If you pay for it, you are now a criminal

Clause 15 of Lord Morrow’s Anti-Trafficking Act came into force a few hours ago, here. This makes it a criminal offence to pay by money, goods or services, for sexual services in N Ireland. It remains legal to sell such services. Previously, it was illegal to buy sexual services from a trafficked person; now there is blanket criminalisation. The expressed intent behind the Act is to reduce or eliminate the trafficking of women into prostitution.

Human trafficking is a complex subject, and includes concepts including coercion, deceit, chattel slavery, debt bondage, blackmail, illegal entry to a country, transport (either locally or trans-nationally), sexual exploitation, forced organ donation, and forced marriage. As an illegal activity, statistics about the numbers of trafficked persons are very uncertain, and at best are estimates. Trafficking is to be distinguished from ‘people smuggling’, where the participants are volunteers in an activity which is illegal. In some jurisdictions the elements of ‘coercion’ are absent from the definition; such ‘victims’ of trafficking may be willing volunteers.

Human trafficking is an absolute moral outrage because it denies an individual’s personal autonomy and agency (and all that entails) and is thus condemned absolutely by all right-thinking people. People who have been trafficked are involved with work in domestic servitude, work in agriculture in the broadest sense, and in sex work.

The Act introduces the ‘Swedish’ model, introduced there in 1999 and designed to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants and trafficked people. Radical feminists (SWERFs) in Sweden believed that all heterosexual intercourse was violence towards women; such trafficked women were therefore being raped, and if the women thought otherwise then they were suffering from ‘false consciousness’. The ‘Swedish’ model was also designed to ‘end demand’. Attempts to introduce the Swedish model to Scotland and to England and Wales have failed.

Official reports from Sweden indicate that this approach has been successful. As no comparable statistics were kept before this model was introduced, such success is uncertain. It seems clear, however, that street-based sex workers there have moved indoors, a move facilitated by the internet.

There are two other (major) legal approaches to prostitution; in the US it is illegal to both sell and to buy sexual services. Despite this, the ‘industry’ seems to be flourishing. Alternatively, sex work and prostitution has been decriminalised in New Zealand for just over a decade. This has not been followed by the mass immigration of people seeking such work.

One of the drivers of prostitution is (women’s) poverty which, historically can be related to the patriarchy and the second-class status of women. Organisations that exist to ‘rescue’ such ‘prostituted women’ offer services such as shelter, and the opportunity for other work, possibly in a minimum-wage job where they can earn perhaps a tenth of what they did previously.

The numbers of people trafficked into sex work in N Ireland is uncertain, but is quite probably small. Many or most such providers seem to be independent. It is a measure of the extent and magnitude of continuing patriarchal attitudes that such independent women are assumed to be lacking in agency, and therefore to be in need of ‘rescue’. Further, the conflation of prostitution and trafficking has the features of a moral panic. (While confining myself to the common pattern of female provider and male client, there are other varieties.)

During consideration in the Justice Committee at Stormont, Mr P Givan said that further ‘evidence wasn’t necessary’. However, the Department of Justice did commission a report, here: this is the best evidence to date of the extent and nature of prostitution in N Ireland. It includes the thoughts of providers themselves, a group barely recognised by the Committee.

The Act does not address the rights of sex workers, or their working conditions; prostitution must be the only occupation where the law requires that workers must work alone—for otherwise they would be seen as keeping a brothel, an illegal activity. Laura Lee, a sex worker and activist, addressed these concerns on Slugger, here; a recent article continues these concerns, and others such as the effects of ‘austerity’; a disturbing read perhaps, but without hearing both ‘sides’ how can there be an informed, rational debate? (Laura Lee is to challenge the Act in the Courts, here.)

The Act does not criminalise those who buy domestic services or agricultural services from trafficked people; these groups are estimated to be the areas where most trafficked people work. No reason is given for this disparity. But, you might guess, it’s all about sex, and the ‘right kind’ of sex at that. If the origins of the Act are in anti-trafficking measures, it’s clear that the real, espoused, underlying message is ‘end demand’ and the control of who may have sex with whom. As with ‘equal marriage’ and abortion, this message is determined by a particular, fundamentalist-religious view of sex and morality.

Professor Robert Bartlett’s series on the Making of the Medieval Mind gives an excellent background to the religious sentiment of those times, distinct echoes of which are still heard; it’s available here, and well worth an hour of your time. (Lacock Abbey is more familiar as the home of William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the negative/positive photographic process.) This is also useful.

As from today, if you are a man who takes a woman out for dinner, and pays for it, and perhaps gives her a small present, and afterwards return to hers where the inevitable happens, then you are now a criminal. If you are a man of means, and keep a mistress, you too are a criminal, as is the woman who subsidises her ‘toy boy’. And what of Game of Thrones? Do we really expect the PSNI to monitor consensual activities, and for the sunday tabloids to ‘name and shame’ miscreants? Is this a triumph for the theocracy, of belief over fact?

King Canute had to sit at the shore to show the barons the limits of his power; he could no more force the incoming tide back than he could ‘end demand’.

A much longer version is available here.

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