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File photo Shutterstock/Jakub Zak

Sex workers sent death threats after replying to text scam

Very few crimes against sex workers are reported to gardaí, an advocacy group said.

FOREIGN SEX WORKERS were targeted by a recent scam where a person or people pretended to work for a major advertising website and asked them to provide personal information.

In some cases, the workers did not realise it was a scam and replied to the messages. A number of them were then threatened with physical or sexual violence.

Linda Kavanagh, spokesperson for Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI), said foreign-national sex workers were deliberately targeted.

“To you and I, it will be quite obvious that this isn’t on the level because of the type of the language that’s used. For people whose first language isn’t English – which is the case for a lot of sex workers, many of them are migrants – it wouldn’t be as obvious.”

Kavanagh told The Journal that sex workers were asked to provide personal ID and information on clients. In some cases, it escalated to threats of violence and death.

“People were threatened, some were told that a number of people were going to turn up at their place of work. The texts and calls turned violent, people saying things like they were going to have a hitman kill them.”

Screenshot 2024-01-26 120839 One of the messages sent to sex workers Ugly Mugs Ugly Mugs

Separately to the scam, Kavanagh is aware of a number of recent physical or sexual assaults on sex workers.

She said many workers don’t report threats, or actual assaults, to gardaí because they fear it will not be taken seriously due to the nature of their work.

“There’s such a lack of trust in gardaí among sex workers. Very, very few actually go to the gardaí and when they do, they fear they’re going to be blamed for the work that they do.”

Dignity in providing for your family

There is still a stigma associated with sex work and Kavanagh said some people don’t view assaults on sex workers as seriously as assaults on others.

I’m not naïve. I know that there are people who will never be comfortable with transactional sex and would never see themselves doing something like that.

“We can have all these ideological ideas, but there are real world consequences for people.”

Kavanagh said many people engage in sex work of their own volition, but “they might have very limited choices”.

“It’s an economical activity,” she said, adding that many sex workers believe this type of work is more dignified than other options open to them.

“They’re not robbing anyone, they’re not mugging anyone. They’re doing something to take care of themselves and their families. There is dignity in that, they’re not hurting anyone else.”

Workers protecting each other

Sex workers often try to protect each other by sharing information online.

Ugly Mugs Ireland is a volunteer-run service where workers across the island of Ireland warn each other about potential dangers.

When sex workers were being targeted by the recent text scam, they shared screenshots of the messages so others knew what to look out for.

“There was an awful lot of texts going out and it would be non-national sex workers who tend to get scared by these texts,” Lucy Smyth, who operates Ugly Mugs Ireland, explained.

“We show you that other people are getting these texts too. People log on and see that these texts are doing the rounds.

“Otherwise people can end up thinking ‘this is me being threatened personally’ and being greatly upset by it.”

Smyth, who is from Dublin but now lives in England, is no stranger to receiving threats herself.

“I do get very serious threats – to shoot me and rape me, all kinds of things. It’s something that I have to live with,” she told The Journal.

When previously addressing a political committee in Northern Ireland, Smyth said she was told she “would be shot whilst giving evidence”.

“It’s horrible, I was told I would be anally raped by various people because they couldn’t stand to look at my face.”

Smyth said the PSNI was aware of the threats and provided protection while she was testifying.


The purchase of sex is criminalised across the island of Ireland. However, the selling of sex is not. SWAI and Ugly Mugs both want sex work to be fully decriminalised.

As reported by The Journal this week, there is still no sign of a review into Ireland’s sex work legislation more than three years after it was first due to be published.

Sex workers often log reports of crimes with Ugly Mugs – even if they don’t intend to contact gardaí – so other people can be vigilant.

When the purchase of sex was criminalised in the Republic in 2017, Smyth said the number of alleged crimes reported to Ugly Mugs went up “dramatically”.

Threats of violence, extortion of money. Serious crimes are committed on a weekly basis – serious sexual assaults, robberies, crimes involving guns, knives, weapons.

Smyth said, in her experience, sex workers have a more positive experience when reporting crimes to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), rather than An Garda Síochána.

Detective Sergeant Gamble, from the PSNI’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit, told The Journal the police force “will investigate every crime reported to us based on the evidence presented, regardless of the background of the victim”.

Four officers in the PSNI’s Rape Crime Unit are dedicated sex work liaison officers.

“The core role of these officers is to investigate rape and serious sexual offences,” Gamble said.

“They are also the single point of contact for referrals of sexual crime from sex workers in Northern Ireland.”

Gamble said these officers “meet regularly” with Ugly Mugs and have received sex worker awareness training from the organisation.

He encouraged any victim of a crime, whether sexual or not, to contact police.

“We know that one of the main obstacles facing those coming forward is the fear of not being believed, but we will always listen and take victims seriously.

“Please don’t feel you have to suffer in silence.”

A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána said the organisation will treat any report of a crime against a sex worker “very seriously and sensitively – whether it is assault, theft or criminality of other kind”.

They said AGS – through the Organised Prostitution Investigation Unit, the Garda National Protective Services Bureau, and local gardaí – has “extensive and widespread engagement” with sex workers.

They added that gardaí also “carry out regular safeguarding checks on people involved in the sex trade”.

The spokesperson said these checks help gardaí identify people “who may be being sexually exploited or trafficked”, adding that officers “also cognisant of those who are working independently in the sex trade”.