Sex worker and law graduate Laura Lee is due to appear before Northern Ireland’s High Court on Monday to challenge a law making it illegal to pay for sex.
Northern Ireland criminalised the purchase of sex in 2015 – the first part of the United Kingdom to pass such a law – in a move some advocacy groups said would help stamp out sex trafficking.
Other groups have criticised the law, saying it will drive the sex trade underground and increase the risk of violence women face.
“I’m challenging this bill because it creates an extremely dangerous environment for sex workers,” Lee said.
“Clients are refusing to identify themselves for fear of retaliation, so we as sex workers can’t assess them and have no comeback if things go wrong.”
Lee said “a lot of good clients – those married or with families – drop off because they’re scared of being caught, and you’re left with those who couldn’t care less and treat you badly”.
Northern Ireland followed Canada, Sweden, Norway and Iceland in introducing laws designed to punish the client without criminalising those who have been driven into prostitution, and to end trafficking.
But Lee said there was no evidence to show the law would help tackle sex trafficking.
“It’s instead damaged the relationship between sex workers and the police, as they’re now chasing after our clients,” she said. “That has led to more assaults and even rapes, and there’s now a marked reluctance among our community to come forward and report those crimes.”
In September last year, a judge ruled Lee had established an arguable case that amendments to the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act breach her rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination.
Lee said that although her legal challenge had drawn criticism and hate messages, “it’s shown me an inner strength I didn’t know I had”.
“I just want to get things moving,” she said.