RTÉ’s Prime Time did a special last night on “Profiting from Prostitution”. It focused on the organised brothel sector, which mainly involves migrant women from non-EU countries, and as you might expect the situations of the women depicted in it ranged from dodgy to horrifying. It’ll no doubt be a major topic of discussion in the country today, so here are my two cents about it.
First, it’s worth recalling that what the programme depicted is already illegal. It’s illegal to run a brothel in Ireland. It’s illegal to knowingly profit from another person’s prostitution in Ireland. It’s illegal to advertise commercial sex in Ireland. So the kneejerk reaction that what we need are more criminal laws doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Perhaps if the police did not spend so much time targetting sex workers who flat-share they would be in a better position to go after these genuine abuse cases.
Secondly, there was a complete lack of any contextualisation of migrant women’s options in Ireland. Absolutely nothing was said about the fact that these are, by and large, women with nowhere else to go because they cannot legally work in Ireland. At one point the journalist asked “Why don’t they try to escape?” and I thought, surely now, it will be pointed out that “escaping” for them means a one-way ticket back to their country of origin – but no, not a word. The answer that was given instead focused entirely on fear of the person(s) controlling them, and while I have no doubt many of them are in such fear, it is hardly likely that is the whole story. New York’s Urban Justice Center published a report on the use of raids to fight trafficking, and interviewed many of the women “rescued”; they found that even those who appreciated the law enforcement intervention (which many didn’t) said that they would have left their situation voluntarily if only they knew where they could go. This is likely to be the case also for many of the women in Ireland, and it’s a major hole in the programme that it did not even consider it.
The programme also played to an anti-immigrant agenda, which unfortunately was reflected in some of the comments posted about it on Twitter. Here’s just one example:
— Browns Cows (@BrownsCows) February 7, 2012
While there was no explicit mention of the Swedish model, the programme concluded with the cliché that “none of this would exist if there wasn’t demand by Irish men”. The implication of this, clearly, is support for end-demand policies along the lines of those in Sweden. It’s worth highlighting what those policies have actually meant, in the context of “profiting from prostitution”:
According to one informant in Göteborg, there are probably more pimps involved in prostitution nowadays. The informant says the law against purchasing sexual services has resulted in a larger role and market for pimps, since prostitution cannot take place as openly.
A woman engaged in indoor prostitution in Göteborg relates that when the law took effect in 1999, about ten women engaged in prostitution from various Eastern European countries approached her business because they wanted to hide indoors. Informants from the Stockholm Prostitution Centre also mention that the law has opened the door to middlemen (pimps), because it has become more difficult for sellers and buyers of sexual services to make direct contact with one another. – Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, Prostitution in Sweden 2007, pp 47-48.
Now contrast this with the situation in New Zealand, which largely decriminalised its sex industry in 2003 and now allows up to four sex workers to share premises without becoming subject to brothel licensing laws:
Some brothel operators report difficulty attracting staff to work in brothels…Some brothels have closed down with operators citing the lack of staff and increasing competition for workers because of sole operators/SOOBs [Small Owner-Operated Brothels], as reasons for the failure of their business. – Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 , p 38
It is also worth pointing out that the facile reduction of the economics of commercial sex to “no demand = no prostitution = no trafficking” has been questioned by a number of studies, one of the most important of which is Bridget Anderson and Julia O’Connell Davidson’s Trafficking – a Demand led Problem? Of course, artificial demand can be created in any market, and it would be foolish to expect the sex industry to be any different – but then, I’m regularly amazed at how often sex work is considered to be immune from ordinary economics principles.
One final note. While the faces of the women in this programme were blurred, I have absolutely no doubt that most of them could be easily identified by the people who know them, and unquestionably by those they are working for. I would have real fears that the people controlling some of these women could decide to punish them for the things that they said. I don’t know what, if anything, RTÉ is doing to try to avert this possibility but it has a responsibility to ensure that the innocent subjects of its investigations do not suffer harm as a consequence – and if it does not live up to that responsibility, it must be held to account.