It’s a Wednesday morning, viagra its 11am. You’re probably late for your lecture in Arts, sick half asleep on the 39a into college or staying in bed “cos first week in semester they don’t cover much anyway…” It’s a fairly average day for most 18-24 year olds. However, this morning, according to one “Escort” website there are 550 Irish female prostitutes and 42 Irish male, currently on standby for a call to somebody’s home. Their average “screen age” is 24. These are not “sex nymphos” and can’t possibly be “horny and gagging for it”, every day this week, from 07:00-23:00 (as their profile will typically describe them). These are women and men who are trying to pay off the debts they owe from travelling to this country, or pay for their child’s living expenses back home, or who simply couldn’t find a job in a cafe.

Some of you reading this may still believe these, mainly young girls, enjoy what they do, as if this is some sort of career choice or a freedom over their own body, you should however consider whether you yourself would enjoy being available from 7am this morning for “rimming”, “domination” and “deep throat”, and if that doesn’t seem too bad, how about doing it again, and again, and again, up to eight to ten times today, with complete strangers, who could essentially do anything to you in the privacy of their own homes. If that still doesn’t sound too bad, start to imagine your little sister or girlfriend or best friend undergoing these things, locked behind the doors of complete strangers houses. These are not alien like creatures, these are somebody else’s little sister, daughter, girlfriend, best friend, or mother, 40% of migrant women attending the HSE Women’s Health Project are mothers. These are normal people like you and me. They are sisters, daughters, girlfriends and best friends.

Apart from it not being the most pleasant experience, there is a mountain of health problems associated with working as a prostitute. Sexually transmitted diseases are a standard norm, while the dangers of sexual assault, physical violence and rape are imminent risks taken by these women with each and every single client. We tell our girlfriends to get taxis home in dodgy areas after nights out, or never to get taxis alone, imagine them walking straight into these dodgy areas to essentially rent their sexual organs for half an hour. The effect of all of the above coupled with financial pressure, stigmatisation and feelings of isolation inevitably results in drastic mental health effects, and in many cases strong drink and drug dependencies. According to the Women’s Resource Centre statistics, 75% of women become involved in the industry when they were still legally children. Prostitution is rarely a “choice” for these women with 9/10 surveyed saying they would like to leave but feel unable to.

How is this happening?  Why is nobody going to help the one thousand women who at any one time are giving up their mental and physical health in incredibly dangerous situations? Currently, the law in Ireland makes it illegal to pay for sex with a trafficked victim (they must prove you were in full knowledge of their trafficked status). Since the 1990’s it has been illegal for women or men to solicit in public or sell themselves on street corners, which is why we don’t see prostitutes very often. Essentially the industry has “moved indoors’’ in the last decade. The law forbids the organisation and encouragement of prostitution, meaning pimps are illegal. Finally, it forbids anybody else to live off the earnings of another or manage a brothel. Under the criminal law as it stands, it is not an offence, in itself, to sell sex and in general it is not an offence to purchase sex, either. Consequently, neither party of the transaction is currently criminalised.

In terms of policing, at the moment we are one of the few European countries who do not have a national strategy unit for tackling criminality in the sex industry. Since the Human Trafficking Act 2008 we have a Human Trafficking and Co-ordination Unit in the Gardai, although there seems to be very few, if any convictions directly made by this unit. However last year alone, Ruhama – just one of many organisations, was approached by 91 women (WRC statistics), who were trafficked and exploited into prostitution. Those numbers encompass only the findings of one such organisation, for just one year, only including women who approached them and who were involved in prostitution.

So why do so many women turn to prostitution or find themselves forced into it? How can it be making this much money? It is because there is demand for prostitutes? One in fifteen men buy sex here in Ireland. They are middle aged, with middle incomes, highly educated, employed in professional backgrounds. 61% of these men are married or in a serious relationship. These men, like most of us are also victims to an ideology, that this is okay or “It’s the oldest profession in the World”. Each payment adds to a demand for the massive industry of buying and selling young girls and women all over the globe. If we believe that these women and girls deserve a better option than prostitution then we need legislation in this country to show it.

Legislating however has proved to be incredibly tricky.  Most advocates against prostitution are in favour of the Swedish model. Legislation introduced into Sweden in 1999 criminalized the purchase of sex, and not the sale – the goal being to cut the demand, and subsequently the sale, and to do so without criminalizing the victims of prostitution i.e. the prostitutes themselves. According to a report a decade later it was successful in many areas, street prostitution had been halved and although it was not the direct intention of the legislators, the ban seriously stemmed the inflow of human traffickers in Sweden. There are critics of the Swedish model however. In practise it was difficult for police to prosecute until the sexual act had begun, which led to less convictions than expected. Such legislation would however be a fantastic start, even just to change public opinion relating to the legalities of selling girls for sex. It would also make our country an inhospitable environment for traffickers, hopefully mirroring effects in Sweden, Norway and Iceland. Although Ireland has very little street prostitution left to tackle, if we eliminate trafficking we would in turn eliminate the danger of many girls working on the street.

With the advent mobile phones and the Internet, the red light district is more clandestine than ever and something further will be necessary to protect women and girls from exploitation. Much more attention to this issue is urgently needed.

– Elizabeth Martin