Tuesday 23 April 2019

Sex worker Kate McGrew (36): 'I feel that once we stop seeing sex work as a social ill we'll start to see sex workers as humans'

Amnesty International has backed the decriminalisation of prostitution, but the State is pressing ahead with legislation to criminalise sex buyers. We hear from the sex workers who say they're struggling to be heard

Sex worker Kate McGrew is calling for a decriminalisation of the industry in Ireland. Photo: Arthur Carron.
Sex worker Kate McGrew is calling for a decriminalisation of the industry in Ireland. Photo: Arthur Carron.

Meadhbh McGrath

It's Wednesday morning, and Kate McGrew is woken by the sound of her phone ringing. The voice on the other end of the line asks if she's around today.

He usually has a particular time in mind. Kate sets up a meeting, and then heads to the kitchen for a breakfast of cheese and crackers.The rest of her day is spent arranging bookings, preparing for up to four sessions a day, and cleaning up afterwards. Between bookings, she'll take out her roll-up electronic keyboard and work on a new song.

Kate (36) is a sex worker, and she insists that a typical workday is nothing like you'd expect. "It's really just a lot of admin," she says.

'Indoor sex work' describes any kind of sex work that goes on behind closed doors, as opposed to on the street. Indoor sex workers like Kate spend much of their time updating their online profiles, answering emails and taking phone calls. Many sex workers travel around Ireland, which means long train journeys and a lot of cleaning in different apartments.

"I spend 14 days working out of the month, and it's on the road," Kate explains. "It's nice that I can create my own schedule. I'm basically being my own boss, which is great, but it comes with all the difficult things about precarious work as well. If I'm sick, then I cannot work at all. Those things can be challenging, because there's no sick leave."

Kate is one of the many sex workers in Ireland who anxiously awaited the outcome of Amnesty International's vote to support the full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work.

The proposal was met with outrage from anti-trafficking groups and a host of Hollywood A-listers, including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham, who publicly condemned Amnesty in an open letter claiming decriminalisation would open the door to greater exploitation.

Amnesty's policy embraces a framework sex workers have long demanded. Catriona O'Brien (a pseudonym she uses for work) is an indoor sex worker in her mid-20s, and describes feeling "absolutely delighted" by the news that up to 500 delegates had voted in favour of the proposal.

"I was in tears. I was on the edge of my seat, and I just couldn't believe it. It took me about an hour to realise what impact this would have worldwide.

"On my (Twitter) feed there were sex workers from all over the world celebrating this decision. It isn't just Western sex workers, it's the ones in Thailand and Kenya as well."

Catriona praised Amnesty for basing their decision on two years of research, and says that the public shouldn't be distracted by what celebrities like Lena Dunham think about the issue.

"You need to listen to sex workers," she says. "When you listen to them, you start to realise that criminalisation is not helping. What you find is that sex workers are going out of their way to protect their clients more than themselves."

Kate argues that feminist groups opposing decriminalisation are "well-intentioned, but misguided".

"The point can't be whether it's empowering or exploitative. The point is that it's happening, so how do we keep people safe?

"I get that that's really hard for people to understand, because they think, 'Well I just don't want it to exist, I just don't like the idea of it.' But I think sticking your head in the sand like that is really dangerous."

However, not everyone welcomed Amnesty's decision. One of the groups left disappointed was Dublin-based organisation Ruhama, who work with a diverse range of women affected by sex trafficking and prostitution across the country.

"We were very saddened that Amnesty didn't listen to the numerous women's groups and sex-trade survivor groups across the globe who all appealed to them not to decriminalise all aspects of the sex trade," CEO Sarah Benson says.

"We are in absolute agreement that no person selling sex should be criminalised. But to advocate for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade is not the way to vindicate the human rights of those who are most vulnerable."

Colm O'Gorman, executive director of Amnesty Ireland, recognises that the debate around sex work is extremely divisive.

"It has been a challenging issue for Amnesty to deal with over the last two years," he explains. "It's been a long, engaged and at times passionate conversation, as it should be. This is a very complex area, and it's very important that we get it right.

"If somebody is of the position that if somebody didn't agree with them that they didn't listen, then I think that's a rather flawed position," says Mr O'Gorman. "I have enormous respect for Ruhama, but frankly, we listened very carefully to all of the people we engaged and consulted with, and we made a decision based on those consultations."

In Ireland, prostitution is legal, but many activities associated with it are outlawed as public order offences, such as kerb crawling, brothel keeping, or soliciting in public places.

Irish law defines a group of two or more sex workers working together as a brothel. The threat of police raids on brothels forces sex workers to work alone, making them more vulnerable to crime.

Unlike most sex workers, Kate doesn't use a pseudonym. She revealed her line of work last year on RTE2's reality series, Connected.

"I am out," she explains. "But a lot of women, men and trans workers, they don't want the police to know who they are, because what that means is police camping outside your door. People can be kicked out of their houses, people can have their children taken away."

The distrust of the police led to the creation of Ugly Mugs, an internal web-based service that allows sex workers to confidentially report unsafe clients or other dangers.

"It shows that so many sex workers won't report to the police," Catriona says. "We get so many reports of rapes and robberies, and it's because people target us. If you sell sex for a living, (the attitude is that) you've put yourself in that position, you don't really deserve protection, and more than likely your case will not be successful."

By backing decriminalisation, Amnesty comes into direct conflict with Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald's plans to introduce legislation to criminalise sex buyers, following the Swedish model.

Sex workers claim that the proposed reforms will make the industry even less safe for workers. Catriona and Kate are part of the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland (SWAI), and took part in a consultation with Ms Fitzgerald.

Catriona worries that the Bill neglects the well-being of sex workers in Ireland: "All it's going to do is make things more dangerous for us. But (Ms Fitzgerald) told us she thought that would act as a deterrent for anyone considering being in the sex industry.

"What she's doing is using sex workers as collateral damage to send a message, and that's terrifying, that any public representative could say that."

Ms Fitzgerald has always been clear on her position in the debate. When the heads of the Bill were published last November, she said: "I am aware of the ongoing debate surrounding prostitution and of the views of both sides of the debate.

"However, I strongly believe that this proposal is the best suited to address the trafficking and exploitation associated with prostitution. It sends a clear message that purchasing sexual services contributes to exploitation."

Ruhama are "very supportive" of the Sexual Offences Bill. "This is fundamentally about the right not to buy another human being," Ms Benson argues. "It sends a very clear message if the State focuses its attention on the source of the issue: not the women, but the buyers who feel entitled to buy sex."

When asked whether Amnesty's policy would have any impact on the proposed legislation, a spokesperson for Ms Fitzgerald told the Irish Independent that the minister expected "all aspects of the debate" will be considered in the autumn, when the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill is due to be "substantially discussed" in the Oireachtais.

Mr O'Gorman is unsure of whether Amnesty Ireland will be in a position to engage in the process. "What (the policy) would mean in relation to the progress of legislation here in Ireland is unclear to us at the moment, but that was never the focus of developing the policy in the first instance," O'Gorman explains. "The focus is to develop a global policy."

However, Kate and Catriona are optimistic that decriminalisation will become a reality in Ireland in years to come.

"I feel like this is the beginning of the end of sex workers being demonised, disrespected, and ignored," Kate says. "I have a lot of hope for it to change quickly here."

"It will get there," says Catriona. "We used to think homosexuality was a social ill, and now we have marriage and acceptance. I feel that once we see sex work as work, and not as a social ill, we'll start to see sex workers as humans, and as people who need rights."

Irish Independent

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