We need to remove the stigma and protect sex workers

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Original article in the Irish Independent

Many years back, when I was visiting a friend, she sometimes received clients – per appointment obviously. I would stay in the living room, quiet as a mouse, while she chaperoned them upstairs.

After an allotted time, I’d hear the pitter-patter of feet outside and goodbyes were said. The client went on their merry way, and my friend would join me for a cup of tea, before oftentimes welcoming another client.

There were many stories, but mostly it was innocuous. I was glad to be there for safety reasons. A woman alone with cash, and a stranger in her home, was an uncomfortable but regular alternative.

Operating with another prostitute out of an apartment or hotel constituted a brothel and was a criminal offence, so workers, for the most part, worked and still work alone. It didn’t make sense, but when moral high ground replaces humanity, who cares about the safety of those seedy sex workers?

We only hear about them when there’s bad news, like the recent spate of terrifying attacks which have occurred mostly in Dublin but also outside the capital.

On seven reported occasions, sex workers were robbed, and in one case forcibly tied up by a gang of men for “financial gain”.

My experience allowed me to envisage a timeline of events. As workers are freelance, they go online when it suits, and can only be contacted then. A client browses the site, then picks a male, female or trans to suit their needs, and they call to arrange a meet-up.

Once you do that, you expose yourself to being robbed, violated or attacked courtesy of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017.

Besides prohibiting a safer environment where workers can share space, it also criminalises a person who pays for sexual activity. So you can sell sex, but you can’t buy it. Make sense?

The increased assaults and robberies on sex-workers currently being investigated by gardaí are “a direct consequence of the Act”, Kate McGrew, director of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, said.

In response, ‘in-touch’ gardaí suggest workers only see clients they know.

“A worker needs to pay rent, pay bills and feed themselves. Many sex workers are single mothers and on the run-up to Christmas, they cannot afford to follow this advice,” McGrew said.

When it comes to sex work, our hypocrisy lies deep. We’re peddling an Ireland which celebrates diversity, freedom and openness to a point of nausea, but when you’re a ‘hooker’ we don’t want to know.

Yet, since the beginning of time, sex workers have been doing good work – saving sexless marriages, allowing people to exercise their sexual fantasy on them rather than an unwilling party – yet sex work is still deemed degrading.

But let’s change that.

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which comes up for review in 2020, needs to be scrapped. Let’s get behind it under #decrimforSafety and lobby for it to be replaced with new legislation which completely decriminalises sex work, while also providing labour law, health and safety guarantees.

Let’s remove the stigma so our 1,000-odd sex workers can work alongside gardaí to combat trafficking and exploitation.

In New Zealand and New South Wales in Australia, such co-operation has been a huge success since coming into law in 1995. The estimated population of 10,000 sex workers are allies in law reform, human rights and HIV prevention advocacy campaigns.

Let’s steal their model and be trailblazing, like with the 2004 smoking ban.

But will this mean more brothels, you ask? Don’t worry, Ireland won’t be like Germany, where you can buy sex in ‘sex shops’ on high streets and airports.

Like drug taking, by dismissing prostitution we make it more dangerous.

In this case, both gardaí and workers knew about the gangs of men. Because of the nature of forced secrecy, most incidents are unreported. Ugly Mugs, an app sex workers use to keep safe, said violent crimes increased by 92pc in the past two years. It’s not going to stop.

Can we live with that? Decriminalising sex work won’t affect judgmental citizens, but they will sleep better at night knowing the vulnerable people we share our country with are safer.

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