Irish prudes are bracing themselves for the arrival of hoards of horny sex tourists from just over the border in Northern Ireland in June, but they should probably calm down.
A report by Ruhama – an NGO that seeks to stop sex work in Ireland and supports women who have been trafficked into prostitution – warns the Irish government that following Northern Ireland criminalises the clients of sex workers this summer, men will drive south to pay to fuck women.
Northern Ireland is implementing the "Swedish Model", which makes it illegal to buy sex, but not to sell it. The model has been criticised by bodies such as the World Health Organisation and Amnesty International, but has attracted great support in the Republic of Ireland after advocates launched a campaign called "Turn Off the Red Light". It hasn't been made law in the Republic yet and so Ruhama are worried that Dublin's Red Light district will become a sort of mecca for Northern Irish Johns who will no longer be able to buy sex in Belfast. Selling sex in Ireland is not illegal, but lots of related activities – keeping a brothel, loitering to get picked up and so on – are.
I asked Northern Irish dominatrix Laura Lee what she thought of Ruhama's warning and she said it was "ridiculous".
"I am working in Belfast as we speak and I can tell you that the vast majority of guys I have seen so far either didn't know the law was changing, or thought sex work was already illegal," she told me. "This whole thing is a massive smokescreen by Ruhama to create a panic around nothing. This is solely to maintain their usefulness in their eyes of the Irish and to maintain their healthy government funding. In my opinion, Ruhama are just another greedy NGO," she said.
Geraldine Rowley from Ruhama insisted that the claims were based on evidence from reading online forums on sex work. "We get our opinions from looking at forums where buyers write about buying sex. We also get our opinions from knowing how criminalisation works. We're not creating smokescreens," she said.
Wendy Lyon, a human rights lawyer who advocates for sex workers' rights, reckons that Ruhama's claims are a bit thin. "Ruhama's assumptions about how criminalisation works are not backed up by the evidence from countries that have criminalised clients," she said. "Many of them simply adopt strategies to minimise their risk of arrest. There is still a significant amount of prostitution in Malmö, Sweden, for example, even though it's literally just across a bridge from Denmark, where paying for sex is legal."
A poll of punters on Escort Ireland, the country's biggest escort users' website, suggested that less than 15 percent percent would be put off paying for sex by being deemed a criminal. Over half would carry on as normal and nearly a third would carry on but somewhat reduce their activity.
The Swedish Model could still be implemented in Ireland despite opposition sex workers, NGOs and human rights lawyers. On the face of it, the model shifts any blame away from sex workers onto clients. But one of the main criticisms of the model is the lack of evidence to show that it really helps anyone. A report published by the Swedish National Bureau of Investigation in 2009 – before criminalisation – estimated that there were about 90 Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and vicinity, most of which were judged to be offering sexual services for sale. At the turn of 2011 to 2012, the number of Thai massage parlours in the Stockholm area was estimated to be about 250 and about 450 throughout the country.
Statistics like this continue to discredit the ban, yet those who advocate for criminalising clients claim they are dealing with the fallout from the secretive industry.
Geraldine from Ruhama insisted that she was speaking from experience. "We are an organisation that works solely to help women in prostitution. Anything we advocate is taken directly from our experience working with women for over 25 years".
As Ruhama push for the ban, saying the Republic will be flooded by slavering northerners, Laura Lee thinks travelling from Belfast to Dublin for sex tourism makes no sense, because men can go straight to Amsterdam anyway. "KLM announced that they are starting a new flight service from Belfast to Amsterdam in May. I mean seriously. Dublin as a centre for sex tourism? I don't think so."