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PSNI officers raising a premises in Belfast as part on last week's cross-border anti-organised prostitution operation last week. Julien Behal/PA Wire

Column Intervening in prostitution is not acting the nanny

Advocating the selling of sex is not just a bad idea, writes Lisa McInerney, but also a very blinkered one.

WITH THE RECENT cross-border raids on suspected brothels, the discussion rages once again on whether the legal status of prostitution in Ireland should be relaxed or further constricted.

Some object to state nannyism, arguing that adults should have the choice to sell sexual services. Others advocate the adoption of the Swedish model, which criminalises the buying of sex, shifting the legal ramifications from the sex worker to the punter. Both schools have sound points to make, but the pro-choice side (to borrow a term) seems to increasingly operate on a plane dissociated from the ugly reality of the post-millennium sex trade. Advocating the selling of sex – at this point in time, at least – is not just a bad idea, but a very blinkered one.

The notion of the autonomous hooker seems like it was pulled from a spate of wishful thinking, but it actually does have roots in reality. Until quite recently in Ireland, sex workers frequently worked independently, and it wasn’t until public soliciting was made an offence that organised prostitution took hold to the extent we’re aware of today.

“Organised prostitution” sadly doesn’t refer to some sort of alliance between gorgeous sex workers and their protective business partners, but rather the blatant exploitation of vulnerable people by those all too willing to risk prosecution when there’s stupid money to be made in providing broken souls for the sexual gratification of narcissists.

“This is something a lot of people involved in this debate seem to miss: prostitution is legal in Ireland”

Bit harsh? Because we’re not talking about prostitution on a conceptual level here – that one adult can provide personal services to another in exchange for money – we’re talking about its reality. The majority of prostitutes in Ireland are desperate, or trafficked, or defeated, and almost always under the thumb of some exploitative brute. But granted, there are people making money in the sex trade independent of such miserable conditions … and they’re perfectly entitled to.

This is something a lot of people involved in this debate seem to miss: prostitution is legal in Ireland. Any man or woman can charge, or pay, for sexual services, so long as they’re not conducting negotiations in public. What is illegal is organised prostitution, which surely should sate the pro-choice brigade. How can one argue for the legalisation of a system where a person’s body is sold for the financial benefit of someone else?

To suggest that those campaigning for stricter laws are simply engaging in empty moralising or prudery is laughable. Oh, these people exist – I heard a woman recently claiming that prostitutes were “sickos” who deserved everything they got – but they’re part of the problem. The repression of sexual appetites to satisfy this god or that church has done far more harm than good, and the Irish know that better than anyone.

It’s not mere prudery that tells us reassigning sex as just another commodity is an ill-advised policy.

“The idea seems to be that once you’ve paid for this person’s time, they belong to you to do with as you please”

The greater part of Ireland’s sex trade operates within a system where its workers are dehumanised, not empowered. Punters do not solicit sex workers for a chat, a cuppa, and a night of clamorous lovemaking. Gosh no, you’d never get your money’s worth that way. Read sex workers’ own accounts of the “oldest profession” and you’ll read about rape, physical assault, coercion, and most often just complete disregard for the worker’s wellbeing and personal stipulations. The idea seems to be that once you’ve paid for this person’s time, they belong to you to do with as you please.

We’ve all heard that “hilarious” yarn, backed up with vague reminiscence about judicial rulings, about how you can’t rape a prostitute, only steal from one.

It’s tied in with the pornification of our culture, with the notion that everyone’s obligated to remain attractive lest strangers vomit on them on the street, with the bizarre idea that every adult is somehow entitled to sex. It’s why we call fat people “disgusting”. It’s why young women in pubs are verbally abused if they don’t accept the sweaty pawing of so-called “Nice Guys”. A few weeks ago, Irish journalist Emer O’Toole wrote about how she stopped shaving her body hair, and was abused by people who’ve never met her who felt personally offended by her grooming decisions.

Since when did we all think we’re entitled to sex, anyway? If your partner won’t indulge your fantasies, it’s now acceptable to pay some pimp so you can rape a 19-year-old Latvian instead? “It’s not rape if she’s smiling!” some confused punter is bound to be muttering right now, missing that she may be “smiling” so he doesn’t give her a bad review online afterwards, inspiring her pimp to beat her. If that isn’t the mirror to the darker end of sexual narcissism, I don’t know what is.

“Prostitution, for a term that’s defined as the selling of sex, has little to do with sex”

It’s not as if there’s no other choice for the perpetually horny. There are countless saucy personal ads on Irish webspace for no-strings-attached sex. Or, you know, you could redirect your fantasies into something your partner can enjoy with you. Or just shelve ‘em and get over yourself.

But that’s not the reason there’s a demand for prostitution, is it? Loneliness, or horniness, or fantasies that require the attention of an experienced partner … none of these necessitate a commercial exchange. Prostitution, for a term that’s defined as the selling of sex, has little to do with sex. It’s about power, and the subjugation of someone smaller, weaker and less fortunate. It’s about protecting the punter over the worker. If it wasn’t, there’d be no demand for it at all.

If it wasn’t, we’d all be doing it.

If it wasn’t, every sex worker would start each appointment hearing the words, “So, how are you tonight?”

Registering and taxing sex workers will not convince criminal organisations to turn benevolent overnight. It will not stop human trafficking, or the exploitation of others’ misfortune for personal gratification. It will not suddenly give punters a healthy respect for sex workers’ rights
and circumstances.

Most of the anti-prostitution campaigns running in Ireland at the moment have as little to do with moralising as prostitution itself has with sex. This isn’t about the unfair suppression of people’s right to have sex. This is about the protection of those who are left with no choice but to bow to the violent whims of self-entitled egotists.

Read previous columns by Lisa McInerney>

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