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Legal loophole Irish sex worker says 'stigma on escorts and working girls' needs to end

We want to feel safe and protected and have rights just like everyone else doing a 9-5 job."

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An Irish sex worker insists sex work must be fully decriminalised to protect those who work in the adult industry.

December 17th marked International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

To highlight the day, Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland (SWAI) held a small vigil outside the Dail, after a review of laws governing sex work in Ireland has stalled.

SWAI advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work in order to protect sex workers.

“Some of us do this work out of pleasure, some are forced by circumstances, some do it for a better life,” one sex worker named Niamh told sundayworld.com.

“We want to feel safe and protected and have rights just like everyone else doing a 9-5 job."

While sex work is technically “legal” to work alone outside and inside, there are a number of other laws which continue criminalise it and leave workers vulnerable to rape, murder, robbery, abuse, homelessness, deportation and poverty to name but a few things.

While the risk to Irish cis-gendered sex workers is high, the risk of harm is even higher if you’re a migrant, a trans person or a trans person of colour.

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At present, it is illegal for sex workers to operate together, doing so can result in being arrested for brothel keeping.

As sex workers are one of the most stigmatised and vulnerable groups in society, working with another person that you know and trust can help workers to stay safe by keeping an eye out for one another.

“If someone puts our safety and well-being at risk we would want to be able to speak freely and for the same laws to be applied, not to be told ‘you asked for this to happen’,” she explained.

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“We would like to be able to work, rent a place, live a normal life without being stigmatised or living with the fear that at some stage we will be kicked on the streets,” Niamh added.

It is illegal to advertise sex for sale, and hire security or management. It is also illegal to live off the earnings of another person’s sex work, which includes renting a room or an apartment to a worker.

“How many escorts have lost their lives in attacks? How many escorts were killed viciously, in cold blood, raped or robbed? And how many have been helped to overcome traumas like this?”

Because of laws that criminalise sex work, there are no official statistics available that accurately quantify and represent crimes committed against sex workers. However, SWAI say that crimes against sex workers have risen by 92%.

The organisation have also highlighted a recent spate of “so-called welfare checks by Gardaí” which have left sex workers “terrorised” and even resulted in evictions in the middle of winter, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, as landlords fear prosecution.

Niamh said that workers are already objectified and mistreated by abusers and the general public, and do not need to be treated in the same manner by the government or by Gardaí.

“I would love for the stigma on escorts and working girls to end,” she added.

“We aren’t the plague. We are actual human beings that have feelings, have families of our own, women who are sisters, mothers, daughters to someone in this world.”

In a statement, SWAI called for the decriminalisation of sex work, and highlighted how they believe through government policies, the state pushes people into sex work.

“Years of austerity, the housing crisis, lack of support for people using drugs, Direct Provision, limits to how many hours international students can work, lack of decent employment, lack of affordable childcare and precarious work are all contributing factors as to why people enter sex work,” they said.

“Once people have entered sex work the current law in place ensures they are not safe.”

In 2017, client criminalisation was introduced “with great fanfare with the supposed aim of ending the demand for sex work and thereby ending trafficking in Ireland,” a SWAI spokesperson said referencing the Nordic model.

Sex workers, they say, are the best tool that the state and Gardaí have at their disposal to find victims of trafficking, however due to the criminalisation of sex work this resource goes un-utilised.

SWAI have also said that instead of ending sex work, client criminalisation has instead given the upper hand to those who buy sex.

“A sex worker has to ensure the client feels safe, as the client is the one taking the risk. The legal pressure that clients face is absorbed by sex workers. This means shorter negotiation times, more risk-taking such as not using a condom, less screening and taking on clients you would normally refuse to make up for lost income.”

“The reality is sex work is still partially if not fully criminalised in Ireland. When you decriminalise the act of selling sex yet make all the conditions for selling sex illegal, it is just ideology.”

SWAI continue to work directly with sex workers to fight for and promote the health, safety, participation and dignity of all sex workers.

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