Enforcing Northern Ireland’s New Swedish-Style Sex Purchase Law – A Sex Worker’s Story

Cross-posted from: Ruth Jacobs
Originally published: 19.11.14

A rainy night in Belfast. Cold and wet with a wind whipping round the corners of the barren streets where women used to stand. How things have changed. A decade ago, even on such a horrible early winter’s night, there would have been activity, but the law changed and drove the women away. Many moved inside, others stood in darker corners by derelict houses or under battered trees in city parks, waiting for the cars.

Now, the law’s about to change again. Protesting that they don’t want to criminalise the women – just the men who seek out the women – the gentle Sinn Fein folk demanded that the old rule against loitering for the purposes of prostitution be struck down.

We talked about this, a few of us, at the quaintly but tautologically-named Commercial Sex-workers’ Clinic recently. The wonderful woman and man who run the service rolled their eyes. They didn’t want Clause 6 of Morrow’s Bill and they certainly didn’t think this ‘concession’ was going to fool anyone.

Do the politicians honestly think we’re stupid? Do they think that everyone will raise a cheer, don their boots and warm fake-fur coats and stake out a patch? Do they think we won’t be able to pick out the plain clothes police in their unmarked cars…..watching and waiting? Because that’s what will happen.

Let’s pretend you’re an officer in the PSNI. This is just a simple scenario. The heat is on from the DUP and Sinn Fein, and most of the rest, to do something with their newly-constructed law that makes it a criminal offence to buy a sexual service, but not sell one. There’s lots of other crime you’d like to fight and incidents you should be attending, but this CARE-fully crafted law crossed the benches at Stormont and had the politicians and radical feminist sisterhood back-slapping each other and now the pressure is building to come up with some convictions to justify their foolishness.

Everyone knows that indoor work is the mainstay of sex work, but it’s painstaking and time-consuming to track it down and prove. So for a quick statistical fix, it’s easier to place the street workers and their clients in your sight. A couple of nights, a couple of unmarked cars. A relatively cheap operation. It has to be done.

Not only the politicians, but the more unsavoury elements of the press will be demanding speedy action. The reporters who follow sex workers around, photograph them secretly, publish the pictures and then claim public interest justifies any right to privacy, to safety; they’ll be the first with the Freedom of Information forms slavering for the arrest statistics. It has to be done.

The women might be driven by desperation and Dutch courage to return to some ancient pavements, but as soon as any vehicle draws up and swallows them, those unmarked cars will rev their engines and the game – literally – will be up.

But what then? To prove a crime’s taken place you have to have evidence. So how will the police get that evidence?

The woman has done nothing wrong. She’s in a vehicle with a man. If they ask him, he’ll deny everything. If they ask her, she’ll deny everything. They have to prove that money has changed hands specifically for a sexual service.


But that pressure – those statistics – the FoI requests piling up…. Who might hold the evidential key? He will have his wallet, possibly empty, and his car keys. He’s the one under threat of arrest and prosecution.

She….she’s done nothing wrong.

The officers might suspect that in her pockets she has some folded notes, a little purse full of condoms, a money checking pen perhaps…but she’s done nothing wrong…so they can’t search her. Can they? She’s the witness to this crime, but will she be compliant and co-operative? Will she?

By now, my imaginary police officers, I’m sure you’re reaching for the headache tablets and feeling genuine sympathy for a force that has this as well as everything else in Northern Ireland to cope with on a daily basis.

If you’re not a trained officer, you might think “to hell with it” and grab her coat or bag and tip the condoms and money and mobile phone and rape alarm all over the pavement. Job done, no matter what she says or doesn’t say. Hostile witness your arse.

If you’re not….

And all the while, the reporters are sitting in their cars behind the cops. And they’ve a whole set of laws all to themselves.

That’s what we talked about – for the first part of the night.

Kate has worked in Northern Ireland for a number of years across the spectrum of sex work. Her life, she says, is very ordinary.To read Kate’s interview on the Merseyside hate crime model of policing prostitution click here.

Ruth Jacobs : This blog is a mixture of human rights (focusing on anti-sexual exploitation, anti-human trafficking and sex worker rights) and arts and literature. My current campaign is to make the Merseyside hate crime model of policing prostitution UK wide. In addition to the human rights interviews I undertake, there are regularly interviews with other writers, from bestselling authors to brand new upcoming talent, and musicians, artists and filmmakers.  Twitter @RuthJacobs

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