Dubliner Laura Lee has the self-assurance of someone who has packed several lifetimes into her 40 years. After a couple of cul-de-sacs in law and banking, Lee has returned to the job that funded her first law degree: sex work.
A decade ago, Lee was lured from Dublin to the Scottish Highlands with promises of a prestigious banking job with all the trimmings. Within months, she had returned to work as an independent escort. “Old habits die hard,” she says, smiling.
Lee cuts through our preconceptions of prostitution. “I’m not going to say, ‘I love my job’. I don’t know any of my friends who leap out of bed on Monday morning and go, ‘Yes, work!’ ” she says. “But I do choose to do it. I enjoy the freedom is gives me in terms of managing my finances, spending time with my family and studying.”
Lee works with a broad range of clients, which presents challenges. Some are soldiers back from the frontline who are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Others are men with physical or intellectual disabilities, autism, Asperger’s, depression or body dysmorphia. Others are terminally ill. It demands quite a skill set.
"I had one client who passed away from liver cancer last year, and I held him tight and asked him, 'Are you scared?' When he said yes, we both held each other and cried," she says. "This work isn't about swinging from the chandeliers or re-enacting Fifty Shades of Grey. For these men it's about remembering how to hold a woman, how we smell, and how soft we are."
Lee moves between Scotland and Ireland for work and notes that the vast majority of her “typically Irish” clients are men who married young. “By the time they get to 50, the sex has stopped a long time ago for them in their marriage,” says Lee. “He can’t bring himself to have an affair, so he calls me. Sometimes their wives are gravely ill with Alzheimer’s or a degenerative condition. Those men battle with their conscience for years before they pick up the phone to me. But by the time most men get to me at 50, after no sex for 10 years, they want to try everything. I’ve spent the afternoon covered in custard. They’re hard work.”
Lee says there is genuine intimacy. “You grow very fond of them. Some of my regulars are wonderful. I broke my leg badly, and one of my guys brings me to Glastonbury every year, and he pushed me around in a wheelchair. You do become great friends with them. You have to mind your boundaries, as clients can get really attached to you. I state very clearly to a client what I will and won’t do. There are some things I won’t do [sexually], even for my partner, and if someone forces the matter, they’re shown the door. We’re service providers, like anyone else.”
Treacherous working conditions
Sex workers are subject to not just social stigma but treacherous working conditions. Lee may get great job satisfaction from her work, but she knows that not everyone has the same experience as her.
With two decades in the business under her belt, Lee has become a tireless campaigner for sex workers’ rights, not least in light of new legislation in Northern Ireland, which comes into effect on June 1st and will criminalise those who pay for sex. Lee proposes to fight it all the way to Strasbourg, and will do the same when similar laws are introduced in the Republic (buying and selling sex isn’t illegal in Ireland right now, although activities around it – such as kerb-crawling, soliciting and operating brothels – are illegal).
Lee takes exception to anti-prostitution charities such as Ruhama, which is run by the same order of nuns (the Good Shepherd Sisters and Our Lady Of Charity Sisters) that reportedly have links to the Magdalene laundries. Chief among Lee’s grievances is Ruhama’s insistence that many sex workers are victims of trafficking or are coerced into working. There is, she contends, a deliberate conflation of the facts.
“The whole narrative around sex work is pushed by Ruhama and Turn Off the Red Light as a way of guaranteeing high funding. One person was convicted for trafficking in the Irish Republic last year, and it was a woman. Seventy per cent of sex workers we know are mothers, usually single mothers. Sex workers are some of the strongest women you’ll meet in your life. We have to be. It’s the nature of the job. Women are driven into work by poverty, and how we get those women out of work is to tackle poverty head-on, not banning sex work. In some cases this is literally a woman’s last recourse, and to take that last beacon of hope from them is unforgivable.”
Still, Lee doesn’t deny that several workers are vulnerable. She maintains that the proposed legislation will make working conditions for prostitutes less safe, not more; they will be forced to work in less visible places for a start.
“When criminalisation came through in 1993, attacks on sex workers went up a ferocious amount,” says Lee. “We had great craic with the vice squad in Donnybrook. [One sergeant] would say to us girls, ‘Hope you’ve all said your decades of the Rosary’, but that all went by the wayside in 1993 when the guards had to chase clients instead of looking after us.”
“I’d like to see a sex worker-led initiative that gives real proper care to workers: psychosexual counselling, self-defence training, exit strategies, education and advice on getting back into the workplace,” she says. “The message that legislation is for our own good is absolute rubbish. I don’t want those nuns anywhere near those vulnerable women.”
Lee has the backing of her family: “My dad is one of my biggest supporters, not in terms of the work I do but in terms of campaigning. I think he’d love it if I worked in an animal rescue centre, though.
“I drip-fed the information about my work to my daughter, who is now 14, by saying, ‘Mummy has a job where she keeps men company because they don’t have women to do that. It’s not illegal and it’s not immoral, but let’s maybe not mention it on parents’ night’. She was like [shrugs], ‘Okay’. Up until recently, sex was the most appalling thing she’d heard of in her life.”
So keen is Lee to break apart the stigma and taboo surrounding sex work that she recently blogged about buying sex herself. “I wanted to see what it was like when the shoe was on the other foot. I was absolutely terrified, though. If he was paying me I’d have sashayed into that hotel like I owned it, but my heart was thumping out of my chest. In the end I had a great time.”
Her campaigning has come at a price: “I’ve had mysterious tax investigations, calls to social services about my daughter . . . I had to prove that I didn’t have a gimp and a dungeon in my house. I get haters online on Twitter, but I enjoy a good scrap.”