Prostitution and Gender Equality

TORL engaged partners and policy makers in a wider discussion in relation to the societal consequences of prostitution as an institution that undermines gender equality and violates women’s human rights. The campaign rejected the promotion of prostitution as a private individual transaction between two adults which fails to recognise the impact of the commercial sex trade on the lives of all women and on society in general. The campaign highlighted the commodification and objectification of women that is inherent in the sex trade and how prostitution promotes the idea that some women must be available for sale to satisfy men’s sexual needs. The declarative and normative aspect of the Nordic approach was highlighted, in sending out a clear statement that prostitution is harmful not only to the individual prostituted woman or child, but also to society at large.

TORL illustrated how the buying of a person for sexual gratification, primarily women and girls (although the law is gender neutral), is regarded in Sweden as contrary to achieving equality between women and men and to the dignity and human rights of all people; it seeks to give young men and women the message that buying a person for sexual gratification is not normal, acceptable or harmless behaviour. Criminalising the purchase of sex was considered necessary because ‘gender equality will remain unattainable as long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them’.1 (Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications, 2005.)

TORL rejected the accusation by those promoting sex work that it is moralistic and repressive to hold a position against prostitution. The campaign stated that it is legitimate to hold an ethical position that buying a person for the purpose of sexual gratification is an act of sexual exploitation by the buyer which is unacceptable. By not taking a position on men’s ‘right’ to prostitute girls and women it was argued, we are in fact accepting that a group of women and girls will be set apart where the normal standard of human rights laws and protections do not apply.2 The role of the state is to follow international human rights standards and ensure that all girls and women have ‘a right to be free of inhuman and degrading treatment’ which is not possible in the commercial sex trade.3

The National Women’s Council of Ireland was a key partner in promoting the importance of the law for gender equality and for women’s human rights.

Statement by the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) –

The role of a gender analysis

Founded in 1973, the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) is the leading women’s membership organisation. NWCI’s vision is of an Ireland and of a world where there is full equality between women and men. We represent and derive our mandate from our membership which includes over 190 member organisations from a diversity of backgrounds, sectors and locations. NWCI chairs the Irish Observatory on Violence against Women, providing a space for NGOs to work collectively on this issue. The NWCI is the Irish national co-ordination for the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) who has been working on the issues of prostitution and trafficking for many years and is currently running a campaign ‘Together for a Europe Free from Prostitution’, a campaign we fully support and endorse. NWCI also sit on the National Monitoring Committee to oversee implementation of the Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence 2016-2021.

NWCI has a clear mandate from our members to work on tackling all forms of violence against women. It is one of the key strategic goals of the organisation. In our Annual General Meetings members have put forward motions relating to tackling the demand for prostitution in Ireland and supporting women involved in and affected by prostitution. In our Annual General Meeting in June 2012 our members voted overwhelmingly in support of a motion

‘that the NWCI recognize the issue of prostitution of vulnerable women and girls in Ireland is a serious issue which requires a legislative response to reduce exploitation in the commercial sex trade.’

There have been subsequent motions calling for NWCI to support the activities of the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign (TORL) and to work for the passing of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 which seeks to criminalise the purchase of sex. It is very significant that women’s organisations have come together to hold a radical feminist position framing prostitution as a form of violence against women and a form of sexual exploitation. Consequently, NWCI has been a member of the core co-ordinating group of the TORL campaign which recognises that criminalising the purchase of sex is the best and most effective way to address prostitution as a form of violence against women and deter the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation.

In September 2012, NWCI made a submission to the Joint Oireachtas Co mmittee on Justice, Equality and Defence on the Review of the Legislation on Prostitution. In this submission we highlighted that prostitution is both a cause and consequence of women’s inequality and it constitutes a violation of women’s human rights. The system of prostitution perpetuates patriarchal views on women’s sexuality and legitimates male domination in society. As long as it is tolerated, it is an obstacle to equality between women and men.

NWCI argued that prostitution is one of the many forms of violence against women where women’s rights are pervasively violated. It is the view of the NWCI that prostitution is incompatible with equality for women and that Ireland needs a legislative solution that aims to curb the demand for the industry and create sustainable exit routes for women and girls in prostitution. Prostitution, and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it, are deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation. As well as the harm to each individual, there is the social and cultural impact – the damage to the social position and perception of women both nationally and globally, the proliferation of sex tourism and trafficking and the normalisation of all forms of violence against women. The dearth of any effective legislation in Ireland to curb the sex industry sends out a message to men and boys that women are sexual commodities to be bought.

Involvement in prostitution is rarely a freely entered choice for a woman. Most women have backgrounds of poverty, abuse and low self-esteem which limit a woman’s capacity to identify alternative income generation opportunities. Reasons for entering prostitution have been well documented by the Irish NGO Ruhama who support women every day and include poverty, debt, a history of abuse and/or severe neglect as a child or youth, institutionalisation as a child, partner abuse, homelessness, lack of family supports, addiction and grooming / coercion by a family or partner. Prostitution is in itself a high risk and exploitative situation for women. It has a devastating impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of women and girls. A society that tolerates prostitution cannot achieve gender equality.

In September 2015 NWCI welcomed the publication of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill which provides for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. Crucially we emphasised that for this provision to work in practice resources must be ring fenced to provide a range of support services for survivors of prostitution. These supports include access to social protection, to education and training supports and access to safe and appropriate temporary and more permanent accommodation, regardless of nationality or immigration status. This has always been and remains a critical point for NWCI in the development of a sustainable and women centred approach to the current laws on prostitution.





1Swedish Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications, Fact Sheet: Prostitution and Trafficking in Human Beings, 2005.
2Ekberg, G. (2004). The Swedish law that prohibits the purchase of sexual services. In Violence against Women 10 (10), 1187-1218.
3The European Convention on Human Rights.