Law placing sex workers at increased vulnerability to violence, exclusion and HIV, new research says.

Press Release, 10th September 2020

For Immediate Release

The law banning the purchase of sex, introduced in 2017, has had a profoundly negative impact on the health and wellbeing of sex workers, a new report has found.

Key findings from the research highlight the extent to which sex workers manage their lives within the context of ‘structural violence’ and exacerbated by the current law.  As a result, sex workers experience poorer protection from violence and abuse, increased risks from unsafe sex including HIV, and limited access to key health supports and interventions.

The report, Sex worker lives under the law: A community engaged study of access to health in Ireland, was commissioned by HIV Ireland and funded by the Open Society Foundations. The research, conducted throughout Ireland with sex workers, was conducted by the authors of the report, Dr Kathryn McGarry and Dr Paul Ryan of Maynooth University, with the support of the Irish Sex Worker Research Network and the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI).

The findings from the report arise from in-depth focus groups and interviews conducted with men and women engaged in sex work (including trans men and trans women) in 2019. Sex workers interviewed for the research also included members of the LGBTI+ community, migrants and asylum seekers.

Speaking ahead of the publication of the report, lead researcher Dr Kathryn McGarry said

“The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 continues to cast a shadow over the lives of sex workers working under this law. This report is important as sex workers have been so often silenced and excluded from debates about their lives. It represents their stories of life under these new laws – stories of a denial of access to health care and to justice. It reveals the negative impact the law has on the ability of sex workers to reduce harms to their health but also shows their resilience in coming together to demand legal change and peer led health services”.

Participants in the research outlined how sex workers are limited in their abilities to manage health risks in a context where they must operate covertly to avoid detection. This had an additional negative impact on mental health outcomes.

Migrant sex workers described the need to remain invisible in order to conceal both their sex work and their migrant status, leading to increased vulnerability and compromises on health and safety.

The 2017 law was also perceived by sex workers as exacerbating the stigma and everyday violence they are exposed to and of increasing fear of, and mistrust in authorities, including fear of reporting abuse.

“This research reveals evidence of what we – as sex workers ourselves  – so painfully know from working under this criminal law for the past three years,” said Ms Kate McGrew, Coordinator of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) and member of the Irish Sex Work Research Network.

“Our physical safety has decreased. Our mental health has suffered. Our agency is compromised. We are more easily taken advantage of. In addition, our already strained relationships with the authorities have been further damaged. It is imperative that within the process of reviewing this law, Ms. Butler listens first to the very people who are directly experiencing its impact” she added.

The report has been published to coincide with this week’s deadline [Friday 11 September 2020] for receipt of submissions to the Government’s Review of the Operation of Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 led by Ms Maura Butler, solicitor.

Speaking at the publication of the report, HIV Ireland Executive Director Mr Stephen O’Hare said:

“There can be little doubt that sex workers represent a particularly vulnerable and marginalised group in Irish society. Through this research, the law criminalising the purchase of sex has been shown to add little in the way of protection for sex workers while increasing vulnerability to negative outcomes including in relation to HIV prevention, access to justice and social exclusion.”

“In her role as Chair of the Review, I urge Ms Butler to give serious consideration to adopting the recommendations contained within the report, including full decriminalisation of sex work, as a more suitable legal framework for sex work than the existing law provides”, added Mr O’Hare.


For more information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Mr Stephen O’Hare

Executive Director

HIV Ireland

085 711 2635