Ireland’s current legislation covering sex work was intended to shift the legal burden from workers to clients, yet Irish sex workers have never been more at risk.
The Criminal law (Sex Offences) Act was introduced in March 2017. The act, which is based on the Nordic model, criminalises the consensual purchase of sex. Known as “purchase bans,” the main purpose of these kind of laws is to shift the weight of stigma and prosecution from the sex worker to the client. However, many sex workers and their advocacy groups say that while the laws are seemingly intended to protect them, the reality is very different.
In fact, since the introduction of this legislation in 2017, there has been a 92 per cent reported increase in violent crime against sex workers, according to data gathered from uglymugs.ie, a website that provides a space for sex workers to confidentially report abuse. [Not to Gardaí.]
While the number of people using the website has remained steady [between 6,000 and 7,00], the number of reports of crime and abuse have almost doubled.
“Comparing the two years before and the two years after the new law came in, crime has increased 90 per cent and violent crime specifically has increased 92 per cent,” says a study compiled by uglymugs.ie.
Furthermore, the study found that only one per cent of those reporting abuse and/or crime on the website have or will report the incidents to Gardaí.
Sex worker Addy Berry says that the unwillingness on behalf of sex workers to report abuse to officials stems from the Gardaí’s tendency to try and intimidate sex workers while they work the streets.
“They sit there and they intimidate the girls into going home. They walk up to the girls saying; ‘Sorry love, am I cramping your style?’ And these girls go home hungry and more desperate than before,” she said.
According to Berry, this intimidation also means that sex workers have less time to negotiate terms with their clients beforehand, for fear that the client will be chased away by Gardaí. This means that terms such as the use of a condom can be overlooked. This puts workers at a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections.
According to the World Health Organisation, female sex workers globally, are 13.5 per cent more likely to be living with HIV, compared to other women of reproductive age.
Berry says that brothel-keeping laws introduced by the legislation also put workers at serious risk. Many sex workers would prefer to work from a shared property with another worker for safety, however, under current legislation, this would amount to brothel-keeping, and see those involved arrested.
“Gardaí walk around in pairs because it’s safer to do so. I work with an organisation where I do outreach, we have to do our outreach in pairs because it is safer to do so. What sense does it make, to take girls who are trying to earn a living, and force them to work by themselves?” she said.
Gardaí are currently investigating a systematic series of physical attacks and robberies on sex workers. Since mid-October, there have been seven attacks which the Gardaí believe are connected. The attacks, which appear to be for monetary gain, have targeted both male and female sex workers who are arranging their work online.
Five men have been arrested in relation to the attacks.
Gardaí have urged any sex worker who has been a victim of a similar attack to report it to police, saying that all victims will be “treated confidentially with compassion and sensitivity.”
The Sex Worker’s Alliance Ireland (SWAI) has said that the perpetrators are taking advantage of the fact that sex workers have to work in isolation.
“Under the 2017 legislation, sex workers have faced ever greater physical threats due to increased stigma and isolation,” said Kate McGrew current sex worker and Director of Sex Workers’ Alliance Ireland.
“This has directly facilitated the type of attacks now being investigated by Gardaí because criminals can realistically assume that sex workers will be alone and defenceless if attacked. If they are working together for safety the criminals know the worker is unlikely to call the Gardaí because they fear being prosecuted for so-called brothel-keeping,” she continued.
Addy Berry says that now is the time to start protecting sex workers by means of full decriminalisation.
“It’s what the World Health organisation said needed to happen, it’s what amnesty international has said needs to happen for the protection of everybody… it is absolutely vital,” she said.
“A smaller ask would be to scrap the brothel-keeping laws,” she continued.
“They make no sense; we’re left grasping at straws. The best explanation I can figure out is that the idea that women from any class might be able to work when they want, for how much they want, must be a terrifying idea. That’s the reality of it.”