The streets of Holbeck are dark, dodgy and ominous. The pavement is wet, the temperatures are low. Seldom, a car passes by. Seldom, a car stops.
A drunken silhouette stumbles down a road.
“You looking for business, love?” Sammie-Jo yells at the figure, who’s down the street. The figure mumbles incomprehensibly.
“What’s business?” she repeats his question, confusion in her face. “Sex,” she yells back and smiles. Her face is ashy, her eyes are sunken; but her eyes are sparkling and her smile is cheeky.
The figure mumbles again in the distance.
“Let me go see him,” Sammie-Jo tells the camera crew and the sound of stiletto follows her as she walks down the street to the wanderer.
Sammie-Jo is a sex worker in area of Holbeck in Leeds which is nicknamed the ‘legalised Red Light District’. Here, sex is sold legally for a regulated time period each day and is managed by the police. Workers are mainly collected by clients in passing cars and dropped back. In a documentary series for BBC3, the series documents the lives of Sammie-Jo and other workers from ‘the beat’, which has become the main source of income for the women to fund their long-term drug addictions.
According to The Student Sex Work Project, a body of research conducted in the UK, an estimated 5 per cent of students sell sex. However, Ireland does not have legalised work zones and selling sex, by legal definition, is decriminalised, while buying sex is illegal.
Although the traditional definition of a ‘prostitute’ may be associated with working on the streets and while this is portrayed in the BBC documentary, working outside is rarely the case in Ireland. The majority of sex workers take to digital platforms to sell their services – be it webcam work, explicit photographs or meeting a client and exchanging sex. Sites like Escort Ireland are very popular and as they are hosted outside the country, they avoid being taken down. They allow a platform for workers to build a profile and a clientele.
In a quiet, sheltered room in the Henry Grattan, Aoife Bloom sits with her arms crossed and speaks about her work in a soft tone. Selling sex has been pivotal in sustaining herself through her third level education. She is currently an arts student in Trinity College and has relied on sex work to sustain herself for three years now.
Bloom explains how sex work became one of the only few options due to depression. “I needed a job where the hours were flexible and also that I could make enough money to live on in a relatively short period of time to allow for being mentally ill,” she explains.
“I think that’s very typical of a lot of people that get into sex work, it’s about kind of convenience, in terms of being able to work for themselves and being able to work at times when they’re able to as at other times they may not be able to.”
“Just getting into college with my mental health in the state that it was was a struggle in itself,” she adds.
Choosing to sell sex is not an easy decision for anyone and Bloom was no different. For many workers, it is just ‘any other job’.
“Plenty of people choose sex as they can dip in and out of it and balance it with other jobs. It’s not really black or white,” she explains.
“It’s just like any other job for people, they make make a career out of it as it may be the best option available to them at the time.
“I was always aware that my attitude towards sex and casual sex and open relationships and stuff like that that on an emotional level, I wouldn’t have any issue with that kind of work,” she says.
“I did quite a lot of research and trying to find info online and from other sex workers as to what safety precautions to take and then I just posted an ad.”
For trans women, fear can be a major issue when working in sex after reports of violent attacks against trans workers last year. Even though she is transgender, fear is not something that Bloom encounters often.
“I feel more afraid walking down dark streets in Dublin late at night than I do in my own apartment when I’m working,” she explains.
“There is a lot of fetishisation in the area of sex work that I am in; guys are coming to see a trans sex worker and a lot of them, because it’s a fetish, do not want to use condoms, that’s the biggest danger that I’ve faced.”
While a small percentage of the population dabble in sex work, an even smaller percentage of these are students. Bloom explains that grey areas are common, so it can be difficult to distinguish between a sex worker and and someone who just works in the sex industry.
“It depends on how sex work is defined and how people identify,” she says. “Men and women may not identify as sex workers, as it’s done so very rarely, but numbers have increased.”
Bloom is a member of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) and actively campaigns for change in Ireland’s legislation regarding sex workers. Under Irish brothel keeping law, it is illegal to make a profit from somebody who sells sex.
This includes two sex workers sharing an apartment, as they would split the rent and would be seen as both being proprietors and victims. The law also means that a sex worker working alone and hiring a bouncer would see the bouncer guilty under brothel keeping laws, as they would be earning wages, or profiting, from prostitution.
“In my ideal fantasy scenario, several sex workers could get together and rent a house together and have a co-op and wouldn’t be working for anyone else and could chip in to hire a bouncer or a receptionist,” says Bloom.
In the meantime, while current laws stands, sex workers are forced to work on their own, which may leave them endangered in the case of a violent client. However, hiring security personnel is not a solution.
“If I hired a bouncer, that person would be charged as a pimp because they are living off the earnings off prostitution,” Bloom adds. “Also, if you’re a sex worker who lives with a partner, you can be charged with being a pimp living off the earnings of sex work; essentially it’s nearly a criminal offence for a sex worker to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend living with them, never mind security to keep them safe.”
While the current law stands, students face many challenges in surviving while working in sex. Activism from organisations like SWAI and UglyMugs.ie may see this legislation changing, but at the moment, current laws see student sex workers leaving their work between the sheets.
Image credit: The Daily Dot