminalise acts such as the selling, buying or organising of sex work, as well as solicitation, renting premises, or “brothel keeping”. However, the question begs as to whether criminalising sex work is a progressive step in protecting those in the industry. 

The question proves one of the most divisive within the feminist discourse – to criminalise or not to criminalise – with Ireland being no stranger to that debate. Ireland’s current legislation has been criticised for being out of date and for not considering much of what sex work entails, such as selling nude images and porn. However, the legislation may in fact work against the people which it claims to protect. A key argument within feminist discourse for the decriminalisation of sex work is that of self-determination, which holds that allowing women the power to choose what they do with their bodies is an act of empowerment, and not something that should be restricted by others. According to the argument of self-determination, decriminalising sex work fosters some of the core values of feminism like responsibility, self-esteem, empowerment and self-care. 

Yet sex work is not as simple as a matter of empowerment or restriction. The context in which sex work takes place needs to be considered. The decision to sell sex isn’t necessarily always a choice made out of a feeling of enhanced body positivity and autonomy. Although this may be the case, it can also largely be influenced by economic necessity. In reality, most sex workers are women, and many choose the profession because of poverty. On top of that, women are more likely to earn less, exacerbating issues such as poverty, which is already at a high due to the economic crisis, and making them more likely to avail of less traditional means of making an income. Sex workers in Ireland are subject to a range of human rights abuses mainly from people they meet as their clients. These include physical attacks and threats, sexual violence, theft, stalking, verbal abuse and harassment. The reality is that many sex workers live in poverty, and their work can leave them vulnerable and exposed to abuse, putting these people in particularly precarious and marginalised positions within society. Criminalising people who sell sex in these circumstances may only perpetuate this marginalisation. 

This marginalisation and stigmatisation of sex workers is undeniable. It was only upon reading an interview with Irish influencer Keelin Moncrieff, who has worked on OnlyFans, that I realised just how nuanced the arguments for and against decriminalisation were. While Keelin held that: “There is nothing shameful about having to resort to any sort of sex work as a means of living”, it was also necessary to examine “the structures that puts people in that financial situation in the first place.” She also held that while sex work “can empower individually… it is not empowering collectively”, and in place of empowerment, what Keelin gained from her time in the industry was the reinforcement of the belief that men think they own women’s bodies: “That they deserved it and this is the only thing we’re good for.” 

Perhaps the self-determination narrative is quite a privileged view to take on sex work, and maybe ignorantly turns a blind eye to the circumstances in which sex work often takes place: in a system of oppression. But whether through motivation of empowerment or economic necessity, there is an argument for decriminalisation in both circumstances. At the moment, the criminalisation of sex work has dire effects on those who choose the trade. Sex workers have a lack of adequate and accessible housing because landlords can be prosecuted for renting premises to sex workers. They fear reporting crimes to authorities. Aspects of provisions on sex work such as brothel keeping, prevent sex workers from working together, placing them in increasingly unsafe positions. As well as that, sex workers have less access to healthcare. While decriminalising sex work wouldn’t necessarily fix all of these issues, it would certainly be a step in the right direction. 

“Perhaps the self-determination narrative is quite a privileged view to take on sex work, and maybe ignorantly turns a blind eye to the circumstances in which sex work often takes place: in a system of oppression”

Meanwhile, there have been strong arguments against the decriminalisation of sex work, such as those made by the Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik, who sees sex work as sexual exploitation. This argument is based on the idea that the decriminalisation of sex work would in fact provide grounds for further harassment and abuse to take place, and that this could encourage trafficking and legitimise those who exploit women for profit. These arguments have some merit: the system of sex work is often exploited by those who profit from the commodification of women’s bodies. However, what does keeping it a criminal offence do for those who bear the brunt of the issue and have to endure the industry’s most perilous consequences? Yes, those who exploit sex work must be dealt with, but we can’t make the marginalised suffer even more as a result. While sex work may not be empowering for many, criminalising it only further leaves people on the outskirts of society and places increased barriers in place for them in accessing their fundamental rights. 

“What does keeping it a criminal offence do for those who bear the brunt of the issue and have to endure the industry’s most perilous consequences?”

The dialogue of shame has always followed women and their bodies around. A woman’s social and sexual experience is constructed as part of her identity, and in such a way, she becomes less valued when she does not comply with norms. Criminalising sex work inherently stigmatises it. While the arguments for the criminalisation of sex work may have the good of the women and people who do these jobs in mind, these arguments don’t go nearly far enough in protecting the rights of the people at the front line. The reality is that sex work happens, whether out of choice or necessity. While there are still systems in place where some people have to resort to sex work as a means of income, it is counterproductive to criminalise it. Before even thinking about its criminalisation, we must collectively take a look at the wider systems in place which make sex work a necessity for many.

Anna Lyons

Anna Lyons is the Sex and Relationships Editor at Trinity News and is currently in her Senior Sophister Year studying Law and Business.