Fighting for Sexworker’s Rights

In 2008 I was living in NYC, a city once known for its debaucherous spirit that was sadly suffering raids on much of its sex industry. This included the mid-town BDSM dungeon where I catered to the peculiarities of men and couples wanting to be dominated, or for the lucky discerning gentleman, to take me as a submissive. That August, I went on a family holiday to Ireland and on the Arran Island of Inishmore, I met a nice young man. He offered me residence with his family if I wanted to extend my visit to “experience real Ireland”, as they were accustomed to taking in travellers to work in their garden for a period.

Impulsively, I stayed and discovered that Ireland also provided fertile ground for artistic creation. I began a life here, busy writing music and performing shows. Later, during the lowest point of the country’s economic crash, I started working again in the sex industry, first in strip clubs then putting myself on a website as a full service escort. I was happy to have the financial salve sex work provided.

Just like NYC, Ireland soon began cracking down on the industry. The “Turn Off the Red Light” campaign combined a coalition of groups aimed at abolishing prostitution through “End Demand” tactics. It is a campaign calling for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex using the Swedish model, a model since proven to infringe on the health, safety, and human rights of the
workers. If they turn off the red light, we will all be in the dark. The industry is still in the criminal sector, so workers have strained relations with the police. Complicated restrictions around where and how you can work mean that many
people fall in between the cracks, bypassing a legal path and relying on third parties or becoming more vulnerable to traffickers to sort the details for them.

Holland and Germany have legalised sex work, but New Zealand and Australia have the model that sex work organisations worldwide prefer. Sex work is fully decriminalised. Legitimizing sex work within the labor sector, workplaces are inspected by the Labor or Health departments instead of by police raids. Law enforcement relations have improved and workers have realistic access to the justice system, solving disputes via legal redress. A woman famously sued her brothel-owner for harassment in New Zealand in 2013 and was awarded 25,000 dollars. It is fairly simple to get a flexible license to suit your particular circumstances.

Because of this flexibility and decriminalization, big brothels went out of favor in New Zealand in 2003, giving rise to SOOBs (small owner operated brothels) where up to 4 women work together in an apartment. In the Republic of Ireland, it is currently legal to both sell and buy sex, within extremely narrow parameters. It is legal for me to work because I work alone, and I work indoors. We are not allowed to solicit, work in pairs or groups, work outdoors, or hire anyone as security or to manage our bookings. No one, not even a partner or relative, is allowed to share in the earnings of our work. Most workers get caught with charges for “brothelkeeping”, although this definition includes even only two women working together for safety.

This criminal record often forms a barrier for people to leave the industry and secure other work. The Sexual Offences Bill was

Come for the banter and the craic. Stay as
long as you like, and go ahead and treat
yourself to some sexwith a professional.

drawn up in 2012 by the Justice Committee and is currently moving through stages for approval..

Minister for Justice, Francis Fitzgerald, agreed to sit with members of SWAI (Sex Workers Alliance Ireland) to hear our concerns about the section of the bill that would make it an offence to buy sex. We described to the Minister how violence escalated in the streets of Dublin after it was made illegal to sell sex in the streets and workers lost trust in the Gardai, the National Police. The Minister replied, “But won’t that serve as a deterrent from entering the industry?”

The proposed law would double penalties for women working together for safety, with a potential jail sentence. It is an attempt to make the industry as risky as possible and therefore an unattractive option. The results are workers – who will work regardless – becoming collateral damage. The most underresourced workers are surely going to keep working; and with this law that forces the industry underground, they will be in more dangerous circumstances. Criminalising clients also creates dangerous circumstances for sexworkers. Criminalising the client tips the power dynamic in his favour.

He may no longer want to come to our in-call location for fear of being seen and instead insist we go on an outcall to him, to a place we are unfamiliar with and have no control over. Street workers would now be dealing with nervous and rushed clients which could prevent them from going through their safety protocols. They will have less time to negotiate services offered or condom use. If even for a short time there is a reduction in clients,  they will have less to lose and other workers may compete with lowered prices and unsafe sex. Third parties looking to exploit us know we will have more trouble finding clients or securing work apartments after this law. People who have been coerced or are being abused would be further away from support services and authorities.

sex lifeBecause of poor law enforcement relations, abuse would go unreported and undetected. This model of client criminalisation gives impunity to perpetrators posing as clients. These predators realise we are alone and that we don’t want to be under policy scrutiny and risk losing our livelihood or our homes by making ourselves known to Gardai. A sex worker in Norway, where they have such a law, said “You manage a bad situation to the end. You risk losing everything if you go to the cops and so only do if you really believe you are going to die.”

We are a risk-taking population, largely because we have had to be. Research conducted in October 2014 by Queens University in Northern Ireland found that 98 percent of sex workers said they did not want client criminalisation. Nevertheless, the Swedish model passed into effect in there in June, purportedly to protect women, Yet it has, so far, led to the arrest one man for purchasing sex and three women for working together.

Despite this law’s inability to reduce the amount of people in prostitution, its ineffectiveness at preventing people from being trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and the fact that sex workers worldwide say that client criminalisation has or would make them less safe, the law is promoted as a progressive measure towards ending gender inequality. It views sex work as gender-based violence. It views all women in sex work as victims or as suffering from false consciousness. This lacks information and imagination. It erases the voices and experiences of the many men and trans people working in the industry. The rhetoric 

Prostitution is not inherently exploitative or
empowering, although it has the
potential to be both.

of these sex work prohibitionists, referring to “men purchasing women”, is objectifying, and patronising. Right now in Ireland, services are being cut to rape crisis and domestic abuse support centres, and single mothers have little affordable housing  or childcare. While we address structural inequalities in our society we can’t take away an option for people, many without any viable alternatives, to make money elsewhere. We must be prepared for the reality that some may still choose to sell sex instead.

Poverty is disempowering. Prohibitionists insist that people in extreme poverty or dealing with drug addictions are unable to give consent. It is such a dangerous concept, because then what are we to call it when sex workers do say no? Prostitution is not inherently exploitative or empowering, although it has the potential to be both. Sex workers therefore need labour rights and deserve human rights. Acknowledging the existence of the sex industry is not an endorsement of prostitution but it is essential to  effectively protect those involved. The World Health Organization, Amnesty International, Open Society Foundation, UNAIDS, Global Alliance Against the Traffic of Women back full decriminalisation as the best model to support sex workers in protecting themselves.

We at SWAI are finding strength in our allies to slow the progress of the Sexual Offences Bill, and by spending time interacting with groups with whom we should be aligned, shedding light on the realities of sex workers’ experiences and needs. LGBT, feminist, migrant rights, abortion rights and HIV support groups and other groups concerned with bodily autonomy must step forward. Sex workers are a disparate, marginalised, varied, and vulnerable population. We are also adaptive, robust, humorous, and tough as nails.

The stigma that makes us further targets for violence is slowly waning, and despite a vocal minority in power pushing for further criminalisation of our work, overall  attitudes are shifting. Ireland’s recent worldwide leadership in marriage equality has shown the country’s ability to supports its citizens’ quality of life. You only need to talk to people around you to discover their humanity. Ireland is a country rich for the spirit of its people. Come for the banter and the craic. Stay as long as you like, and go ahead and treat yourself to some sex with a professional. Kate McGrew is a sex worker, singer, and Irish reality tv star working with SWAI to decriminalize sex work.

SWAI is an alliance of sex workers, ex-sex workers, health and social providers and researchers, working together to advocate for and promote the health, safety, civil rights and right to selfdetermination of female, male and transgender sex workers in Ireland. For more information, visit their website. 

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