Monday 20 November 2017

College girl Niamh: why I became a €220 per hour escort

A growing number of middle-class women are becoming sex workers because of the recession, reports Gemma O’Doherty

'Niamh' - from college girl to
one-woman escort service
'Niamh' - from college girl to one-woman escort service

Gemma O’Doherty

It's the oldest profession in the world but the recession is driving a new breed of woman into its ranks. Next month, an autobiography called Between the Sheets will tell the story of how one middle-class Irish woman mired in debt turned to the sex trade to pay the bills.

But the author, known only by her pseudonym Scarlett O'Kelly, is far from alone. She is just one of a growing number of Irish women from respectable backgrounds who are selling their bodies to make it through the downturn.

Some were once high-fliers whose careers in banking, law and property have turned to dust. Others are stay-at-home mums who long for the trappings of their tiger lifestyle and need the cash for school fees and car loans. An alarming number are young graduates fresh out of college with no hope of finding work beyond the sex industry.

Niamh (not her real name) is the last sort of woman you'd put down as a call girl. She grew up in a wealthy suburb of south Dublin, studied psychology at university and used to have a career in marketing. She's into healthy living and doesn't smoke, drink or do drugs. But today, the 40-year-old runs a one-woman escort service from her home near Dun Laoghaire.

For €220 an hour, she offers "nice conversation", "companionship" and "personal services" in her home. She's happy to be taken out for dinner, and if the money's right, she'll do an overnight. On an average week, she takes home €1,500, which she can make in a matter of hours.

"It's the only way of making ends meet at the moment," she says.

"I won't say it's easy money, but it is fast money. For example, this afternoon, I was down with a dentist near Wicklow. He gave me €250 and he didn't even last five minutes.

"It's always very busy at this time of year, during and after Christmas. My phone is on call most of the time and there is a lot of work after midnight."

Niamh has been working in the trade since the economy started to flounder. Back then, most of her counterparts were Brazilian and Eastern European, but she notices a stark difference today.

"Five years ago, virtually everyone working in the business was foreign, but suddenly in the last year, there's been an influx of Irish women coming into it. I know at least 10 off the top of my head. There's definitely a demand for them among the clientele."

In a country whose sex industry is booming, recent figures suggest that on any given day at least 1,000 women are selling sex in Ireland. But this surge in private escorting is meeting a new demand from men who are moving away from drugged-up street workers and foreign girls, and buying into the fantasy of the high-class hooker.

Most of Niamh's clients are professionals who call the shots in the office but want her to take control in the bedroom.

"I see all types of men all across the country. Lawyers, doctors, people you might see on television. One of my clients is on the Sunday Times Rich List but he will open the door to me on his knees in a pair of ladies' underwear. He tells me he is fully under my control."

Another is a garda I've seen a few times, a very kind man who likes to pretend he's a prison warden and I'm the female prisoner. I've been in some really hilarious situations."

But support agencies who witness first hand the fallout from prostitution -- drug addiction, rape, violence and suicide -- rarely see the funny side of the trade.

"No matter what side of the tracks they come from, I have never met a happy prostitute in my 12 years working in this business," says Linda Latham, of the Women's Health Service on Dublin's Baggot Street, which has seen a dramatic increase in middle-class women coming to its door.

"In the '80s and '90s, we saw mainly heroin addicts but now across the board we are seeing educated women who are so strapped for cash they are resorting to it out of dire economic need.

"We see a lot of women with degrees and qualifications who just can't get work. They are usually trying to fund families. It's particularly noticeable at certain times of year when Communions are coming up or Christmas.

"I've seldom seen a woman who hasn't got mental health issues. Some will say 'oh it's fine, it's fine', but when they get out of it they tell you the actual horrors of the situation -- the rapes, the beatings, not being allowed to use condoms or attend clinics. Most women are afraid of their lives and want to get the hell out of it."

But the view that women who work in the sex trade are vulnerable, helpless mugs controlled by pimps and incapable of making decisions for themselves is increasingly challenged.

"It's not always the case that women are forced into prostitution," says Dr Paul Ryan, sociology lecturer at NUI Maynooth and a member of the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland (SWAI), a representative body for Irish prostitutes opposed to the criminalisation of sex workers and their clients.

"Some make a choice to do it. It is something women enter and leave all the time depending on whether they have a First Communion coming up or another financial pressure.

"I did research which showed that some women prefer to do sex work than resort to shoplifting. It is actually a moral choice for them and there is a lot of decision-making based around it. That notion is often brushed under the carpet with the attitude that all prostitution is violent, all prostitutes need to be rescued. . . end of. That's far too simplistic."

A senior garda detective based in Limerick, a city that has become a magnet for sex workers, backs up this claim.

"None of the women we have caught has been trafficked. A lot are coming over to make money and they are certainly not always under the control of a pimp, especially the Romanians and Brazilians. They make more in a week here than they would in a year in their home country. Sadly, it's a lifestyle choice for them and they can make very big money out of it."

Niamh claims to be a prime example of this new class of sex worker. A strong-minded, opinionated, single woman, she operates as a sole agent, squirms at the idea of having a pimp, and claims she has never put her life in danger. As for the psychological baggage, she tolerates it to keep a roof over her head.

"I've never had any trouble. If you get a late-night call out to somewhere you don't know, you would be a little bit wary, but most of the guys are just ordinary men who are desperately lonely and want a bit of company. Some just want to give you a hug and a kiss and have a cup of tea. The only problem I've had is that sometimes they want to marry you.

"How do I deal with it all emotionally? I just switch off. No matter how ugly or fat or unattractive they might be, once you've done the first one or two, you break down that barrier and become immune to it.

"But sometimes, like last night, I feel guilty. I went to see a guy I know quite well. He usually comes to me but this time he asked me to go to his house because his wife was away. He lives in a fabulous mansion on the east coast. They've been married for more than 20 years and have three children but the sex has gone down to about once a month and even then it isn't great.

"He wanted me to come dressed as a nurse, which I did, but when I went into the house and there were children's toys scattered around and photographs of the wife and kids on the wall, I felt terrible to be honest.

"I thought to myself 'what if it was me and my husband was paying to sleep with other women? How would I feel?' But at the end of the day, men have their needs and I am just providing them. It's all a big act, and each one is nothing more than a business transaction."

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