Home » Sex work/ sex workers/ sex trafficking » The sex trade in Northern Ireland: the creation of a moral panic?

The sex trade in Northern Ireland: the creation of a moral panic?

This week TTRP are delighted to have Dr. Graham Ellison as a guest contributor. Dr. Ellison is a Reader in Criminology in the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast. He is currently principal investigator on a project funded by the British Academy investigating the policing and regulation of prostitution in four European cities (with Prof Ron Weitzer and Dr Susan Dodillet). 

Commercial sex – “prostitution”, or in the United Nations’ preferred terminology “sex work” – has once again been thrust into the spotlight in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking Bill, which has attracted intense publicity, including a recent BBC documentary. Now in its second reading in the NI Assembly, the Bill includes a raft of provisions to support victims of human trafficking. The main focus of attention is Clause 6, which, for the first time in the jurisdiction, would make it a criminal offence to pay for sex. Drawing on the claimed “successes” of the so-called Swedish or Nordic model, the rationale is that this will reduce “demand” and that trafficking into the commercial sex industry will be seriously impaired. However, Northern Ireland already has fairly robust penalties in place to deal with sex trafficking. Since 2009 it has been an offence (punishable by a long jail term) to knowingly procure sexual services from a trafficked victim, while existing law rightfully prohibits any sexual activity with someone who is underage or otherwise vulnerable (as defined in the legislation).

Lord Morrow’s Bill has come under fire from academics (myself included), the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), civil society, the NI Department of Justice and sex worker rights organisations, which all raise rather different criticisms of the proposal. My view, as a criminologist, is that the proposed law conflates two very different issues (prostitution and trafficking), is premised on a particularly narrow abolitionist view of sex work, grossly overestimates the extent of “demand” in Northern Ireland, and is out of line with policy developments occurring elsewhere in the United Kingdom and indeed continental Europe.

Northern Ireland does not need this law for the simple reason that the PSNI have enough powers to deal with sex trafficking and victims who have been coerced into prostitution. In many respects this law will tie up the PSNI needlessly in “policing” consensual sexual activity between adults while devoting far fewer resources to tackling the most serious issues of sexual exploitation. Earlier this summer a similar proposal by the Scottish MSP Rhoda Grant was rejected by the Scottish Parliament, which felt that it was unworkable and ultimately counter-productive in an era when much sexual commerce is transacted via the Internet. In spite of the exaggerated claims made about the commercial sex sector and trafficking into Northern Ireland there have been only two prosecutions in the past decade, though the degree of coercion or forced movement involved is debatable in at least one of these cases according to the summing-up statement by the trial judge. I am not attempting to undermine the reprehensible nature of trafficking, and fully accept that some cases may slip under the radar owing to its hidden and clandestine nature. What I am suggesting is that “trafficking” is slippery concept that has been progressively devalued by exaggerated usage. As such, we need an empirically grounded assessment of the scale of the problem and a more precise understanding of its particular dynamics. Scare stories and hyper-inflated media claims do not make for either good law or social policy.

On another level, debates about trafficking into the UK and elsewhere can also be read as proxy debates about immigration and immigration policy. Some commentators have highlighted the ways in which xenophobic and racist sentiments have been embedded in anti-trafficking discourse. Indeed, some of the debates in Northern Ireland, including those within the NI Assembly, are underpinned by less than discreet racial overtones with trafficking conflated with legal immigration from a number of countries including Romania, Moldova and Vietnam. As Nick Davies from The Guardian has highlighted it is perhaps no coincidence that in Europe “trafficking” entered public and media discourse at roughly the same time the European Union (EU) was expanding its borders to include the free movement of people, particularly from those states that comprised the former Soviet bloc. Many immigrants to the UK, including those from EU states such as Bulgaria and Romania, have been restricted to working in particular sectors. Consequently many are pushed into those areas of the hidden economy where exploitation is more likely to occur (including the underground sex industry).

The prostitution policy debate currently unfolding in Northern Ireland reflects an abolitionist perspective, which draws on a strand of radical feminism and far-right Christian fundamentalism. The UK charity CARE (Christian Action Research Education) actively supports Lord Morrow’s proposals. CARE also adopts an ideological stance in relation to creationism, women’s reproductive rights, homosexuality, gay marriage, stem cell research and faith schools. As with the situation that developed in the US during the 1990s, the religious right and a section of the feminist left have become intertwined in a “marriage of convenience”. Both groups want to eradicate the entire sex industry, including prostitution, and argue that all commercial sex equates to violence against women and rape. This is a position echoed by some members of the NI Assembly. Similarly, the Immigrant Council of Ireland – a key campaigner in the Republic of Ireland’s Turn Off the Red Light campaign – implied in a recent Irish Independent article that the 800 or so women selling commercial sex in the country were all trafficked into prostitution. This, however, does not sit with the reality of commercial sex and the ability of women (and men) to exert agency and make choices. Speaking of men, where do male sex workers feature in this abolitionist analysis? The short answer is that they don’t.

More generally, this abolitionist perspective homogenises all sex work, but focuses almost exclusively on street prostitution, which is estimated to comprise only around 10-15% of the total. Other sex workers operate from apartments, hotels, escort agencies and massage parlours; research suggests these operations are not bedevilled by the same kinds of problems that characterise street prostitution. In fact, many sex workers and sex worker rights organisations argue that sex work is undertaken through choice and deeply resent intrusions by abolitionist groups into these personal choices.

Laura Maria Agustín has provided an incisive critique of what she has termed the “rescue industry”, which she sees as being fuelled by an ideological desire to stamp out prostitution and victimise those voluntarily involved in the sale of commercial sex. As is the case elsewhere, in Northern Ireland 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. Consequently, many outlandish claims have been made about the nature of the sex industry in Northern Ireland, bolstered by highly inaccurate and misleading data (often simply guesstimates) as well as uncritical and sensationalist reporting in the local media (though in fairness both the Irish News and the Belfast Telegraph, have attempted to introduce some sense of reason into this debate). In a piece bordering on the titillating and pornographic, the Irish Daily Mirror details the life of a “sex slave”, alleging there will be “300,000 rapes of sex slaves in the North every year”. Some politicians have claimed that prostitution is Northern Ireland’s largest commercial enterprise. Likewise, the Northern Ireland Evangelical Alliance has claimed that “Northern Ireland has the fastest growing sex trade in the UK and included in this ‘trade’ are victims of human trafficking”. However, these claims are based on guesstimates – impossible to substantiate or validate.

It is difficult to know on what basis such claims are made. Official data about the scale or nature of the commercial sex industry in Northern Ireland are ambiguous and difficult to come by. PSNI data are incomplete – strangely, soliciting offences were not recorded until a clerical error was rectified in early 2011 – but there have been no prosecutions for soliciting in the past two years. Nor does it appear that street prostitution in Belfast generates complaints from the public as is common in other cities. This suggests that this particular sector is not particularly visible or troublesome and therefore not a salient issue to be included in a broader community safety strategy for the PSNI or City Council (this has been confirmed in personal correspondence with Belfast City Council official in September 2013). Similarly, in terms of human trafficking, the most recent National Referral Mechanism (NRM) data from the Serious & Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) suggest that between January and March 2013 of the four “potential victims” of trafficking for sexual exploitation identified, only in one case was a positive determination of trafficking made. This tendency is repeated for other time periods in the SOCA data. Again, I want to emphasise that there may well be under-reporting here. Some victims may not want to get involved in the NRM process fearing deportation and in other cases “trafficking” may be tied to broader asylum issues.

In spite of the hyperbole about Northern Ireland as a “high demand” venue for sexual commerce my on-going research suggests that unlike other UK cities (Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh) problems associated with street-based prostitution are not particularly significant in Belfast. We need to be extremely cautious about estimating the prevalence of commercial sexual services since this fluctuates over time but it is safe to assume that in Belfast the street-based sector has traditionally been relatively small owing to the nature of violent political conflict, the extent of police and military patrolling and the dangers associated with using public space, particularly at night. Data obtained in September of this year from sexual health outreach workers who operate in Belfast city centre indicate that there are around 20-25 female street-based clients who use the service regularly, although on any given night the number of sex workers soliciting for business is relatively small (no more than 5). Compare this to say the situation in Glasgow where according to one prevalence study there were around 1,000 women working on the streets (around 100 per night). This study is a bit dated now, but the figure is supported by other more recent research.

Historically, the bulk of commercial sex in Northern Ireland has taken place indoors (apartments, brothels, hotels); a tendency that has been facilitated in recent times by the development of the Internet which has made it much easier to transact business. The size of the indoor sector is even more difficult to measure owing to its relative invisibility. In 2011 the BBC estimated (based on PSNI statistics) that there were 88 brothels in Northern Ireland with the majority concentrated in Belfast. Again, however, we need to exercise caution since this is an estimated figure and may be lower (or higher!) and a brothel may simply be an apartment rented for a short period of time with one or two escorts operating from it. In terms of the online independent escort sector, data obtained directly from a major website indicate that in 2012 there were 693 registered female escorts providing services in Belfast with the number available on a day to day basis averaging between 20 and 30. Again, however, we need to be careful in how we interpret this since many escorts (particularly international ones) are mobile and move from city to city, while it is clear from an analysis of individual profiles that some are duplicative. However, through a recent interview with a well-placed source in the online escort industry, the actual number of escorts who are resident in Belfast on a permanent basis is a “very small, narrow group” (interview September, 2013).

In spite of the rhetoric to the contrary, I contend that Northern Ireland in general and Belfast in particular does not have a particularly expansive sexual services industry that generates problems for the authorities. The major problem involving the commercial sex trade in larger cities like London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow is street prostitution and the associated violence, abuse, drugs, residents complaints and violent pimping. Simon Byrne, the former Deputy Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police, has proposed decriminalising brothels on the basis that if the police know where sex work is occurring they can at least attempt to regulate it and allow workers to practice in relative safety. In Northern Ireland particular credit should be given to Detective Superintendent Philip Marshall from the PSNI who has recently provided a considered critique of Lord Morrow’s Bill on the ground that it is ultimately unenforceable and that “would present difficulties around the criminalisation of anyone purchasing sex. It would be hard to prove, it would be hard to police”. At last the PSNI are injecting a sense of reason into these debates.

Where trafficking for sexual exploitation occurs it should be dealt with – firmly. It is difficult to see what Lord Morrow’s proposed Bill will do over and above what is already occurring policy-wise in Northern Ireland. In relation to the broader assumed links between “trafficking” and “prostitution” as a social scientist I need evidence. Surveying the terrain of sexual commerce in Northern Ireland it is apparent 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 and advocacy groups. I have made the point before and I will make it again: For all the talk about women being victimised by the sex industry there is no apparent appetite among our politicians for actually speaking with sex workers to assess the real issues and how these might be addressed.


  1. […] Another good anti-Swedish model essay from Dr. Graham Ellison: […]

  2. […] Aruba and Vatican City, to name but a few of the 128 countries.  Dr Graham Ellison’s post, The sex trade in Northern Ireland: the creation of a moral panic?, and Paul Buckley’s post, The bias in counter-trafficking data and need for improved data […]

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