It's right that we should have an open, honest conversation about the sex trade in Ireland, but as the review process draws to a close on Section 4 of the Sexual Offences Act, it's important to remember the bottom line - the Government would be wrong to overturn legislation outlawing the purchase of sexual access to human beings.
I have spent nearly a decade campaigning for sexual exploiters to be properly outlawed, in Ireland and abroad. I have been involved in the Turn Off The Red-Light campaign since its initial launch in February 2011. It was a very long and arduous emotional road from there to get the Sexual Offences Act implemented in 2017.
But the journey did not end there. Embedded into the body of the legislation was the pledge to review the law three years after its passing, which brings us up to the present day. This review process has brought out a lot of predictable public conversation, but what was not predictable to me was the level of misinformation centring on what happened during the campaign for the law.
During that time, one of the most difficult things was listening to the ignorance of supposed experts, academics, journalists and other social commentators who did not have a clue about the realities of prostitution but were arrogant enough to shout over those of us who had lived it.
Numerous women made written submissions to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. Myself and two other Irish women gave oral testimony setting forth our recommendations and drawing on our personal experience of having been exploited in the Irish sex trade.
The Committee's job was conducted over the course of a very lengthy process, with over 800 written submissions received and many individuals and organisations giving oral testimony. Aside from this, scores of political meetings were held in public and in private throughout that time and afterwards. The conclusion of the Committee, released on June 27, 2013, was that the act of purchasing sexual access to people ought to be criminalised in Ireland.
Much has changed in wider society since then, but here we are again in 2020, having to argue our case with those prepared to steamroll over our lived experience simply because they think they know better. "I stand with sex workers" is the trendy new mantra, referring to the tiny minority of women in prostitution who campaign to decriminalise all actors in the sex trade, including pimps and brothel keepers. The reality is that those who express solidarity via this mantra will never be affected by the impact of the fully decriminalised prostitution that it calls for. I have no doubt that their solidarity would disappear on the spot if it required them to stand in a brothel line-up or on any corner in a red-light zone.
In the mythology espoused by areas of the Irish media in recent months, the public has been told that women in prostitution were not listened to during the years the law was debated. That is nonsense.
Women involved in prostitution and espousing the opposite political view gave oral testimony to the same Committee I did. We also know that the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland met privately with then justice minister Frances Fitzgerald, and we know this because they publicly lambasted her on Twitter afterwards as they were unhappy with the meeting's outcome.
Politicians certainly did listen to women who were arguing for the full decriminalisation of pimping and brothel-keeping; they just did not find their views persuasive enough to frame legislation around. There is a difference between your recommendations not being listened to and not being adhered to. There is also the routine red herring of women's arrests being attributed to the 2017 legislation. More nonsense; any arrests of women in prostitution are happening under the Brothel Keeping legislation of 1993.
For those of us with lived experience, this review process is difficult enough; it would be nice if we could get through it without a rewriting of history.
As to the process itself, in my view, it is simply not possible to review legislation which was enacted but never fully implemented. In the three years since the law was passed, an almost negligible number of men have been arrested for breaking it.
Also, the websites which market women to Irish men have been allowed to press on regardless, although 98pc of prostituted sex in Ireland is sourced online. How can we claim women's bodies are not a commodity in Ireland while ignoring the very mechanism men use to purchase sexual access to them?
And if that were not debasing enough, after these men have purchased the right to use these women they then review them as they might with any other online purchase. Everything you can think of is scrutinised, women's backsides, their vaginas, their breasts. The women's obvious unwillingness is the most common complaint. You would need a strong stomach to read those review boards.
My assessment of the review the Government is about to undertake is this: They are focusing on the wrong review. The Government ought to be reading the review sections of the escort websites that are operating free and clear in this country, because they can pass all the laws they like: It's all for nothing if they are turning a blind eye to the sex trade profiteers.