Northern Ireland

Should it be illegal to pay for sex in the UK?

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Media caption'Ben': "If I'd never paid for sex I would have had a very lonely life"

Next month it will become illegal to pay for sex in Northern Ireland - following Sweden and Norway in criminalising men who use prostitutes.

The authorities in Sweden say the number of women on the streets in the prostitution area in Stockholm has fallen from 700-800 to 200 women since the legislation was introduced in 1999.

Prostitution is technically legal in the UK although related activities, such as soliciting for sex in a public place, are outlawed.

Campaigners are calling for the new law to be implemented across the rest of the UK, to help stifle the trade and "end demand'.

But others say this just drives it into more dangerous locations and further stigmatises the industry and the best protection for prostitutes is actually legalisation.

Here are two viewpoints from different sides of the debate.

Ben: Prostitutes 'would take greater risks'

Ben - not his real name - believes the trade serves a "useful social function".

The 30-year-old single man, who works in PR in London, has paid for sex since he was 22. He has slept with 30 to 40 prostitutes.

"The law would probably only scare away the kind of customers who have something to lose," he says.

Ben sleeps with prostitutes - or escorts he finds online - at their homes or hotels, once every two-to-four weeks. He says he pays around £100 an hour so it is not possible to do more often.

"A lot of the time I struggle with women and paying for sex for me is a way of experiencing the kind of sex that I probably wouldn't without paying for it, frankly," he explains.

He says if buying sex was illegal it would stop him from doing it in the UK. "To me it's not worth the risk to be arrested for a crime that would have such a stigma attached to it."

UK prostitution facts

There were 60,879 prostitutes in the UK in 2009, who had an average of 25 clients per week - each paying on average £67.16 per visit

One in 10 British men say they have paid for sex, a study of 6,000 found, while 3.6% admitted going to prostitutes in the past five years

The trade in the human trafficking of foreign women to be sexually exploited in the UK is worth at least £130m

50% of women in prostitution in the UK started being paid for sex acts before they were 18, while 95% street prostitutes are problematic drug users

About 17,500 men pay for sex each year in Northern Ireland. Only about 20 people still work as street-based prostitutes, the majority advertise online and work from houses

Sources: Office for National Statistics, University College London, Home Office and Queen's University Belfast

An anti-prostitution advocate would probably see that as a good thing, and evidence legislation was working, he says.

"What they don't take into account is that the fewer clients there are, the less choice there is for people who work in the sex industry.

"It would not stop people from entering the trade, it would give them less choice in the type of customer they had, which would probably mean they would take greater risks."

Ben says he does not believe that penalising customers would stop the sex trade, as Sweden still has prostitution, it has just moved indoors and onto the internet.

"If criminal penalties come in and there is a police crackdown, then of course this would change, but it would not change my opinion that the sex trade serves a useful social function.

"This isn't what a lot of people talk about on the other side of the debate.

"For a lot of customers it isn't the orgasm that they are chasing, it's the intimacy of being able to lie with someone in a bed for one or two hours that is absent from their regular life a lot.

"I can't say what it would be like for an average man. But if I had never paid for sex I would have had a really lonely life."

Mia de Faoite: Law will "protect human dignity"

Mia de Faoite worked as a prostitute in the Irish Republic for six years, mainly on the streets of Dublin. She left the trade in 2010 with the help of a social worker and says it took her about a year to recover. She then joined the campaign to implement the Nordic model of law throughout Ireland.

She does not agree with the suggestion legislation would hurt the work of women who choose to be prostitutes.

"In Ireland there's a handful of women like that who say they are happy to be there. This law is not about them.

"This law is about the vast majority of women who feel [like me] trapped and can't see the choices out. This law is about the protection of human dignity.

"This law is to stop the traffic because it will not stop until we cut off what makes it exist in the first place, and that is the demand, that is those who believe they have a right to buy other human beings for sex.

"The collateral damage for those who say they are happy to be there is that they will have to look for a new job. That's collateral damage I can sleep with."

She says prostitutes see the world in a different way. "Within a short period of time your only human contact becomes men who buy you, and then the other damaged or addicted women that you stand alongside. So we don't quite see the world the same way as everybody else."

She says she does not believe that freedom to do whatever you want with your own body is an absolute right.

"Not if in doing what you do with your body feeds into an industry which at its worst leads to the rape and sodomisation of young women and girls. Then no, it's a much more limited right. But what is an absolute right is freedom from slavery, torture and servitude."

Victoria Derbyshire is broadcast weekdays from 09:15-11:00 BST on BBC Two and the BBC News channel. Follow the programme on Facebook and Twitter, and find all our content online.

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