Statement from AAA TD and Socialist Party member Ruth Coppinger on the Sexual Offences Bill.
The Sexual Offences Bill that has passed through the Dáil makes numerous important and progressive legal changes, including: updating the law to deal with internet-related forms of child abuse and child sex tourism; improving the laws on statutory rape; introducing harassment orders to prevent sex offenders from contacting their victims; and decriminalising sex workers soliciting for customers. We are especially pleased that a number of important amendments we proposed to the Bill at Committee Stage have been taken on board by the Government, including:
- A legal definition of sexual consent. We are pleased that the content of our amendment defining sexual consent, which we based on a submission from the Rape Crisis Network, has now been adopted by the government and that sexual consent will now be defined in Irish law for the first time. This is a victory for rape victims and campaigners for their rights and is a progressive and welcome step forward.
- Deleting a section of the Bill that would have criminalised sex workers loitering for the purposes for soliciting clients. The original draft of the Bill would have imposed a fine of up to €1,000 and/or 6 months’ imprisonment for sex workers who did not leave an area after being told to do so by a Garda. This has been deleted from the Bill.
- Increasing penalties for criminal gangs that organise prostitution to an unlimited fine and and/or up to ten years in prison for serious offences.
However, we also submitted a number of other amendments, which were rejected by the government, including:
- Changing the definition of brothel keeping to decriminalise sex workers who are simply working together indoors but not pimping or living off the earnings of other sex workers. The government rejected this amendment, essentially because the Gardaí find it easier to get convictions for brothel keeping if they can indiscriminately target everyone in a brothel. Sex workers are easier targets than pimps or brothel owners so it’s often them, rather than pimps or brothel owners who end up being convicted – which is why we proposed removing them from the definition of brothel keeping.
- An amendment requiring the government to review supports & exit services for sex workers, including ‘the education, language, training, financial, housing, healthcare, social welfare and rehabilitation services that should be provided by the state to support sex workers and assist them in overcoming the barriers and forms of exploitation that prevent them from exiting prostitution’. We also stressed that ‘The needs of migrants, in particular the need to regularise their immigration status in order to afford them full employment rights and full access to legal employment and social welfare services, must be central to this review’
- An amendment requiring the government to review supports and exit services for sex workers that report traffickers, organisers of prostitution, pimps or brothel-owners to the Gardaí, including ‘Garda protection, regularisation of immigration status, financial compensation, access to employment, training and other exit services’.
- An amendment requiring the government to report on measures that could be taken to combat sexist and anti-LGBTQ attitudes in society, including: a review of sex education in schools and colleges; classes on consent, respect for women and LGBTQ people and the damaging effects and exploitative nature of the sex industry; and public awareness campaigns on consent and to discourage men from buying sex.
- An amendment requiring the government to review the operation of the new provisions in the Bill relating to prostitution and also to review all of the existing laws on prostitution within 2 years. This was to allow further revisions to the law in light of evidence as to its actual impact on sex workers, trafficking, and the scale of the sex industry in Ireland over the next two years.
- An amendment requiring the government to report on progress protecting victims’ rights, ‘including guaranteed access to free counselling services and free, independent legal advice’.
In light of rejection of the above amendments, while we are supportive of the many progressive measures contained in the Bill, we are unable to support the Bill and will abstain in the final vote. Unfortunately, the Bill does nothing to address the sexism, inequality, poverty and multiple forms of oppression based on gender, race and sexuality that lie at the root of the demand from men to purchase sex while indoor sex workers will also continue to be criminalised. Simply banning the purchase of sex without also addressing these structural issues will not in itself address demand, and certainly will not lift the economic coercion of poverty that is pushing mainly women and trans folk into working in the sex industry.
Buying sex is an expression of power over another person. 99% of buyers of sex are men, reflecting gender inequality in society. The sexist idea that women’s sexual desires are less important or subservient to that of men is amplified by the sex industry. Therefore we are sympathetic to women and trade union activists that would like to see the criminalising of the purchase of sex. However, there are zero increased exit strategies for those working in the sex industry who would like to exit it linked to this bill. There is also no special measures/social services being put in place to ensure that the criminalising the purchase of sex does not make conditions more dangerous for sex workers
To really address both the causes of sexual violence and the demand for paid sex, transformational changes to a fundamentally unjust, unequal capitalist system rooted in economic inequality, sexism and oppression are needed. Unfortunately, even the small steps in that direction that we proposed were rejected so we have decided to abstain on this Bill. As always, far more important than any legal changes or ‘law and order’ approaches to social problems is the fight against inequality and oppression by movements of workers, women, young people and oppressed groups which the Anti-Austerity Alliance wholeheartedly supports.
 *We would have preferred to propose more substantive amendments in all the areas in which we proposed report/review-style amendments but unfortunately Dáil standing orders prevent us from proposing any amendments that would impose a charge on the public purse. So for example, we cannot propose that the government actually improve social services or introduce proper sex education in schools as this would cost money only that they report on it.