The sex trade: safe or sordid?
As the Government considers new laws on the buying of sex, current and former prostitutes – and some men who use them – share their views on the business
Escort: Rachel says she has clients around Ireland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Former prostitute: the anti-prostitution campaigner Mia de Faoite. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
‘I had a good job as the administrator of a detox unit, and then everything started falling apart around me,” says Mia de Faoite. “I started smoking heroin to help myself sleep. Within months I lost every penny I had, and lost the plot.”
De Faoite, who is 42, first dabbled in prostitution in 2003, when she was 33, and was a street prostitute from 2005 to 2010, charging €40, €60 and €80 for three grades of sex. Injecting cocaine and smoking heroin were her ways of coping with an unhappy relationship, and prostitution was the best way she knew to support her habit. “Once you do that first night, you cross a line and that barrier is broken,” says de Faoite.
All the household expenses came out of de Faoite’s account. When the couple split up she kept working the streets around the Burlington Hotel, in Dublin 4.
De Faoite was an “independent” prostitute, and remained so, although she was “approached a couple of times and got a slap from someone who I would not work for”, she says. Working the streets at night, “I kept my home away from drugs or prostitution, because I have a daughter. I was a functioning heroin addict. I would only smoke it at night so I could be comfortably numb.”
De Faoite says she was able to prostitute herself only by disconnecting her mind from her body, which she felt didn’t belong to her when she was working. She still refers to the prostitute part of herself as “her”. When de Faoite put on the wig, the make-up and the clothes that were exclusively the prostitute part of herself, she became a third person with a street name that she prefers not to divulge. “It was disassociation. I saw the person I was at night as a completely separate woman,” she says.
Now de Faoite, who is working towards a BA in philosophy at NUI Maynooth, wants to help stop the sex trade. “Prostitution is a gross infringement of human dignity. I was standing beside 18-year-olds [who were] being abused by 60-year-olds, and that is a moral issue. I have seen so much suffering out there. We laughed a lot on the streets, but if you cried you would never stop – and if you got angry you would kill somebody.”
De Faoite is an activist with Space International, an organisation started by five Irish women, including the former prostitute Rachel Moran, author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution , who was interviewed on these pages recently. The group, whose name stands for Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment, is campaigning with its fellow support organisations Ruhama and the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign.
They want Ireland to adopt what is known as the Swedish model. In 1999, Sweden criminalised men who buy sex and decriminalised the women who sell it. Proponents say it encourages the women to report violence to the police and to identify themselves to people who want to help them leave prostitution.
The Swedish model also promotes the strong social message that prostitution is exploitation and a form of violence against the body, and that it is always wrong. Although some object to such laws being introduced here, de Faoite says these people have “vested interests in the €250 million sex trade”.
The hidden world of prostitution in Ireland is in the midst of a battle between two camps. De Faoite and her fellow abolitionists are on one side; on the other are harm-reductionists who want prostitution to remain legal.
The Turn Off the Red Light campaign, which is supported by 68 organisations, including the Irish Medical Organisation, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association and Ruhama, has taken what is essentially a radical feminist view.
“The purchase of sex is incompatible with equality, and it is a human right not to be bought. Criminalising men who buy sex would shrink this heavily criminally organised trade,” says Sarah Benson, the chief executive of Ruhama, which describes itself as a “holistic, person-centred” support service.
On the other side of the debate is the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, which has a liberal feminist outlook. This group, which includes four female social scientists, believes that criminalising buyers of prostitution would infringe on the civil liberties of people who choose to sell their bodies and rely on the income they earn from it.
“Criminalising the purchase of sex would further stigmatise these sex workers and drive them further underground, putting them out of reach of help and more at risk of violence,” says Dr Teresa Whitaker, a social scientist and coauthor of a 2009 study for the National Advisory Committee on Drugs that included an investigation of prostitution.
De Faoite accepts that not all prostitutes are abused. There is an “elite” of escorts, she says, who “are not subjected to the rape and abuse that the women beside me were subjected to”. For them, prostitution “is more like an illicit affair. Those women are different.”
Rachel, a “touring” escort in her 20s, is one of the women de Faoite describes as the “elite”. She opposes the criminalisation of people who buy sex. Not to be confused with the Irish former prostitute Rachel Moran, she describes a life of “luxury”, living in four- and five-star hotels and apartments, moving every few days. Her clients are “businessmen with no time for courting, men who are not getting sex from their wives, men who want no risk of being rejected. It’s easier to pay an escort,” she says.
Originally from eastern Europe, Rachel first sold her body in Spain, where she continues to have a home, before settling in Ireland. The only downside to prostitution, for her, is waiting around, bored and alone in a room all day, for a knock on the door.
“I do it every day. You’re in the apartment, and God knows what might happen and no one would know about it,” she says.
The only change in legislation she would like to see is a redefinition of the term “brothel”, which currently means any place where two or more prostitutes are trading. When two women share a hotel suite or apartment, it’s cheaper and safer and brings companionship, she says.
Rachel charges up to €350 for an hour and a half. Some days she has three clients, others none, and she runs her availability like a business. Her main overheads are for hotel rooms and apartments – about €120 a night – lingerie, which she buys once a month, scented candles, which she replenishes every two or three days, and her hair, nails, fake tan and food.
“Where I come from, our morals and values are different. We don’t see prostitution as something horrible, we see it as a way to make money. There’s no shame. I have not told my mother I’m a hooker, though I imagine she knows.”
Although Rachel knows escorts who have been raped and beaten, her only bad experiences have been caused by people kicking in her door, at which she has called the Garda. Sometimes a hotel receptionist recognises her from a website and calls the Garda, resulting in the loss of her “tour” and three days’ income.
Being on tour means having regular clients in towns around Ireland, mostly in the 25-55 age group. “We chat about anything and everything while having a drink.”
Rachel doesn’t drink alcohol or take drugs. During the recession she has raised her rates – “It has made me more desirable.” She goes for medical checkups twice a year.
Typically, when a client arrives, they talk for about 15 minutes; then she asks him to shower, after which the sexual contact could last for as little as 10 minutes. “I had a relationship with one of my clients last year. We fell in love and lived together. He didn’t mind me working. We’re still friends and see each other for a coffee,” she says.
“The clients are not animals and rapists. They don’t force you to do things you don’t want to do. Not at all.” When a man has wanted her to do something she is against, such as having sex without a condom, she has thrown him out without a refund, she says.
“I have a mother, a father and a sister. I can go home tomorrow. The myth that all prostitutes are trafficked and have to use drugs and alcohol is not true.”
Rachel disapproves of Ruhama’s campaign for criminalisation. “In Ruhama’s eyes I am a victim and I don’t do this because I want to. We don’t feel the way Ruhama would want us to feel. I’m not degrading myself through prostitution. If there is coercion in the sex industry in Ireland I’ve never seen it.”
Others share some of her views, though often for different reasons. Dr Eilis Ward, a social scientist at NUI Galway who has a background in women’s human rights and international relations, says that the Turn Off the Red Light campaign “conflates many different phenomena – the reality of sex trafficking, smuggling, undocumented migration – with all aspects of sex work. It’s a highly ideological position, and public policy should not be based on ideological positions.”
“We have to conceive the sex trade on a continuum of exploitation, and public policy should reflect that reality. This black-and-white definition of the sex trade that promotes criminalisation does not reflect the reality. Philosophically, and as a feminist and as a social scientist, I don’t have the right to tell any woman that she is misguided or suffering from false consciousness.”
This “false consciousness” is a state in which a woman being prostituted denies and disassociates from the psychological reality of her situation in order to survive. Sarah Benson, of Ruhama, says that it is only after these women have left prostitution that their consciousness changes.
“Dissociation is a very common experience, a coping mechanism, and our experience of women who have moved on from prostitution, our experience of the survivors’ movement, is that the sex trade is harmful for all involved: there are physical and psychological consequences.”
Although many escorts are migrant workers from outside the Republic, others are Irish. Denise, who is 40, lives in a wealthy part of south Dublin, where she grew up, and describes her clients as “very, very nice men”. She says it’s a myth that clients are sexual bullies. “I never encountered a man who was abusive in any way. They have middle-class educated backgrounds, very high end: lawyers, businesspeople and barristers.”
Denise is a dominatrix, which means her clients have fantasies and fetishes – for feet, stockings and so on. She also sees transvestites who like to be dressed up. Her clients bring Christmas cards and leave gifts on her doorstep.
“There’s little or no trafficking that I know of. I don’t know of a prostitute who is doing it not of her own choice. Wanting to criminalise it is ridiculous. It’s not going to go away. Lonely guys in rural areas with a bit of money are not the most sophisticated people, but they are lonely and they don’t deserve to be criminalised,” she says.
She has heard of a few women who have been beaten up but says that in her area of expertise “you are their superior. They worship you as a superior woman and are very very respectful, your devoted slave. I have never encountered abuse.”
Denise says she “picks and chooses” her clients, seeing six or seven a week at €250 an hour. She does more “out calls” than visits to her home and says she ends up with between €800 ad €1,500 a week tax free. “I don’t live a lavish lifestyle. I have my home and a modest car, but I know the money is there if I need it.”
Men who use prostitutes are “a much younger age group now. There is more exposure via the internet,” Denise says. “I know prostitutes who are students, women right up to their early 40s, trying to keep body and soul together, or to earn money to take kids on holidays or buy schoolbooks. I have never met a drug-addicted woman, I never did drugs and I don’t drink or smoke. Prostitution is not psychologically damaging,” she says.
Mia de Faoite disagrees with this rosy view of prostitution. “Even if we did not have trafficking, no one has the right to violate another human being. Whoever gave anyone the right to buy consent to a body? The [number of] women who say they are independent and happy in prostitution [is] maybe 10 per cent. But the liberty of a few should never come before the freedom of so many. Women who want to remain in prostitution say, ‘I’ll lose my income.’ I say, ‘tough’.”
Sex Workers Alliance Ireland counters that driving the business underground is, in itself, “an infringement of civil liberties”, according to Whitaker.
But the last word goes to Rachel Moran, the Irish former prostitute whose interview in these pages drew many comments on our website, and was the impetus for today’s articles.
“Academics who argue that prostitution should be considered ordinary work are very far removed from the reality of what prostitution is. You don’t learn about prostitution in a university; you learn about it in a brothel,” she says.
“You learn what prostitution is when you’re having penises, tongues and fingers shoved into the most private parts of your body, day after day after day, by man after man after man. That’s when you learn what prostitution is and whether governments should sanction it as acceptable.”