Wednesday 21 March 2018

Growing sex trade at a crossroads

Men will be criminalised for buying sex under proposed legislation, but not everyone thinks it will work, including some government ministers.

Tough choices: There is a risk every time a sex worker opens the door
Tough choices: There is a risk every time a sex worker opens the door
John Meagher

John Meagher

Catriona T (not her real name) is a 23-year-old Irish woman who advertises her services on Escort Ireland, the leading portal for Irish men seeking to purchase sex. She is one of only a handful of Irish escorts on a site that is overwhelmingly populated by women from eastern Europe, South America and Africa.

Catriona T is an advocate for the rights of sex workers and believes the only sensible course of action is to decriminalise prostitution.

But Irish legislators don't agree and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is keen to introduce the so-called Swedish model here, which would criminalise the client, and essentially deter men from paying for sex.

This week, the Dáil debated the prostitution aspect of the Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Bill, which if passed later this year, would criminalise the client and potentially change the face of the sex trade in Ireland forever.

But opinion remains bitterly divided about how to deal with Ireland's growing sex trade. Eoghan Murphy, junior minister at the Justice Department, said in a Hot Press interview he does not believe the Swedish model will work here. "I know it doesn't work. I've looked into it. We don't have the resources to police prostitution. We don't have the resources to police the women in prostitution. We definitely don't have the resources to police the people who are purchasing, because it's obviously a much larger number. I don't see it as a solution."

His words echo those of another government minister, John Halligan, who said prostitution should be legalised: "Rather than taking up the gardaí's time trying to find the people who avail of prostitution, we should be trying to deal with the pimps and deal with the women who are being exploited and forced into prostitution."

Such viewpoints chime with Catriona T, a well-spoken and articulate individual who's a polar opposite to the sort of trafficked women many would have encountered in RTÉ's Prime Time investigations. "They're wrong if they think criminalising men would improve anything," she says. "All it would do is push it further underground."

What's needed, she argues, are laws that recognise sex workers as members of the labour market and give them the rights afforded to others.

"Many don't feel they can go to the guards if they have a problem," she says. "I was paid with fake money by a client, but there was no course of action open to me. In New Zealand (where prostitution is legal), the police there have been known to confront the client and take them to an ATM."

Such sentiments are not shared by Rachel Moran, a Dubliner who was involved in prostitution between 1991 and 1998. She is now an advocate for change and believes the country's growing prostitution trade has to be tackled head-on.

"I've visited 20 countries around the world to see how best this problem can be addressed, and the place that's most impressive is Sweden. By criminalising the client, they have made the purchase of sex to be utterly unacceptable. My son is 22 and there are young men his age in Sweden who are now growing up to believe that it is not right to buy your way into a woman's body. It's a different mindset to a generation ago."

Moran started selling her body at just 15 on Benburb Street, in Dublin's north inner-city, during daylight hours. Sex acts started at £10 and she would have full sex for £20. A great deal has changed since then. The 'street-walker' scene in Dublin and in some of the bigger cities has all but disappeared, thanks to the 1993 Sexual Offences Act which made soliciting illegal. Now, the vast majority of prostitution in this country is carried out largely unnoticed by unsuspecting neighbours in apartment buildings and hotels.

Escort Ireland - founded in 1998, and a veritable cash-cow for its owners, Wicklow native Audrey Campbell and her partner, ex-RUC officer Peter McCormick - was especially busy this week. Last Wednesday, it listed almost 800 sex-workers operating on the island of Ireland. "Search 771 escorts, dominatrix and massage providers to find your perfect type," the site boasted.

But it's not the only place where prostitution can be found. Several sites, including Craigslist, feature hundreds of adverts for massage services, escorts and 'companions'.

Catriona Graham, campaigns and advocacy officer at the Immigrant Council of Ireland, says it's thought that there are between 800 and 1,000 people involved in prostitution in the Republic today.

"The vast majority are women and an overwhelmingly large number are from a migrant background," she says.

Graham says the Immigrant Council of Ireland is one of 70 organisations that supports the 'Turn off the Red Light' campaign, which aims to "end prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland now".

"We believe people are being exploited due to prostitution and we hope that by criminalising the purchase of sex, that exploitation can be reduced," she says. "Very, very few women willingly engage in prostitution. Many feel they have no choice due to economic circumstances. Others are having to do it against their will."

And further proof of that came last weekend when a man, a foreign national travelling from Poland, was charged at Athlone District Court under human trafficking legislation. He is the second person to face charges following a four-year garda investigation.

Dearbhla Ryan, a social worker who works with the Sex Workers' Alliance of Ireland, says there is no doubt that trafficking happens in the Irish sex industry, but insists that the wider picture should not be ignored. "There's a broad spectrum to sex work, and the experiences vary widely," she says.

Ryan believes some of the language used by campaigners seeking to criminalise the purchase of sex is unhelpful. "We need to be very careful to acknowledge people's bodily autonomy and agency," she says. "It's dangerous to say that a normal sex act is rape.

"That said, sex workers, of course, can be victims of crime, too: forcing a sex worker to have sex is a crime just as it would be for anybody else."

Catriona T has worked in the sex trade in Australia, as well as Ireland, north and south, and says she has been fortunate to date.

"Of course there's a risk every time you open your door," she says, "but I take as many precautions as possible. It's amazing how much of a sixth sense you can have just by speaking to someone on the phone."

Not all sex workers are this lucky, though. Another advertiser on Escort Ireland, who agrees to speak to Review off-record, says she had a frightening experience during the summer.

"It was the first time I had met the client and all seemed fine," she says. "But he got very aggressive during sex and grabbed me around the throat. Afterwards, he pleaded with me not to go the police. He said he meant nothing by it, but it had really scared me and it made me aware of how vulnerable you can be in this work.

"It would be great to have greater protection, but there is no perfect solution. Fully liberalised countries have had lots of problems."

It's a sentiment echoed by Catriona Graham.

"Look at somewhere like Germany, where prostitution is fully legalised. You have flat-rate brothels [which offer as much sex as you like for a set fee, usually €99], with reports of queues of men stretching down the street."

Sarah Benson, CEO of Ruhama, the organisation that assists women affected by prostitution, says there tends to be far greater use of prostitution in those countries with a permissive attitude. "The statistics bear that out in places like Spain, where 30pc of men are said to have paid for sex."

It is estimated that 8 to 10pc of Irish men have visited a prostitute at least once.

Benson believes that websites such as Escort Ireland help to normalise prostitution and that many clients simply refuse to acknowledge that their actions can fuel crime gangs. "The sex trade is inextricably linked to exploitation and organised crime," she says. "It's the unpalatable truth that many men don't want to hear."

But both Catriona T and the escort quoted above claim that, in their experience, many of their clients are concerned about trafficking, and endeavour only to meet 'independent' escorts.

"Clients aren't fools," she says. "They know that if they pay €100 or more for a half-hour appointment and with a lady who has her photos verified [by Escort Ireland], they're going to be seeing someone who is doing this work by choice. Those girls who are 19 or 20 with no English and offering full service for €50? Well, you can be sure they are working for a pimp, whether or not they have been trafficked. I feel very sorry for those girls, but not all escorts are like that."

Catriona says two consensual adults should be permitted to have sex for money and insists that 90pc of her clients are decent people.

"These are ordinary, everyday men who have a need and they don't want anyone to get hurt. Maybe they can't communicate exactly what they would like [sexually] with their partner, or they want another experience and don't want to have an affair."

But Rachel Moran insists that men who see prostitutes can leave a trail of destruction. "What about their spouses and families? Believe me, these men can cause a huge amount of anguish. I hear about it all the time."

Prostitution  around the world

Germany: Prostitution is entirely legal, as are all aspects of the sex industry. In 2002, the government changed the law to give greater rights to sex workers. Huge brothels, known as FKK clubs, are popular in the bigger cities.

France: The sex trade was legal until April 2016, but tough new laws mean that customers can now be fined up to €1,500.

Sweden: The model Irish legislators have looked towards, the country criminalised the purchase of prostitution in 1999. Some believe the measure helped cut prostitution by half, others say it simply moved the problem out of sight.

Spain: Prostitution was decriminalised in 1995, but laws banning pimping and exploitation are in place. A recent study showed 90pc of sex workers were foreign migrants.

Netherlands: The sex trade is legal and regulated and Amsterdam has long been seen as a destination for sex tourists from all over the globe. In recent years, some of the windows in the red-light district there have been shut due to criminality.

New Zealand: A model admired by many of those who lobby for sex workers' rights here. Escorting and brothels were decriminalised in 2003 and while some reports suggest the numbers working in prostitution stabilised, others argue that it led to a large increase in the number of migrant sex workers.

United States: Nevada remains the only state where prostitution is legal (in the form of regulated brothels) and then, only in certain rural counties.

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