It’s time to listen to sex workers

Sex workers have the right to shape the policies that affect their lives, says KATE McGREW of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, responding to news that the Sexual Offences Act 2017 is to be reviewed
It’s time to listen to sex workers
 Kate McGrew. Picture: Getty images

LAST month, the new Minister for Justice Helen McEntee announced that the Department of Justice had appointed Maura Butler to oversee the review of the Sexual Offences Act 2017.

This act criminalised the purchase of sex and increased penalties for individuals working in pairs or groups and added a potential jail sentence. The law was brought in with great fanfare by the previous Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald as a feminist solution to an age-old problem. But we in the Sex Workers Alliance ask: How can a law that curtails bodily autonomy, puts the most marginalised women in society in danger, and speaks over them, be truly feminist?

When this law was initially debated there were no voices of currently working sex workers due to be heard, until we highlighted this issue. SWAI, as the only frontline, sex-worker led organisation in Ireland, were sidelined completely. Sex workers have the right to shape the policies that affect our lives.

We argued that this law will not empower sex workers but will lead to increased nervousness on the part of the client. Negotiations with clients become fraught, decent clients disappear and sex workers are forced to take on clients they would have previously refused, or perform services they would have avoided in the past. Sex workers are forced to work alone to avoid brothel-keeping charges, making them more susceptible to predators. Sex workers are less able to safely report abuses as we face repercussions of by-laws, including being arrested ourselves, evicted, and losing custody of our children.

All of this has come to pass. Violent crime against sex workers has increased by 92%. There has been a near 20% decrease in workers wishing to make reports to gardaí. Likelihood of reporting is 1%. The law has arrested many more sex workers working together for safety than clients.

Two migrant workers working together for safety were prosecuted in 2019 and originally jailed for nine months each, despite the judge acknowledging neither were coerced and no exploitation was involved. One of these women was pregnant at the time of prosecution.

Shockingly, the Minister for Justice at the time, Frances Fitzgerald, did not deny violence against sex workers would rise, but said that it would be a deterrent for people entering the industry. Current sex workers are collateral damage.

We were promised that the introduction of client criminalisation would spell an end to trafficking in Ireland but instead, we have tragically watched our country fall from tier 1 to tier 2 watch list on the Trafficking In Persons Report. Research by Ellison et al (2019) in Northern Ireland - until recently the only country worldwide to have research performed before and after client criminalisation - has shown no decrease in numbers of sex workers and no decrease in trafficking.

No one wants to eradicate exploitation in the sex industry more than sex workers ourselves. In every industry, exploitation exists. It is much more likely to occur in an industry that is more hidden due to stigma and criminalisation, and where workers have fewer safe and legal avenues. It is the workers ourselves who are best placed to report and tackle abuses, once we are given legal frameworks including unionising, to do so. Who better than to recognise and shine a spotlight on abuses than sex workers ourselves?

Since 2017 we have seen a spate of attacks and robberies on sex workers because criminals know we are likely to be on their own, or if they are in groups or pairs, very unlikely to contact the Gardai for fear of arrest ourselves.

The fact that sex work exists in a quasi-legal state where one part of the transaction is criminalised (purchase) and one part is sometimes decriminalised (sale, if the worker is alone) means that the benefits of decriminalisation are not felt. Criminalisation breeds stigma and shame. We have seen this bear out in our recent history with the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, the abortion referendum and we also see it in our current addiction crisis. Keeping parts of sex work criminalised pushes it underground where those who need help are pushed further away from the services we need.

The law does not address the reason why people do sex work; money. We may be facing into a pandemic induced recession and that will see an increase in the number of sex workers in Ireland and, very possibly, fewer clients. This law aimed to end demand. What we saw during lockdown is a decrease in clients, with no supports for sex workers provided by the state nor from this legislation. Do they want us to be safe or do they want to continue marginalising an already vulnerable population?

Nothing about us without us is a mantra we are hearing more and more each day. This review gives the state the opportunity to do something they have not done in the past; listen to current sex workers about the reality of our lives. We are the experts in what it is like to live under this law, so we must be central to this process. We hope that the new Minister for Justice will centre the voices of the people working under the law as she has in the past with her work to repeal the 8th Amendment.

We need Ireland to get real about sex work, to elevate our voices and ensure we are heard.

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