Seanad debates

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Human Trafficking and Prostitution: Motion


2:00 pm

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)

I second the motion put forward by Senator Zappone and I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this important debate on it. I note with concern the amendment tabled by Senator Cummins on behalf of the Government. This amendment is an extraordinary example of the use of Orwellian language and deflectionary tactics to avoid a positive outcome to this debate. I call on the Government, which includes the Fine Gael and Labour parties, to introduce legislation that will criminalise the purchase of sex in Ireland in order to curb prostitution and human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

I am a middle class Irishman who is almost middle aged. In that context, it is worth noting that those in the category of males in which I find myself are probably among the most frequent users of prostitutes, escort agencies and brothels in Ireland. The profile of men here who reported that they purchase sex, namely, one in 15, bears out international research that the majority of males - 61% - who buy sex are either married or in a relationship. It was not until I read about the Turn Off the Red Light campaign recently that I awoke from my own ignorance with regard to prostitution. Prostitution is not one of those things a liberal country should tolerate. We cannot turn a blind eye to it. As a father of teenage daughters, I realise that I have a responsibility to highlight this issue and to raise collective awareness of it among Members of this House in order end prostitution and combat sex trafficking in Ireland.

Sex trafficking is widespread here. As Ms Sarah Benson from Ruhama stated yesterday, at an excellent briefing attended by several Members, the fact that one can procure a prostitute anywhere in Ireland and have accesses to her services within 30 minutes provides potent evidence with regard to the pervasiveness of this problem. As well as that which occurs in established markets in Dublin, Cork and Limerick, Ruhama has come into contact with organised prostitution in places such as Edgeworthstown, Ballina and Tubbercurry. Women and girls as young as 14 are available to men such as me at the drop of a hand or the click of a computer mouse.

Random searches of the Internet sites on which sex is sold indicate that on any given day of the week in Ireland, 1,000 women are available to the purchasers of sex. Up to 97% of these are migrant women. Is it the fact that they are not Irish or that we do not know them that we are slow to react to this problem? Is it because we know that the users or buyers of sex are people such as you and me, namely, parents, professionals, uncles and brothers. According to one study, men who buy sex from women tend to be highly educated, have incomes in the middle range and are employed in professional occupations. Earlier this year, the Criminal Assets Bureau indicated that the sex industry is worth approximately €250 million per year. The average price for sex in Ireland is in the region of €150 for half an hour.

The demand from men who purchase sex fuels the trade in trafficking women and girls and sustains the prostitution industry here. Any thought to the effect that women involved in prostitution in Ireland have made a free choice and are engaging in commercial transactions from which they benefit should be dispelled on foot of the information provided via the Turn Off the Red Light campaign. The physical and emotional pain these women experience, their concerns about their health and their future and their unhappiness are clearly documented.

What is the law doing? Some activities associated with prostitution are illegal in Ireland. I refer here to kerb crawling, soliciting, loitering in public places and living off immoral means. However, the buying and selling of sex is protected under the existing law and is viewed as a contract between consenting adults. What does prostitution have do with consent? Prostitution is a one-way street of abuse and rape. We must get rid of the romanticised view of the character played by Julia Roberts in the film "Pretty Woman" as being involved in some idyllic, age-old profession. Women who work in the Irish sex industry are modern day slaves and we in Seanad Éireann should do something about it. What money is buying is the right to override consent and obtain sexual gratification without the need to see another person as real. According to a briefing paper prepared by the Immigrant Council of Ireland, an analysis of over 1,000 reviews posted by men on gives a clear indication of buyers' attitudes. There is talk of good value for money, about whether a person was worth the price and a discussion of a woman's physical attributes as if one was discussing the IKEA catalogue.

The Government's amendment is a watered-down proposal which sanitises the argument and is a passive act. Why does the Minister not bear witness? I ask Senators to support the motion as we need a definite time and a clear indication from the Minister that his Department is moving forward. I understand from some of the comments made in the media that any action will be slightly lacklustre; that there is talk about dialogue with the Attorney General and more referrals, about which I am worried.

The Government's amendment seeks a "considered public debate", but that is and has been happening since the start of the Turn off the Red Light campaign launched earlier this year. It includes over 20 Irish civil society organisations, including trade unions and non-governmental organisations, coming together under this banner. It is a considered and serious debate. It is an insult to imply, therefore, as the amendment does, that another considered public debate is needed, as that debate is already happening.

In 2008 it was made illegal, by means of the Criminal Justice (Human Trafficking) Act, to buy sex from someone who had been trafficked. Section 5 of the Act outlines the penalties for those who buy sex from a trafficked person, but this law is weak. A trafficked person is defined as a person in respect of whom a trafficking crime has been committed. There is concern that this may be interpreted as requiring the conviction of a person for a trafficking offence before somebody can be prosecuted for buying sex from the trafficked person. The Act does not provide for strict liability which means the purchaser of sex can use a defence that he or she did not know the person from whom he or she was purchasing sex had been trafficked. In contrast, the equivalent law in the United Kingdom, a policing and crime Act, imposes strict liability and the purchaser of sex from a trafficked person cannot use the defence that he or she did not know that the person from whom the sex was bought had been trafficked. This law was enacted in April last year.

The Government's amendment states we should recognise that legislation alone is not effective in preventing prostitution. I disagree and for that reason will call a vote at the end of the debate if we do not receive clarification and a timeframe for the introduction of legislation in one of the Houses. We have proof that legislation works and can protect the vulnerable, while reducing the incidence of human trafficking. The Government can act in a very simple way by targeting the purchasers of sex, or the punters. Tackling the demand for paid sex will combat the exploitation of women and children in the Irish sex industry. Having listened to considered public debate, the most effective way to do this would be to penalise the purchase of sex along the lines suggested by Senator Katherine Zappone and what has happened in Sweden. I commend the motion to the House.


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