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Sunday 23 October 2011

Review of our sex laws must be fully informed

Public debate is vital before we decide to criminalise men who use prostitutes, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

The other night, I was involved in a heated discussion on the legalisation of prostitution. There was a middle-aged man on one side, and three women from 30 to 60-something on the other.

He was aghast that we were in favour and insisted that it was a counsel of despair to say there would always be men determined to buy sex. We declared ourselves pragmatists and accused him of being a hopeless romantic, who was failing to accept that -- regrettably -- some aspects of human nature were immutable.

However, when I mentioned that there was a movement in Ireland to criminalise the purchase of sex, everyone agreed it was mad. Quite apart from anything else, what morally was the difference between paying a prostitute for sex, having a one-night-stand because the person you'd been buying drinks for suddenly thought you irresistible, treating someone to a wonderful dinner and seducing her afterwards, or cajoling your trophy wife into sex by buying her yet another handbag.

Which is why I find myself, for once, agreeing with Senator Mary White, entrepreneur, creator of Lir chocolates, champion of enterprise and lifelong Fianna Failer. I have not been one of her fans, not least because her interesting career has included travelling with Sinn Fein TDs to Bogota in 2003 to champion the cause of the Colombia Three -- who, in their anxiety to explain the peace process to narco-terrorists, had used false Irish passports.

White is nothing if not forthright, so when Fianna Fail whips demanded to know why she was defying their ban on travelling with the 'Bring Them Home' group, she explained she had to do this because a large bulk of her votes in the previous election had come from Sinn Fein councillors and TDs. (She comes from Dundalk, which explains a lot.)

She was equally forthright in a debate in the Senate earlier this month on a motion from a group of independent senators calling on the Government 'to introduce legislation criminalising the purchase of sex in Ireland in order to curb prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation'. Like many, they have been inspired by the 1999 Swedish law, which made the purchase, but not the sale, of sex illegal.

That it was called 'The Violence Against Women Act' was a reflection of the gender politics that dominated a debate driven by left-wing feminism. Male prostitution catering for homosexuals or women was largely ignored. There is insufficient independent research on the consequences of passing this legislation, but what is known as 'the Swedish model' (no, no -- not what you oldies are conjuring up) has become a battlecry for the right-on, the intellectually lazy and those who like quick fixes.

Fianna Fail had backed the motion, while the Government had provided an amendment that in essence said: 'Hang on until we've thought about this properly.' White backed the Government. "Within my own party," she said, "I have seen decisions being made too hastily to criminalise purchasers of sex. We must study the Swedish model in more detail. If women are disappearing off the streets, it means the problem is going underground.

"We have to face reality. I am not condoning it but, since the beginning of time, sex has been purchased. There is a case for saying that women are perhaps being protected from rape because in some countries prostitution is legalised."

At which moment, White observed the face of broadcaster and educationalist Marie-Louise O'Donnell, a Mayo-woman who was one of Enda Kenny's more surprising Senate nominations. "Senator O'Donnell should not be looking at me in amazement like that," she said. "I am totally amazed," was the response.

"I am giving my honest opinion," said White. "It is too hasty to say over one day's debate that we should criminalise the purchase of sex. That legislation would be totally wrong. We need a national debate with the people in Ireland, not just in here.

"We cannot be overwhelmed by the success of the Swedish model because there are many reports stating that the evidence of that model is not quite correct."

She's right, you know. We have horrendous problems in Ireland with sex-trafficking and violent pimps and sexually-transmitted infections and young people forced into prostitution, but we have to address them with a cool head. In 2003, New Zealand tried legalising brothels, escort services and soliciting; like Sweden, the results are mixed. It would be nice to think -- like my male friend -- that people could be educated out of using prostitutes, but just for now, our urgent objective is to clamp down on coercion and violence while we have an informed public debate on the wider issue. What we'll probably get is Fianna Fail expelling White for expressing an honest opinion.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards