Feminists and religious conservatives in strange alliance over transactional sex

Feminists and religious conservatives in strange alliance over transactional sex

Opinion: The right to say No is important – and so is the right to say Yes

In The Irish Times, Fionola Meredith comments on one of the most peculiar alliances since 1938…

Feminists and religious fundamentalists shouldn’t mix. If they do find common cause, it’s often a sign that one-dimensional moral or ideological fanaticism – rigid adherence, fuelled by heightened emotion, to absolutist messages and beliefs – has become more important than what happens to real people in the real world.


Take the planned introduction of new laws criminalising the purchase of sex in Ireland, north and south. In the North, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, proposed by DUP peer and staunch Free Presbyterian Lord Morrow, is now at the committee stage at Stormont. The Bill, which will make it illegal to buy sex, effectively conflates sex workers and targets of human trafficking, treating them not as two distinct and occasionally overlapping categories of people, but as one homogeneous group of oppressed and distressed victims. The apparently unthinkable notion of a woman, or indeed a man, actively choosing to make money from selling sex is entirely absent. Nonetheless, the Bill has been given an enthusiastic welcome by many women’s rights campaigners, especially Women’s Aid, which justifies its position with the claim that “anyone buying sexual services is supporting sexual slavery and the degradation of human rights”. (We don’t know what sex workers themselves think about the proposals, because nobody, it seems, bothered to ask them.)

Free choice

The picture in the South is similar. In June, the Oireachtas justice committee backed the introduction of laws against the buyers of sex. This was claimed as a victory by Turn Off the Red Light, an anti-prostitution campaign largely driven by Ruhama, a project of two of the religious orders associated with the Magdalene laundries, and theImmigrant Council, which was founded by a nun from one of those orders and is now directed by a self-described radical feminist. Here, too, the ramped-up talk is all of exploitation and harm, damage and coercion: the notion of free choice and personal agency is dismissed as an impossibility. It seems that prostitutes only exist if they are wrecked, passive creatures, destroyed by the abhorrent appetites of men, and willing to accept guidance and succour. There is a repeated emphasis on “sending messages”, both negative and positive: Turn Off the Red Light says that “if one woman is for sale this sends the message that potentially all women are for sale”. Criminalising clients, on the other hand, “send[s] a clear message” that in Irish society “it is not acceptable to buy another person like a commodity for personal gratification”.


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