As an Irish sex worker, I have a lot of experience in the sex industry, 22 years in fact. I started at the age of 19, as the Saturday girl in a massage parlour. I was going through university and wanted to leave debt free. I also didn’t want to be tied down to working in a pub or a restaurant three/four nights a week. It’s not the most orthodox path for a student to take, but it’s increasingly common now, and for me it worked.
My job now is very different to how it was when I was starting out. There are three main areas I work in, the first being a GFE – girl friend experience. That can involve dinner, drinks or theatre but more commonly it’s a straight forward hour in a hotel room. Secondly, I am a specialist in hardcore domination and so spend a great deal of my time in head to toe PVC barking orders. Lastly and most importantly, I do a lot of work with disabled and terminally ill people too. That’s challenging, but has it’s own rewards. To bring intimacy and a shared moment of humanity to someone who knows they’re dying, that’s special.
There’s a common misconception that sex workers are either pimped and shivering on a street corner or jetting around the world with millionaire clients. The truth is far less dramatic. We commonly work from home or hotel rooms and seventy per cent of us are mothers, trying to pay our bills in a recession like everyone else. I am registered as self employed and pay my taxes and national insurance. That may come as a shock to some but it is a business and I run it as such.
The problem with the discourse in Ireland around sex work is that it was dominated from the offset by anti sex work organisations with a vested interest in ensuring that Frances Fitzgerald’s proposed prohibition comes in. The conflation between sex work and trafficking has been very deliberate and designed to create a moral panic and outrage. Last year there was one conviction for sex trafficking and that was a Nigerian woman. The Irish NGO sector make a lot of money by forming a “rescue industry”, indeed in Northern Ireland, CARE have forwarded proposals to lock sex working women up in sheltered accommodation at great expense to the state. If no-one else can see the parallel with the Magdalene laundries, it’s time to worry. Indeed it’s no secret that Ruhama, one of the main NGO’s set to profit are in fact comprised of the same orders of nuns as the laundries.
As sex workers, we want rights, not rescue and the implementation of the Swedish model completely disregards those rights. In Ireland, we are not permitted to work together for safety. If two women are caught in an apartment together then they can be arrested and charged with “pimping” from each other whilst still being deemed “vulnerable victims” by the state. This leads to greater instances of violence against sex workers, and the evidence from Sweden is that the proposed model only makes that worse. Sex workers don’t go forward to report instances of violence to the police because if they do, the police can then target them at home, arresting buyers on the way out. In some instances that can lead to the landlord discovering their occupation and the sex worker ends up homeless. Again, the Swedish model does nothing to address that.
The Swedish model pushes the most vulnerable in our society away from outreach services who can help. Dr. Jay Levy spent four years living in Sweden and he found that basic services such as condom distribution and needle exchange are now next to impossible as the sex workers work away from detection. Street based sex workers have less time to assess a car based client and just take a chance. Again, this leads to an increase in violence, not addressed by the Swedish model. A recent report issued in Sweden states that there has been no reduction in the number of sex buyers, so as a law it has failed, the “End Demand” model simply doesn’t work. The new law as presented will have zero impact on trafficking because that’s not what it’s targeting, it’s targeting consenting adults. The purchase of sex will cover women like me, who work behind closed doors and quite legally. Nonsensically, it will still be legal for me to sell.
Trafficking is already an offence in Ireland. Rape, underage sex and running a brothel are also already illegal. This proposed law is using a smokescreen of trafficking to cover what it is, hooded abolition. In my meeting with Frances Fitzgerald I pointed to all of the evidence of the law’s failure in Sweden and she said that it is more important to send out a message that Ireland doesn’t tolerate “that sort of thing.” It isn’t. It’s about acknowledging that a migrant woman in direct provision on nineteen euros a week will resort to selling sex to feed her children, and that’s not going to change. For me it’s how we keep her and every other sex worker in Ireland safe.
At Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, we listen to sex workers when they tell us what they want, and it’s not further criminalisation. Sex workers want the right to work together in safety, no other occupation demands that a woman works alone and in danger. We want a decriminalised state as has been shown to be highly effective in New Zealand. New Zealand was recently the site of the first case of a sex worker taking legal action against her employer, and she won. That’s what we want, labour rights the same as any other profession.
Sex workers’ rights are human rights and it is for this reason that I will not hesitate to raise a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court should the Minister for Justice persist in pushing this measure through.