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Saturday 30 September 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Shutterstock/Vinnikava Viktoryia
Opinion The hyperfocus on our punters blinds people to the real issues sex workers face
A sex worker writes about her experiences and what needs to change, on foot of new research about sex work in Ireland.

“WE’RE ACTUALLY GOOD people. We’re people that are living every day, and we’re alive. And this is just it – what we have to bloody do, you know?”

This is a quote from a conversation I had with a woman I feel lucky to be able to call a friend. We’re sitting and talking about sex work, specifically street-based sex work, as part of an interview for the ‘Working It’ project, which is published today.

We’ve both worked on the street for years – decades – but this is the first time we’ve been able to discuss our experiences in-depth. Twenty five interviews like this were completed as part of the research to find out what street workers know about the law and how they organise their work around it, after changes to the laws regulating sex work in Ireland were brought in 2017.

The law

The 2017 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 criminalised the purchase of sex and doubled the penalties for brothel keeping but also decriminalised the selling of sex outdoors.

The people and organisations who lobbied for the introduction of these laws insisted that they would protect sex workers, protect women, and allow people to leave sex work for supposedly better and safer lives.

This is not what we found in the latest research. Instead, it has led to: longer nights standing out on the streets while earning less, gardaí continuing to arrest street workers under different charges, and widespread fears of violence.

One key thing that hasn’t changed is the reason we do sex work at all. It’s not demand from punters that drives us out to work on the streets; it’s simply that we need money. We need the money from sex work for various reasons.

We need to pay bills, we have kids to look after, we are in addiction, or we just want the better standard of living that having extra cash in your pocket brings. Many of us don’t have enough to survive on without the income we get from sex work. We’re struggling day to day. We’re facing evictions or are already homeless. We need material support but we got more policing. This doesn’t help. You cannot punish people out of poverty.

Not the centre of our world

On top of poverty, we are trying to manage our lives while dealing with addiction, interpersonal violence and abuse, homelessness, and intergenerational trauma. We also have families and friends that we love and fun and laughter in our lives. Sex work is not the centre of our world and the hyperfocus on our punters and the business we do blinds people to the real issues we face.

It also drives the response from government to direct more law enforcement at our business. What this ends up looking like for us is fears of harassment and abuse at the hands of the gardaí. Five out of the 25 interviewees even spoke about their experience of sexual exploitation by gardaí while they were working. Policing is part of the problem, not the solution.

When these laws were being drawn up, current sex workers were not properly consulted and current street-based sex workers were given no voice at all. It’s hard to speak out publicly as a sex worker.

We’re burdened under the weight of shame, stigma and secrecy that society imposes on us. But we need to be heard. As one of the people interviewed said: “People need to start listening, because at the end of the day we’re out risking our lives.”

That’s the strength of this project. It was designed as participatory research, so sex workers co-created it. These are our voices. We did the interviews with each other and we’ve been able to share glimpses of our lives through this process.

One of the most powerful outcomes for me has been the relationships we’ve built on this journey. Over the last few years on the street, the numbers out in the red-light areas have dwindled. Some have moved to work indoors, some have stopped working, and others just work differently now using their phone or other means.

The social networks and sense of community dissolved because of this. We’re reconnecting with each other now, and can better advocate for ourselves. We can speak about what we need. Our lives should not be full of hate and hardship because people refuse to listen to us when we tell them what would improve our circumstances.

A first step towards better conditions for all sex workers is the full decriminalisation of sex work. Having a flexible legal model that allows us to work in different ways without falling foul of the law is essential to increasing safety in the work. It’s not a silver bullet but it’s a start.

Less policing, not more, and redistributing funds and resources to our communities is needed so we can better support ourselves and each other. All of us need money and sex work is our job.

Like all workers, we should be protected while doing it and decriminalisation is the best option for making this happen. We don’t need your pity, and we don’t deserve your prejudice.

The report, ‘I Must Be Some Person: How Sex Workers understand and experience the 2017 Change in Legislation around Sex Work’ is a Gender, Orientation, Sexual Health and HIV (GOSHH) and Psychology at University of Limerick collaboration, funded by the Dormant Accounts Scheme from the Department of Justice and Equality and Anti Human Trafficking Department, 2018.