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Snapshots of law, gender and sexuality news from the past couple of weeks.

The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill (NI)

Sarah Thin, Durham University

On the 20th of October, the Northern Irish Assembly passed the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, a controversial new law which purportedly seeks to combat human trafficking and sexual exploitation by, inter alia, criminalising the act of paying for sexual services.  It is likely to become law by mid-2015.  By targeting the buyer as opposed to the seller (a novel approach within the UK), the proposals aim to recreate the supposed success of the ‘Swedish model’, the idea behind which is to reduce demand within the sex trade thereby reducing levels of sex trafficking.

There has been heavy criticism of the proposals: a survey of sex workers has found that 98% of them oppose the proposals and 61% believe the new law would make them less safe.  Many argue that the Swedish model ‘strips women of their agency and autonomy’ by criminalising the consensual buying and selling of sex, has increased the stigmatisation of sex workers, and its success appears to have been greatly exaggerated.  While no-one would deny that human trafficking is a major problem in today’s society, claims that the majority of sex workers in Northern Ireland are victims of trafficking have been shown to be unfounded, and many believe the plans will simply force the sex trade further underground, making it even more difficult to combat the issue and provide support to victims.  These proposals, while presumably well-meaning, conflate the two separate issues of trafficking and consensual sex work and are likely to be at best ineffective, most likely very harmful.  We must hope that the new campaign for a similar law in England meets with a more considered approach. 

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