Northern Irish sex legislation is putting workers at risk

Image: Thinkstock

New legislation to make paying for sex illegal in Northern Ireland will put the country’s sex workers at greater risk, according to a Loughborough University academic.

In her paper Sex work and modes of self-employment in the informal economy: diverse business practices and constraints to effective working Dr Jane Pitcher drew on the findings from her PhD, for which she interviewed 36 female, male and transgender indoor sex workers, plus two receptionists and two parlour managers, in Britain to understand working practices in the sector.

She found that many workers she spoke to had made a decision to enter the industry and found job satisfaction in their work. Most worked independently, chose their own clients, and set their own hours and rates of pay. Many were up front about what they did and were registered as self-employed.

But workers were keen to express concerns about further criminalisation of their industry. Outlawing the purchase of sexual services (which becomes law in Northern Ireland from today) will lead to their work becoming much more covert, forcing them to compromise their safety.

Already, many feel unable to report problems to the authorities; further criminalising the industry would only make this worse.   

Dr Pitcher said:          

“The legislation has been introduced on the premise that all clients are exploitative or coercive, but my research found that participants had good relations with most of their clients. By criminalising paying for sex, it is possible that some clients who are more respectful may be deterred, leaving a higher proportion of clients with no regard for the law.

“At the moment many workers can choose who they sell services to, and are able to turn business away, based on the information they receive from prospective clients. But new laws may lead to clients being less willing to give out details about themselves, putting workers at risk if they are in financial need and less able to be selective.”    

Dr Pitcher also argues that as long as sex work continues to be criminalised, workers do not receive the same support available to employees in more normalised lines of work.

“Not only does criminalisation make work more dangerous for sex workers, but while the industry is criminalised, exploitative practices are not challenged, and workers receive no employment support.

“Total decriminalisation would give workers more ability to assert themselves, stand up for their rights and report crime. Sex work would be understood as a form of labour, which would enable incidences of exploitation to be addressed.”

The paper Sex work and modes of self-employment in the informal economy: diverse business practices and constraints to effective working was published in Social Policy and Society (Volume 14 / Issue 01).  

Upcoming events

View all events