Should Ireland follow Belgium in decriminalising sex work?

A former sex worker tells The Liberty why she – along with Amnesty International – reckons the five-year-old Irish legislation has done more harm than good

The decriminalisation of sex work in Belgium last month has seen a renewed call from sex workers here to review the laws that make working-together illegal for them. 

What has Belgium done? 

Belgium have become the first EU country officially to ‘decriminalise’ prostitution. Other countries have ‘legalised’ prostitution, restricting sex work to certain legitimised circumstances and settings. An example is Greece, where sex workers have to be registered and work in a licensed brothel in order for their labor to be legal. 

Selling and paying for sex is now no longer a crime in Belgium, though ‘pimping’ and inciting anyone to enter prostitution remain illegal. This makes it easier for sex workers to get loans or apply for welfare benefits.

The most recent Irish reform, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, makes it illegal in Ireland to purchase services that might be interpreted as sexual in nature and for sex workers to work together. Further anti-brothel provisions make it risky to knowingly rent to a sex worker, be a roommate or be in a relationship with a sex worker. 

One former sex worker, Vanessa (not her real name), told The Liberty that a law meant to protect sex workers has in fact “endangered them”. She stopped doing sex work over fears for her safety in 2019. 

Research published earlier this year by Amnesty International points to damage done by the 2017 legislation, which is under review. Fines of up to €5,000 and a jail sentence up to a year for working together prevent sex workers from taking steps to ensure their safety. 

“This is what ultimately drove me away from my job of being a sex worker,” Vanessa says. “It showed what the government really thinks of us – they see us as less than human, scum of the earth.

“I have a family, a child who was three at the time when I stopped working and there were nights where I’d stay up and just sob because I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was struggling to get a job, but I couldn’t go back. I feared for my life.” 

Vanessa says there “were two instances, the second of which was the reason I left the industry. 

“I was working alone due to the laws in Ireland and the man I was with became rough and aggressive with me. I asked him to stop, but he wouldn’t. It took me a third time where I had to scream for him to stop. It was then I realised I had to get out of this life.

“If I was with someone in a safe space, this could have been prevented. I consider myself lucky to just get out of there.” 

Amnesty’s interviews with sex workers also highlighted the failure of the Garda Síochana to follow up on complaints, while some sex workers reported harassment or violence from police officers. 

“I myself never experienced harassment or violence from the gardaí,” says Vanessa. “I never felt comfortable around officers. I would actively avoid dealing with them. I also felt they never treated me with respect. 

“There was also that constant fear of being caught by the Garda, and it being known what your job is, which was only a concern to me because I would lose my home or my baby.

“I never wanted to be a sex worker, but I did whatever I could to provide for my son.” 

Vanessa has since found a job and lives with her son and boyfriend just outside Dublin. 

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