As the sun sets on a frozen Saturday in November, the Cobblestone Pub in Smithfield is bustling.
The front of the pub is packed with relaxed professionals, chatting over pints of lager, relieved to finally see the sight of the weekend. Older men hunch over their pints of Guinness and raise their eyes at the match as icy glasses sit on thin cardboard coasters on the counter in front of them.
Conversation focuses on the rugby, the friend who just got married, the picky boss at work.
But at the back of the pub is a ‘listening lounge’, a venue with a small stage and space for perhaps an odd comedy gig, or in this case, a book launch. The conversation heard at the listening lounge is worlds apart from the picky boss and the rugby.
“We’re told by society that what we’re doing is disgusting,” Molly Smith tells the tightly packed audience.
“Allies try and engage with sex workers from a liberal perspective and say it should be decriminalised,” Juno Mac adds. “We have to try and branch out analysis, as it’s very hard to understand for those who don’t sell sex.”
Smith and Mac are sex workers, who currently live in the UK. They are in Dublin for the Ireland leg of their ‘Revolting Prostitutes’ book tour, which focuses on the fight for sex worker’s rights.
“We want our work to be recognised as work- focus on the work aspect of sex work and not sex,” adds Kate McGrew, the director of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI).
McGrew is the loudest voice for sex workers who live in Ireland. She uses the term ‘sex workers’ to include all people who work in the sex industry.
“We have to ensure that our language is inclusive to ensure that people who are sugaring or camming or working in strip clubs know that they’re included in ‘sex workers’,” she explains over cups of coffee and a scone some months later.
The Irish sex worker rights movement’s biggest challenge at the moment is legislation. This brings other barriers – those that actively protest sex worker rights.
“With all due respect, the women that they would have speak on the other side have had really horrible experiences,” McGrew says.
“People don’t realise that we also have women that have gone through those experiences, amongst us who have those same experiences and have come to different conclusions.”
An example of the ‘other side’ that McGrew speaks of is Ruhama, who works with ‘women affected by prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation’, according to their website.
Campaigners for Ruhama declined to be interviewed for this series.
The group was central in changing Irish prostitution law in 2017, which saw the sale of sex be decriminalised but buying sex being made illegal.
Speaking to The Journal, campaigner Denise Charlton said: “the Irish State is finally telling those sexually exploited through prostitution: ‘You are not to blame. You are not at fault. You are the victim here and we will protect you.’ From today, the law will instead focus on the pimps and traffickers who currently profit to the tune of €250 million from the sex trade.”
SWAI was one of the groups to actively campaign against the law change.
“Anti-sex workers rights activists have never been able to explain to me or anyone how the law that they passed would have prevented or improved their situation, they cannot explain that,” McGrew added.
The organisation has now shifted all of its focus on a review of the new law which criminalised the buying of sex, and a clarification in the Brothel Keeping Law, which would allow workers to work together.
Since 2017, it has been illegal to buy sex in Ireland. This means that workers are driven underground and have to hide themselves and their clients in order to make an income.
Irish brothel keeping laws see that workers cannot work together, as they would be seen as proprietors and victims of the same crime. By hiring a bouncer at the door, the bouncer would be put at risk as they would be seen as profiting off prostitution.
“We’re up against millennia of our industry being criminalised and stigmatised,” says McGrew.
As a review of the new law which criminalised buying sex will take place next year, the group is currently preparing to go into campaign-mode next year.
“We’re gonna do everything we can,” says McGrew.
But it won’t be easy. It is too early to tell whether or not the sex worker rights movement will see students at the forefront, similar to the campaigns for the repeal of the eighth amendment last year.
However, this may be unlikely. Brighton University in the UK faced backlash last year when SWOP, the Sex Work Outreach Project, had a stall at their fresher’s fair, handing out condoms and sex work advice. Posts on social media accused the university of glamorising prostitution.
Tomi Ibukun, the SU president, defended the decision: “They were not there to advocate sex work as an option to our new students. It is unfortunate that some people have misinterpreted the attendance of Swop at our freshers’ fair.”
“How can you have a safer drugs display but you can’t have the same about sex work?” rages McGrew.
Changes in law aren’t the only changes that sex workers wish to see. Their treatment in society remains a taboo, especially by the police.
“People have such bad experiences with gardaí. Gardaí laugh at them, touch them, verbally harass them,” explained McGrew.
In 2015, a brothel raid took place in the Midlands, where two sex workers were arrested and questioned. After returning to their apartment, one of the garda returned and allegedly raped her, which her flatmate claims she witnessed.
After an investigation was conducted by Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, or GSOC, the garda was fined for ‘breach of discipline’ and a sanction was applied. He claimed that they had ‘consensual’ sex, the Sunday Independent reported.
“Response to this is ‘it was a bad day, a really bad day’,” McGrew said.
As the hour goes on, the listening lounge becomes more packed with listeners- those that ask questions about sex work laws, police and the view of workers in society.
It is very clear that both the speakers and the listeners demand legislative change.
An audience member asks the authors a question about the only part of the book that she says she has read- the title.
“We came up with the pun when we were brainstorming ideas,” explained Mac.
“We got the idea from a banner we saw at a pride parade, which read ‘homosexuals are revolting’. You think homosexuals are revolting? You bet we are.”
Image credit: Rachel Halpin