Ireland must invest in services to help people exit prostitution

This piece was sent in anonymously through our Share Your Story page, which provides a space for women to tell of their experiences of the sex trade in their own words.

I am a 43 year-old Irish woman who was actively involved in prostitution for five years from 2008 to 2013. My involvement in the sex trade came about as a result of my chronic addiction to heroin. I was not a victim of trafficking, nor was I being controlled by a pimp.

However, while I do not like to admit it, I was in a very vulnerable situation and a prime target to be taken advantage of. Men with money knew this. They could buy me and do with me what they wanted and they did.

I looked for help, I was turned away. There was no support from my GP and there were little or no services in the area where I was living. I could not get clean nor could I reach the unrealistic requirements needed at the time to go on a methadone maintenance programme.

My experiences have left me with lasting psychological consequences for which I am receiving ongoing counselling and therapy. Today however, I have been successful in leaving that world behind me and in moving to the fortunate position of being able to help people who continue to be affected by prostitution.

In 2017, I welcomed Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 that made it illegal to purchase sex in Ireland. I saw decriminalising the sale of sexual services as an opportunity to keep those selling sexual services safe from unfair prosecution; while also giving them the opportunity to be supported to report any incidents of sexual violence that they experience or witness.

However, legislation has created a loop hole where those selling sex could possibly be charged with brothel keeping because they decide to work together as part of a safety plan. This cannot go unaddressed.

I do not agree with the argument that criminalising the buyers creates barriers to reporting crime and violence. I believe societal attitudes are the real barrier. The culture of victim blaming needs to be treated at the root. Gardaí and members of the criminal justice system need immediate and ongoing training on how to respond with a trauma informed approach to ‘sex workers,’ particularly in matters pertaining to brothel raids.

Fear of reporting will always exist when there is an imbalance of power between the people selling sexual services for money and the buyers. There is also the power imbalance between the Gardaí [police] whose job it is to uphold the law and those who break the law but are driven by poverty and lack of opportunity and are simply trying to survive.

I know from my own lived experience that some Gardaí are guilty of abusing their positions of power. I personally found myself in a situation where I was being blackmailed by one particular detective. He consistently harassed and threatened me with charges of soliciting. I had to perform oral sex on him where and when he wanted it. I complied because my biggest fear at the time was my family finding out about what I was up to. There was no law then to protect me from his clutches.

The new legislation disarms the police from such incidents of abuse of their power. They can no longer prey on people selling sexual services. Ireland has essentially recognised that prostitution is unfortunately a necessary means of survival for many and that these people should not be criminalised for trying to survive. Having said that, the system of prostitution is not a solution to society’s poverty, however this recognition is a vitally important element of a just society.

I believe that Ireland has a duty to legislate for the majority of those in prostitution who do experience exploitation. Sex buyers must be held accountable for their part in the psychological harm that is caused to those in prostitution (as evidenced by Farley et al, 2003).

If you do not have a law that legislates for those most marginalised in our society, then what are we doing as a society to protect our most vulnerable? It is the demand for sex that creates the market for sex. Giving rich men permission to buy sexual access to their poorer counterparts is not a society where equality exists.

I believe the argument that any increase in violence against ‘sex workers’ is because of this legislation, is a fallacy and was put into the public domain by those with a vested interest in the system of prostitution.

Prostitution by its very nature is violent. Without any established method of measuring or comparing evidence of violence before and after implementation, how can we rely on the validity of such statements?

I refute the argument that now because of this law, ‘workers’ are having to have riskier sex without protection. This was always the case. You would be offered more money if you agreed to not using protection. After a while when you become ‘known to punters’ and ‘old’, it is the only way left to be able to ‘turn a trick’ for a decent amount of money. These risks are not new, they are part and parcel of the reality of being in prostitution.

What I would implore you to consider is the reality that this legislation will have a negative impact on people who sell sexual services for survival. Their income will be affected when their clients are criminalised. These people need viable alternatives. They need real opportunities in education and employment.

People affected by the system of prostitution are conditioned to survive. Evidence shows that 90 percent of people working in the sex trade would like to get out. However, due to a lack of viable alternatives and opportunities, they find themselves entrenched in the system.

Investment must be made in services to help people who want to exit prostitution. Research needs to be carried out to find what best practices could be put into place in order to see a successful model created and implemented. This is the next logical step needed in order to achieve successful outcomes for all stakeholders affected by this piece of legislation.

The most important piece of any legislation is in the success of its implementation.

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