A Laura Lee Speech to the UKNSWP Conference on Criminalisation

On Monday 2nd of March, I was invited to speak at the UKNSWP conference in Manchester. Although I was honoured to be asked, to put it bluntly, I was planking it. I felt out of my comfort zone in that I had hoped there would be some antis to shout at, but it wasn’t that kind of event. The atmosphere was wonderful, one of warm support and a feeling that the whole room was working towards a safer environment for sex workers. I met some amazing police and networked my heart out, making lots of new friends and allies. So, here’s my speech. I did ad lib at certain points so it may not be spot on, but I’ll try and recall as best I can.

Playful hand

The Speech

Thank you for inviting me to speak here at the Pimp Lobby, the chandeliers are suitably fabulous. I’ll begin by telling you a bit about myself. Now based in Glasgow, I am an Irish sex worker with over 20 years of experience at various levels in the sex industry. I’m a mother to a stroppy fourteen year old and the proud owner of one cat and four hamsters, because I enjoy a challenge.

I’ve been asked to speak specifically about the current situation in Northern Ireland where they’ve just passed the Swedish model which will come into effect in June. So I’ll look at where we were, where we’re at now, and where we’re headed to.

Up until 18 months ago, the industry in NI whilst not perfect, was working well. The PSNI would only take action and raid a premises where it was felt that there were underage sex workers, evidence of coercion or trafficking or a link to organised crime/drugs. On the whole, independent sex workers, who form the majority of the trade in NI, were left in peace to get on with their work.

That all changed when the Irish NGO sector sat down with Maurice Morrow of the DUP and convinced him that sex trafficking is rife in Ireland, and that were he to criminalise those who pay for sex, he would save those poor girls from a lifetime of torture. Turn off the Red Light and Ruhama are just two of the organisations who will make a lot of money from this law. And Lord Morrow ? He gets to puff out his chest and refer to himself as Lord Wilberforce, fighting back tears of pride.

The trouble with that approach is twofold. First of all, the wrong group of people are being targeted. Instead of hitting trafficking (which is already an offence) this legislation targets consenting adults behind closed doors. Secondly, it should go without saying that all good law should be based on evidence. Over and over again I presented Lord Morrow with that evidence from the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS and personal testimony from sex workers too. The Department of Justice commissioned research which showed that an overwhelming 98% of sex workers did not want further criminalisation and that included those who had suffered in the trade.

Beautiful woman making a self portrait in bed

So, the police didn’t want this law enacted, the Minister for Justice didn’t want it, and neither did we, sex workers. But still, Maurice Morrow pushed it through, putting political ambition over the lives of some of society’s most vulnerable. Right now, as part of SWAI, I’m working closely with the PSNI to get a police liaison officer appointed and I’m also trying to keep NI sex workers calm. These are mothers who are wondering how they are going to feed their children in a recession.

The Future

To the future, it is our intention to take our fight to Europe, but we must first wait for the law to come in and to show harm. I don’t see an issue with that since in 2014, there were no convictions for “sex trafficking” whatsoever and over 70 instances of violence against sex workers. Similarly in ROI, we may need to take a Supreme Court challenge if the law comes in. Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald made it clear that “sending” out a message is more important that sex workers’ safety. In the last two weeks in ROI, there has been a rape of a sex worker and two separate vicious assaults . In one case it’s not clear if the woman concerned will walk again. Those stories never even made the press. If that was a member of the Women’s Institute, you’d never hear the end of it.

Looking to the future, at SWAI our vision for NI is a decriminalised industry which puts harm reduction and the safety of sex workers above anyone’s career. Even prior to the forthcoming further legal change, we are not permitted to work together for safety. I can’t think of any other occupation which compels a woman to work on her own. You wouldn’t ask an A & E nurse to do a Friday night shift on her own, so don’t ask us. In compelling us to work alone, legislators are sending out a message that they don’t care about us, in spite of being the first ones to deem us “vulnerable victims”. They’re also positioning us as sitting ducks for violent attacks.

Decriminalisation effectively means the removal of all criminal prohibitions and penalties on sex work and there are many advantages to that –

1) respect for our human rights and dignity increases

2) reduction in incidences of violence towards us

3) increases our access to justice

4) increases our access to support services

5) promotes safer working conditions for us

6) challenges stigma and discrimination

7) reduces health risks, including HIV

8) facilitates better working relationship with police = better reporting of real trafficking

9)Failure to listen to the needs, lived experiences and recommendations of sex workers leads to bad policy making. After all, we are experts on our own lives and industry.

I remember when the 1993 Act came in, in ROI. Up until then we had an amazing relationship with the Gardai, we knew they were looking out for us. It was coming up to Christmas and in the red light district, it was standing room only. The women were out to make money to buy their children toys from Santa. We knew what was coming and the rates of violence rocketed. The body of Sinead Kelly was found by the canal, she was 21. Belinda Pereira was bludgeoned to death in a Dublin apartment, working for the same agency many of us had. It could have been any one of us.

Y’see, I was a law student back then, and those women, those who didn’t have the money for toys, asked me to help them. I couldn’t do anything about it then, but I’m damned if I’ll give up on them now.

LL xx

Martin Ward
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One thought on “A Laura Lee Speech to the UKNSWP Conference on Criminalisation”

  1. Super article and speech, this is the worst attack on human rights I have ever heard, simple quick fix solutions that are unenforceable and barbaric for all concerned. I feel so threatened and offended that such a law could even be contemplated, paying for sex should have been legalised years ago. Prohibition does not work, ask the Americans, abould banning alcohol in the 1920s, looks great on paper but in reality ‘madness’, that is what this “swedish model” proposes. Can you imagine being branded a criminal for seeing an escort, what a mad world this is?? Lets ban cigarettes, alcohol, porn, fatty foods, sugar as well….go the whole hog….nonsense

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