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Column Sex workers face brutal abuse. Do we want this to be ‘normal’?

It’s time for legal action on the ‘oldest profession’ – which is far from a necessary evil, writes Denise Charlton.

YESTERDAY, PRIME TIME aired an excellent investigative documentary by Paul Maguire about prostitution in Ireland.

The programme was a hard hitting piece which exposed the reality of the Irish sex industry. It confirmed that Ireland has a thriving sex trade where young women are frequently moved around the country, from brothel to brothel, leaving them socially excluded and disorientated. It showed mostly young migrant women working from apartments and brothels in nearly every town and city, stating that 700 women are for sale on any given day in Ireland through one website only.

Along with other recommendations, the documentary highlighted the need for Ireland to tighten its laws on prostitution. What’s further, the programme showed that we are underequipped in bringing pimps and criminal gangs organising prostitution to justice. We currently have two high-ranking garda officers working on organised prostitution for the whole of Ireland.

Without an increase in Garda resources and the establishment of specialised Garda units it makes it very difficult to target and investigate operations of the sex traders in Ireland. Furthermore, the programme highlighted how modern technology aids those involved in the sex industry. There is a need to put in place surveillance operations of the internet and mobile phones used by these organisers and agencies.

The programme drew attention to vast amount of money that is being made from the Irish sex industry. Prices of the so called ‘escort’ services are high, and women are available to be ordered online or by mobile phone. They are for sale in hotels and privately rented apartments with the overwhelming majority of women in indoor prostitution being migrants, up to 97 per cent. Agencies often move women from town to town to create ‘variety’ for clients – while another, maybe more important reason is to keep migrant women disoriented and with a total lack of links to friends and communities.

‘The sex industry has spread to every corner of the country’

The Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) has been vigorously campaigning for legislative change since the publication of the above mentioned ICI report in early 2009. Similarly to the Prime Time documentary the 2009 report exposed the fact that Ireland has a substantial – and apparently resilient – sex industry that does not show signs of decline during the present economic crisis. The reason for this may be related to the fact that the sex industry has already spread to every corner of the country – posing the danger of it becoming accepted in people’s minds as a normal feature of everyday life, that it is an inevitable evil or the ‘oldest profession’ in the book.

The 2009 ICI report showed that buyers tend to be successful professionals who watch porn excessively and have multiple sexual partners. These men are totally protected under the Irish law, at present. The women in prostitution could be convicted for brothel keeping (as seen in the documentary) but the men who buy sex indoors are not liable for any offence.

Those who say prostitution is a job would find it hard to justify the tremendous physical and emotional damage women in prostitution suffer. International research shows that mortality in prostitution is ten times higher than that of the general female population. Other reports exploring the emotional trauma sustained by women in prostitution speak of post traumatic stress disorder that appears at the same rate as among soldiers who have participated in combat.

What’s more, these women are living in constant fear from violence from procurers and buyers. We should never forget that nine out of ten women want to exit prostitution because they find it unbearable.

Those behind the sex industry like to pretend they are meeting a public need. The reality is that they trap vulnerable women into a life of abuse and violence from which they cannot escape. Those who want to regulate and legalise prostitution would not only give the criminal gangs running the Irish sex industry a foothold here but would make Ireland a target for sex tourism and a haven for sex traffickers.

‘Prostitution is incompatible with human dignity’

The Immigrant Council of Ireland is one of 48 communities, professional organisations, unions and voluntary groups that make up the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign. Voluntary organisations, professional associations and groups throughout the country have come across cases of women and children being trafficked into the Irish sex trade who are under the constant threat of abuse and violence.

The campaigners recognise the practical advantages of the Nordic model of prostitution regulation that has a two-fold approach. Those who sell sex are decriminalised in recognition of their subordinate status and limited life-choice, while those who buy sex are penalised as a result of the unacceptable choice they have made when purchasing vulnerable people.

We would like to urge the legislators to act by amending the outdated law from 1993 that criminalises everybody but buyers in Ireland. A change in legislation would lead to a decrease of prostitution and sex trafficking, as the industry would be dramatically reduced and criminal organisers would be less interested in operating on the territory of a State which has such laws.

Most importantly, we would have the real potential to raise new generations of young people who believe that prostitution is incompatible with human dignity and gender equality. Presently, the Irish Minister for Justice is expected shortly to launch a consultation process on the criminalization of the buyers of sex in Ireland.

Today we will continue our lobbying campaign for a change in legislation. The Turn Off the Red Light campaign together with the group of Independent Taoiseach Nominated Senators will today hold a briefing in Dáil Éireann to highlight issues from the documentary Profiting from Prostitution that was aired last night. We hope that is another step towards action being taken on this important issue sooner rather than later.

Denise Charlton is the CEO of the Immigrant Council of Ireland. To support the Turn Off The Red Light Campaign, you can visit the website and share the Facebook page.

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