Sunday 15 September 2019

It is not the State's job to police sex in private

Constant raids on brothels are a waste of time and resources. It's time we stood up to the anti-prostitute Taliban

SEX TRADE: One of John Halligan’s strongest arguments was that keeping prostitution illegal necessitates constant surveillance that wastes Garda resources. Photo: Gerry Mooney
SEX TRADE: One of John Halligan’s strongest arguments was that keeping prostitution illegal necessitates constant surveillance that wastes Garda resources. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eilis O'Hanlon

Last weekend, gardai raided an apartment in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, arresting two women and a man who were believed to be using the premises as a brothel.

One woman was upstairs with a man in his 70s, where it was believed "there was sexual activity going on in a bedroom" - not an unreasonable deduction in a brothel - while the other two sat downstairs.

The story was easy to overlook, but one detail jumped out: the raid had come at the end of a "long-running investigation".

How long does an investigation have to be to discover that a couple of women are using an apartment in a small Irish town as a base from which to have sex with men for money?

The answer to that came a few days later when the three defendants appeared in court. Undercover members of An Garda Siochana had placed the apartment under surveillance for a whole week before swooping in.

No information was forthcoming as to how many guards were involved in the operation, or how long they'd spent beforehand preparing the groundwork; but basically a group of public servants had spent an entire week on full pay watching a front door to see who went in and out.

Now it's bad form to have a go at the guards, who, as their union representatives insist, are the Most Oppressed Police Ever. But it's hard to think of an easier notch on the belt than the arrest of a couple of Romanian prostitutes, especially when neither was making any effort to hide it.

Both advertised their services on the website Escort Ireland, which claims to be "#1 for escorts, massage and domination in Ireland".

Not exactly hiding their light under a bushel, then?

As of Friday, there were approximately 10 such escorts listed for Co Donegal, mainly in Letterkenny and Bundoran.

All a guard has to do is log on to the internet, make a few basic enquiries, track down an address, stake it out for a while, then whip out the handcuffs. Job done.

Is this really what modern policing is all about? Is this what the boys and girls in blue thought they'd be doing when they donned the uniform?

And for what?

Appearing in court in Letterkenny a few days later, one woman turned out to be the subject of an outstanding warrant from Tralee, where she'd also worked in a brothel, so she was released on €500 bail and ordered to appear before the court in Co Kerry at a future date. The other two were put on probation, meaning an offence was listed against their name but no further action taken.

That, together with the seizure of seven mobile phones, €810 and £120 in cash, as well as 80 Romanian leu (roughly €50), was the sum total of more than a week's work by an unknown number of guards in one corner of Ireland at the fag end of the year 2016.

Is Ireland now a better, nobler place? Are women safer? Has decency been restored?

Minister of State for Training, Skills and Innovation John Halligan was criticised for his Hot Press interview earlier this year in which he compared pro-lifers to Islamic State, but he was bang on the money about one thing.

"Why," Halligan asked, "would we want to fine somebody or make it a criminal offence for two consenting adults to have sex? That's cruel. It should be regulated."

He was immediately forced to defend himself against accusations that he was supporting the exploitation of women. If pro-lifers are Isil, then campaigners against prostitution are the Taliban of the women's movement.

"Not all people in prostitution are exploited," John Halligan insisted, but that just added salt to the wound.

Doesn't he know? Women are like small children or dumb animals. They don't have moral agency. They can't think for themselves. The anti-prostitution Taliban says so.

It didn't even matter that Halligan, like all good old-school socialists, made a progressive case for legalisation, by saying of prostitutes: "They want it monitored, they want health checks, they want to pay their tax and PRSI, they want it unionised."

He had dared to say the unthinkable and needed to be slapped down, and, of course, because there's little benefit in standing up to puritans, fellow politicians washed their hands of him. The crazy man had got himself into this mess and he could get himself out of it.

One of Halligan's strongest arguments was that keeping prostitution illegal necessitated constant surveillance that wasted Garda resources.

Last week's raid in Co Donegal proved him right again, but this expensive and time-consuming battle is always justified on the grounds that prostitution is a cover for the sex trafficking of vulnerable foreign women who are being held against their will.

So how many women were saved this time? None, because there were none to save.

Giving evidence in court last week, Garda Detective Inspector Pat O'Donnell testified: "During this particular operation, which is the second brothel that we have visited under warrant in the last month, we have seen no evidence of trafficking.

"All of the persons who were there were questioned and they were all there of their own free will and earning money for themselves and their families."

So what exactly are these women being saved from?

Earning a living?

Last month three other women appeared in court in Letterkenny charged with the same offence, also from Romania. One women had three children to whom she was sending money back home; another was putting a 20-year-old son through college. By all accounts, they're invariably cooperative and pleasant when arrested. We're not talking master criminals here.

As for the 75-year-old found in the bedroom last week, he was not arrested. Why? Because "it is not an offence in this State to pay a person for sexual services in private".

The moralists might wish that it was, but it isn't. That won't stop the recovered mobile phones reportedly being "scanned to check for numbers of local Donegal men".

Let's get this straight. We're now proudly gathering information on men who've committed no offence? This is law and order, 2016 style? It sounds more like the morality police.

We pretend that censoriousness and prurience are things of a repressive Catholic past, whereas they're every bit as prevalent now, it's just now they're cloaked in virtue and directed at different targets.

The only offence here is a "number of ladies come together and start offering sexual services in private". In other words, the one activity which the State deems to be criminal is the very one which keeps women safest and protects them from exploitation.

Good work, modern Ireland. You're really showing those loose women who's boss.

Taking action against people trafficking is important, even if the extent of it has been exaggerated by campaigners. The nuisance that brothels can cause to residential areas shouldn't be ignored either.

Nonetheless, the answer to all these issues is decriminalisation, and the only thing that stops us admitting it is a silly, outmoded repugnance that paints all men as sex pests and all women as victims.

Sunday Independent

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