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Criminalising purchase of sexual services is a daft idea, part infinity: enforcement issues

I wrote a bit about this here, but I’ve been having more thoughts about this lately and I think it’s worth a separate post about how problematic it’s going to be.

Not long ago, Swedish cop Kajsa Wahlberg visited Ireland on yet another PR junket to promote the law. In amongst the usual codswallop about trafficking reduction and sex workers not hating the law really, she made one interesting comment which was reported by Kitty Holland in the Irish Times but not, as far as I can tell, really noticed anywhere else:

She said it was resource intensive legislation, requiring many man-hours to track, locate and prosecute illegal trafficking and management of prostitution.

“It involves a lot of ‘listening in’ to conversations, translating. It is very resource intensive and very costly.”

Now the first problem with this ought to be obvious to anyone who’s followed the news in Ireland lately. Where exactly are we going to get all these “man-hours”? What crimes are we going to deprioritise so that the Gardaí have more time and money to peer into people’s bedrooms? True, there is provision in Budget 2016 for additional Garda resources, but the public seem pretty convinced there are nowhere near enough cops to deal with the things that are already illegal. It’s hard to imagine there’d be much support for giving them new – and “resource intensive” – offences to focus on, at the expense of their attention to burglaries and the like.

The reality, of course, is that our police won’t be spending a Swedish level of resources to enforce this law. They don’t have the power to do all the “listening in” the Swedes do (one of the reasons the PSNI told the Stormont Justice Committee the law would be pretty much unenforceable in the North, which, so far, it has been). And since the Minister sensibly didn’t accept the Oireachtas Justice Committee’s truly asinine proposal to treat people who visit escort sites the same as people who download child abuse images, they’re probably not going to be doing a lot more internet monitoring, either.

It strikes me that the most likely ways the law will be enforced are these:

Staking out known sex workers/“brothels”. This already happens to some extent; the Gardaí know – and keep an eye on – many of the premises regularly used for commercial sex, but don’t tend to disturb the occupants unless there are at least two sex workers there (bringing it within the common law definition of an illegal “brothel”). It’ll be a different story when the presence of even one person selling sex automatically means a crime is being committed.

Now since – and I know the law’s supporters have a tough time grasping this, but it’s really fairly obvious – sex workers like everyone else don’t want to lose income, which tends to happen when all their customers get arrested, a consequence of this is that many will feel they have to work in premises not known to the vice squad. As a practical matter, this usually means outcalls (in which they go to the client, rather than vice versa). It means they go to an unfamiliar location, where they don’t know who or what or how many people are waiting for them; where they can’t have an escape route mapped out in the event things go wrong. The Swedes admit that this has been an effect of the law, which is one of the reasons you know they’re lying when they claim it hasn’t made sex work more dangerous.

The other likely enforcement method is the sting operation: cops place fake ads, arrest people who answer them. The first consequence of this is that it will enormously strengthen the hand of sites like Escort Ireland, which clients will rely on to ensure the booking they make is legit. It will also make it harder for escorts to opt out of reviews – something I find particularly ironic in light of that odious Invisible Choice campaign (no, I’m not linking to it) which has nonsensically utilised the review as an argument for the Swedish model. And if they do this on a regular/sustained basis, it means that the women of An Garda Síochána (and there aren’t that many of them) will be disproportionately delegated to this particular line of duty. Not that I’d rather they were out bashing the heads of water protesters, you understand, but are these stings really the most appropriate use of their abilities? I mean, no little girl thinks “When I grow up I want to be a cop pretending to be a prostitute.”

Of course, the sting is already in use at street level – where buying sex has been effectively criminalised for 22 years under the soliciting law – and it hasn’t had any lasting deterrent effect there, so you’d wonder why people expect so much from the new law. A curious thing about which is that it will actually provide for a lower penalty than the existing soliciting law: the latter can you get you a Class D fine (€1,000) or four weeks in prison for a third offence, but under the new bill a Class D fine is as bad as it gets. So what the government’s doing is trying to “end demand” by introducing a less punitive variation of a law that’s already proven ineffective in ending demand. This is a notable and probably significant difference in context between Ireland and Sweden, where there was no criminalisation of clients until paying for sex was outlawed.

A few days ago, but after I wrote the above paragraphs, this article appeared in the Indo. It’s about the next report due out from the Oireachtas Justice Committee, which is expected to recommend limited decriminalisation of drugs. The different approach shown in these comments by Committee Chair David Stanton is striking:

Mr Stanton said he believed the model would free up garda and court resources to tackle drug dealers and traffickers rather than those using drugs recreationally.

“What we are talking about is radical and I don’t think we could have had this discussion 10 years ago, but I think it is definitely a system we should seriously consider,” he said.

“We should be targeting the serious dealers and traffickers and not spending our time and resources with some kid in the court system because they were caught with a joint,” he added.

Of course some of us were having this discussion 10 years ago, but he’s right that Irish parliamentarians couldn’t have been among them. Not because decriminalising drugs was any less worth considering then; not because there was any less evidence then of the harms of criminalisation nor, of course, because it wasn’t any less harmful. No, the discussion couldn’t be had 10 years ago because Irish society was still too mired in a drugs panic to think about the subject rationally. Sound familiar?

There’s one important difference, though. The crackdown on drug use, for all its serious flaws, did spring from a legitimately grassroots, community-based campaign. It happened because the Gardaí were (eventually) prodded into action by people who’d been seeing their families and neighbourhoods torn apart by drug addiction. The inevitable consequence of that action, that “fighting drugs” would become just another way to criminalise the working class, was assuredly not what they wanted; but they did, understandably, want some action to be taken against what was a genuine blight on their lives. There is no such grassroots call to criminalise sex workers’ clients: it’s a top-down, libfem NGO and convent-driven campaign against something that offends the campaigners’ moral and/or ideological sensibilities. When the ordinary people of County Louth have Adrian Crevan Mackins and things like this to worry about, do you think they want their local Gardaí spending time snooping around hotel rooms to arrest people having the wrong kind of sex? Has anyone bothered to ask them?

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About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

One response »

  1. Gaye Dalton Mariah Cahill has (publicly I’ve screenshots) offered to meet with a group of you – email her on mairia.cahill@oir.ie – and please try not to forget to protest the proposals to drastically increase the penalties for street workers, they are people too http://mymythbuster.wordpress.com/the-covert-recriminalistation-of-irish-street-workers/ and the deafening silence on this issue is starting to make me very angry.

    Reply

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