Criminalising the purchase of sex will be up for debate in the northern parliament at Stormont next week.
A new survey of sex workers has indicated, however, that they feel the law change would merely put sex workers in greater danger, is unlikely to deter customers and would be almost impossible to police.
The survey, the first of its kind, was completed by Queen’s University in Belfast. They questioned 171 Northern Ireland-based sex workers and 446 of their clients.
:: 85% of sex workers believed outlawing the purchase of sex would not reduce sex trafficking;
:: Only 2% of prostitutes supported criminalising the purchase of sex;
:: 61% of sex workers thought changing the law would make them less safe;
:: Only 16% of clients said a change to the law would make them stop paying for sex.
The report estimates that between 300 and 500 prostitutes work in Northern Ireland on a daily basis – 2% of whom were coerced into the sex trade. Most are women from Eastern Europe but there are also prostitutes from France, Spain, Italy and Brazil as well as some African nations and Latin America.
Academic Susann Huschke, who was part of the QUB research team, said: “A very small minority (of sex workers) thought that criminalising clients was a good idea.
“They feel it is going to make their life less safe, it is going to affect them negatively in the way they live and work; it’s not going to achieve what it is meant to achieve which is to reduce demand and reduce prostitution and reduce trafficking.
“Some actually said it might increase the involvement of organised crime gangs and anybody trying to make money out of sex workers because it is going to drive it more underground which then makes them more vulnerable to being exploited by third parties.”
The proposal to outlaw paying for sex is among 19 clauses in the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill being brought before the Assembly by the DUP’s Lord Morrow. It is aimed at updating Northern Ireland’s laws on trafficking and prostitution.
Reacting to the plans a Dublin based prostitute who travels to works in Northern Ireland has suggested the proposals will merely drive an already clandestine industry even further underground.
The 27-year-old of Romanian origin – who has worked in the sex trade for more than 10 years - suggested criminalising clients would not help trafficked victims. The woman, who declined to be named, lives in Dublin but travels north every few months for three weeks at a time.
She said: “It will be more difficult for independent sex workers like me. I believe, if they really want to find trafficked girls, then they should spend money on finding ways to help them and not introduce a new law which targets all escorts in general.”
She added: “Prosecuting clients is going to make it more difficult. It will take away all the good clients and we’ll be stuck with only the bad clients.”
The woman, who now works independently, usually rents an apartment during her time in Belfast. She can make anything from 700 to 3,000 euro a week seeing three or four clients a day. She has never had to work the streets and instead advertises her services online – and is creating her own website.
“Everything is about the internet these days”, she added: “I don’t like hotels, they are too public for me. I prefer to use an apartment but, that is quite difficult.
“I have plenty of regulars who feel more relaxed coming to the same person. Many clients do not want to try new girls.”
The woman was trafficked to Austria from her native Romania aged just 17 by someone she thought was a friend and then forced to work for a pimp. “I found out she actually sold me, she took money for me,” she said. “I fell in love with my pimp. I thought he was my boyfriend and I thought we could maybe start a family together but, it wasn’t like that.
“Even though I was under-age he managed to take me to Austria. He got me a fake passport and brought me there. “That’s when things changed and he started to beat me. But, that’s life. I suppose every person has a bad story – it’s just about how you try and learn and how to get away that’s important.”
Eventually the woman escaped to Spain, then England where she also sold sex before settling in Ireland several years ago.
She said: “There are thousands of reasons why someone goes into the sex industry. For me, it was because I started in this business so young – I didn’t have time to finish my school. It is so difficult to get a job.
“Also, I have no boss, no schedule – I make my own schedule and it allows me to have a better life. “I am quite happy with what I do – it doesn’t affect me badly in any way.
“It is a lot better than having a normal job.” The woman said she hoped to return to education, but would use income from the sex trade to finance it. She has never told her family how she makes a living.
“I guess they suspect, but I have never told them.” she said.
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