Socialist Party TD, Joe Higgins, abstained on the Dáil vote on the bill to criminalise the purchase of sex proposed by Thomas Pringle TD which took place on Tuesday 7 May 2013.
We chose not to vote against the motion as we understand the enormous importance of the issues raised and commend Thomas Pringle in highlighting them. However, due to significant problems with the bill, including concerns that it could unintentionally result in increasing danger for prostitutes, we were not in a position to support the bill.
The stark reality is that there has been an explosion in the sexist objectification of women in recent years, pushed by the tycoons behind the billion dollar global beauty and fashion industry and especially the sex industry, both legal and illegal, including commercial pornography which generally has a misogynistic strain. The legal and illegal sex industry is big business, worth billions, and is the product of a capitalistic ruthless drive for profit. It promotes a skewed view of sexuality that portrays women as objects, their bodies as commodities, and as subjects of male sexuality, needs and desires. This is both a reflection of the oppression of women in society whereby economic inequality and violence against women still prevail, and also a continued promotion of an ideology that feeds into the objectification of women and violence against them.
Objectification of women must be challenged
In this light, the commercialisation of sex, the commodification of women’s bodies and the pornification of culture have led, to a certain degree, to socially normalising the buying of sex. Young people in Ireland who on the one hand are not able to develop their sexuality in a free and open fashion due to continued repression, institutionalised homophobia, transphobia and old-fashioned sexism that is ingrained in an education system that is still Catholic and religiously influenced; are also victims of this culture of sexist objectification and commercial, sexist pornography that’s going to hamper their ability to develop uninhibited, positive, healthy and consensual sexual relationships and experiences. Young women will be particular victims of this – for example, British studies have noted the prevalence of school-going teenage girls experiencing both sexual coercion and abuse and violence in the sexual relationships that they engage in with teenage boys. The commercialising of sex – turning it into something that can be bought – is a huge social problem that is serving to increase gender inequality and the oppression of women.
We were unable to vote in favour of Thomas Pringle’s proposed legislation due to a number of problems with the bill as presented, not least its approach that criminalising the buying of sex alone through legislation would in and of itself massively reduce demand; problems with the way in which fines were to be administered including its empowering of the Gardai to give on the spot fines leaving it open to abuse and corruption; and most importantly, concerns we had that simply implementing this legal change without any corresponding support for the women as well as men and transgender people working as prostitutes could further isolate and endanger them if clients push for even further secrecy for fear of getting caught.
Firstly, the premise that reducing demand for the buying of sex, or eliminating it through the fear of hefty fines, imprisonment and publicity, does not recognise that as long as we have for example, the proliferation of the sexist objectification of women that isn’t challenged, there will be a demand and a probably a growing demand at that. Secondly, the horrific reality of austerity means that huge swathes of working class people across Europe are being impoverished, made unemployed, losing their homes and any opportunities for a decent life. The Lancet Medical Journal has reported with concern on a huge increase in prostitution in Greece, with women in particular forced to sell their bodies to feed themselves and their families as a result of the EU / IMF / government destruction of living standards.
The reality of the profit system that has inequality and poverty stitched into its very fabric, and capitalism in crisis that represents an enormous threat to living standards, will leave some with little choice but to sell their bodies, and others happy to make a profit from it – that’s the nature of the market-system that the Labour Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, accept. A major working class struggle that has women playing a prominent role, and could and should seek to involve the most marginalised sections of society including prostitutes or others working in the sex industry, needs to be waged against austerity and capitalism, that could put the democratic public ownership of wealth and resources on the agenda, laying the economic basis to eliminate inequality, poverty and unemployment as a springboard to really challenge sexism and exploitation. We need a socialist alternative to the profit-system. Progressive legal changes should be considered and implemented, but there is no question that a fundamental challenge to capitalism is needed in order to really address these crucial questions.
We do not agree with others who have contended that prostitution is the same as other labour exploitation. Buying sex, buying someone’s body in effect, is an extreme expression of power that inherently reflects gender inequality, as it’s almost always men who buy sex, and it’s most often women who sell their bodies. In this way, being a sex worker or prostitute isn’t the same as other work – this power difference, and the prevalence of violence and sexual violence experienced by some working in the industry, reflect the difference between selling your labour and selling your body. Many who have come out of prostitution have experienced deep psychological scarring as being a prostitute required them, as a survival mechanism, to separate mind and body. Because of, not only the harm experienced by many of the women and men who work in the industry, but also because of the wider harmful social impact of a normalised culture of the commercialisation of women’s bodies, the Socialist Party is in favour of attempts to reduce demand for the sex industry.
Buying sex should be made socially unacceptable through mass education programmes that seek to educate men in particular about the sexist and exploitative nature of the sex industry. This could take place in schools and third-level institutions, and should be accompanied by a secular, progressive and non-heteronormative sex education programme that seeks to give all young people the confidence and ability to develop their sexuality and to enjoy consensual and positive sexual relationships and experiences when they themselves are ready to do so. Trade Unions should run similar education campaigns, both public and amongst their membership, to seek to make the buying of sex socially unacceptable.
The “Swedish model” that the bill that Thomas Pringle TD proposed is based on, is being held up as a panacea by some who are, from a positive point of view, trying to challenge exploitation. In this legal model, sellers of sex are decriminalised, and the buyers of sex criminalised. It’s extremely difficult to get accurate figures to illustrate whether this has reduced demand. It seems that because this legal change occurred in the context of a progressive campaign and protest movement to challenge sexism and objectification, it did play a role in raising consciousness in Swedish society, and probably has played a role in reducing demand to a degree. Whether this effect has been or will be long-lasting is unclear.
Some suggest that Swedish men who buy sex now go abroad to do so, which gives an insight into the importance of really challenging sexism and objectification of women in a deep and fundamental way in society, most effectively through a social movement, in order to really reduce demand. Conversely, it also shows the need for a global challenge to capitalism to end poverty and give real choices to women and men everywhere. There are certain problems with the Swedish legal approach. For example, in Sweden, renting a flat to a prostitute who will then work from the flat is considered ‘pandering’ and landlords could be prosecuted for doing so. Although the intent may not be to punish or criminalise the prostitute in the equation, clearly that can be an effect in this instance. Furthermore, in the context of a rightward neo-liberal drift on behalf of the Swedish governing parties, a shift towards criminalising buyers was accompanied by a corresponding shift of investment away from social workers who assisted prostitutes, towards increased investment in police.
Criminalising the buyers of sex
The Socialist Party believes that no woman, man or transgender person should be criminalised or should be subject to any hassle or harassment by the state for selling their body. The majority of those in prostitution are there due to the lack of choices they’ve had in life, while some may for whatever personal reason choose to do so – whatever the situation none should be criminalised or subjected to moralistic judgements, and we should seek to end a stigmatising of those in sex work or prostitution. This is actually really crucial if prostitutes and those working in the sex industry are to be empowered to report theft, abuse, violence or sexual assaults. A social movement that seeks to make the buying of sex socially unacceptable should also seek to de-stigmatise sex workers and prostitutes. Currently, ‘soliciting’ is illegal in Ireland, which does to a degree criminalise prostitutes. This law must be changed. Similarly, the way in which the laws are written in relation to brothel running have resulted in prostitutes being criminalised in some cases, as two prostitutes who rent a flat to work together for increased safety, are technically contravening the law.
The Socialist Party is, however, totally opposed to a legalisation of prostitution and the sex industry that some are arguing for, as it would result in a huge increase in the sex industry with ruthless profit-seekers taking full advantage. Those who profit from prostitution, the ‘pimps’, brothel bosses, as well as traffickers must be unambiguously criminalised in the eyes of the law.
Any move in the direction of the criminalising the buyers of sex should only be considered if accompanied by state investment in centres for prostitutes where they can access contraception, counselling, healthcare and English language classes, medical assistance for addiction, as well as specially trained reps for the Gardai who are multilingual where prostitutes could report harassment, abuse, violence and sexual violence. This is absolutely crucial for the safety of the prostitutes. It’s also essential that visas are granted to migrant or trafficked women in prostitution, as this is the only way in which such women would have any means to get out of prostitution, should they wish to. Similarly, state investment in jobs and public housing are essential for these women to have a viable exit strategy if that’s their wish. Thomas Pringle TD should be commended for highlighting the nefarious nature of the profiteering sex trade magnates and beginning a discussion in society on many vital issues in relation to the oppression of women and its inextricable connection to the profit-system, that this raises. The debate and discussion must continue.