Laura Lee Guest Blog | A letter from an ally

Plans to criminalise clients of sex workers are unwanted, much more unwelcome than their supporters claim and are built on bad foundations. In the following paragraphs I will go through some of the reasons why.

Two girls look at each other

Ruhama, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and fellow travellers in the media and elsewhere have used nothing but propaganda and deceit to conflate enslavement, trafficking, abuse of a child or general gloom with sex work.

They never miss an opportunity to portray the adult industry in a negative light. One often repeated statement is that there are “1000 women and girls for sale” in Ireland. The vast majority of those associated with the adult industry have zero tolerance for underage sex and sex workers working voluntarily are not “for sale”. They are providing a service.


Their “evidence” is very fallacious and skewed. For instance Rhoda Grant (a Scottish anti-sex work proponent) said that three quarters of prostitutes were involved in the trade before they were 18 in a Professor Melrose survey. What we were not told was that the survey had only chosen women who started off underage and that 32 of the 46 were still operating.

There is far too much bias in the media who accept uncritically poor data from abolitionists designed to produce pre-determined results. The portrayal of sex work in plenty of movies is not particularly helpful either. They would give the impression that all those involved in the profession were either drug addicts or under the thumb of a pimp which is certainly not the case.

The facts that get in the way of a biased yarn are that countless sex workers are profoundly in command of their lives.

Criminalisation advocates have clearly taken advantage of reluctance in general to talk about the subject of sex work and of the fact that there still is a large (virtuous or adverse) religious influence in the island of Ireland be it Catholic or Protestant. The British Liberal Democrat party who has members less constrained by the unfortunate inhibitions of a close knit community outlined a very sensible approach to this topic at their Autumn Conference.

The blanket prohibition of purchasing sexual services is tantamount to banning freedom of expression or supporting heavy censorship. Should we ban A Brave New World, Edna O’Brien novels, Ulysses or Fifty Shades of Grey? It is also similar to a thought police. If you go down this road you may as well penalise someone who pays an actress in a blue movie.

Not all sex workers are forced into the profession and far from every trafficking case is associated with the sex industry. Appallingly there are people who have been victims of trafficking and enslavement. However this issue needs to be separated from the issue of sex work.

There have been recipients of this mistreatment in other industries as well. The very poor pay and conditions endured by Turkish Gama construction workers in Ireland was a disgraceful scandal. Chinese cockle pickers who lost their lives in Morcambe Bay had fallen prey to traffickers. The 2013 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh resulting in over a thousand deaths similarly reflects the existence of unacceptable provisions for welfare and safety in the clothing industry. These incidents highlight that it is not just the adult industry where abuse can occur.

Trafficking or enslavement of a person in the sex industry exists and should be condemned in the strongest terms when it does occur. However abolitionists try to give the feeling that nearly everyone in escorting is a trafficking victim which is far from the case. They often make wild guesstimates and exaggerate figures markedly. An inquiry once into a massive police operation in the UK found that they failed to find one single trafficked woman who was forced into prostitution. While there obviously has been sex traffickers found during other police work this inquiry underscores the distortion of figures and fabrications by the rescue industry. This moral panic is in no ones interest including victims. It is also equivalent to concentrating solely on air or train crash victims while ignoring the innumerable safe cases of travel.

Criminalising a client for having consenting sex with an escort born and bred in Dublin or London in order to prevent trafficking is as ridiculous as criminalising someone for buying a shirt or seafood.

Much is made out about those participating in the escorting business to avoid poverty. When you think about it almost everybody works to avoid deprivation. In fact a lot of “proper” jobs have disappeared after recessions. Sex work is a way out of poverty not a way into deprivation. Hairdressers mightn’t make a fortune. Should we criminalise people who get their hair cut?

NGO outfits want the sex industry to be as unfavourable as possible for sex workers so that they can take income that would otherwise go to sex workers. It doesn’t make sense to alleviate someone’s poverty by making it more difficult for them to obtain income from customers.

It should be pointed out that many features of sex work are more favourable and flexible to other ways of making money and that participants can have impressive management of their lives.

Some dictatorial type feminists trying to read everyone’s minds and acting under the guise of equality have a problem with consenting sex just because money happens to change hands.

This is patronising to women who are capable of making their own arrangements with men in this day and age. Sex workers can think for themselves and there are many supporters of the occupation who see themselves as feminists.

Ordinary day-to-day things you could give someone or do for somebody before a sexual act can be allocated a value. They might include supplying food, drink, cosmetics, cutting the grass or providing guidance. The values don’t change just because the London goldsmiths who helped to invent money arrive on the scene. Surely it is men who don’t contribute to anything who are less favourable.

People who can’t have what others take for granted due to a disability, a disfigurement or a lack of confidence and avail of an escort as an only source of sexual closeness would be wondering why criminalising them is supporting equality.

A law supporting total criminalising of clients (of whom most are innocuous) of sex workers is one based on ignorance. It is crudeness no different to treating all homosexual people as outcasts because a small proportion of them had an unhealthy interest in underage males. Such advocacy would be expected when witch hunts were in vogue or before the Magna Carta was signed.

It would be like assuming that everyone has a good job and cutting off social welfare assistance. It potentially blocks off realistic avenues for a partially paralysed person to attempt obtain consensual sex with an escort- effectively the same as banning homosexual acts.

This ignorance includes a refusal to call sex workers by their proper name and insisting on using derogatory terms all the time to describe them and their livelihoods. The crude approach to sex work is similar to the past when a backward policy of shunning unmarried mothers and condemning them as “bad” regardless of their contribution to society made life more difficult for them. An occurrence of stigma associated with the profession does considerable harm and was a factor leading to the death of Swedish sex worker Petite Jasmine.

Attempts to blanket ban sex workers’ customers is like building a house and leaving nowhere for the rainwater to go to discover later that it is in the walls and floors.

This approach will simply push the industry further underground where it will become more dangerous and less in the open with a bigger risk of escorts having to deal with unsavoury people and more involvement of organised crime. This has been the experience in countries where such folly has been introduced despite denials from their governments. A former sex worker can confirm that after the Irish 1993 Prostitution Act (which greatly criminalised sex work in an era before widespread internet and mobile phone usage) criminal gangs moved into the business. When the prohibition of alcohol was attempted in the United States it substantially increased the role of felonious gangs in the drinks industry.

Dangerous and Harmful

Likewise there is a danger of sexual feeling being expressed in a way that is dangerous and harmful to others. Give me someone who visits an escort to dress up in women’s clothes any day to people who have sex after being very intoxicated with alcohol or a sexually frustrated individual who abuses children or vulnerable people like in the industrial schools or Magdelene laundries. We should learn from the mistakes of the past.

Outlawing those who use the services of sex workers will make health initiatives function poorly and will increase the transmission of sexual diseases. With the existence of such legislation a sex worker may be compelled into having sex with someone without a condom for example. If something is illegal then it is going to be more difficult to implement guidelines for welfare and health. The United Nations has also advised against criminalisation as it impedes measures to prevent sexual diseases.

Sex workers were hardly consulted about laws to criminalise their clients and their opinions were dismissed as much as possible. The vast majority of those in the profession in a recent Northern Ireland survey do not want such retrograde laws. Surely they are a group that should have a large input into legislation that will affect them. Their views were not considered much as it would jeopardise the prohibition cheerleaders’ goal of framing all sex workers as “victims of prostitution”. Other prudent and informed voices were equally cast aside in the crusade.

If Ruhama and the Immigrant Council of Ireland were genuinely concerned about improving the situation for sex workers they would be advocating New Zealand or New South Wales type laws or the Ugly Mugs scheme adapted in Britain whereby sex workers are consulted and work closely with the police. In New Zealand, sex work was decriminalised and sex workers have a large input into the regulations. Also trafficking is combated very effectively there. This would be a more laudable thing to do instead of trying to demonise all clients (of which the rescue industry has a vested interest in doing).

In conclusion legislation on sex work should be based on proper information and not on made up statistics and backward concepts. Sex workers and others who know what they’re talking about should be consulted and not those with their own vested interests and agendas.

Laura Lee

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