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'Sex workers are seen as either criminal or victim, but we're just people trying to survive'

Kate McGrew on how the Covid-19 pandemic, legislation and stigma are making life more difficult for sex workers in Ireland.

Kate McGrew performing at an event on International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers in 2019.
Kate McGrew performing at an event on International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers in 2019.
Image: Bryan Meade (published with permission)

GREATER SUPPORTS NEED to be put in place to help sex workers as they deal with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the coordinator of the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland (SWAI) has said.

Kate McGrew said the pandemic, coupled with the impact of the Sexual Offences Act 2017, is making life very difficult for sex workers here.

Gardaí regularly confiscate condoms, lube and phones at premises from which they suspect sex work is taking place, McGrew said.

This ‘disruption’ model of policing has become “par for the course” in the last four years, she added.

Ireland adopted the so-called Nordic or Swedish Model in March 2017 – criminalising the purchase of sex, but not the selling of sex – which the government hoped would tackle human trafficking.

Very few buyers of sex have been prosecuted since then, but a number of women have been arrested and deported for brothel-keeping offences. Sex workers often choose to work together for safety reasons.

Prostitution offences have increased since the introduction of the 2017 Act – up from 34 in 2016 to 112 in 2019.

There has been a total of eight convictions for offences relating to the payment for sex, with a number of matters still before the courts.

McGrew said, contrary to what many “well-meaning” people wanted, the legislation has made life more difficult for sex workers.

“So often people have good intentions but they’re misguided. They need to listen to sex workers.

“One can see how you can draw the wrong conclusions about what would help, but the knock-on effects that are caused by decriminalisation and criminalisation by proxy – both of which we’ve been suffering under here – take away our options.

“They push us deeper into poverty, and they make us more – this one is crucial – they make us more reliant on bad actors.

“If anything, the law has driven away law-abiding, good clients, it’s forced sex workers to choose more precarity in our clients. Clients need the sex less than we need the money, so it absolutely tips the power dynamic in their favour.

People are dealing with so many more time wasters, so much more verbal harassment, threatening behaviour, extortionate behaviour, abusive behaviour. And, of course, we did see waves of violence happening right after the law was introduced.

“[SWAI] did what we could to support people to take cases, and some bravely did, but their lives were still shattered. Some individuals were still evicted from their from their apartments for being known to do sex work, or their mental health was impacted, some left Ireland.”

There has been much debate about the effectiveness of the law since it was introduced. Some organisations who back the model say it’s too early to tell whether or not it’s working.

Many sex workers, including McGrew, disagree. “It’s not too soon,” she said, “we see its impact every day”.

“Frankly, it would be more the exception rather than the rule if [condoms] were not taken by gardaí. This leaves sex workers without condoms and nobody wants that. The way that sex workers make more money is by doing more sex work and now they’re left condomless.”

SWAI is in regular contact with sex workers across Ireland – mainly cis women, but also men and members of the trans community.

It’s a very broad group of people – lots of men and lots of trans people. Trans people famously have been excluded from workforces and some have entered into sex work. And men, they generally work in a different way than cis women – sometimes out of gyms or saunas, or off different websites.

“There’s a real diversity of people and it’s getting more so as the industry grows and grows. It’s work that people have needed to do or have chosen to do for a variety of reasons.

“We understand that it’s hard for people to imagine why you would choose work that exists outside of mainstream society, why you would engage in work that carries an amount of risk to it. But for a lot of people, for a significant amount of people, it’s work that either suits them for a variety of reasons, or is their best or only option.”

‘Booming’ online work

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the lives of sex workers, with many people turning to online work through platforms such as OnlyFans – subscription-based sites where people can buy adult content.

“People are without places to work, people cannot travel to work, and so, unsurprisingly, what we see is a boom in virtual work and people selling online content,” McGrew explained.

An escort website that’s popular in Ireland has launched an OnlyFans-style app that has “twice as many people advertising virtual services than there would have been on a very busy day on the in-person part of the website”, McGrew said.

Solicitor Wendy Lyon, who represents a number of sex workers, said her clients are “having greater difficulty making ends meet” during the pandemic.

“Most of them cannot access any kind of support, they’re not getting the PUP [Pandemic Unemployment Payment]. A lot of people have turned to online work such as OnlyFans – that’s very lucrative for some people, but not for others.

“Obviously, in any situation like this where you have a decreasing number of customers, you have to try to make ends meet however you can.

“Unfortunately for some people that means taking on clients that they wouldn’t have taken otherwise and lowering their prices, which of course means that you have to work twice as much to make the same amount of money,” Lyon said.

‘Millennia of stigma’

McGrew, who is also activist and artist, said when she and other sex workers speak out about the kind of supports they need, they are often not listened to.

Why does she think that’s the case?

“Millennia of stigma,” she said.

“There is such a heavy stigma on us that we are perceived, falsely, to not know our own mind. We are perceived uniquely, out of everyone in society, to not be trusted with regards to what we say we need to be safer.

It’s because of millennia of stigma against us. We are the catch-all place in society of marginalised people.

SWAI is calling for the full decriminalisation of sex work as they want people who choose to work in the industry to “have legal and vetted avenues of working”.

“So if somebody wants to work with a boss, it can be somebody they can take to court. We would like legal ways of working, and we would like to be able to work with our friends present so that we can be safer,” McGrew said.

“We would like to be able to hire security if we want to, and we would like people to show us respect.”

SWAI provides guidance and support to sex workers about staying as safe as possible, and in some cases has helped people to leave the industry.

McGrew said she has a good relationship with some members of An Garda Síochána but that other gardaí are “out of touch”.

“I personally have close contact with members of An Garda Síochána who have stepped in to be our liaison officers and while we do work with gardaí – with some very good success – it has been in spite of the law not because of it.

“And while individual members [of AGS] have told us that they want to be more sensitive in their enforcement of the law, some of them speak a rhetoric that seriously exposes a misunderstanding of people’s relationship to the work, why they’re doing the work and under what circumstances.

“I think stigma is still heavily playing out in the minds of the policing units,” McGrew said, before adding: “I want to reiterate that SWAI wants to work with gardaí.

“We just will not stop pressing this urgent issue, the real stumbling block that is the law. Our clients being criminalised is a massive barrier for us interacting or reaching out when we’ve even been victims of violence ourselves.”

Trafficking

McGrew said it’s difficult to get accurate data on the number of people in the sex work industry and, in turn, the number of people who are forced into it or are doing it voluntarily.

“Unfortunately it’s hard to get data on the sex industry because it’s quasi-illegal and because it’s so stigmatised.”

She noted that research carried by Professor Nick Mai in the UK found that between six and 15% of migrant sex workers had been trafficked and forced or coerced into prostitution. Any percentage is too high, McGrew noted, but the figure is much lower than many people perceive.

McGrew said these people, of course, need to be supported, but so too do people who choose to do sex work.

“The reality is that we work on a spectrum of choice, circumstance and coercion. And so often, our experiences are moving along a spectrum. So even when people are making very hard decisions with our backs against the wall, we are doing so with an amount of agency.

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“The question that we want people to ask instead is, what do people need to not have to do this work? We advocate for decriminalisation because it’s the best legal infrastructure for giving people legal vetted options once they’re in the sex industry.

“What do we need to do to prevent people from being in the sex industry who don’t want to be there? That involves regularising undocumented migrants, providing better supports for people affected by domestic violence and drugs, and ensuring homeless, LGBT, trans, and disabled people’s inclusion into the workforce.”

Review

In 2020, solicitor Maura Butler was appointed as the Independent Expert to conduct the promised three-year review of the 2017 Act.

The review included a public consultation process, which has since ended, and meetings with relevant stakeholders are due to take place in the coming months before a report is published later this year.

SWAI made a written submission to the review last year and is “eagerly awaiting to meet with Ms Butler”.

McGrew said SWAI acknowledges that Butler wants to “do a really good and thorough job of it, so we’re looking forward to these meetings”.

McGrew said support and “realistic” exit strategies need to be put in place for sex workers who need them.

“We support helping sex workers with regards to whatever it is they say they need, but support can not only be to help people leave the industry. People have to do this work, some choose to do this work. And we mustn’t throw people who still need to do this work, or the people who will choose to do this work, under the bus.

“You asked me why people don’t listen to sex workers – a lot of it is because we’ve been so heavily stigmatised. We’ve only been perceived in pop culture, if you will, in the media, through other people’s lenses.

So we live with the stamp of fallen women, we live with the stamp of either criminal or victim, when we’re really just people navigating the complicated circumstances of our lives and trying to survive.

On the subject of decriminalisation, Lyon said there is no “perfect” model, but Ireland could learn from laws implemented in certain states in Australia and in New Zealand.

“None of them are perfect, all of them have problems. Decriminalisation itself is only part of an overall scheme that’s needed. But certainly the evidence from those jurisdictions is that it makes sex workers feel a lot more comfortable about reporting offences that happen against them.

“One of the most interesting statistics in New Zealand is that the number of managed brothels actually collapsed because now that sex workers can work independently, they don’t need bosses,” Lyon stated.

‘Helping sex workers’

When asked about the concerns raised by sex workers, a spokesperson for An Garda Síochána told The Journal AGS is “a-victim centred organisation” that is “committed to protecting vulnerable persons operating as sex workers, including victims of human trafficking involved in prostitution in Ireland”.

The spokesperson said “it is not common practice for AGS to seize condoms and phones from sex workers unless they are specifically required for evidential purposes to prove a case of brothel keeping and/or organisation of prostitution”.

They also noted that AGS has “carried out a number of National Days of Action enforcing the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017″.

“The main focus of these days of action are to target the buyers of sexual activity and to protect and safeguard vulnerable persons engaged in selling sexual activity.

“While carrying out these days of action, an operational priority for An Garda Síochána is also to carry out safeguarding checks on the sex workers providing the service.”

The spokesperson said AGS has, in the past 15 months, sent out five separate messages in various languages to sex workers “offering support and assistance if in any difficulty”.

AGS has seen “a significant increase in contact from sex workers seeking assistance” and encourages any sex worker who “is in any difficulty” to contact them.

“If they do not wish to contact or go to a local garda station, they can contact the Organised Prostitution Investigation Unit,” they added.

More information about SWAI can be read here. More information on the Organised Prostitution Investigation Unit, which was established in February, can be read here.

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