Saving In The Name Of Scrub.

In #rabble6, Blog, Culture, History, Interviews, Politics, Print Editionby Katie Garrett33 Comments


“Turn Off The Red Light “, says the hand-wringing brigade, the same groups that brought us the Magdalene Laundries. While the campaign claims to mean well, Katie Garrett argues it excludes the most important voices from the discussion, the sex workers themselves.

The need to “clean” Ireland of sex workers and the sex industry isn’t new.  In the early 1920s the Legion of Mary, led by Frank Duff, decided to close down Dublin’s infamous Monto. Reputed to be the biggest red light district in Europe it is estimated that up to 1,600 women and girls worked there at any one time. The Monto catered for all tastes and social backgrounds, even King Edward VII was said to have popped his cherry there. The area had to go.

The moral guardians of Irish society had made a decision that you couldn’t have all these wayward women having sex for money and, perhaps even worse, sex outside of marriage. To hell with the fact that many of the women who had worked the streets would end up in the Magdalene Laundries or destitute with no means to support themselves. The Monto was by no means some utopian paradise for sex workers, but it did give many women control over how they made an income. Not that women controlling their own lives was very en-vogue at the time.

The other link in the chain, the Magdalene Laundries, were businesses run by the religious orders such as the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. The Laundries might have had the goal of ensuring that the women who entered them were penitent and atoned for their sins, but they were also successful financial enterprises.

They held lucrative laundry contracts from state bodies and local businesses. To the religious orders who controlled the Laundries, the prisoners who resided within them were not only “fallen women” but also financial assets. Those wanton sluts could work for their forgiveness and the good nuns would clean Ireland, and make more than a few quid while they were at it.

Ninety years later, it would appear that women are still needing saving and Ireland is still needing to be cleaned of sex work and, more importantly – sex workers. While some people may personally find the notion of paying, or being paid, for the ride a bit icky, that isn’t really a legitimate reason to try and ban it. We can all agree that trafficking and pimping are horrible things but they don’t happen in all aspects of Irish sex work. Yet this is how the argument is constantly framed by those who campaign for its abolition. Yes there are people trafficked into Ireland for sex, but a lot of those who work within the sector make a decision to offer their services for cash.

Painting every sex worker as a trafficked and oppressed victim is helpful to no one. It’s a lazy cliche in the same way that most print media features about the issue will inevitably be accompanied by a stock photo of a woman leaning in to a car window wearing fishnet tights, a mini skirt and heels. But it serves a purpose, and that’s to characterise this already stigmatised group as something they’re not. Which is homogenous. Not all sex workers in Ireland are either trafficked by pimps or desperate smackheads. What better way to eradicate a marginalised group’s voice than to completely dehumanise them?

This may come as a shock to some, hell it might even disgust some, but there are sex workers in Ireland who are grown adults and consenting to what they’re doing and having sex for money and pretty much just getting on with their lives.

It certainly disgusts Ruhama, an organisation with the dubious origins of having been founded as a “joint initiative of the Good Shepherd Sisters and Our Lady of Charity Sisters”, which according to its website has a “long history of involvement with marginalised women, including those involved in prostitution”. That’d be the Magdalene Laundries that were mentioned earlier.

Ruhama, as part of the Turn Off the Red Light coalition, have been one of the driving forces behind the push to introduce a Swedish style anti-prostitution law in Ireland. The Swedish model basically criminalises the punters, the mostly male clients of mostly female sex workers. If you’re of the view that sex work is…like totes evil, and must be eradicated whatever the cost, then fine, but the cost is borne by those women who work in the industry itself, not those who pontificate on the morality of it.

For Laura Lee, a Dublin-born escort, “the Swedish model has several serious adverse effects. It pushes the trade further underground – the industry and street sex workers – further criminalisation means they need to pull further away from the authorities. This brings risks.” For Laura these risks are further exacerbated by the added threat of homelessness as landlords can be held accountable if their premises are being used to sell sex from. For an independant woman working out of her own home this could mean that nervous landlords evict them losing them both their homes and their incomes. The consequences of introducing this law are that it makes earning a living more dangerous for the women involved, not less.

Ultimately organisations like Ruhama are adding to the stigma that sex workers face everyday in Ireland. This stigma isolates and marginalises women who work within the sex industry here. For Laura working in Ireland meant that: “As soon as it was known what I was doing, I had people shouting abuse at me across the street. I went to Dunnes one day and I had a young lad behind me and he said ‘I didn’t know that they sold hookers here. I wonder if they do two for one.’ I just noticed that in nightclubs people would avoid me. It’s like, we’ll tolerate her but not really.”

According to TORL sex work is bad. But they wouldn’t even deign to call it sex work. As far as they’re concerned, it’s “prostituted women” and never “work.” And they’re very concerned with trafficking. Less so when it’s young Asian men who are trafficked into Ireland to sit in weed growhouses as prisoner botanists, but they’re not having sex so it doesn’t matter right?

They believe all sex workers are abused and that Ruhama, and only Ruhama, can represent the legitimate voices of sex workers. It’s a far cry from what many sex workers on the ground will tell you. They’re mostly absent from any of the public debate. Their voices aren’t worth hearing because at the end of the day, they’re only prostitutes and sure what would they know?

For most groups involved with the TORL coalition their motivations are probably fine. If you’ve got an organisation like Ruhama in front of you and they’re telling you that prostitution is a form of violence against women and the Swedish law has been great at reducing prostitution and trafficking – you’ll probably buy it. Aside from the fact that the Swedish government admitted in its report to UNAIDS last year that they actually hadn’t a clue how much prostitution there was in Sweden because it was so hidden. Oh, and the Swedish police have reported that trafficking has grown significantly since that particular law was brought in.

The Magdalene Laundries existed to control women’s lives, and made money, but the rescuing modern Ireland’s fallen women is worth quite a bit too. You could never be certain of their motivations but you can certainly speculate as to why some organisations are involved in this. Laura Lee says of the motivations: “Their agenda seems to be nothing more than continued funding. Government funding and salaries. It suits them to portray the sex industry in a very bad light. The rescue industry is worth big money. They’re all saying we’re pimped and trafficked – even if we’re jumping up and down saying no we’re not.”

When actual sex workers are telling a different story to TORL, you could be forgiven for asking the awkward question, ‘Who might know the most about being a sex worker?’

When it comes to how Ruhama actually conduct their campaigns, to be honest, many of the media friendly sound bytes that TORL deal in are simply made up. Like the one where they say “we have a coalition of one million people who support us”. It’s a dodgy claim to make considering the “one million” figure is based on the membership numbers of the trade unions that have publicly supported TORL. Those same trade unions don’t exactly make a habit of balloting their membership to see how many of their members actually support the initiative. And one could be forgiven for wondering how many of those million have paid for sex in Ireland?

TORL continually cite the figure that there are 800 women advertising sex for sale online in Ireland at any one time. Which is basically plucked from the sky or as they term it, “from searches of internet websites.” In some reports they have mentioned that there were up to 468 women advertising on Escort Ireland but they never mention where the 800 figure comes from.

Are the same women advertising on multiple sites or the same women who have multiple ads on Escort Ireland. Elsewhere they have maintained that the Swedish legal framework results in lower levels of prostitution than in neighbouring countries when there is no credible evidence-based research that backs up these claims.

Rachel, a Romanian escort working in Dublin for the past number of years questioned these figures and the absence of sex workers own voices in the debate, “When you have a headache you go to the doctor, but the doctor will not claim that majority of people in Ireland suffer from headaches but what Ruhama say that the majority of escorts are working against their will because of the ones that they worked with…All the escorts advertise on Escorts Ireland so I don’t know…They say they want to fight against human trafficking but all the escorts I know work of their own free will. I remember the raid last year, 200ish accommodations were searched by the police and they didn’t find one single escort who was trafficked or working against her will.”

But despite the good intentions of those who are genuinely behind TORL it doesn’t take away from the fact that criminalising buyers makes things more dangerous for sex workers. The fear of the potential consequences of criminalisation are pretty evident for Rachel, ‘if condoms will be used as a proof of sex with a client [if it is criminalised] then sex workers might stop using them.  The repercussions of this type of fear for the health of the woman and their clients is obvious.

Criminalisation pushes the industry further underground and creates more pimps. It also gives the Gardai more control over these women’s lives. And it means that two women who are both sex workers and share an apartment for safety and security might be convicted of brothel-keeping. For a law that would supposedly be about protecting women and making their lives better, it reeks more of the anti-deviance policies of those who cleared out the Monto ninety years ago.

Sure just bring back the Good Shepherd Sisters, Ireland still needs to be saved. You can’t be having filthy, dirty, sinful, sex for money.

No, you should be out cleaning jackses for minimum wage. If you can’t pay your ESB bill or put food on the table for your kids? Well so be it.

Better than being a whore and all that.

Illustration Moira Murphy.


  1. Although the article doesn’t make this explicit, I presume legalisation is being advocated, as I doubt the status quo of criminalising prostitutes rather than the men who use them is preferred, and I don’t see any other option being suggested.

    For starters, I disagree with the claim that ‘the most important voices’ in this discussion are automatically just those of sex workers. The legality of prostitution affects ALL women because making something legal legitimises it and sends out a message that dehumanising women by commodifying them as sex objects and renting them for sex is ok.

    This would likely lead to more men using prostitutes as the evidence is there from countries that have legalised prostitution that it increases the overall size of the industry – legal and illegal – and the proportion of men that use prostitutes. I don’t think most women would like to see that happen and I would prefer to live in a society where attitudes towards women become less rather than more sexist than they already are.

    I also reject the inference that ALL sex workers or former sex worker support legalisation (or would prefer the status quo of criminalising them rather than their customers?). Where is the evidence for this? I suspect more of them would prefer an alternative to sex work if given the choice, rather than really being ‘happy hookers’ who have freely chosen it as a vocation rather than out of a lack of better options. I don’t see any suggestions as to how to offer women alternatives, just the assumption that what they would like most of all is for their clients not to be criminalised.

    This raises an issue with the historical analogy in the article. Society now has ample means to provide options for all women other than prostitution, Magdalene Laundries or destitution. It’s not the 1800s or the 1930s. There are things called the welfare state, childcare, public education and gender equality in employment that should be fought for and improved.

    Another problem is that though the historical analogy does point up similarities in the mentality of religious opponents of prostitution then and now, it leaves no space for progressive opposition to prostitution as an issue of women’s liberation and is basically just an argument ad hominem that tars any one opposing prostitution as a prudish religious bigot.

    Sex does not equal sex work and there is an implied conflation of the two here that I really find quite offensive. I am anti-the institution of sex work, but I’m not anti-sex. The article doesn’t seem to be able to conceive of this distinction and is, in effect, buying into the john’s mentality of ‘sex’ as this homogeneous thing that can be bought and sold like any other commodity.

    I agree with the points about the exaggeration of trafficking by TORL. There needs to be a more honest debate rather than depicting all the women involved either as trafficked slaves imprisoned in dingy flats or flexible autonomous workers making free economically rational choices. Neither frame captures the reality for most women, which is economic compulsion, not freedom of choice or anything to do with being sex positive.

    1. Actually, there is another alternative – decriminalisation, forms of which exist in New Zealand and New South Wales. There’s absolutely no evidence that this framework increases the size of the sex industry, but plenty of evidence to suggest it protects the health and safety of sex workers better than the alternatives.

      I find your suggestion bizarre that most sex workers don’t care about the law because they just want out of the industry. Hating your job and hoping you can leave it as soon as possible are not incompatible with wanting to improve the conditions you’re working under. Just think about any of the other shitty jobs that people are stuck in for lack of alternatives, and I think that becomes pretty obvious.

      1. I never said prostitutes didn’t care about the law, just that presenting it as what all prostitutes want most is a huge assumption. There is very little discussion of alternative ways of addressing this issue as the debate is locked into its legal status all the time, whereas there could be more discussion of providing women with better options, changing sexist, commodificatory attitudes in society and in some cases drug treatment/legalisation.

        I don’t see the difference between legalising prostitution and both decriminalising and regulating it as they have done in NZ and New South Wales? I’m not an expert on this area but Wikipedia, which I’m sure has been edited by both the pro- and anti-prostitution lobbies, doesn’t make this distinction.

        Also just on a personal, so obviously anecdotal, level, I have lived near street prostitution areas and been kerb crawled by creeps in countries both where prostitution is legal and where it is illegal, but found it much worse in terns of frequency and persistence in Victoria (Melbourne). Several female friends had the same experience. Asfaik street prostitution is illegal there but prostitution generally is legal, so it hasn’t eliminated street prostitution and if anything probably normalises it by making prostitution generally more acceptable. The same is true in Hamburg which is still full of obvious street prostitution. The point I’m making is that legalising may not make that much difference to the most vulnerable women anyway and has other negative effects like normalisation which impact the wider female population.

        I’m open-minded as to what the evidence actually shows about the impact of different legal regimes, but if NZ and NSW are the only places where legalising prostitution hasn’t increased prevalence and it has done so everywhere else then maybe there are some other unusual factors at play.

        1. I don’t see where the article says that all sex workers want a particular law change. They haven’t been asked what they want, which is part of the problem. TORL are purporting to speak on their behalf and there seems to be very little interest from politicians and NGOs in questioning their right to do so.

          The distinction between decrim and legalisation is, granted, not always clear-cut but when sex worker activists (and bodies like the WHO and UNAIDS) advocate the former, what they mean is that sex work should be regulated in the ordinary way that work is regulated rather than through special criminal laws that don’t apply to any other type of work. Though both NZ and NSW do retain some criminal laws, they would apply only in extremely limited circumstances and do not affect the large majority of sex workers. This is not the case in, to use your example, Victoria, where all street work is illegal; it is an offence for escorts not to register as such; and brothel licensing requirements (even for small owner-operated brothels) are extremely onerous. The effect of legalisation is to create conditions for the legal sector that many sex workers are unable or, usually for valid reasons, unwilling to operate under – so they work illegally instead.

          I don’t know which cities you’re comparing to Melbourne and Hamburg in terms of the size of the street working population, but you could well be getting the cause-and-effect backwards i.e. perhaps the large number of street workers had something to do with why prostitution was legalised there in the first place. If you’re contending that the number of street workers has actually increased since legalisation, I’d ask to see the evidence.

  2. The real problem is the lack of well-paying job opportunities for most young women in Ireland. Most will have to live on the minimum wage or the dole or get married or emigrate. 20% of married women face violence from partners, probably because they married too soon. What lousy choices they have.

    It seems a tiny minority work as escorts, maybe 1,000-2,000 out of about 2 million females. Most of them are not Irish, going by their websites. The websites show the area they live in and give a phone number. So in terms of trafficking it’s a simple matter for the Gardai to check to see if they were trafficked or are being coerced. If this is being done, then there’s little worry about trafficking.

    A larger minority of women also enjoy sex and every weekend thousands like to drink and have casual unprotected sex with people they’ve never met before. Is that really any better morally than having protected sex and charging for it?

    Surely the cleverer plan would be to register them all, tax them and provide health and safety advice? Those who were trafficked would be identified more easily and sent home at once.

  3. making distinctions between forced sex workers and conscientious sex workers is a sign of maturity in this debate, making generalizations about nuns is not. Foolish, win or loose it by playing the ball.

  4. So much anger and vitriol directed at people who the article even states probably have very good intentions. How do you expect people to engage with your point of view if they’re attacked from the off as rosary rattlers sticking their noses in to women’s sex lives?

  5. Ruhama do great work with women on the ground, I don’t agree with their views on legalizing, but we can’t ignore that many women are trafficked into Holland too where I understand laws aren’t as strict. I do agree that currently punters should be charged, especially if the women are under age. I also know there are willing women and men in this line of work, I’d like to see the many unwilling looked out for.

  6. really find the whole tone of this way too much. Sex trafficking is a huge problem with this industry, it is not exactly a career choice, it is a career for women who don’t see much choice. The statistics of women who were sexually abused as children and then end up in this industry is staggering. Oh yeah the argument ask a sex worker…..ask a retired sex worker for a more candid and revealing insight into the industry. It is a great career choice for your daughters and your sons check it out we are after all so liberal…..

  7. Very few prostitutes in Holland have joined the union because of the stigma still attached. Even the Dutch themselves have admitted that legalisation hasn’t worked and that Holland has become a major centre for sex trafficking with traffickers using legal brothels as a cover.

  8. The article starts with an attack on Frank Duff’s work with women in the 1920s. This is most unfair as he was not proselytising but offering real, practical assistance to women in the most desperate of situations and he was doing so with no support from the church who viewed him with suspicion. The notion that most sex workers are strong independent women who have made the decision to become prostitutes not through desperation and exploitation but because it seemed more interesting than other career choices is not really very believable.

  9. Definitely the worst article I’ve read on the issue and there are alot of shitty articles on this.

  10. Can anyone explain why Ruhama, Immigrant Council and those at the head of TORL have such a careless attitude with the truth? You would think they have a strong case but TORL routinely rely on journalists compliently repeating thier line and half-truths without asking questions. It doesn’t stack up.

  11. i live in palestine in gaza … we are in war here from Israel .. and my father died in this war .. i hope to find one know the situation here .. it’s very bad we care for alot of families here … alot here keep fasting everyday to provide some food for children … and i hope to know if people have good heart to share this to more people maybe there is one don’t know this
    please maybe you can talk me

  12. Yeah, this is the single worst article I’ve read on this issue alright.

  13. Picture looks like Brendan O ‘Caroll as a wicked witch/Nun hybrid

  14. Make wage slavery history. Prostitution has little to do with sex and
    everything to do with betrayal of self. In this frame, sex work can be
    wholesome, as long as the attitudes of those involved in such
    relationships are wholesome.

    All these demands for legal safeguards are calls for paternalism. We live in world of exploitation via legally enforced scarcity and property based denial of access. Rescue industries play an important role in validating and propping the stigmatising belief system underpinning the status quo, thus benefiting their elites. These rescuers have no interest in changing the legal basics of ownership of the have’s over the have nots. It is under these unjust and inhumane circumstances that the have nots are forced into compromising situations, merely to survive.

    Great article, btw.

  15. Make wage slavery history. Prostitution has little to do with sex and everything to do with betrayal of self. In this frame, sex work can be wholesome, as long as the attitudes of those involved in such relationships are wholesome.

    All these demands for legal safeguards (in the form of calls for criminalisation) are calls for paternalism. We live in an exploitative world of legally enforced scarcity and property based denial of access. Rescue industries and charities play an important role in validating and supporting the judgemental pecking-order underpinning the status quo, thus benefiting themselves and the elites. These rescuers have no interest in changing the legal basics of ownership and the privileging of the have’s over the have-nots. It is under these unjust and inhumane circumstances that the have nots are forced into compromising themselves in all the diverse forms of wage slavery, merely to survive.

    Great article, btw.

  16. I know a lot of sex workers who work in Sweden and I can tell you it’s no fun for them. One of them messaged me to tell me since the announcement of the law: “welcome to hell”. Sex workers in Sweden can lose their property even if they have bought it, if they’re found to be working from them. They can’t get access to condoms from prostitution units unless they agree to exit. The whole policy is to get people to leave the industry and to make it so unbearable, so harm reduction strategies, especially to prevent HIV amongst sex workers and clients are stopped because the government are afraid it would encourage prostitution. Street workers suffer the brunt of it and Swedish UNAIDS 2010 reported that only 18.5% drug using street workers use condoms in their most recent intercourse, because of the lack of the demand and the oversupply, it becomes a buyers’ markets.

    The sex worker is more interested in keeping the client safe than themselves and this means harried negotiations and so sex workers don’t have enough time to screen clients. The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare have expressed their concern, that sex workers are not reporting crimes and through interviews with sex workers since the introduction there appears to be a higher rate of violence against sex workers. The Gothenburg Board of Health and Welfare said there’s also concern because of sex workers not being to access and screen clients more easily they are turning to pimps and traffickers to do this for them.

  17. This article is terribly written and really disappointing for Rabble. It’s an important debate for both sides of the argument claiming feminism. Those who argue that a society which gives a woman ‘a choice’ to become a prostitute/sell sex, a choice constructed by and inside a capitalist patriarchal market, accepts the society which doesn’t provide her with adequate employment prospectives, accepts the massive gender pay disparity, accepts unlivable social welfare/child benefit rates, accepts lack of support her through college studies and accepts that this society supports and provides for men more adequately than their female counterparts and so provides her with this. Here is a concise article relating to post-feminism and some of the points brought up by your contributor.

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