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Thoughts on last night’s Prime Time

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:

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.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

22 responses »

  1. Sadly the domestic media are still engaged in an agenda driven focus on prostitution. The Ruhama/TOBL/”Immigrant coucil of Ireland” or whatwver the religious orders are using as front companies these days are getting favourable coverage in the media in an uncritiqued way. There are a few exceptions, but it is very hard to break through the “establishment approved narrative”. Well done on your continued research. Another good read!

  2. Maybe I missed it but many of the women in that programme did not look terribly unhappy, especially the Romanians. There are women out there who do this because it’s easy money and because they enjoy it. If they don’t like it they could run away – I simply don’t believe they have no where to go.

    Hope the guy who was heard saying at the end “Hope the men of Clara are treating you well” is identified.

  3. Thank heavens for a little cache of sanity.

    The one topic everybody is avoiding is:
    What will happen to women in prostitution if you legislate to take away their earnings too?

    It is as if “not able to make a living by selling sex” was a recognised synonym for “living happily ever after” that did not require validation.

    The truth is, of course, very different. If you take away the earnings of a prostitute she is still left with whatever drove her to it in the first place – but now without any hope of solution, a far cry from any form of “happy ever after” I can relate to.

    If the legislation is passed this reality will suddenly become a springboard for organisations like Ruhama to sustain, and even increase their funding by way of solution.

    The fact that most of the women want nothing to do with Ruhama and only engage with them on threat of arrest will remain as determinedly hidden as ever.

    Most women in prostitution are intelligent adults with thoughts and opinions of their own, capable of making their own decisions. There is absolutely no rational reason for them to hand their lives over to a selection of privileged religious and feminist extremists who do not have the most basic grasp of their humanity, let alone their reality.

    The last thing the women need is disempowering and indoctrination into the weird, cultish, gaslight “black is white, right?” ideology that motivates Ruhama and affiliates, they need REAL help and support from rational people for their REAL problems, but failing that, they just needs to be left in peace to do the best they can for themselves.

    I am glad it is not only me who sees that even truly the trafficked women may well be far worse off, if you just stop them and send them back to wherever they came from.

    Sometimes, life is brutal like that.

    • I fully agree with you
      However your and our opinions are not heard
      Action is needed
      I urge you to write to your government TDs about your concerns and thoughts
      If they ignore you keep writing or go into the clinic
      We have to raise the issue and try and get our message across

      • I know KMJ, I have to start writing to them, one after another,

        I am familiar with some of the TDs signed up to Turn Off the Red Light and I am sure they only signed up because they were persuaded to believe they would be helping women in prostitution – and making themselves look “dead cool” for the youth vote in the process.

        I suppose the part that frightens me is facing up to the reality of how many of them just do not care. I have to live in denial of that aspect of reality, or the world would be too frightening a place to stay sane in.

        I don’t know if I have the bottle to turn up at clinics…I have a whole other life to keep afloat, and I think “coming out” as an ex hooker in this climate would be a kind of suicide…(though I already have to a couple of TDs and Ministers.).

        I am also going to make submission to the Department of Justice.

        I was once the hooker who stood up in the media and challenged the 1993 act, ad the image of prostitutes as bawdy criminals, and a kind of social vermin to be eradicated (before determinedly fading into total obscurity once I had done all I could)…I guess I have no choice but do it again in 2012.

        19 years on and still all society can do in a recession is find desperate women and beat their lives to a pulp for distraction. Le plus qui e change, le plus qui c’est la meme chose.

        • Hi Eileen
          I am not familiar with the 1993 case as I was 11 back then but the focus is now on the client and not the sex worker so the reception you get might not be as hostile as you think, although I am not going to tell you to come out or not that is your choice.

          In meeting with people you dont have to say you are/were a sex worker though just meet up and say what you think. Arm yourself with facts many of which can be found on this site and personal experience.
          I tough at the moment I now, I am much less optimistic than I was a week ago
          But now is the time to fight

        • I don’t think I’ll get a hostile reception, I didn’t in 1993, it’s just that I am very recognisable and it would be really hard to explain what I was doing advocating for sex workers without admitting I was one.

          They would guess anyway at which point i would probably have lost more than I gained by not admitting it.

          I am also NOT very good at being pushy in person, to say the least…I’ll work it out, maximise impact…the most important thing is to make sure people realise that I am not looking for personal attention, or about to publish my memoirs, much less planning to set up my own NGO…

          I just know the truth and care…

    • Hi Eileen, thanks for your comment. I addressed those issues at length in a couple previous posts:

      You’re absolutely right that most sex work opponents avoid these issues. Well done for your refusal to let them off the hook!

      • Hi Wendy, I actually all but fell asleep very late last night digging through your articles. I am very, VERY impressed that someone who has never been in sex work could understand the reality so well…which, in turn, tends to take away the “they know not what they do” excuse from the local abolitionist lobby.

        I used to be much more naive. I honestly used to think that if only someone could make them understand they would REALLY try and help instead. But time has taught me, they do understand, they just don’t care, and they don’t care how many lives they sacrifice to their silly faddish agenda that will be forgotten and condemned in 10 years time…

        • That’s very kind of you to say Eileen, although believe me I am conscious that there is much I will never be able to understand.

          Have you thought about writing an article for They seem to be posting a lot of different views on this subject lately, but none from a perspective like yours. (I’d be happy to host one here, too, but it would be more widely read there!)

        • Now there is an idea :o)

          My best work seems to come out spontaneously in response to other people (what that says about me is maybe not ideal from a feminist perspective?) but I am sure I could sit down and come up with something if I tried. I could probably even work out how to submit it to thejournal too…

        • PS – suddenly do not seem to be able to post on another thread…no idea why not? Did I do something wrong?

  4. Apologies for commenting here so late – just thought I would provide some further info on the 1993 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill – from the Irish Times. This was also a means to decriminalise homsexuality

    June 24, 1993, CITY EDITION

    Parties hail criminal law move on homosexuality


    THE MINISTER for Justice, Mrs Geoghegan-Quinn, said she was not asking that homosexuality be regarded as morally or socially acceptable. Introducing the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill, under which homosexual acts are to be decriminalised, she said: “What is simply at issue, instead, is whether it is right in this day and age that the full force and sanctions of the criminal law should be available in relation to such forms of sexual behaviour.”

    Majority values did not need that kind of support, she said. Values which were truly worthwhile in themselves were strengthened, not weakened, by removing forms of apparent support which ignored the rights of others.

    “In other areas of public concern and debate in this country we have come to appreciate the need to recognise, respect and value difference. The House needs no reminding of the tragedy which ensues when difference is deprived of the right of expression and suppressed.”

    It was not a matter of jettisoning sound values simply to run with a current tide of demand. “It is, rather, a matter of closely looking at values and asking ourselves whether it is necessary, or whether it is right, that they be propped up, for the comfort of the majority, by applying discriminatory and unnecessary laws to a minority – any minority.”

    There were parents who would know what it meant to have a child whose nature it was to be homosexual. “Very few of them would, I think, be likely to regard it as helpful if, in later life, one of their own children was an active homosexual, liable to imprisonment – under the present law up to life imprisonment – for giving expression to his sexual orientation.”

    The social acceptability of homosexuality was not something which by our laws we could decree; the hurt which homosexuals felt at their treatment as outcasts by some members of the community was not something which we could dispel by the use of some legislative magic wand. What the Bill did was to leave people with homosexual orientation free to come to terms with their own lives and express themselves in personal relationships without the fear of being branded as criminals.

    Referring to fears expressed that decriminalising homosexual activity would lead to an increase in disease, the Minister said there was nothing to support this. Unsafe heterosexual activity could spread disease but no one suggested that heterosexuality be criminalised.

    On the proposals in the Bill, she said it would in future be an offence for a male to commit an act of gross indecency with another male under 17 years of age. There was not an equivalent offence for females. Boys and girls under 15 would continue to have the protection of the law whereby the consent of the young person was not a defence to a charge of sexual assault.

    She proposed retaining the concept of gross indecency in the law; it was well understood by the courts. If it was abolished boys between 15 and 17 would have no protection against the commission of homosexual acts involving them. The indecent or sexual assault provisions of the law would only offer protection to boys where an actual assault took place, whereas gross indecency did not require an assault to have taken place.

    In regard to the Bill’s provisions on prostitution, she said she was only concerned with updating and strengthening certain aspects of the present law. For the first time, a person who solicited or importuned from a motor vehicle or the purposes of prostitution would be committing an offence The Garda would now be able to deal with “kerb-crawlers”.

    Mr Eamon Gilmore (DL, Dun Laoghaire) said the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act dealing with homosexual activity was a relic of the Victorian era and should have no place in a modern society. The sexual activities of consenting adults were a matter for the people concerned and should not be the business of the Dail, the Garda or anyone else.

    “Whether one approves or disapproves of the particular sexual practices of people is not the issue. Disapproval is not a sufficient reason for criminalising those whose sexual orientation differs from that of the majority.”

    Mr Gilmore said he regretted it had taken to long to comply with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. It was significant that it was the first woman Minister for Justice who had the courage to confront the issue and do what should have been done years ago.

    The Minister had resisted the temptation to go for another “Irish solution to an Irish problem”, the sort of fudge that had been the hallmark of many Fianna Fail attempts at social reform. Indeed, the legislative posit ion of homosexuals in this country would now be far more acceptable than in the United Kingdom.

    In regard to prostitution, Mr Gilmore said a more comprehensive and sophisticated measure was needed. He was not suggesting that it be legalised and he welcomed a number of reforms in the Bill. At least it would end the hypocritical situation where the woman was the only guilty partner. Both partners, under the Bill, would be equally guilty and liable to the same penalties.

    Mr Gilmore welcomed the steps being taken to deal with “kerb-crawling”, which he said was a scourge in some areas and caused great annoyance to women and girls who had been propositioned from cars.

    But the powers being given to a garda to move on a person “suspected” of loitering were very sweeping and carried a penalty of a £1,000 fine or three months’ imprisonment. It was not even necessary for the garda to have “reasonable grounds for believing” an offence was involved. Abuses could arise under that section.

    Ms Mary Harney, the Progressive Democrats’ spokeswoman on justice, said the Bill was schizophrenic in the way it dealt with human rights. “It adopts a very liberal attitude in relation to homosexuality, but it is draconian in its provisions on prostitution.”

    Instead of dealing with the unfortunate and sad reality of prostitution in Ireland in a comprehending and caring way it proposed to maintain the criminal status of all prostitutes and make it easier for the Garda and the courts to jail them.

    Prostitution exploited desperate women with low self-esteem, little economic means and a poor standard of education. “Instead of trying to jail these women, we need to provide them with the necessary resources by way of counselling, therapy, welfare and education. The real criminals are those pimps who organise prostitution for major financial gain.

    The Garda could not be expected to deal with an essentially socio-moral problem. The Bill would drive the problem into the seedy underground, where there would be no controls and no preventive health-care measures.

    “Trying to end prostitution by criminalising the prostitutes is like trying to end poverty by making it criminal to be poor,” Ms Harney said.

    • The Irish Times

      December 19, 1994, CITY EDITION

      Prostitutes see danger in new law
      Fear of arrest forces hasty decisions, leaving them open to assault they say

      PROSTITUTES say that a law introduced last year are putting them in greater danger.

      If there is a garda coming, you don’t stop to get a good look at the client, you just jump in,” one prostitute told The Irish Times, explaining that the normal precautionary chat to size up the safety of the situation might now be curtailed.

      They say they are therefore more open to violent assaults, and are less likely to report such attacks to the Garda for fear of being charged themselves.

      The new law which for the first time in 10 years has led to arrests for soliciting has also had the effect of driving prostitutes off the streets into massage parlours and made them more vulnerable to pimps, the women say.

      (For those 10 years, following a ruling in 1983 that the previous law on soliciting was unconstitutional, prostitutes operated without much interference from gardai.)

      The women’s claims are backed by legal experts and health professionals who believe that the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 – which also decriminalised male homosexuality – may have been drawn up with too little consideration of the provision on “loitering for purposes of prostitution”.

      A barrister, Ms Mary Ellen Ring, believes the main purposes of legislation should be to prevent public order problems or breaches of the peace, and to protect the women from assault and abuse situations she says are already covered by existing legislation.

      It is hard to tell how evenly the legislation is being applied to prostitutes and their clients the most recent information given by former Minister for Justice, Mrs Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, on male arrests under the legislation did not specify whether the men were prostitutes or potential clients. Also, most of the women charged under the new law plead guilty to minimise court appearances and the attendant risk of publicity.

      Joanne (not her real name) is a prostitute. She points out that there is little point in convicting women on prostitution charges and fining them, when the only way they can pay the fine is to go back on the street. She knows many women who have been driven off the streets and into massage parlours, which she fears are more exploitative. “You only get paid if the client looks for extra services,” she explains.

      She emphasises that working the streets is dangerous. Prostitutes are often assaulted and robbed by their clients, and in her experience assault is becoming more common as women have less time to size up a customer.

      Also, because they are frequently moved on those suspected of being either prostitutes or those seeking their services can now be directed to leave a street or public place and be arrested if they fail to do so it is harder for women to keep track of each other, and therefore it may take longer to tell if another is in danger, Joanne says.

      Many women, herself included, prefer to work on the streets it is less personal they can keep most of their clothes on and they can deal quickly with the clients. She says rented rooms – used by an increasing number of women – are more difficult than a car to escape from if the woman is attacked by a client.

      Neither she nor her friend Ruth is in favour of legalising prostitution. However, they do want it decriminalised. Decriminalisation would help focus the attention of the law-enforcers on areas such as under-age prostitution, which would help protect vulnerable young women, they suggest.

      Last month an Eastern Health Board report on prostitution found that the new law has created a “more confrontational relationship between the women and the gardai”, who hear complaints from residents about noise levels, cruising cars and women who are not in prostitution being approached.

      Ms Ring says the criminalisation of prostitution means prostitutes tend to stay at arm’s length from the State and all its agencies, which puts many beyond the reach of education and health services.

      Certainly, the EHB report found women in prostitution reluctant to use ordinary statutory services, although they do use the EHB’s own Women’s Health Project, which runs on Thursday nights and offers condoms and needle exchanges as well as advice.

      • Thanks for posting those. I read the transcripts from the Dáil debate on the 1993 bill and I was struck by the fact that it was the PDs who were taking the most sensible and humane approach to the issue. I mean, of all people.

        It’s also interesting that “If there is a garda coming, you don’t stop to get a good look at the client, you just jump in” is exactly the sort of thing that Swedish sex workers are saying now. Clearly this is going to happen if either party to the transaction is worried about being arrested.

  5. Isn’t this just amazing stuff she has dug up? I have it on the site too for anyone who is interested…

    Total “Dr Who” experience for me…even though these were articles I did not see at the time…which is better, really, because there are words here that never got a chance to influence my thinking before…and it shocks me…the extent to which they accord with, not only my old, wiser, grown and developed (in patches! :o) ) hindsight, but also statements from real women in Sweden now.

    It makes me a bit angry (I am going to go into “look at me, Me, ME” mode for a minute here, so nobody misses our absent friends too much), to be reminded that my own initiative (which, by the way, kicked off my inner activist) in writing to President Robinson and pleading with her not to ratify the act on humanitarian grounds that I dropped off at the Phoenix Park the night the act was sent to her for ratification wound up hijacked, trivialised and generalised by the Aras as well as, the Women’s Health Project (then, basically the secular arm of Ruhama under Europap – and we all know what happens when you get “relaxed to the secular arm” 😦 ).

    At the time, when I did it, in July 1993, a lowly hoor writing to the President was, SO UNHEARD OF, it was front page news in the Evening Press next day. Nobody else dared…ever…
    I was happy for my “Aras initiative” to morph into something that was about the women not me (I wasn’t really, but I have to say that to look good 😉 ) and more importantly that it morphed into something that *THE WOMEN* felt was all about them, as people (which, of course it was, I was out of “the life” for three months before I left off that letter…I wrote it for them, and, even more, their wonderful kids – BECAUSE THEY ARE WORTH IT).

    But I think I am still in stratospheric orbit that Mary Robinson’s eventual meeting with ordinary decent prostitutes was co-opted in the end as a blatant publicity stunt for Ruhama and the WHP…

    This may be hard to understand, but between the threatening effects of the new law and the way Ruhama and the WHP played on that to undermine the autonomy and confidence of the women foster dependency and consolidate some kind of power base. Even the same women who brought the 1983 constitutional challenge were conditioned to be too afraid to speak to the press or politicians without their permission and mediation for years afterwards.

    For me, that fact alone was the first red flag for how bad they would become.

    I never had any time for them, so they had no influence on me.

    • Believe it or not I was determined to try and spend this weekend psyching myself up to see the Rescue Industry as well intentioned, genuine but misguided…but I just cannot do it…it is too far from the truth and too self-evidently so, particularly when I looked at these old references.

      There are two very serious problems here:

      1) Legislation exists that compounds and exacerbates all the problems and risks in prostitution to dangerous and unacceptable levels, and further legislation that will make that even worse has been proposed, despite compelling evidence that prostitution is often a choice coerced by circumstances of extreme hardship that society cannot, at this present time, provide an alternative remedy for.

      2) It is time we formally recognised that the organisations we are funding to support and represent people in prostitution are doing nothing of the sort and, to all intents and purposes, represent their opposition. If Ruhama is to continue to be funded, then let it be funded as what it is, an organisation dedicated to lobbying and campaigning for the prohibition of prostitution independent of the wishes or best interests of those involved.

      Both these problems desperately need solved and I do not see a chance of either really being solved without the other.

      • With all due deference to your experience, Eileen, I also have professional experience (of a different kind) of Ruhama and I don’t have a problem with them being funded for their service provision. (Apart from my general opposition to the state outsourcing services it ought to be providing itself, but that’s a different issue.) I don’t have any doubts that there are women who have had dreadful experiences in prostitution, who do want out and whose situations have been made at least somewhat better with the assistance of Ruhama and other groups like them. I also know, of course, that some sex workers say they have had unpleasant experiences with them but I think every service provider has its happy customers and its unhappy ones. It’s mainly just their advocacy that I have an issue with.

  6. Am commenting on my phone here, due to internet not working on my laptop – so probably best to mention that I commented on on the article entitled “Sex workers face terrible abuse: Do we want this to be normal?”

  7. I would also add to what Eileen says by saying that Ruhama has been in existence since 1989 – and as far as I know there have been no current or former sex workers appointed to positions of leadership or authority within the organisation. I acknowledge that Ruhama and State agencies have provided training and financial assistance to some women, but how many get to choose the type of supports offered to them? The disability rights movement has a saying which I think is rather appropriate “Nothing About Us

  8. my phone appears to have deleted last part of comment – should read: “Nothing About Us, Without Us”

  9. Pingback: Prime Time. 31.05.2012. Profiting from Prostitution, part 2.

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