Repeal laws that criminalise sex work, say HIV Ireland

Repeal laws that criminalise sex work, say HIV Ireland

In her second series of blog posts, ESWA Intern Hanna Nyman begins with a review of a 2020 report commissioned by HIV Ireland. Their findings add to the enormous body of evidence of the harm caused by laws that criminalise sex work.


In 2020, HIV Ireland published Sex Workers Lives Under the Law: A community engaged study of access to health and justice in Ireland. (McGarry & Ryan, 2020). This came three years after the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act came into effect in Ireland in 2017, criminalising the purchase of sex and increasing the sentences imposed on sex workers working together. Concerned about the negative implications of this so-called Swedish or Nordic model, HIV Ireland commissioned a study to investigate the effects of the model on sex workers’ health, well-being and safety, with special consideration for migrant sex workers. Undertaken by the Irish Sex Work Research Network (ISWRN) in collaboration with Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI), the core objectives of the study included engaging sex work communities in the study as well as informing policy and human rights-based service interventions.  

The study adopted a Participatory Action Research (PAR) design, which centres sex workers’ voices by emphasising partnerships, shared ownership and creating new ways of consulting and working with sex workers to ultimately achieve social change. Consequently, two peer researchers from SWAI were recruited to take on a role in research planning, sampling and recruiting of sex worker participants, data collection, reflecting on research findings as well as disseminating them. In order to investigate the perceived consequences of the Sexual Offences Act on sex workers’ health and wellbeing, data was collected through four focus groups consisting of a total of 20 sex workers working in Ireland.  

Findings from the study show that sex workers operate in a context of structural violence where the unequal power relations in social structures and the embedding of violence within them shape sex workers’ experiences and consequently, their health, safety and wellbeing. Furthermore, the way the new laws frame sex workers as victims was seen to create a discourse that causes harm to sex workers. The laws were also found to hinder sex workers’ access to justice, disrupt sex workers’ safety strategies and fuel harmful views and behaviours among other wider effects on sex workers’ lives. Importantly, the report draws attention to the intersections of vulnerability, meaning that some sex workers experience further marginalisation due to facing overlapping systems of discrimination in addition to the discrimination they experience as sex workers. In fact, in the case of migrant sex workers, needing to remain invisible due to being both a sex worker and a migrant was found to create a context of risk and vulnerability where exposure to harm is increased and access to justice is further hindered. A profound quote from one migrant sex worker illustrates this well: “Ya, because you’re in the shadows, and that’s where all the monsters hide” (McGarry & Ryan, 2020, p. 38).

The introduction of the new laws was also perceived to increase vulnerability to health risks and to limit access to health services. The new laws created an environment where sex workers’ power to negotiate safe sex practices with clients was reduced, resulting in greater vulnerability to health risks. Accessing comprehensive healthcare was reported to be limited by barriers such as fear of disclosing involvement in sex work, deficiencies in sexual health services as well as isolation and lack of community which not only prevented access to support and information about available services but also had a negative effect on sex workers’ mental health and wellbeing in general. 

Based on the results of the study, key recommendations for policy and practice were suggested. These included repealing laws which violate sex workers’ health and safety, implementing laws and policies which facilitate sex workers access to justice, addressing the rights violations sex workers face and especially recognising and addressing the rights of migrant sex workers. Furthermore, the report recommended increasing funding for community health services, increasing training in health services as well as increasing peer-led sexual health screening services and awareness of mental health and inclusivity in mental health services among other recommendations.

Once again, the report discussed here adds to the evidence showing that the legal context in which sex workers manage their work has profound implications for their health, safety and wellbeing. Decriminalising sex work is the first step in tackling these issues.  



McGarry, K. & Ryan, P. (2020). Sex Workers Lives Under the Law: A community engaged study of access to health and justice in Ireland. HIV Ireland.


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