The Irish Sex Work Research Network (ISWRN) is a platform of academics and sex work researchers interested in developing and supporting ethical and robust scholarship on sex work and sexual governance in Ireland. In particular, the ISWRN is fully committed to research and scholarship that has been subject to peer review as part of the normal academic process of generating new knowledge. The ISWRN is particularly concerned about the recent reporting of the ‘High Level Working Group’1 tasked with monitoring the implementation of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. This report and the context of its reporting is problematic on a number of counts detailed below:
1. The role and mandate of the High Level Working Group
The ISWRN is curious about the origins of the ‘High Level Working Group’ (henceforth ‘the Group’). We are unclear if this is a state funded appointed group or not, but a number of the agencies listed in the Group’s membership are state bodies such as the Health Services Executive and An Garda Síochána including the Department of Justice (as observers). If the Group is state funded, then there has been a complete lack of transparency and accountability in terms of how it is constituted, and from the published report its role seems to be one of lobbying for the continued adoption of sex purchase legislation in the jurisdiction. The text of the ‘Group’s report (henceforth the ‘report’) on page four explains the origins and background to what is referred to as the ‘High-Level Working Group’. However, the footnote reference to this (footnote one) refers to a ‘Committee’ (i.e. ‘the Committee comprises)’ not a ‘Group’, so we remain rather confused about the nature of this Group or Committee, whom it was established by, and what its exact mandate is. We might further ask what were the criteria by which this particular Group was appointed? What are the role specifications of individual members and organisations? What are the aims of the Group? All of these things are vitally important in terms of transparency and accountability.
Indeed, we are unaware of any public consultation having taken place to establish such a Group. This makes a mockery of any attempt at balanced research. The role of such a Group should be to weigh up the available evidence on the effectiveness of the sex purchase ban in the Republic of Ireland through properly conducted and peer reviewed studies.
2. Gender bias in the Report
Despite assertions that this report, and the current legislation, strive for gender equality, the author reinforces gender stereotypes, that only women provide sexual services, and only men purchase these services. This belies the experiences of sex workers in Ireland, who represent all genders and none. Indeed, in some ways traditional gender stereotypes are reinforced and emphasised in this Report. The author speaks about gender equality, but then reinforces gender stereotypes with statements such as ‘Educational modules should be developed and delivered in schools, firstly as a preventative measure in relation to the recruitment of girls into the commercial sex trade and secondly to deter young men from becoming buyers of sex’. The emphasis throughout the Report on ‘women and girls’ is also problematic since it presumes that no young male has ever been exploited in prostitution. There is ample evidence from both the UK and internationally that some highly vulnerable young males can be drawn into prostitution at a young age because the client demand for older male sex workers is almost non-existent, unlike that for their female counterparts. Unfortunately, it is precisely this group that is often overlooked by policy makers and many activist groups. But none of this is even mentioned much less discussed in this Report which simply reflects traditional gender binaries about vulnerable, passive females and agentic males. If the authors of the Report want an example of how to write about commercial sex in a gender-neutral way, they might perhaps like to consult the Co-ordinated Prostitution Strategy: Paying the Price, published by the UK Home Office in 2006.
3. The High Level Working Group (HLWG) is exclusionary
As a group convened to monitor the implementation of the 2017 Sexual Offences Act, sex workers or sex worker advocate groups have not been invited to take part in the activities of this group. On any other policy issue, convening a working group which excludes the very people who are directly impacted by laws under review would be unthinkable and rightly condemned. Why have sex workers been excluded? Under what justification are sex workers deemed not to be key stakeholders in relation to these laws? And who has decided on these exclusions? To our mind, excluding sex working populations from any discussion about a law – which reportedly has their interest at heart – is not only patronising, but it is out of line with international best practice in working with such populations. Indeed, such a stance ignores World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, guidance issued by the National Police Chiefs Council in the UK, and the Beyond the Gaze team at the University of Leicester 2, who all note that any engagement group needs adequate representation from sex workers and sex worker support organisations. The problem with this Group as presently constituted is that it acts as an echo chamber whereby the same voices and the same kinds of viewpoints are simply bounced around.
4. The aim of the High Level Working Group is ineffectual
Given the stated aim of the Group is to ‘provide an opportunity to share information between front line responders, service providers and experts about the implementation of the legislation’ (p.3), such an aim is certainly unfeasible when the Group seems to have purposely excluded those who are experts in their own lives, with direct experience of the effects of the implementation of these laws. As noted above, such a stance is simply out of line with international best practice, and it risks the infantilisation of sex workers (the Group knows best!). There is also a risk of being complicit in the introduction of policies and legislation that may have serious consequences around health and safety of sex working populations. For any such aim to be effective then it needs the active participation and willingness of sex workers to cooperate.
5. The strategies for gathering data are ethically unjust
There are several problems here. Firstly, one of the stated criterion by the Group for the assessment of research and evidence is that ‘Researchers should have no past or present association with or financial relationship with the sex trade organisers or those profiting or benefitting from or promoting the sex trade’ (p.7). Such a criterion automatically excludes any sex worker from participating as a researcher, perpetuating an unethical power dynamic between the ‘expert’ researcher and the ‘subject’ of research, the sex worker. Adopting such a research position would not receive ethical approval at any University we are aware of, since it fundamentally denies a ‘voice’ to the subjects of study. This runs counter to the development of ethically informed and humane research practices.
Such a preclusion also denies the opportunity for research with (not ‘on’) sex workers which is participatory, inclusive and empowering, based on the principles of emancipatory, participatory action research. As an emancipatory tool and process, such vital research allows for a challenge to undemocratic processes which exclude marginalised groups such as sex workers (such as this case in point), and provides opportunities through research for marginalised groups to become recognised experts in their own lives as knowledge producers, building solidarity and collective action as peer researchers, and developing tools for change through research dissemination. Having a High Level Working Group deny those opportunities to sex workers, by establishing arbitrary criteria by which ‘expert’ knowledge is received, is ethically unjust, and moreover, contravenes the rights and entitlements of communities to democratic due process.
Secondly, one does not necessarily have to agree with the nature of Adult Services Websites (ASWs) and what they do to consider them in research. They are nevertheless a permanent feature of the landscape of commercial sex on the island of Ireland, and are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future. So on this basis why shouldn’t researchers engage with some of the commercial firms that play a key role in the sex industry in the digital age? Given some of the rather flimsy evidence cited in the Report, why for example, would researchers and indeed the Group NOT want to know about the scale of commercial sex online, the steps taken by such firms to prevent abuse and trafficking, and the myriad ways that erotic labour (not just commercial sex) has become commodified and transacted online in recent years. If engaging with such commercial firms is deemed important enough by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (in the North) and the UK police generally (see Beyond the Gaze), then surely this is something that the Group should be attempting to do with the aim of generating new knowledge. Or is the Group simply pulling down the shutters to only conduct research that confirms what they think they know anyway?
6. The evidence cited in the Report is methodologically flawed
There is a heavy reliance in the Report on ‘research’ attributed to media reports, the views of particular NGOs, and the opinions of those who have exited prostitution at some time in the past. In addition, much of what is cited is now rather dated with some reports (e.g. that commissioned by the Immigrant Council of Ireland in 2008) over a decade old. Much has changed in the landscape of commercial sex in the intervening period. While we are not denying these groups and individuals a voice, there is a fundamental difference between the holding of particular opinions and the production of actual research evidence to support them. In particular, a 2012 RTE Prime Time Special is cited extensively in the Report as evidence of the breadth and scope of the sex industry in the Republic of Ireland currently. Some of the findings from this RTE documentary are of course unsurprising and backed up in other studies. For example, we know that the majority of sex workers in Ireland are migrant sex workers and we also know that the majority of sex workers ‘tour’ between cities in Ireland and Britain. The Report claims that most of the ‘women’ (what about trans and male sex workers?) ‘were moved’ every day which they take as indicative of a high level of organisation for sex trafficking. But the Report provides no actual evidence to support this assertion. Nor does the Report provide any evidence to support its belief in the veracity of the Prime Time documentary’s claim that ‘independent escorts’ are not in fact independent and are controlled by criminal gangs. What the authors of the Report need to remember, and which any student of media studies will tell them, is that ‘sex’ forms the basis of what media outlets deem ‘newsworthiness’. This is the way media organisations artificially select particular news items for inclusion and the more visible, salacious and spectacular these are the better. So we would take the findings of the RTE documentary with a large pinch of salt, particularly since we know nothing of the methodology adopted by the programme makers, nor the criteria used to establish what is termed ‘the database’ of touring sex workers. The Group should be aware that media reports are no substitute for methodologically and conceptually sound, independently conducted, peer reviewed studies.
Similar problems are in evidence in relation to the discussion of the so-called Nordic model in operation in Sweden. The Report cites approvingly the findings of a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence visit to Sweden, and notes that the ‘evidence’ presented to the Committee was ‘compelling’ in terms of the alleged effectiveness of sex purchase legislation in reducing prostitution in Sweden. But we are not aware of any robust studies conducted in Sweden to suggest any such thing, particularly since the law was implemented before the Internet became popular among sex workers. What simply does not exist in Sweden, as many commentators attest, is before and after prevalence data. We have no idea how many sex workers there were in Sweden before the law was introduced, and therefore cannot be in a position to suggest with any degree of reliability how many sex workers were working subsequent to the introduction of the legislation. Certainly, there was probably a reduction in the on-street sector in major cities such as Stockholm and Gothenburg, but how much of this reduction can be explained by displacement? There is considerable evidence that the online sector in Sweden and elsewhere in the Nordic regions may have taken up the slack.
However, there does exist
before and after data from Northern Ireland.
This suggests that sex purchase legislation may simply have the effect
of shifting sex workers from the street to the Internet with the number of
on-street sellers in Belfast decreasing significantly since 2015. However, a
statistical analysis of over 173,000 advertising profiles over a seven-year
period indicated that there was no reduction in the online supply of
prostitution services in Northern Ireland since the implementation of the
legislation, and in fact there was a 5% increase. Nor was there any significant
reduction in demand for prostitution services in terms of client
behaviour. Overall what the Northern
Irish data suggest is that there are now more sex workers advertising in
Northern Ireland than there were in the years prior to the introduction of the
- High Level Working Group (2020), Interim Report of the High-Level Working Group: The Implementation of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, Part IV – An Interim Review. Available: https://www.immigrantcouncil.ie/sites/default/files/2020-01/2020HLWGInterimReportSOA2017ByGeoffreyShannon.pdf
- The Beyond the Gaze team conducted one of the largest studies of the online sex industry in the UK that has ever been undertaken. See Beyond the Gaze (2019), Summary Briefing on Internet Sex Work, Beyond the Gaze, University of Leicester, Department of Criminology: Available: https://www.beyond-the-gaze.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/