The Safety of Sex Workers
The launch of a handbook for sex workers highlights the links between the sex industry, drugs and violence against sex workers. The booklet, “Stay Safe … Stay Wise” is published by Chrysalis Community Drug Project and advises sex workers on how to reduce their exposure to the risk of violence and disease.
The pragmatic and risk reduction purpose of the booklet is in keeping with recent research emphasising the exposure of drug-using sex workers to violence and to increased health risks. For example, the Report published earlier this year by the National Advisory Council on Drugs recommended that policy makers and service providers need to focus on the broader societal and environmental factors affecting drug using sex workers. In particular it stressed the need to improve access to education and housing and improving employment prospects.
Interestingly the NACD Report adopts a risk focused harm reduction approach. In essence this means taking a humanistic view of drug use and the problems associated it, rather than conceiving of drug use as a problem in itself. This pragmatic approach is embedded in a society’s cultural practices and allows policy makers to develop a range of responses. It would seem that the approach taken by the NACD is not dissimilar to that adopted by the Chrysalis Community Drug Project’s booklet, in that the focus is on pragmatic responses to the issues faced by sex workers.
In addition to providing safety and health promotion information, the booklet also contains a section for recording information on violent clients, in order to warn other women. There are also indications of a closer cooperation between the Gardaí and sex workers, with the Chrysalis Drug Project hoping to establish a scheme similar to the one in place at the Armistead Project in Liverpool. At the Armistead Centre an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor is employed to support sex workers who have been raped or sexually assaulted. In particular the ISVA coordinates the Armistead “Ugly Mugs” Scheme where sex workers can report violence against them. This encourages the reporting of sex crimes, and also enables the project to disseminate information of violent clients to other women.
Support for such sex worker- police partnerships is found in recent research published in the British Medical Journal that emphasises a strong correlation between structural factors of criminalisation, homelessness and poor availability of drug treatment with violence against street based female sex workers. The authors argue that improved access to housing and drug treatment and investment in preventive efforts, including police-sex-worker partnerships are crucial to reducing violence against female sex workers.
Irish feminist outreach organisation Ruhama has also called for the called for the criterion of being at risk of, or having been involved in prostitution to be included as a target group and criterion for priority interventions and access to services including housing drug treatment and education.
Ruhama and the Chrysalis Drug Project’s approach to sex workers is at odds with the criminal justice system’s conception of sex work. Instead of concentrating on the dangers faced by sex workers, the criminal law is more concerned with on the public order aspects of sex work; the rational of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, which extended the offences regulating prostitution to clients and third parties, was to “protect the public against the unacceptable nuisance caused by soliciting” (See here)
However greater awareness of the broader societal problems surrounding sex work, including trafficking, is evident in the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 which creates an offence of soliciting or importuning a trafficked person for the purposes of prostitution.
Nevertheless, it would seem that preventative risk based approaches to sex work is the most appropriate way to protect sex workers from violence and disease. In particular the emergence of a partnership between sex workers and the Gardai, is an innovative and positive development and one which will hopefully reduce the incidence of violence against sex workers.