Canada has joined the list of countries recognizing that ending the harms of prostitution starts by targeting those who pay for it. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are on their way to finalizing similar ground-breaking laws.
Canada’s recently enacted Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act focuses on sex buyers and any third party who profits from commercial sexual exploitation, but protects most prostituted people from criminal liability. In addition to putting pressure on those who fuel the illegal sex trade, the new law—which went into effect on December 6, Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women—provides $20 million for services that support people looking to leave the sex trade.
Across the pond, Irish lawmakers have approved similar bills. In the Republic of Ireland, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill of 2014 was passed by the Cabinet in late November and is awaiting the Minister’s final approval. Once law, the bill will criminalize the purchase of sex while strengthening laws against sexual grooming, child pornography, and harassment. In Northern Ireland, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Bill is approved and has been submitted to the Queen for Royal Assent (the final step needed to make it a law). Once fully enacted the law will strengthen the country’s anti-trafficking legislation, including the provision criminalizing the purchase of sex, but this clause won’t be fully enforceable until June. The law also offers assistance to prostituted people looking to exit the sex trade. When all is said and done, Northern Ireland will be the first country in the UK to criminalize paying for sex.
Both bills have been labeled “controversial” and created a media buzz in their respective countries. Pro-prostitution groups across Ireland say any laws targeting demand would force the sex industry deeper into the black market; Canadian detractors claim that the new laws in their country will unfairly limit the revenue of “consensual sex workers.” But as Frances Fitzgerald, Ireland’s Minister for Justice & Equality, puts it, such efforts were not designed to appease everyone—they were created to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society.
“I am aware of the ongoing debate surrounding prostitution and of the views of both sides of the debate. However, I strongly believe that this proposal is the best suited to address the trafficking and exploitation associated with prostitution. It sends a clear message that purchasing sexual services contributes to exploitation.”
It’s important to note that each bill moved through many legislative hurdles on the road to becoming law, gaining the support of both left and right wing politicians and uniting Protestant and Catholic lawmakers in Ireland. Overcoming political deadlock is no easy feat—the fact that demand-focused laws in three different countries have done so reinforces that holding sex buyers accountable is an idea that’s time has come. Demand Abolition applauds the many allies that fought to make this legislation a reality and commends the Canadian and Irish governments’ commitment to eradicating these human rights violations. We hope their successes will encourage other nations to follow suit.