Targeted, trapped, traumatised: the truth about the sex trade in Ireland
Two years after it became an offence to buy sex services, there has only been one conviction
Thousands of sexual acts a year, rape, violence and depraved behaviour; this is the world of hundreds of young women who are involved in Ireland's lucrative prostitution 'industry' that has moved largely indoors and off the streets.
The vast majority are young and vulnerable, and they are not Irish; they are from impoverished regions of the world. Many thought they were escaping a life of poverty only to find themselves betrayed by a friend or even a boyfriend. Some have come from homelessness or the care system or have been abused in childhood. The vast majority have no choice and are trapped.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Two years ago, Ireland moved to better protect these women by criminalising the act of buying sex, rather than the prostitutes themselves. Thus far, just one conviction has resulted, of a 65-year-old man who last month was fined €200 for paying for sex following a raid on a brothel in Dublin's Blanchardstown.
Dubliner Rachel Moran was made homeless as a 14-year-old and was involved in prostitution the following year. At the age of 22, after seven years in sex work, she managed to extricate herself and returned to education. She is now one of the leading members of global organisation Space International, which was set up in 2012, whose aim is to change social attitudes towards prostitution and press for its recognition as a sexually exploitative human rights violation.
Moran believes that the new legislation is a good thing. It's understood that two further cases are currently pending.
"The legislation is already helping women by sending the message to men that it is not socially or legally tolerable to relegate women to the status of commodities. The men of 1990s Ireland were never sent that message. They should have been, but they were not," she says.
"I am glad that the men of today are sent the clear message that you do not get to buy your way inside women's bodies."
However, Moran believes much more funding is needed both in this country and abroad to help women exit prostitution and rebuild their lives. "This level of support is significant and too often overlooked, and it involves funding for education, training, housing, childcare and healthcare, including addiction services, counselling and trauma therapies," she says.
Sarah Benson, CEO of Ruhama, which works with 300 women affected by prostitution and sex trafficking every year, says the recent case sent a clear message that it is not acceptable to pay for access to another person's body for sexual gratification.
"Sex buyers have been operating with impunity in Ireland for far too long, and we are hopeful that more convictions will be achieved under this legislation in future. Evidence has shown that tackling 'demand' is a key mechanism for preventing the sexual exploitation of the most vulnerable in our society. While the sex trade continues to thrive due to buyers' demand, the criminal gangs running it are profiting," says Benson.
She believes that as awareness of the change in the law increases, it will have an important "chilling effect" on those who may be considering buying sex. And Benson believes this disrupting effect on demand is important in targeting the lucrative businesses of traffickers and pimps.
"Legislation is a critical tool to change behaviours and international studies show that the number one deterrent to men who are thinking of buying sex is that they will get caught or it will be found out that they are doing it," says Benson.
"The legislation against the buyers isn't a 'hang 'em high' and put them in jail approach - it's a fine. But at the same time, the law is very clear - it's not on and women and girls are not for sale," she says.
Last year the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) provided legal information and support to around 20 victims of trafficking. The organisation's gender and anti-trafficking expert Nusha Yonkova says all had endured horrific treatment.
"We are concerned about the lack of gender-specific accommodation, such as women's shelters for example. While every experience is different, the general pattern suggests they would have been lured into the situation by false promises of work or access to education, sometimes by someone they knew, often by unscrupulous criminals and pimps," says Yonkova.
"The Immigrant Council of Ireland has recently concluded a two-year comparative study of legislative systems in six EU member states. The Disrupt Demand project found the Swedish legislative approach, underpinned by principles of gender equality, has proven to be an effective anti-trafficking and demand reduction measure. This is the model on which the Irish Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 is based and, alongside robust service provision and exit route support, we hope in time to see a similar impact," she says.
According to Paul Anthony McDermott, barrister and lecturer in criminal law at UCD, the 'public' element of the new legislation will be a deterrent in itself. McDermott says the very fact cases will be dealt with in open court and reported upon would be far more worrying to those thinking of buying sex than any penalty the law could impose.
And he points out that the legislation is sure to make people think twice before they act. "The thinking is if you stop demand, you stop the problem. If you can attack the demand side, it's the best way to solve the problem," says McDermott. He adds that with any new legislation, it can take a period of time for it to bed down before it becomes an ordinary part of the law.
Monica O'Connor, co-founder of University College Dublin's Sexual Exploitation Research Project (SERP) has spent well over 15 years researching prostitution and talking to women involved in it.
She is a huge supporter of the new law making it an offence to buy sex because, she says, prostitution is inherently harmful. In her book The Sex Economy, she found irrefutable evidence of the harm done to women through prostitution.
O'Connor says there is no evidence to show that regulating or legalising prostitution has even been successful anywhere. She says the evidence from Germany and the Netherlands, where liberal regimes are enshrined in the law, is that the conditions in which women are exploited are appalling, with pimping and coercion on the rise.
In a major piece of research in 2009, O'Connor looked at the Irish scene. It pointed to between 800 and 1,000 young women in prostitution here on any given day. It showed a highly mobile and organised business where women were moved around the country like cattle.
"I interviewed one young woman and she didn't know where she'd been - she thought she'd been in Galway and Sligo. There is evidence that some young mobile women are involved in between 1,200 and 1,400 sexual acts in a year. I understand people's desire to hold on to the idea of choice, but the vast majority are impoverished and vulnerable girls and young women who are targeted, groomed, recruited and coerced by pimps and traffickers.
"Once they are entrapped in the sex trade, there's no bodily autonomy or control over the sexual acts they have to perform," says O'Connor.
In her research, O'Connor also looked at what the buyers of sex were saying online and she found a language of consumerism that has crept in which, she says, has made it acceptable for men to buy their way into women's bodies.
Comments like "she doesn't enjoy her job" or "she was a bit switched off" and even "she wasn't good value for money" were common and O'Connor says the women involved were very aware that the bad reviews were meaningful and would have an impact on them.
The clients of women involved in prostitution here are, according to O'Connor, mostly young, professional, middle-class men in relationships.
"One woman said to me she'd scream if she saw one more baby seat in the back of a car. They are not the lonely old men portrayed in the media. In all countries, they are largely young professional, middle-class men.
"It's very much about the buyer wanting to do whatever he wants to do. In my experience what happens is they say 'I'll pay for no condoms or anal sex'.
"Listening to women, all of them ended up doing things they absolutely hated. All of them were coerced or raped at some point in the industry. When you read the surveys with men online, it's really about them saying 'I get to have the sex that I want to have. I'm paying so I get whatever I want. I don't have to bother bringing her to dinner or negotiating - I just pay'," she says.
O'Connor says as a society, we have to look at the impact of porn and what is being put in front of young men.
"One of the things about porn is women are always doing things and saying yes to things. No matter what he wants, they're enjoying it. It's the portrayal of girls as doing anything you want and really enjoying it.
"Do I think porn and prostitution are linked - for sure," she adds.
It's a point Rachel Moran of Space International is keen to address, too. "Pornography is a major driver in the dehumanisation of sexuality, and prostitution is sexuality in its most dehumanised form.
"We don't need to involve the psychologists and the psychiatrists to figure out what's going on here; we just need to listen to the women who are used by men in the brothels, with porn playing 24/7 on the brothels' so-called 'bedroom' walls," she says.
Not everyone agrees that the new law, which passed the final stage of its legislative journey on Valentine's Day two years ago, is a good thing. It was, in fact, vehemently opposed by a number of women representing the sex industry.
Kate McGrew of the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland (SWAI) says the new law increased the criminalisation of "collective workers".
"Many of Ireland's sex workers prefer to work in pairs or groups for safety, and the new law increased penalties for this kind of work, called brothel-keeping, even when they are independent workers. What this means is that if workers want to work legally, they have to work alone, which is less safe," says McGrew.
She points out that the new law did not change the fact that it still remains legal to sell sex alone and says workers now have reason not to try to access justice or interact with gardaí for fear of their income being taken away.
"We have seen an increased dependence on third-parties, particularly unscrupulous landlords who extort workers and house them in shoddy conditions, knowing that increased stigma and criminalisation has pushed us deeper into a black market. We have assisted workers this past year who have been in situations of a landlord in some cases trying to solicit sex and in one case attempting to rape her," says McGrew.
However, Rachel Moran argues that there's no such thing as 'sex work': "Sex is not work and to anyone who thinks it is, I would say you must be doing it wrong. Sex is no more work than a smile is work or a hug is work. Sex is grounded in human connection, intimacy, spontaneity, mutuality, attraction and passion. Sexual activity in the absence of these things is simply compensated sexual abuse. There is a whole universe of difference between having sex and tolerating it.
"What's missing so often in discussions about prostitution is the human cost, the emotional misery, the chemical addiction, the children raised in state care.
"When people think about the fatalities of prostitution, they often think - and with good reason - of the phenomenally high homicide rates, but they less often think about the women who die from cirrhosis of the liver, narcotic overdose, and suicide, all of which are frankly off-the-scale as compared to the general population," says Moran.