When Laura Lee, a part-time escort and sex worker rights campaigner, stood up in the Northern Ireland assembly to give evidence against a proposed bill that would make it illegal to buy sex, as in Sweden, she was blunt in her estimation of the damage it would cause. “If the Swedish model is introduced in any way, shape or form in the north or in the south of Ireland, the state will have blood on its hands,” she said earlier this year.
Late on Monday evening in Belfast, the human trafficking and exploitation bill – containing a controversial clause that makes buying sex a criminal offence – was passed with cross-party support, making Northern Ireland the first region of the UK to make the buying of sex illegal, following in the footsteps of Sweden and other Nordic countries such as Norway and Iceland.
Lee fears that the change will increase the danger for prostitutes. “This will increase violence, make sex workers less likely to report crimes to the police, increase stigma and force the sex industry underground,” said Lee. “I find it incredible that people push this moralising crusade in the face of all the evidence which says the decriminalisation of the sex industry is the only way to improve the welfare of sex workers.”
But there are a growing number who want a similar law in England. Emboldened by the vote in Northern Ireland, a coalition of campaigners including women’s groups, MPs, unions and former sex workers, this week launched the End Demand campaign, and announced that Labour backbencher Fiona Mactaggart was set to propose an amendment to the modern slavery bill later this month. Currently buying and selling sex is not illegal elsewhere in the UK but soliciting, pimping, brothel-keeping and kerb-crawling are all criminal activities.