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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. (more…)

Collective action: seizing opportunities in opposition

This week TTRP are pleased to present a jointly authored post with SWEAT – a sex workers rights organisation based in Cape Town, South Africa. SWEAT works to ensure that sex workers’ rights are defended, that sex workers have access to health and other services and that sex workers are respected and valued members of society. The organisation takes a rights-based approach to its work and has three central programs: Advocacy and Human Rights Defence; Outreach and Development; and Research and Knowledge Management. Their goals are to: advocate for the decriminalisation of adult sex work in South Africa; to address health and human rights abuses with sex workers; and to support the development of self-representation of sex workers on a national and continental level in issues affecting them. 

TTRP and our blog guests have previously highlighted difficulties within the anti-trafficking movement, and the NGO sector more broadly, of collaboration. This lack of collaboration between stakeholders is a chorus repeated ad nauseum, but, often overlooked, are the less public, daily exchanges that take place between groups that create space for opportunity and constructive engagement. (more…)

Sex work and the London 2012 Olympics – How was it for you?

We are excited to have the following guest post from Georgina Perry. Georgina has been the service manager for Open Doors, a clinical, case management and outreach service for sex workers in City & Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets in the UK since 2003. Open Doors is a multi-disciplinary team of development and clinical practitioners, dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of street and off street sex workers in East London. 

Georgina has worked in the field of community health development since the early 90s, developing services for a range of ‘at risk’ populations in the UK and internationally. She has worked as a consultant for numerous humanitarian and development NGOs combining service development, research and public health skills to promote access to health and social care services for the most marginalised.

For the last three years I’ve been living in something of a parallel universe. A strange and often frustrating experience in which I have been relegated from a professional considered knowledgeable in her field, to a noisy troublemaker, determined to rail against received wisdom. I’ve had the data I assiduously collect, analyse and make public quoted back to me by law enforcement agencies, the media and NGOs but with clumsy interpretations skewed to strengthen a particular rhetoric, newspaper story or bid for funding and presented in such a way as to disregard the detailed analysis we provided of our service users, their demographic and how, where and why they work in the sex industry in London.

Indeed, as the 2012 London Olympics drew inexorably towards us, the whole of the UK suddenly became an expert on my job. It was a fascinating, frustrating and illuminating experience. One that has left me cynical and at times speechless at the sheer effrontery of those who stood to gain from talking up a story that, put simply, is not, has not and is unlikely to ever be a reality.

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Walk the walk: assisting sex workers

Policy interventions intended to address sex trafficking tend to be politically divisive, publically contentious, and plagued by a virtual absence of evaluation. For example: should prostitution be decriminalized, legalized and regulated, or outlawed completely? What about increasing punitive measures for those who purchase sex, or regulating sites of sex work (including anything from brothels to Craigslist)? In all countries, but particularly those that have legalized and regulated prostitution, does it make sense to delineate between “sex work” and “labor”, or even, “sex” and “labor” trafficking? What should be done about migrant sex workers? The answers to these questions subsequently influence a host of conceptual issues we face in framing worker exploitation and rights. Unfortunately, the prevailing view is that sex trafficking will be eradicated just as soon as we figure out how to eliminate prostitution. This perspective tends to dilute broader concerns about exploitation (and trafficking) and overemphasize what the law can do – ignoring myriad other complex factors that lead to policy effectiveness.

Noticeably absent from the conversation is a critical examination of frontline service provision for potentially trafficked persons. (more…)