Turn off the red light

The prostitution industry in Ireland is worth an estimated €180 million a year. This money is made through the sexual exploitation of women and girls, the majority of whom are migrants. Denise Charlton, CEO of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, assesses the Swedish legislation on prostitution and how it is yielding impressive results in combating human trafficking.

The most effective, proven way to tackle sex trafficking is by discouraging demand for prostitution. Various international treaties endorsed by the Irish State oblige us to introduce measures discouraging demand for the services of trafficked people. To this day we have not responded adequately to these obligations. Ireland has a substantial - and apparently resilient - sex industry that does not show signs of economic decline during the present crisis. The reason for this may be related to the fact that the sex industry has already spread to every corner of the country and has become accepted in people’s minds as a normal feature of everyday life. I hope not. Our legislative tolerance of indoor prostitution really doesn’t help. Based on the understanding that the buying and selling of sex is a private matter between two consenting adults, provided this transaction is hidden from the public, the legislators of the early 1990s did not (and probably could not) anticipate the profound consequences the Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 would have in the era of globalisation, increased migration and technology. Ireland appears to be caught in a trap that was prepared back in 1993 when the law was passed.

It should be noted though that the increased indoor prostitution Ireland has experienced is not an isolated phenomenon but rather mirrors what is happening in other Western developed countries. One feature these countries share is the overwhelming majority of migrant women involved in indoor prostitution. According to research published by the Immigrant Council of Ireland in 2009, the annual value of the Irish indoor sex trade could be placed at €180 million a year, while up to 97% of women involved are migrant women.

There is one country however that has markedly low levels of indoor and outdoor prostitution, and that has very few migrant women in this ‘line of business’. That country is Sweden. It is clear that what has shielded the Swedish state from this, to put it mildly, unpleasant development is the law they put in place which penalises demand for paid sex. Recently, an official Irish delegation sponsored by the Dignity Project had the opportunity to gather firsthand impressions from the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

Dignity is the initiative of two Irish NGOs, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and Dublin Employment Pact, whose ideas were approved and awarded a grant by the EC Daphne III programme. The money facilitated the anti-human trafficking work of a wide range of statutory and NGO partners who sought to establish a seamless protection service for the victims of sex trafficking. It was this line of work that brought the partners to Sweden.

The Irish group was received by the Swedish national Rapporteur on Prostitution and Sex Trafficking, Kasja Wahlberg; the Chancellor of Justice Anna Skarhead (who completed the evaluation of the ten-year-old prostitution legislation last June); and the coordinator of the Stockholm prostitution unit Patric Cederlof. They spoke individually and from their own perspectives about the situation regarding commercial sex in Sweden.

Since 1999, the number of persons exploited in street prostitution in Sweden has halved. In neighbouring countries such as Denmark and Norway the number of people engaged in street prostitution has increased threefold. Notably, in Sweden, unlike any other country in Europe, there has not been a marked increase in indoor prostitution. The comparison between Amsterdam with its estimated 20,000 ‘sex workers’ and Stockholm with its 200 people in prostitution is staggering, bearing in mind both cities have similar populations. While prostitution through the internet has increased in Sweden, as it has everywhere, due to developments in technology, the number of individuals sold via the internet remains much higher in neighbouring countries.

The evaluators of the Swedish law conclude that the prohibition of paid sex has deterred the establishment of organised crime networks, including traffickers and pimps. The police corroborate on this conclusion by reporting intercepted phone conversations between organised criminals to the effect that the country is not seen as a ‘profitable market’. Surveys indicate that only 8% of men purchased sex in 2008 as opposed to 13.6% before the law came into force. There is no evidence that prostitution has gone underground or that conditions have worsened for those in prostitution, while at the same time the law enforcement works very well according to the relevant agencies and to the evaluation report.

At the time of its introduction, the rationale for the legislation in Sweden was rooted in gender equality and an acceptance that prostitution was a form of violence against women. Nowadays, it is clear that laws on prostitution have a direct impact on the problem of human trafficking for sexual exploitation and that any serious efforts to prevent sex trafficking have to be part of the overall measures to tackle prostitution in general.

The Swedish experience left a deep impression on the Irish delegates from the Dignity group, who encounter every day the devastating impacts of sex trafficking and prostitution. The first big step was the acknowledgement that there is a solution and that this solution requires action. The Immigrant Council of Ireland, together with other Dignity partners such as Ruhama and Sonas Housing, and with a wide coalition of diverse social movements, networks, unions and umbrellas launched the national campaign Turn Off the Red Light to lobby the Government to change the relevant law in line with the Swedish approach. Inaction equals acceptance of the thousands of daily transactions between local men with cash and migrant women with limited choices. The supporters of the Turn off the Red Light campaign want to place Ireland among the countries turning their backs on prostitution and on the outdated views of it as a ‘necessary evil’ or the ‘oldest profession’.

Lately, there are more and more people accepting the obvious rationality of the Swedish approach to tackling prostitution by curbing the demand for paid sex. While at first only a few Nordic countries saw the potential of these measures, there appears now to be a wider understanding that this is the only way forward if societies are determined to take on the sex trade. Today, there are campaigns, such as Stop Prostitution in Argentina and End the Demand in NYC in the United States of America, turning the public’s attention to the role played by sex buyers in the spread of sex trafficking in their countries. The recent American appeals echo those from Northern Europe and make the ‘new’ voice of people, who endeavour to see the end of commercial sexual exploitation, loud enough to be heard by legislators.

To find out more about the Turn Off the Red Light campaign click here.


[Image top via keepwaddling1 on Flickr]