‘I am not a criminal or a victim. I am a sex worker’
Some sex workers, including Kate McGrew of RTÉ’s reality show Connected, believe a campaign to criminalise people who pay for sex is patronising and misguided
Kate McGrew is not a “prostitute”. She is, she says, a sex worker.
“To me the word ‘prostitute’ is used by people who look down on what I do, who seek to characterise me as a either a criminal or a victim. To me, I am a worker, who does a job, provides a service and who deserves labour rights,” she says.
Currently appearing in RTÉ’s well- received reality television show Connected, McGrew is one of a number of women who sell or have sold sex in Ireland and who have spoken to The Irish Times about their anger and anxiety about a campaign to criminalise their customers; the men, and some women, who purchase sex.
That campaign, Turn Off the Red Light, has been signed up to by almost 70 national women’s and trade union organisations. It is calling on the Government to enact legislation based on what is known as the Nordic or Swedish model, which decriminalises those who sell sex but criminalises those who pay for it.
The Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, is “carefully considering” a recommendation from the Oireachtas justice committee that the purchase of sex be criminalised.
Such legislation was passed by the Northern Irish Assembly on October 20th, a development that campaigners say must spur the Minister to do likewise, otherwise, they say, this State could be seen as an “easy target” for traffickers.
The developments are of huge concern to women such as McGrew who are members of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland. They believe the campaign is “moralistic”, not based on evidence and one that aims to end sex work.
While trafficking is a “very important issue that needs to be addressed”, they say, the Turn Off The Red Light campaign is putting trafficked women and men into the same basket as non-trafficked women and men with no regard to their needs.
McGrew is the only one of the women who spoke to The Irish Times who would give her name and agree to be photographed. The others say the stigma attached to what they do is so great they fear the repercussions of going on the record.
McGrew works in the sex industry primarily to fund her performance work. She has a rap/pole dancing show, Sweet Pang is Innocent, which she has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, Cork Midsummer Festival, Galway Arts Festival and the San Diego International Fringe Festival.
McGrew, originally from Ohio, was first introduced to the industry by a friend when she was working as a “chugger” – an on-street charity worker – for an environmental charity in New York.
“I felt way more degraded and exploited working for the charity than I ever have in the sex industry. When my friend suggested working in this fetish club, I was curious, excited. I have always been very sexually open-minded.”
She enjoyed the work, and liked her colleagues, whom she describes as “very cool, intelligent, strong women”. And it paid well. “Suddenly paying my bills wasn’t a problem.” She had “a few favourite clients” she wanted to have sex with, so she was happy to and could also make more money.
She has stopped at times: at one point when she moved back to Ohio, and again when she first moved to Ireland in 2008. At that point she was working as a stripper but found this to be “a real slog”, and so she advertised herself online. She now sells sex, at €250 an hour, as well as teaching pole-dancing and working on her show.
“All types of men are my clients, and I have one woman client, bless her. The youngest are in their 20s and the oldest one is in his 80s. Some are widowers, others have a tough time dating. Some just have a higher sex drive than their partners; men who love their wives but their wives have lost interest in sex. They all treat me with respect, put on a clean shirt for me. They are all good clients.”
A different take
Julie (not her real name), in contrast, sold sex in the past to support her children. Speaking by phone from the midlands, she says she worked along the canals in Dublin up to about 15 years ago.
“I was a single mother with two children. I had no support. My clients showed me more respect than the Government ever did, than any of these support organisations who wanted to ‘rescue’ me. Working the canals gave me independence, self-respect and gave my kids a decent chance. It was what I had to do. There were some bad men, of course, but I never saw anything serious. The women looked out for each other. I won’t say I enjoyed it especially, but I enjoyed the company of the women. I am still in contact with some of them.
“I probably am proud of how hard I worked. I did it for my family and I’m not ashamed of it, even though I couldn’t say that in public, which is strange.”
The Turn Off the Red Light campaign, championed by the Immigrant Council of Ireland, believes the industry to be intrinsically exploitative and that it should not be tolerated. The council has supported 60 victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation over the past decade here, and has seen first-hand the enormous mental and physical damage done to women and girls who have been coerced into prostitution.
Denise Charlton, chief executive of the council, says they want to end trafficking and prostitution because of the harm it does to these women. “The sex industry exists because there is a demand from men to buy sex,” she says. “If the demand isn’t there, the supply isn’t needed. The Swedish experience is proof that it works.”
The Swedish authorities introduced legislation in 1999, imposing fines and possible prison sentences on anyone convicted of buying sex. Surveys find it has consistently high support among the Swedish public. According to the Turn Off the Red Light website, the law has resulted in “a reduction in the number of men paying for sex, a reduction in the number of women involved in prostitution, and a dramatic reduction in the numbers of women and girls trafficked to Sweden for the purposes of sexual exploitation”.
However, many studies question these assertions. A 2008 study, Prostitution in Sweden, commissioned by the Swedish government and conducted by that country’s board of health and welfare, said prostitution was extremely difficult to monitor. It found that “at most we can discern that street prostitution is slowly returning after swiftly disappearing in the wake of the law against purchasing sexual services”.
A 2007 report from the British Economic and Social Research Council on the Nordic model observed there was a “lack of reputable comparative research exploring the impacts of regulation in Sweden” and found that “sex clubs remain significant sites of prostitution in Stockholm, but are not licensed for prostitution”.
No empirical research has been conducted on the sex industry here. Nor has there been any survey of sex workers about what they believe to be in their best interests.
However, just last month, the department of justice in Northern Ireland published research, conducted by Queen’s University Belfast, on prostitution in the North. It surveyed women, men and transgender people who sell and buy sexual services across Northern Ireland.
Just 2 per cent of sex workers who responded supported criminalising clients; 61 per cent thought it would make them less safe and 85 per cent believed that it would not reduce sex trafficking. Only 16 of the clients surveyed said it would make them stop paying for sex altogether and the Police Service of Northern Ireland told researchers there was likely to be significant difficulties with enforcement.
Charlton is dubious of surveys of sex workers, saying: “The majority want to get out of the [sex industry]. Most are told to say they work for themselves and that they are happy in the industry.”
Despite the dearth of empirical information, the momentum towards criminalising the purchase of sex seems unstoppable. Its supporters number some of the most respected advocates of women’s rights and equality in the State.
Very few will publicly question it. When TD Clare Daly did so in the Dáil last year, she was criticised. Rachel Moran, a former sex worker and advocate of Turn Off the Red Light said she was “offended” that Daly had not supported the campaign.
Daly says: “I have never experienced a campaign like Turn Off the Red Light, where if you dare speak out against it you are vilified as being in some way in favour of sexual violence and abuse of women.
She believes the campaign is “dismissive” of women. “It completely denies the possibility of distinguishing between a consensual transaction and violence, saying even when a woman says it is consensual, that she couldn’t possibly make that decision.
“It is derogatory about women. It is naive about the reality of poverty, of women’s position in society and the real reasons some women choose to sell sex. And when it comes to offering these women alternatives, where are they?”
Charlton speaks about the need for exit strategies and alternatives for women who want to stop.
Significantly, Turn Off the Red Light is not endorsed by the Migrant Rights Centre, which is formulating its position on supporting women and men in the sex industry. A number of the 68 members of Turn Off the Red Light too said there was not unanimity on their boards that theirs was the best approach. They did not want to be named.
Paying for college
Jenny O, an Irish woman in her 20s, is a member of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland. She is in the industry to pay for college fees and her rent in Dublin, and she says she enjoys it. She says she came across one woman she thought had been trafficked.
“Trafficking needs to be addressed with immigration laws,” she says. “This planned law is not going to stop the sex industry. It will only drive it further underground and make it less safe. I’d be really worried I’d lose good clients and may have to risk seeing clients who have less to lose.”
Prostitution and the sex industry are enormously complex and are rooted in social, economic and gender inequalities that may not be capable of being addressed by a single law. Some believe the proposed law may even make these inequalities worse.
There is also the question of how we judge those in the sex industry and the choices they make. Not all want, or need, to be “rescued”.
“It is possible,” says McGrew, “to be a strong woman and come to a very different conclusion about this industry. If you really care about the women, make it a health issue, not a criminal one. To anyone who says otherwise, I say you are absolutely patronising. You are the privileged minority.”