04 December 2012


'The sex trade in Northern Ireland: the creation of a moral panic' (Institute of Criminology & Criminal Justice School of Law Queen’s University, Belfast Working Paper, December 2012) by Graham Ellison concisely questions the moral panic about 'body work' in Northern Ireland.

Ellison comments that
Sex work or prostitution – the term varies depending on one’s ideological leaning – has once again been thrust into the spotlight in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking Bill that has attracted intense publicity, including a recent BBC documentary. This Bill includes a raft of provisions to support victims of human trafficking, but the main focus of attention is Clause 4, which for the first time makes it a criminal offence to pay for sex using the services of a sex worker. The rationale here is that this will reduce ‘demand’ and sex workers will simply have to down tools and find something else to do with their time. However, Northern Ireland already has fairly robust penalties in place to deal with sexual trafficking: Since 2009 it is already an offence (punishable by a jail term) to knowingly procure sexual services from a trafficked victim, while existing law (rightfully) prohibits sexual activity with someone who is underage or otherwise vulnerable.
He argues, persuasively and concisely, that the law
is not required, conflates two very different issues (prostitution and trafficking), is premised on a particular abolitionist view of sex work that does not address the complexity of the issues; and is out of line with policy developments occurring elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Does Northern Ireland need this law? My answer is ‘No’ for the simple reason that the PSNI have enough powers to deal with trafficking and those who have been coerced into prostitution.
Ellison comments that
A similar proposal has already been rejected across the water by the Scottish Parliament (though a private members bill there is trying to slip it in by the back door) and also by the Westminster Parliament who felt that it was unworkable and ultimately counter-productive. In spite of all the fantasy stories about sexual trafficking into Northern Ireland there have been two prosecutions in the past decade, though it is debatable to what degree coercion or forced movement was involved in one of these cases (the technical definition of trafficking according to the Palermo Protocol). Lord Morrow’s Bill conflates (and confuses) prostitution with trafficking on the grounds that by removing one you also remove the other: In other words demand will fall. This is another conjecture.
There is not the slightest scrap of evidence that this law will have any effect on demand for the simple reason that prostitution and trafficking are different activities. Only a small minority of victims are trafficked globally for sexual exploitation; the biggest single arena for forced trafficking concerns seasonal agricultural labour. Would anyone seriously recommend ‘abolishing’ the agriculture industry in order to get rid of trafficking into the sector? Many immigrants to the UK (from recent EU accession states) have restrictions placed on where they can work, and at what. Ultimately debates about trafficking into the UK are ultimately debates about immigration; they have little if anything to do with sexual exploitation. In any case, there is strong evidence that for the determined trafficker tougher penalties increase the rewards: The higher the risk the more lucrative in financial terms the endeavour can be.
He goes on to argue that the proposed law
reflects a particular abolitionist perspective that draws on a strand of radical feminism and far-right Christian fundamentalism(that also adopts a particular stance on creationism, homosexuality, faith schools etc.). These have become joined in a rather unholy alliance. Abolitionists want to eradicate the entire sex industry (including pornography and what they perceive as other vices) and argue that all commercial sex equates to ‘rape’ pure and simple. They hold this to be the case for even consensual sexual commerce encounters. This is a position held by the PSNI who also adhere to this abolitionist perspective, with a number of senior officers also linking prostitution and rape.
He offers the mordant comment that
For abolitionists there can be no debate about this: Sex work should be made illegal with some even suggesting that men who pay for sex should be placed on the sex offenders register for life. However, at the extreme end of the scale a number of abolitionists go further and argue that ALL sexual activity that involves penetration – including consensual sex between husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend – can be characterised as rape and extreme violence against women. This of course is an ideological argument grounded in a particular view of patriarchal relations that I cannot address here, but it also suggests a rather narrow reading of sex work and in particular the ability of women (and men) to make choices. Speaking of men, where do male sex workers– either as providers to other men, or providers to women – feature in this abolitionist analysis? The short answer is that they don’t. More generally, however, this abolitionist perspective homogenises all sex work as involving the same characteristics and focuses almost exclusively street prostitution – but this represents only an estimated 10-15% of the total. It is, however, the aspect of sex work that can cause major problems, in terms of residents’ complaints, the issue of pimping, violence and drug abuse not to mention the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.  ...
In fact, many sex workers and many feminists and sex workers rights organisations who support them argue that they engage in sex work through ‘choice’ and deeply resent intrusions by men and abolitionist groups into how they choose to live their lives. Female sex workers interviewed for one major study felt that the activities of those groups and individuals who tried to ‘rescue’ them made their lives a misery. 
The issue of trafficking and sexual exploitation has been talked up by a powerful constellation of lobbying and advocacy groups for their own perhaps well-meaning, but at times, dubious ends. There are too many groups with an financial and job security interest in perpetuating outlandish claims about the nature of the sex trade in Northern Ireland. These fantastical claims have been bolstered by highly inaccurate and misleading data from the PSNI and the NI Department of Justice as well as uncritical and sensationalist reporting in the local media (though in fairness the Belfast Telegraph, has attempted to introduce some sense of reason into this debate). The PSNI for example, have quoted statistics suggesting that prostitution is Northern Ireland’s largest commercial enterprise – this is just a nonsense claim, and is based on a series of unreliable estimates that are impossible to substantiate. Yet it was repeated unproblematically in a recent BBC Spotlight documentary. Why not just pull a figure out of a hat? Likewise, the force has claimed that Northern Ireland is the now THE biggest sex trafficking hub, with the highest demand for commercial sexual services in all of Europe and the UK! Yes that’s right, even bigger than Prague, London, Moscow, Budapest, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam or any city you could care to mention. I am not sure on what ‘evidence’ this ridiculous claim is based, but the PSNI really need to get out and travel more.
He concludes that
Prostitution and sexual trafficking have assumed the status of a moral panic in Northern Ireland. Fantastical and unsubstantiated stories abound about the involvement of Russian, Chinese and Albanian mafia gangs in running vice rings (where are the prosecutions?); that local paramilitary groups are up to their eyes in sexual exploitation and trafficking (again where are the prosecutions?); and bizarrely the claim that men here spend over £500,000 per week on commercial sex (how was this figure compiled?). Official data about the scale or scope of the ‘problem’ are ambiguous and in any case difficult to come by. PSNI data are incomplete – strangely soliciting offences have never been recorded here until a clerical error was rectified in early 2011 – but in any case there have been no prosecutions for soliciting in almost two years. Both anecdotal and official data suggest that street prostitution is not a significant issue in Northern Ireland (for historic reasons to do with the conflict and the dangers of using public space, particularly at night) with sex work largely having been displaced into indoor establishments. Nevertheless, even the size of the indoor sector is comparatively small as far as can be ascertained. In spite of the hyperbole about Northern Ireland as a ‘high demand’ venue for sexual commerce, PSNI estimates (and I use the word cautiously) about the size of the commercial sex sector put the number of female sex workers operating across Northern Ireland at any one time at between 80 and 100.  ...
I fully accept that where trafficking for sexual exploitation occurs it should be dealt with – firmly. I have no doubt about that. However, as a social scientist I need evidence and surveying the terrain of sexual commerce in Northern Ireland this is sorely lacking. Moral panics and media frenzies do not make good legislation. We need a rational debate, without exaggerated and self-­serving claims from politicians, advocacy groups and the PSNI. I have made the point before and I will make it again: For all the talk about women involved in the sex industry as ‘victims’, there is no apparent appetite for actually speaking with them in order to assess what the real issues are and how these might be addressed.