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Medb Ruane: Velvet was gorgeous, with perfect hair, nails and skin. But I knew she was on the game

She leaned over and asked for a drop of my cocoa tanning oil. I'd noticed this Irish woman already. Velvet -- not her professional name -- looked like she was channelling a soap opera star. I wondered vaguely if she worked on TV.

The long story must wait. For now, let's just say that Velvet was on the game. She told me that her boyfriend of two years was sulking in their hotel room because he'd proposed to her at midnight, as the year turned, and was furious when she refused.

The ring glittered through her vivid description -- diamonds, sapphires, custom design, satin box. She lied. It was a ruse to explain why she was alone by the pool.

Velvet didn't appear like prostitutes I'd seen in the East, or late-night street stragglers back home. She was gorgeous. Nails, hair, make up, skin like a wax mannequin, enhanced and lipo'd at every curve. The perfect masquerade.

Velvet confided. She said she was a self-employed beautician and offered free advice, if I liked. I needed a time machine so, failing that, I tucked in my tummy muscles best as I could and declined.

Her pretence intrigued me. In her head, she needed me to see her as a successful young businesswoman with man troubles, who could be married if she chose. She wanted status, admiration, respect and sympathy.

"I can't marry a guy I don't really love, can I?" she declared dramatically. I was almost taken in, almost in big sister/understanding godmother mode, but I went with my hunch and eventually confirmed her situation.

There was no boyfriend. A pimp had put her on a plane to our new year destination so as to make them both some money. I don't know what she charged. I reckoned she could earn a lot.

Velvet didn't look like a victim but she was ashamed enough to lie. I thought about her this week when kites flew about changing the laws on prostitution. Under this one, Ireland would adopt the Swedish model and criminalise people (mainly men) who try to buy sex, rather than women (and boys) who actually perform it. Soliciting sex for money would remain unlawful.

Street prostitution has halved since the Swedes changed their laws a decade ago, along with public opinion. They view the whole shoddy business as human trafficking. Given that Sweden is known as one of the more sexually liberal communities in Europe, it's telling that they've decided not to sexualise their society in this way. They're not prissy, they embrace the body, but they're saying stop to the marauding effects of the so-called sex industry and its insidious claims.

Here, it's not a crime to buy or sell sex. You can get arrested only if a garda catches you soliciting, usually on the street. But as most prostitution happens behind closed doors, the laws are so out-of-date they aren't coping with the exponential increases in recent years.

Ireland's current regime isn't fit for purpose. If using prostitution is viewed as socially destructive, then the law needs muscle. If it's to be tolerated, then why prosecute anyone at all -- and why put people at risk?

We're almost a century on from the days when the Legion of Mary stormed Nighttown to stop Dublin's brothels. Now, escort and prostitution habits are part of a much more pernicious social shift. It's dominated by profit and will pervert anyone's sexuality to make more money. We're a ready market because curiosity about sex and sexuality is part of our humanity. That leaves all of us vulnerable to being exploited. Laws need to anticipate that slippery slope because the profit potential is so vast.

Markets are groomed and grown to make more money. So marketing will encourage variety in terms of who and what are on offer, be it through race, gender, size or age. It will license more online reviews, where escorts and brothels are discussed in ways you wouldn't use to talk about a pig.

Little can be done to protect any of the players, including punters. Reports from Ruhama and the Immigrant Council show how abusively women are treated at the bottom of the heap. Key recent convictions prove how much money pimps can make and how much suffering they can cause. Other stories tell of sex tourism to countries where prostitution is legalised -- or where under-age sex and paedophilia can be accessed without anyone thinking you're a perve.

A changed law would mean gardai could requisition personal data linking punters to brothels and escorts and making them criminally liable for their decisions. It won't end the trade -- but it could go a long way to limiting the worst excesses of street prostitution and sending a clear message about how low we won't go.

Velvet sat alone on the plane home. She scurried out of baggage collection, eyes down, fake designer suitcase shaking on its wheels. No engagement ring, no boyfriend. Just a job that she's too proud to name.

Indo Review