The Minister for Skills, Training and Innovation, John Halligan put his head above the parapet in relation to the laws on prostitution in Ireland. As it happens, he was right.
There was a huge reaction to the interview with the Minister for Training, Skills and Innovation, John Halligan, published in Hot Press a fortnight ago.
And for good reason. It was an extremely forthright exchange in which the Minister gave his honest views on a whole range of subjects. What he had to say was radical in many ways. I may not have agreed with all of his arguments, but that he was prepared to answer what were often searching questions without flinching says a lot about the man. It was a great interview.
The main controversy erupted around his views on prostitution. The Minister came out strongly against the so-called Swedish model, which is currently being pushed here by various offshoots of religious organisations, and seems to have been adapted rather tamely by the Minster for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald.
The Swedish model outlaws the purchase rather than the sale of sex. The idea is that if you reduce demand, then you will also reduce supply. Fewer people, and in particular fewer women, will become sex workers - and the world will be a better place. Which might be fine in theory, but the vast majority of sex workers, male and female, disagree. The last thing they want is the introduction of a law, the inevitable effect of which will be that the trade is driven underground. The general consensus among sex workers is that, rather than making the streets safer, this will make what they do both less secure and more dangerous.
But no one in government seems to be prepared to talk to sex workers, despite the fact that they clearly know more about their line of work than anyone else. Their views are disapproved of and dismissed as if the sex workers are the gender equivalent of Uncle Toms. But that is a horribly arrogant view, which works off the basic assumption of victimhood.
Some feminists are hostile to sex work: they view it as male exploitation and enslavement of women. There is a sexist element here of men bad/women good. But other feminists make a very different argument. They see the Swedish model as condescending and insulting to women. They argue that it implies that female sex workers are incapable of making decisions for themselves when the women and men involved insist otherwise. This view was well expressed by Elizabeth Nolan Brown, of Reason.com, in an article on the issue, published by Time magazine in 2014. "The Swedish model (also adopted by Iceland and Norway and under consideration in France, Canada and the UK) may seem like a step in the right direction - a progressive step, a feminist step. But it's not," she wrote. "Conceptually, the system strips women of agency and autonomy. Under the Swedish model, men 'are defined as morally superior to the woman', notes author and former sex worker Maggie McNeill in an essay for the Cato Institute. 'He is criminally culpable for his decisions, but she is not'. Adult women are legally unable to give consent, 'just as an adolescent girl is in the crime of statutory rape'.
"From a practical point of view, criminalising clients is just the flip side of the same old coin," Elizabeth Nolan Brown concludes. "It still means arresting, fining and jailing people over consensual sex." In a way it comes down to a simple question: what is wrong with two - or more - consenting adults agreeing to have sex on the basis that one pays?
For anyone who believes in personal liberty and sexual freedom,the only reasonable answer to this question, is a straightforward 'nothing'. You don't have to love Lou Reed's 'Take A Walk On The Wild Side' or to read Jean Genet, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Anais Nin or Brooke Magnanti to recognise that there is a huge absurdity to the whole idea. Of course, some people view visiting a prostitute as a sin. They are perfectly entitled to. But that should have no bearing whatsoever on whether something is legal or illegal. Because laws that try to pretend that issues are black and white, and which erase everything that is nuanced, complicated or subtle about human interactions, are bad laws.
Philosophically, treating the purchase of sex as a crime makes absolutely no sense either. People all over the world can get massages of different kinds, during the course of which the masseur or masseuse can touch virtually any and every part of the client's body. They are usually intended to be and are studiously non-sexual. But there is frequently a high level of intimacy involved, and depending on the tradition on which they are based, from Indian head massages to Thai foot massages, they can cover virtually the entire human frame. Often there is a spiritual or holistic purpose: the Chinese believe that there is an acupuncture pressure point on the ear, known as "The Gate of Heaven", and that massaging it relieves stress like nothing else.
But whether there is or not, for most people, pleasure and satisfaction are ultimately at the centre of the experience. That is where the modern concept of 'pampering' comes from. Women in particular are encouraged to love themselves and treat themselves to the pleasure of a great massage.
So how could it possibly make sense to say to consenting adults in Ireland or indeed anywhere else: “Yes it is fine for you to give or to receive a massage and to pay for it or be paid for it. But there is a rule. If there is money changing hands, the masseur can touch any and every other part of someone’s body, but not their genital area.”
It is clearly a farcically stupid, moralistic notion.
There are others who believe that the sex worker is, automatically, a victim of exploitation. This is true of some sex workers. But it is also true of people in many other forms of employment.
Indeed the argument has been made here in Ireland recently that, in a significant number of cases, au pairs are exploited by their host families who expect them to stay in the house and mind the kids
for inordinately extended hours, for bugger all in return. But the fact that this is happening doesn’t mean that we should make child- minding illegal.
Arguments about trafficking fall into the same category. Advocates of the Swedish model try to suggest
that every foreign woman involved in sex work in Ireland is a victim
of trafficking. That is a deliberate distortion of the truth.
What is undeniable is that migrant workers are trafficked, for all sorts of nefarious purposes. 21 undocumented Chinese migrant workers were drowned by the incoming tide at a cockle-picking farm in Morecambe Bay, in England, in 2004. Closer to home, in 2014, a group of Chinese men were arrested in Donegal. They were growing cannabis, but were effectively slaves. And earlier this year, the owner of the well known Indian restaurant in Dublin, Poppadom, was ordered to pay a chef from Pakistan €91,000 because he had been used as slave labour in the kitchen.
People trafficking is a crime. The full rigour of the law should be applied anyone involved in it. But it is a separate issue entirely from the sex trade.
In 2003 in New Zealand, sex
work was decriminalized in the Prostitution Reform Act. Coercion of any kind remained, and remains, illegal.
A follow-up report was carried out in 2008 by the Government-appointed Prostitution Law Review Committee. It confirmed that there had been
no expansion of the sex industry as
a result of decriminalisation and generally considered the change
to have been a success. It also
stated: “Information received from Immigration Service NZ indicates that no situations involving trafficking in the sex industry have been identified.”
In 2014, the Justice and Electoral Committee of the New Zealand Parliament rejected a push to introduce the Swedish model there. The move had been opposed by the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective.
“When other groups are finally given rights by society, they
rarely have to keep returning to parliament to protect those rights,” their representative Dr. Callum Bennachie said. “Yet, sex workers, who have been given their rights by Parliament in 2003 when sex work was decriminalised, continually have to defend themselves in parliament, fight the same battles, and time after time have to refute the same tired arguments based on invented figures.”
That effectively says it all. I have no interest whatsoever in taking illegal drugs. But I hate stupid laws and the ones that make psychoactive substances like cannabis and ecstasy illegal clearly fall into that category. They should be decriminalized.
The same applies to the laws on prostitution. It is of no personal relevance to me, but I am against the waste of scarce resources by the State on prosecuting phony, moralistic laws; I am for less unnecessary intrusion by the State; I am for greater personal and sexual freedom; I am for harm reduction; and I am most decidedly on the side of minorities that are bullied and marginalised by self-appointed guardians of conventional morality.
The New Zealand model qualifies in relation to each of these criteria. It is the one we should be adopting.
Minister John Halligan was right. Anything else is just a return to Victorian prudery in a different guise and an entirely unwarranted intrusion into the freedom of consenting adults – men and women – to organize their sex lives in whatever way they want.
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