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Client Criminalisation and Sex Workers' Right to Health

(2014) 13 Hibernian Law Journal 58

40 Pages Posted: 12 Jan 2015  

Wendy Lyon


Date Written: July 9, 2014


In recent years, Ireland has seen the emergence of a well-organised campaign to introduce legislation that criminalises the purchase, but not the sale, of sexual services. While a domestic consensus has seemingly formed in favour of client criminalisation, global health and human rights bodies have increasingly taken a contrary position: that neither party to a commercial sex transaction should be criminalised, at least where the parties are adults and the exchange takes place on a voluntary basis.

This paper sets out the international legal basis for this alternative consensus among actors in the international health and human rights sectors. It argues against client criminalisation from a human rights perspective, focusing on sex workers' right to health. After a brief introduction to the right to health in international law, it sets out various elements of the right to health that are implicated in the proposal to criminalise sex workers' clients. Using examples from research in countries that penalise the purchase of sex - directly or indirectly - it shows how these laws may jeopardise the health of sex workers in a number of ways, impairing their right to health under international law. It considers and rebuts the argument that client criminalisation actually promotes the right to health, showing this to rest on unsupportable ideological assumptions and flawed interpretations of human rights law. Finally, it briefly examines an alternative model - that of New Zealand, in which neither sex workers nor their clients are criminalised, and sex work is treated as a form of labour.

Keywords: Ireland, sex work, sex workers, prostitution, right to health

Suggested Citation

Lyon, Wendy, Client Criminalisation and Sex Workers' Right to Health (July 9, 2014). (2014) 13 Hibernian Law Journal 58. Available at SSRN:

Wendy Lyon (Contact Author)

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