“It’s a Brothel. I’ll end you.”

Róisín Cullen

These were the chilling words of a violent client in Limerick, revealed in a press release by Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI).  

While many sex workers may live in groups of two for protection, this goes against current Irish legislation and can be defined as being a brothel. The result has been an increase of attacks against sex works especially against those most vulnerable in our society, those without citizenship, sex workers that depend on sex work to pay rent and grocery bills and those that have only basic English language skills. There is strength in numbers, but this strength can have great consequence under so-called “Nordic Law”.

A review on the current law is now underway. It is hoped that this review will be an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past, listen to the views of sex workers central to the law and improve the lines of communication between sex workers and the Gardaí.

“Bodily autonomy is not just about abortion and we are the next in line to see the effect of a more progressive, caring Ireland”, explained SWAI coordinator Kate McGrew in a press release about the “failed experiment” that aimed to prosecution traffickers rather than workers.

Adeline Berry is an intersex and transgender sex worker, secretary of SWAI, and the proud owner of second degree black belt as well as an award winning comic book.

Berry’s kind and open nature is immediately evident. She makes the interviewer feel like a close friend, signing off with her nickname “Addy”.  The busy PhD student takes the time to help educate those who feel they know little about a part of society that has existed in the shadows of a largely Catholic country.

Increase in violent attacks 

Berry explains that the attack on two sex workers in Limerick was far from an isolated incident. “Violence has skyrocketed since the most recent changes to Irish sex work laws in 2017… The increase in penalties and sentences for workers that work together for safety like the Gardaí do has resulted in an increase in gangs targeting girls because now they are vulnerable whether alone or together.”

She explains that according to UglyMugs, an app used to report dangerous clients, violent attack against sex workers increased by 92 per cent since the introduction of the Nordic model. Attacks increased from just over 2,000 in 2015-2017 to over 10,000 from 2017-2019.

Sex work during a pandemic 

The full effects that Covid-19 health restrictions have on our society as a whole have still not come to light, as an entire nation was advised to stay at home unless it was essential to leave.

For sex workers without access to government supports, these stay at home guidelines were almost impossible to adhere to. The result was a tendency to take more risks, taking on clients that they would have avoided in normal times.

While office workers and waitresses may have had immediate access to the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, the process was far from simple for sex workers.

A crowdfunding campaign organised by SWAI during the lockdown helped to put money directly into the hands of those who had been “denied money by the Irish government .”

However, Covid-19 is not the only pressing health concern for sex workers. Stigma and “Ireland’s appalling Catholic non-sex Ed” are some of the many reasons that Ireland is battling alarmingly high rates of HIV.

Shame and stigma 

Berry is no stranger to the shame and stigma often attached to sex work in Ireland. “I was raided by the Gardaí who then pressured my landlord into evicting me so I tried to find work outside of sex work.” Berry has recently moved abroad from Ireland because she was unable to find employment.

“As a trans person I was unable to find employment in Ireland. One employer hired me, put me successfully through training but pulled a ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’, as soon as they saw my legal gender on my Irish passport.”

Dr Caroline West has a PhD in Sexuality Studies and is a sex columnist for Evoke. She spoke to The College View about the taboo that is associated with sex work in Ireland.

“Sex work is often conflated with trafficking, it is viewed in terms of victims and pimps only, or else viewed as a binary of ‘empowerment versus exploitation’ but we are slowly moving into a space where we listen more to sex workers and see them as experts of their own lived experiences” West explained.

West, compares Ireland’s attitude and sex work to its European counterparts. Drive-up brothels exist in Switzerland where car registration details can be recorded. Germany sees sex work as a taxed and regulated activity.

“Ireland has a long negative history when it comes to sex, sexuality, the body, and women. All of that history affects how we have viewed sex work in Ireland…Our language around sex and our comfort levels with talking about it still need to catch up with modern sex and sexuality” says West.

Some sex workers went with the option of working online, in an effort to avoid contracting Covid-19. However, this is not an option for many, especially those that gangs would routinely target.

“Some workers would go online but there’s a learning curve. You need privacy, a home, a computer etc, so street workers didn’t have that option,” West explains.

Less demand- more risks 

While the government hoped to end sex work through the “end demand” approach, the pandemic has only proved that sex work will always be in demand. Whether this service is legal or illegal, safe or unsafe is another story.

“End-demand happened with Covid, and sex work happened too, just that workers were more desperate to provide for themselves and their families.”

Dr Paul Ryan is a sociologist in Maynooth University. He has written about male sex work and the digital age as well as researching the lives of sex workers under the 2017 law, along with Dr Kathryn McGarry.

Ryan explains that the pandemic has led to sex workers taking risks that they normally wouldn’t. “Sex workers are smart, they screen people as best they can. If your regular client base is gone, you are going to take more risks.”

Lack of access to healthcare 

Ryan explains that while the 2017 law was sincere in its aims, it failed to recognise the existence of migrant workers within the state. “At the heart of it was a misunderstanding of what the 2017 law was” says Ryan.

“It was sold to politicians and to society as changing the burden in terms of criminalisation from the sex worker to the sex purchaser. That’s what the Nordic model is but actually what was introduced in Ireland is more of a U.S. model. It’s a double criminalisation,” he explains.

Ryan discovered in the report that there is a clear disconnect between sex work and health professionals. In the same way that sex workers who are attacked are less likely to report the incident to the Gardaí, sex workers are not open with doctors and nurses for fear of serious consequences.

One example that stood out for both Ryan and Berry was that of a migrant worker who was ‘stealthed’ by a client, meaning the client removed the condom during sex. The sex worker presented at A&E looking for the post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment, a course of medicines taken to prevent HIV taking hold in your body after possible exposure.

She did not tell them she was a sex worker so was refused the drug on the basis that she was not high risk. “She looks for this because she deems her health is in danger and they say actually no, you can’t have it because you’re actually just having heterosexual sex. When of course if she had told them that she was a sex worker that would have been different,” discloses Ryan.

The move online 

Some college students engage in sex work ranging from Only Fans to having sugar daddies. In a UK study 7 per cent of students said they had turned to sex work during the pandemic. In another study by ‘Save the Student’ 10 per cent of those interviewed would strongly consider sex work if they were in a financial emergency.

These activities can be fitted around their education and can be lucrative when, university fees are overdue and reading lists continue to get longer. Ryan explains that the pandemic has made the virtual side of the sex industry more appealing.

However, “a big social media following” is required for an OnlyFans to be economically successful. This form of sex work appears to be more socially acceptable without the risks of the attacks that have become all too prevalent.

“We’re still within the realm of sex work when we talk about OnlyFans. But certainly that is fast becoming almost a more acceptable form, more stigmaless form of sex work,” remarks Ryan.

Sex work has always been a part of society and always will be. World pandemics, religious codes and strict regional laws show that ending demand is impossible.

It is hoped that the review of the Irish legislation will be centered around sex workers and allow the people that the law will affect the most, to input their thoughts and opinions into an Ireland that shuffles away from a conservative past most would prefer to forget.

“There needs to be a wider conversation. Society needs to be a little bit more honest about this,” Ryan concludes.

Róisín Cullen 

Image Credit: Frederico Almeida