It’s a source of constant frustration for me that Irish journalists take such a wholly uncritical approach to the spin coming out of the TORL camp. Statistics are blandly repeated as if there was no reason not to believe them, their logical connection to the TORL argument taken for granted; there is never any questioning as to whether they would really support that argument even if they were true. I’m not suggesting this type of “churnalism” is unique to Ireland, of course, but it’s too widespread here to attribute only to individual reporters or specific news organisations. Whether due to editorial direction or sheer laziness, the Irish media have essentially acted as the PR wing of the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, doing their work for them by treating their every press statement, every stunt as it was the result of some real journalist’s investigative work.
The latest example of this was the media coverage of this Ruhama statement. The headline, of course, is no different to what Ruhama have been saying for a few years now, and I’m not quite sure why RTÉ thought it merited a whole video report. (Contrast with their total failure to cover a genuinely newsworthy event – the launch of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland’s policy paper a few days earlier.) I suppose the “hook”, if they needed one, was the claim that if the Oireachtas doesn’t hurry up and introduce a ban on paying for sex, there will be an influx of clients from up north in June when the Six County ban comes in. Ruhama spokesperson Sarah Benson says she knows this by reading online forums, where the clients are supposedly discussing their plans to become cross-border sex tourists once that law comes into effect. And this right here is a perfect example of how an unquestioning media becomes a propaganda delivery machine – because if they’d gone on those forums themselves they’d have seen plenty of clients discussing their intention to continue visiting escorts after the law is brought in, and even sharing tips on how to get around the law. Some do say they won’t risk it, of course, but the full picture is considerably more complex than the “pimps and punters will come south” rhetoric we’ve been hearing since Stormont passed the bill – and our journalists would find this out pretty quickly if they would just do the barest bit of research now and again instead of letting themselves be spoon-fed all the time.
But what really needed interrogating in that article is the assertion that the 82 victims of trafficking assisted by Ruhama last year were “mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa”. In itself, there’s nothing remarkable about that statement – there are certainly plenty of African women in Ireland, and most of them would have required visas to come here (a trafficking risk factor) and most of them would have no entitlement to work here on arrival (also a trafficking risk factor). So in that sense, it’s perfectly believable that they would be overrepresented in trafficking statistics.
But to state the obvious, a large number of African trafficking victims in the Irish sex industry would mean a large number of African women in the Irish sex industry – and this is where questions start to arise. Using the advanced search function on Escort Ireland, I come up with a grand total of three Sub-Saharan African women advertising tonight. Even accounting for the fact that some might have given a false nationality, there’s still a loooong way to go to reach “mostly” out of 82. Africans are not known to be over-represented in street prostitution here, and while we know some direct provision residents are forced to sell sex, the indications are this is mostly because of our appalling government policy of not letting them do any other work and forcing them to live on €19 per week – not because they have been trafficked here for prostitution.
So if we assume that 82 figure is accurate (or if it’s only the “tip of the iceberg”), then this conclusion logically follows: there is a lot of sex trafficking going on that has nothing to do with the online escort sector, nothing to do with street prostitution. It could be, as a 2012 report on sex work and trafficking in London suggested, that the market for African women operates through word-of-mouth community networks – making such cases particularly difficult to detect.
But that leaves us with another question, which is: why is it that these women are so much more likely than women of other nationalities to seek the assistance of Ruhama? Are trafficked African women somehow more likely than other trafficked women to escape their predicament and make their way to All Hallows? Are trafficked women of other nationalities drawn to different services, or to none at all? Or could it be that there just really isn’t much trafficking in the more visible sectors, so there aren’t as many non-African victims who need these services?
These are questions that need to be asked, particularly in light of the looming law change. If most sex trafficking really is taking place in a closed migrant community setting – or by other means that don’t require an Escort Ireland profile – then criminalising Escort Ireland customers won’t do much of anything to stop it. It would be the legislative equivalent of looking for a lost item in a room you didn’t lose it in just because the light is better there.
And even if that’s not the case, the fact remains that there’s a striking discrepancy between the nationalities of most of Ruhama’s clientele and the nationalities of most visible women in the Irish sex industry – a discrepancy that surely has practical significance in terms of what kind of services and prevention measures are needed. It’s worth interrogating regardless of what it means for the usefulness of the proposed law. Irish journalism really needs to start unpacking these TORL soundbites, instead of just swallowing them whole.