Government commissioned report finds that criminalising of buying sex in Northern Ireland hasn't reduced demand for sex work, nor has it reduced trafficking. All it does is make life more dangerous for sex workers
Section 15 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act 2015 requires the Department to review the operation of Article 64A of the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 which criminalises
the purchase of sexual services.
The Department commissioned research from Queen's University Belfast to assist in fulfilling this statutory requirement.
The report provided by QUB provides findings which allow for an assessment of the operation of the legislation, including the impact of the law on the two particular specifics targeted by section 15, namely the safety and wellbeing of sex workers
and the extent to which the offence has operated to reduce human trafficking.
Assessment of impact
On the basis of the findings in the research report, the Department has concluded that there is no evidence that the offence of purchasing sexual services has produced a downward pressure on the demand for, or supply of, sexual services.
Evidence obtained from the survey with people who purchase sexual services shows that the legislation has had a limited deterrent effect on client behaviour. For example, a majority of clients in Northern Ireland (53%) state that the law has made
no difference to how often they purchase sex and they will continue to purchase sex with the same frequency. A further 27% are likely to continue to purchase sex at a reduced level. 11% said they would stop buying sex. Almost 76% of those
surveyed felt that the law had no impact on the ease with which they purchase sex. The research also found that there had been no reduction in sex worker advertising, which would have been expected had demand fallen post 2015.
Safety and well-being of sex workers
On the first of the specific areas on which the Department is required to make an assessment, ie the impact of the offence on the safety and well-being of sex workers, we have concluded that, although the incidence of serious offending against
sex workers is comparatively rare, there are other implications for well-being which the report describes in some detail. The research into self-reported data supplied by Uglymugs.ie (UM) does indicate there while there have been increases in
several kinds of more serious offences, overall, the incidence is still lower than elsewhere.
The report also makes clear that it is not possible to say that the change in the law is responsible for any increase in crime against sex workers. Other factors may include the increase in the number of sex workers active in Northern Ireland,
existing sex workers fulfilling higher levels of demand, more sex workers using the UM app, better reporting or recording techniques, and a more enhanced awareness of crime amongst the sex worker population in general.
However, what the UM data featured in the report does suggest is that there has been an increase in instances of anti-social and abusive behaviours since 2016. This has led to a heightened fear of crime, and the report suggests that the
legislation has contributed to a climate whereby sex workers feel further marginalised and stigmatised.
The extent to which Article 64A has operated to reduce human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation was also covered by the research.
There is no clear evidence presented in the report to suggest that the legislation has had an impact on the levels of trafficking for sexual exploitation. The research found that the legislation had minimal effect on the demand for sexual
services therefore it is difficult to see in what way it could impact on human trafficking for sexual exploitation. The referrals from Northern Ireland to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) have remained fairly constant. The report also points
out that the very small numbers from Northern Ireland involved in the NRM make it problematic in social scientific terms to suggest that Article 64A has had any impact on referrals with any degree of statistical significance.