Dr Derek Freedman said people use sex workers for different reasons, including curiosity, comfort, or because they are sociophobic, lonely, or addicted.
He told TDs to think “extremely carefully” about introducing the Swedish model, which criminalises clients of prostitutes, saying simplistic solutions do not work.
Dr Freedman, a genito- urinary consultant at the Guide STD clinic in St James’s Hospital and a GP for almost 40 years, was addressing the Oireachtas justice committee.
He said he had seen thousands of people over the years who used prostitutes.
“Who are the clients? It’s the man on the street, from members of the Oireachtas to the down-and-outs. Everybody is represented.”
He said curiosity was one reason, and that many clients were sociophobic: “They can’t make contact. When it comes to being intimate they just don’t have the ability.”
Dr Freedman said some just wanted “comfort”, while others were addicted.
He said many used prostitutes on stag parties and that alcohol was the common denominator.
The consultant said STDs were rare in clients, but said he did see psychological effects.
“We see anxiety, stress, guilt, remorse, and a great fear of infecting a spouse or partner. This can come to the degree it can be quite overwhelming, disabling, and on occasion we’ve had to have people admitted for psychiatric care.”
Regarding plans to adopt the Swedish model, he said: “I think you’ve got to think extremely carefully before you do that because that is certainly going to make our work much more difficult.
“Not only will they be fearful of infection, now they will become fearful of a criminal charge. The impact on their health, particularly on psychiatric wellbeing, could be immense.”
He said Ireland was not Sweden, which he said was a “very controlling society”, and that instead we should aim to protect sex workers and clients from harm.
Patricia Stapleton, anti- trafficking officer at Doras Luimní in Limerick, said the sex trade was “booming”.
She said an operation in Limerick in 2011, involving the arrest of 27 clients, had resulted in a drop in street prostitution. She said this showed the criminalisation of buyers worked.
Linda Latham, who manages HSE women’s health services, also backed the Swedish model having seen the “horror, control, and abuse” inherent in trafficking and prostitution.
Mick Quinlan of the HSE gay men’s health service said it would be wrong to stigmatise clients, and said there was a whole range of men who buy and sell sex and for a range of reasons.