A new study of brothel keeping convictions in Ireland shows almost all of those convicted are migrant women.
Brothel keeping, defined as more than one sex worker operating from the same property, was an amendment to the The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which increased the penalties for brothel keeping and living on earnings of prostitution.
Supporters of the amendment argued that the law would keep women safe from coercion and trafficking, punishing those who exploit women into sex work, rather than the women themselves.
Sex workers often cite safety as the reason for working from a property with another person. They say the current brothel keeping law forces sex workers into working alone and becoming more vulnerable.
New research by UglyMugs, a sex worker advocacy service, taken from CSO statistics and media reporting of brothel keeping since 2009, found that young migrant women are the people most likely to be convicted of the offence.
The results show that the vast majority (85%) of those convicted of brothel keeping are female and most are aged 18-24 (30%) or 25-44 (59%).
All of the sex workers convicted appear to have been non-nationals, and in 22 of 82 of the cases (27%) it was stated that one or more of the sex workers being prosecuted was a mother.
In various cases it was also highlighted that a sex worker was supporting other family members.
In 79 of the 82 cases (96%) it appears the sex worker(s) pleaded guilty, which has stoked concern that sex workers are not availing of their right to have a solicitor present when being questioned. In two of the cases it was found the sex workers did not even have any legal representation in court.
In 42 (51%) of the 82 cases examined the sex worker(s) voluntarily pledged to leave the jurisdiction, or the judge ordered them to do so.
A total of 148 of the 165 individuals (90%) in the cases were named in the media.
When the amendment was being debated in February 2017, Senator Lynn Ruane flagged that these issues could occur, stating that removing the option for “single operators to work alongside others out of fear of being viewed as a brothel is counter-productive to our aim of keeping women safe”.
This was a law that was touted as necessary to keep sex workers safe, and yet it is now clearly and actively causing harm.Lynn Ruane
Speaking on Thursday, Senator Ruane said the research is proof the law has failed, and should be changed.
“This was a law that was touted as necessary to keep sex workers safe, and yet it is now clearly and actively causing harm, further marginalising those involved and impacting those most already at risk, particularly women from migrant backgrounds,” she said.
“The bill’s supporters were consistently warned about the risks to the safety of sex workers and yet they pressed ahead.
“I would hope that in light of the clear evidence that this law is failing, as demonstrated by the low number of arrests of clients coupled with the high number of arrests of sex workers, that the minister and his Government would consider a change to the law in 2020.”
Section 27 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 provides that within three years of the law being enacted the Minister for Justice will review the new provisions, taking into account the number of arrests and convictions made under the new offences.
The minister will be required to present his report on the review before the Houses of the Oireachtas by March 2020.
A spokesperson from UglyMugs says policing policy must also be changed in order to stop targeting vulnerable women.
“Policing policy around sex work clearly needs to be reformed to ensure that vulnerable people are not the targets of policing activity in this area,” she said.
“Garda resources should be directed at combating serious harms, not criminalising sex workers.”
Politicians who supported the amendment and the Department of Justice have been approached for comment.