The sex industry is in political limbo: The debate that rages on outside mainstream politics – Interviews with Ruhama, Sex Workers Alliance Ireland and GOSHH

There is no short and easy way to explain why the commercial sex trade is surrounded by political discord and uncertainty. To enter the debate is to open the door of a room stuffed to capacity with pieces of Lego, which do not always fit together. If you want to build some sort of solid  structure out of them you need to pick up each one, examine it and find its best fit. The process would move faster if more hands were working together at the same time. But this would require an agreement on what the final structure would look like and what would be done with it. Now we’re talking politics.

As of February 2017 it is a criminal offence to purchase sexual services in Ireland. The law is intended to reduce the demand for sex which is one of the motivating factors behind human trafficking and child sexual exploitation in both Ireland and across Europe. However, the legislation has received a mixed response and what divides the arguments of ‘sex trafficking and exploitation’ versus ‘sex workers rights’ is even more pronounced. The Dáil is divided, parties are divided, and the people who work with those in the sex trade are divided. What remains constant is the presence of commercial sex in Ireland.


There are many different voices contained within this issue, and it is not something that has only arisen with the recent change in legislation. Our country has been subject to prostitution laws since the early 1800s at which time we were governed by the same laws as Britain. This is the early wording:

Every common prostitute wandering in the public streets or public highways, or in any place of public resort, and behaving in a riotous or indecent manner shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person within the true extent and meaning of this Act’’ – Vagrancy Act, 1824

The language has changed since then, although amendments have been scarce and far between.

There are a number of groups and organisations that work with and on behalf of prostitutes and sex workers in Ireland. I spoke to three of them, taking a look at what their individual motivations are and where they find themselves in the debate.

When Ruhama was established in 1989 there were no NGO or state services dedicated to supporting women in prostitution. At that time prostitution was primarily “on-street”. Ruhama started with an outreach service which began to engage with women, asking them what their needs were and what kind of supports they would like, and responding accordingly. Over the years the organisation has grown and developed to meet these changing needs and also the changing landscape of the sex trade in Ireland. (Tara Brown, Volunteer Manager at Ruhama)

According to Ruhama’s 2015 Annual Report, 301 women received support from the organisation that year. Of these women 94 received casework support as victims of trafficking, and 66 women received street outreach support. The outreach van spent 122 nights providing essential services for women, such as gloves, hot drinks and snacks and overall staff and volunteers spent 860 hours providing this service.

Ruhama’s aim is to support women in prostitution, including victims of sex trafficking, by delivering non-judgemental, free & confidential support services depending on each woman’s individual needs. We work also to raise awareness about the experiences of women in prostitution and victims of sex trafficking, and advocate for policy and legislative change that challenges the gender inequality and gender based violence that underpins the global sex trade. We value and advocate for women’s and girl’s human rights to bodily integrity, equality & empowerment.

Ruhama was involved in the Turn off the Red Light campaign

Ruhama welcomed the new legislation in the Criminal Offenses Bill this year. The majority of the women they have worked with say it was ” coercion, force and deception that marked their entry”, and Ruhama advocates that the new legislation decriminalises those in prostitution both indoors and on the street, while making it easier for these people to report crimes to policing authorities.

The law also refocuses attention on the driver of the sex trade: the demand of the sex buyer, whereby the purchase of sex is now an offence. This has been shown, when policed in conjunction with focus on organised prostitution and traffickers, to reduce the size of the sex trade and numbers of victims of trafficking and exploitation accordingly

Elsewhere in the debate are groups who campaign for those in the sex trade as workers, rather than prostitutes or trafficked victims.

The SWAI was founded in 2009 by sex workers, service providers (e.g. healthcare workers), activists and academic researchers out of concern for the lack of focus on harm reduction and the  human rights of sex workers in policy and legislative development. The SWAI wanted to contribute to and provide an alternative evidence based discourse on sex work that placed the lived experience and voice of sex workers at its centre.” (Kate McGrew, SWAI Coordinator)

Advocating a rights based approach to supporting the civil rights of those who enter sex work voluntarily, the SWAI put pressure on the government to listen to the experiences of sex workers and the research carried out by Amnesty International in 2016, while the new bill was being considered. They are critical of the effectiveness of the Nordic model and the negative impacts it has had on sex workers in the countries it has been adopted in.

Sex work, and trafficking for sexual exploitation are two different and very complex issues. The SWAI are concerned that that this further criminalisation of sex work will negatively impact workers’ ability to keep themselves safe, damage their trust and relationship with the Gardaí  and will give greater power to exploitative third parties – People who exploit and hurt sex workers are not worried about breaking the law.

Turn Off the Blue Light is an Irish association campaigning for the health, safety, human, civil and labour rights of Irish sex workers.

The New Zealand model has the SWAI’s support, and they insist that it provides an effective approach to supporting and protecting the health and safety of sex workers, while cultivating healthy relationships with policing authorities.

Recently we saw the exposure of exploitation and potential trafficking within the fishing industry in Ireland. Trafficking is not just an issue in the sex industry. The impossible ideal of ending sex work is not realistic, and should not be a bigger priority or at the expense of protecting people’s human rights and safety

Do you see what I mean with the room full of Lego analogy? The issue of commercial sex seems to have become polarised into two perspectives, each not trying to diminish the importance of the other argument but still advocating heavily for one. Who is anyone to say that one is worth more attention that the other? And is there no middle ground where both of these groups can sit together – in legislation and in ethos?


GOSHH are a registered charity funded by the HSE, and are not allowed to have opinions on legislative changes – they have worked with Ruhama and the SWAI on occasion, as a neutral voice.

I think it is important to note that I see three very different types of people engaged in the sex industry; all of these are financially motivated. The background behind them is important to distinguish. There are those who are educated and independent and treat their work like a business; marketing and branding their product to make the most profit possible.

There are those who are struggling in life, either with addiction or homelessness, or both, and their motivation is more on a week to week (sometimes day to day) basis. These people are hoping to gain enough money to pay the rent, or clothe their children, pay for Christmas or pay off debts. It is a very different scenario. Finally I see people who have been forced into the sex industry for the financial gain of others. These people are trapped and have no plans beyond surviving the day, and we would not ascribe the label sex worker to this group’’. (Billie, GOSHH)

With regard to the new legislation, GOSHH is unsure whether or not we really have adopted the Nordic Model; the way our government has implemented it presents challenges to the idea of full decriminalisation of those who sell sex.

It is my understanding that the Nordic Model decriminalises the selling of sex completely. In Ireland we have only decriminalised the selling of sex on the streets. Indoor workers, who are still essentially criminals, and will be the target of any Gardaí operations to find buyers of sex, may have their income drastically impacted. These are the people who will do what they can to re-market their product and stay on track. I am concerned that this might mean that some will feel they need to take risks in order to achieve their goals in life.

Source: Geof Wilson (flickr)

Being an organisation that is able to look at the debate from an outsider perspective with no outright interest in one view or the other, I took the opportunity to ask about this ‘dual dialogue’ that seems to dominate how the issue is framed. GOSHH believes that this dialogue has encouraged people in the industry to speak out and share their experiences, but the focus is on just one cohort of voices. There is a divide between independent indoor sex workers who have a powerful voice, and street workers “who don’t even know their voices are required” – the people who speak for them are trained professionals or people who have exited sex work.

On one side society views the street worker as a victim, and on the other side the independent worker is seen as collateral damage to be discarded whilst trying to help the victim. An interesting aspect of this is that everyone who is openly involved in the conversation is anti-trafficking

That is interesting. And very important; there is a solid middle ground in this debate. There are other things that the SWAI and Ruhama also agree on: the need to listen to those in the industry with a non-judgemental ear, and to offer them a full range of health services and social supports whatever their needs may be. They share views on the importance of structural issues such as poverty, uncertain immigration status, addiction, unaffordable living standards, and conflict that motivate people to enter the sex trade. Both groups express the need to focus on exploitative third parties, but differ on the criminalisation of buyers.

leg / head

There’s a lot to take in here. Our government has passed legislation whereby the “goal of these provisions is primarily to target the trafficking and sexual exploitation of persons through prostitution” (Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald). One of these dialogues is being catered to. In the Dáil, Fianna Fáil Justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan spoke out in support the Government provision.

I fully recognise that if we criminalise the purchase of prostitution it’s not going to end it. It is still going to continue.” But he said if they adopted that argument on everything “we’d criminalise nothing (Irish Times)

In addition to eliminating trafficking and sexual exploitation (which everybody in the debate would like to see and end to) it would seem the purpose of criminalisation is to end the sex trade completely, by eliminating demand. While some welcome this course of action, members of the SWAI believe it is cause for concern.

We believe the reason why the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services came into law, and the criminalisation of workers who work in pairs and groups continues, is a deep lack of understanding on the side of policy and law makers. Sex workers are not seen as people with agency and right to self-determination. When you call a group of people victims it is easier to dismiss their voices and assume they need help to know what’s best for them. We question the motivations of the Government who claims to want to protect people from trafficking, when they refuse to acknowledge or address the structural issues which maybe lead people to do work they wouldn’t otherwise do, or to fall victim to the hands of traffickers (SWAI)

Met Manq 2

In 2016, 910 official crimes against their person were submitted by sex workers to Ten of these were reported to Irish authorities or Gardaí. In 2015, 688 crimes were reported to the website with 18 of these being reported to authorities. In January of this year, 109 crimes against their person were reported to the website, and none of them have been reported to authorities. The majority of sex workers in Ireland do not report assaults to the Gardaí, with those in the sex trade claiming they face prejudice and unfair treatment from authorities and the justice system, which fail to fully prosecute those who rape or assault them. The stigma sex workers face extends beyond the justice system. GOSHH told me about a woman to whom they had recommended a doctor to.

They came back to me to ask that I never recommend that doctor again, as once they had told the doctor they were a sex worker, the doctor was completely unable to do his job properly and was very ‘leery’ (GOSHH)

Members of the Garda Síochána have been accused on more than one occasion of the sexual assault and rape of sex workers. In the case of an Eastern European sex worker who was prosecuted by the accused Garda prior to the incident of alleged rape, a breach of discipline was found against the accused and no criminal charge was given. These accusations, as well as other accusations from female members of the force and members of local communities have been investigated by  the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).

Delftblue manequin in window

I completely believe that ‘outcomes’ [of sex workers] are affected by social stigma and prejudice

If we say we want a society where no one is forced to sell sex, then we have to create that society. We can’t stand idly by and watch as people are forced into sex industry in order to clothe their children, then stand back and judge them when they are caught, whilst simultaneously claiming they are victims of sexual exploitation. They are actually victims of social injustice (GOSHH)

In this article an attempt was made to find a middle ground between the different arguments in the sex trade debate. And to some extent this was successful. However, the fundamental differences between those who campaign for the elimination of the sex trade and trafficking, and those who campaign for the recognition of sex worker’s rights are irreconcilable at a political level when prejudice and stigma remain embedded in society. If all of the voices of this argument are to be included and respected, then a bottom up change is needed in how we as a society view those in the sex trade and how we include them in the decision making processes that ultimately change how they live their lives. One of the problems of an issue being polarised is that one side is often prioritised. Both have legitimate claims and concerns, but how they view the sex trade and those within it are based on a different ethos.

[Government and society needs to] Recognise that the sex trade is inherently unsafe for those in prostitution and incompatible with gender, socioeconomic and racial equality.(Ruhama)

Sex workers are not seen as people with agency and right to self-determination. We need to recognise that sex workers in history, literature and popular culture have been written and spoken about by others who don’t have their lived experience. We need to start from scratch and listen to the realities faced by sex workers in all their diversity. (SWAI)

PROTEST AGAINST WATER TAX [1St. November 2014] Ref-7092

As citizens we have no issue with being vocal when we see injustice in how our water is treated, how our lives are impacted by religion, how our law enforcement is undermined by corruption, how our health service fails its users, or how our laws affect bodily autonomy. Where is the march (one march) to call an end to trafficking and exploitation, and to begin the recognition of sex workers rights? ‘Stronger together’, are we not?

When asked about what the government could do to improve the experiences of sex workers and prostitutes, GOSHH responded:

If Ireland is to be a country where sex is legislated, then let it be consistent. Let’s be open about it and clear. The current legislation is neither open nor clear. It states that buying sex is sexual exploitation, yet criminalises the victims of this exploitation, but only in certain circumstances.

On one hand the government says that sex work is not a legitimate job, will not take taxes, and sex workers are victims, and on the other hand it robs those victims of their hard earned cash in order to finance sex worker charities. It is all very muddy and definitely needs clarity.

Photo credit: Nicolas Raymond (flickr)

What is clear is the need to ensure all voices in this debate are heard, which includes those who are trafficked or work on the street, male sex workers,and LGBT sex workers who are unseen by legislators who speak about them in the Dáil. Comparing the government to children playing with pieces of Lego is over simplifying the issue. Look back to the earlier quote from Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan, and replace the word ‘prostitution’ with ‘cannabis’. Perhaps that is over simplifying the issue as well. Dividing the sex trade into two separate arguments. Perhaps.

What matters is that there is hope for everybody, as those who were previously unseen and unheard are now becoming vocal.

Sex workers have got organised. Ex sex workers have got organised. These voices, long left out of any conversation in Ireland, are now gaining strength and hopefully power. The phrase I keep thinking is “nothing about me, without me.” It’s very true in this situation. (GOSHH)

There’s still a middle ground, and three years left.

A special thanks to Ruhama, Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, and GOSHH for taking part in this article.

About Yvonne Kiely 10 Articles
If it's sexuality or music, I'm your woman. If it's holding an axe and filling you with a sense of dread, then you're probably in a Stephen King novel.

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