Turn Off The Red Light is a campaign to end prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland.

The campaign is being run by an alliance of civil society organisations, unions, non-governmental organisations and individuals. (For details of who we are, see here.)

We aim to raise public awareness about the dangers of prostitution and sex trafficking and to lobby the Government to introduce legislation to end the exploitation of women, men and children in the sex industry.

We believe that the best way to combat sex trafficking and prostitution is to tackle the demand for paid sex by criminalising the purchase of sex. (Download our leaflet here)

The scale of the problem

Trafficking women and girls for the purposes of sexual exploitation is a modern, global form of slavery. In 2007, the Immigrant Council of Ireland commissioned research designed to map the scale of Ireland’s sex industry and to uncover the scale of exploitation of women and girls.

The resulting report, Globalisation, Sex Trafficking and Prostitution – The Experiences of Migrant Women in Ireland, uncovered the shocking reality of rape, abuse and sexual exploitation of victims of sex trafficking. It documents the physical, emotional and psychological harm these women and girls suffered. The report was based on interviews with women and the examination of data and information from service providers. It revealed that, over a 21-month period from 2007 to 2008, 102 women and girls who were victims of trafficking presented at services. (This used the internationally-agreed definition of victims of trafficking.) Of these, 11 were children at the time they were trafficked.

We also know that these are a fraction of the real number of victims of trafficking in this country. These are the ones who were rescued or escaped from their traffickers and pimps.

The sex industry in Ireland has undergone significant changes in recent times. It has moved off the streets and into apartments and houses. Men now access prostitution via the internet or their mobile phones.

The overwhelming majority of the women involved are migrant women. The research highlights the fact that there is no clear line between those who are trafficked and those who “consent” to become involved in the sex industry. Many of the women involved in Ireland’s sex industry, even those who do not meet the definition of a victim of trafficking, have had no real choice: poverty, deception and gross exploitation mark many of their stories.

The demand from men who buy sex fuels both the trade in trafficked women and girls, and sustains a prostitution industry worth an estimated €180 million a year in Ireland.

Any thought that women who are involved in prostitution in Ireland have made a free choice, and are engaging in commercial transactions from which they are benefiting, will be dispelled by this report. The pain (physical and emotional) that these women experience, their concerns about their health and their futures, and their unhappiness, are clearly documented.

The solution

Effectively tackling sex trafficking in Ireland will require a response to deal with demand from men to buy sex. The sex industry, which exploits and harms women, exists because there is a demand from men to buy sex. The alliance is therefore calling on the Irish Government to learn from those countries that have established good practice for dealing with sex trafficking. In particular, we believe Ireland can learn from Sweden and Norway. Those countries have legislated to penalise the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the selling of sex. Practice shows that this approach reduces demand for prostitution and incidences of trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Among the countries that penalise the purchase of sex are Sweden, Norway and Iceland. The UK enacted legislation on April 1, 2010, penalising those who purchase sex from “controlled” people. The law in Sweden was introduced in 1999 in response to concern that prostitution constitutes violence against women and is incompatible with gender equality. The law imposes penalties of a declarative nature to buyers of sex but decriminalises sellers of sex. The law enjoys consistently high public support in Sweden, with surveys indicating that more than 70% favour the measures. The legislation recently underwent a 10-year evaluation, which found a reduction in the number of men paying for sex, a reduction in the number of women involved in prostitution, and a dramatic reduction in the numbers of women and girls trafficked to Sweden for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The shrinking commercial sex industry in Sweden impacted on the level of sex trafficking in adjacent countries, resulting in Norway and Iceland deciding to replicate the Swedish legislation in recognition of its merits.

After carefully examining the prostitution regimes in Europe, the UK recently banned the purchase of sex from controlled individuals. “Controlled individuals” refers to those people who are under the control of pimps or have been trafficked and other forms of dependency. Being unaware that the individual is under the control of another person is not a defence under the UK legislation. It is expected that the law will apply to most prostitution-related situations and will deter demand for paid sex, albeit not in all cases.

What can be done

The alliance believes the Irish Government must recognise need for a modern approach to prostitution that reflects best international practice. We believe tackling the demand for paid sex should be central to this approach to combating the exploitation of women, men and children in Ireland’s sex industry. We believe this will most effectively achieved by penalising the purchase of sex, and decriminalising people in prostitution, along the lines of legislation that has been demonstrated to work in Sweden.

Read more: The campaign so far

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