‘It’s clearly a brothel, yet nothing can be done’
Ireland’s sex trade went online years ago. So what are main-street ‘massage parlours’ for?
Tougher laws on brothel keeping are putting sex workers at increased risk of arrest or assault, according to those working with prostitutes.
It was 1am on a Saturday night when Rachel and her husband heard someone knocking on the door. They could guess what the caller wanted. Her husband opened the door to an older man, clearly drunk but still nervous.
Rachel’s husband, exasperated, told him the brothel was across the hall before closing the door in his face. This wasn’t the first occasion this had happened since they moved into the south Dublin apartment complex. At least their infant child hadn’t been woken up this time.
There are two brothels operating on Rachel’s floor, each containing several “sex workers”. They advertise their services openly on websites. Clients pick a woman from a menu of hundreds and make a phone call to get directions. Some of the better organised brothels even use a type of call centre to field calls from clients.
“I have to be honest, it does freak me out,” says Rachel, who asked that her real name not be used because she’s worried about repercussions from the apartment complex’s management company.
“I’ve complained to the management company and I’ve complained to the gardaí. I’ve the community garda looking into it now, but who knows if that’ll work out,” she says.
“They’re saying they can’t just kick them out and I’m wondering why the hell not. It’s quite clearly a brothel. I talked to the person living beside them and they said stuff falls off their shelves from the banging on the wall. I find it so hard to believe that they can be so obvious about it yet nothing can be done.”
A garda familiar with the case confirms there are several brothels operating out of apartment complexes in the area, as well as “pop-up” brothels in the local hotel. He says there is little that can be done unless they witness cash been handed over.
Indoors and online
Rachel is experiencing first hand the nature of Ireland’s sex industry in the 21st century. The woman in a mini-skirt standing under a street light is a relic; today almost everything is indoors and online.
Street prostitution still exists but the vast majority of prostitution is now advertised on the internet. Ruth Breslin of Ruhama, an organisation for women affected by prostitution, estimates there are no more than 70 prostitutes working on the streets in Dublin. The number nationally is probably fewer than 150.
“We have an outreach van that goes to Dublin’s red light districts and some nights we would see only three or four women,” she says.
Unlike other types of prostitution, the dwindling street trade is still dominated by Irish workers. And these women are more likely to suffer serious mental health or addiction problems than their counterparts who work indoors, Breslin says.
Estimates for those working indoors vary significantly. Some studies say 1,000, others nearly 8,000. One of the reasons it is so difficult to get an accurate count is because many of the women come from other countries and travel (or are moved by others) around the country, stopping for a few nights in various towns. In the industry this is called “touring”.
Some women even travel internationally, coming into Ireland for a few months before leaving for another EU country.
“Women are moved around an awful lot in the indoor trade because the market is all about new girls. Buyers are often not interested in going back to the same woman,” Breslin says.
A user of prostitutes in a midlands town might have a new set of women passing through every week. It’s easy for them to find out: he simply logs on to one of the many websites that advertise sex for sale.
Natalia is one of the nearly 800 people who advertises sexual services on Ireland’s biggest prostitution websites. She calls herself an “independent female escort”. Her clients can avail of a shower when they arrive but she doesn’t provide drinks. She says she is happy to take disabled men. Her online profile says that she is 37 years old, 5 ft 5 inches and doesn’t smoke.
This information, along with her shoe size, explicit photographs and a comprehensive list of sexual services, is available to all on the website. There’s even a section where you can leave a review.
Natalia and others pay to advertise on the site and business is booming. The website, owned by Peter McCormick, a convicted pimp and former RUC reservist, had a turnover of €6 million in 2015. The site is hosted in Spain because of the country’s looser laws on advertising sex.
As was once the case in street prostitution, competition for clients online is fierce. The industry is dominated by a handful of big websites. Smaller sites or sites set up by independent women have reported being subjected to hacking attacks designed to overwhelm the site and make business impossible.
Foreign nationals dominate the online and indoor trade. Of the nearly 800 profiles on McCormick’s site, only 23 are Irish. The rest are mainly eastern European or African. Only 12 are men. Ruhama estimates about 97 per cent of sex workers are from abroad.
Breslin says many of these women are vulnerable in different ways from street workers. “The vast majority of the trafficked women we deal with have been in brothels in apartments, houses or hotels, because it’s easier to tuck a trafficked woman away in the brothel.”
According to garda sources, this trafficking often goes hand in hand with a form of sex slavery. While many women work out of choice, others, particularly African women, are forced to work for their trafficker to pay for the cost of bringing them to Ireland. In some cases the women are physically locked into the premises or their families back home are threatened.
While the internet now dominates the industry, not all those who pay for sex are web-savvy. There still exists a clientele, usually older men, who prefer the old ways. With street prostitution becoming rarer, these men rely on the “massage parlours” which are present in many large towns in Ireland.
This week The Irish Times reported on a protest by locals on Dorset Street in Dublin who say such establishments are turning the area into a “red-light district”.
Clearly many legitimate businesses – in the medical, wellbeing and leisure industries – offer massages. But the protestors say these new establishments are of a different character.
One of the massage parlours in Dublin 1 visited by The Irish Times has denied it offers sexual services. However, a search online reveals ads for “naked full body massages” accompanied by pictures of the prospective masseuse in various states of undress.
Locals in the north inner city complain of men, and only men, coming and going from these premises late into the night and condoms being dumped into the on-street bins. One protester said about nine such businesses have opened in the area. Like Rachel, the south-Dublin apartment owner, they say gardaí are unwilling or unable to do much.
Ireland’s prostitution laws are complex. Since February it has been illegal to buy sex, but selling sex has been decriminalised. It’s still a crime to organise a brothel or to allow a premises to be used as one.
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest the new law change is having a small effect on the industry. There has been a drop in women advertising on the main sites and men looking to buy sex are becoming more cautious. They share advice on internet forums about not repeating out loud the address they’re going to. If visiting a prostitute in a hotel, they are warned never to wait in the lobby.
An analysis of press reports suggests gardaí target brothels in different parts of the country with varying degrees of success.
Gardaí in Sligo, Limerick and Cavan are particularly active but there are few prosecutions in other counties.
The vast majority of those targeted for brothel keeping are eastern European women; only three Irish people have been prosecuted in the past three years. The usual penalty is a fine, and about 35 per cent have received jail terms.
The debate around the rights and wrongs of prostitution is complex. According to sex worker advocacy groups such as Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI), prostitution is just another industry, where most women work for themselves and on their own terms. The Government needs to support and protect them instead of criminalising the industry, the group says.
Organisations such as Ruhama say prostitution is a malignant method of controlling and exploiting women to serve the interests of pimps. Independent prostitutes are a small minority, they say, and most operate under the control of a pimp including many who are trafficked into the country for sexual exploitation.
Even the terminology is controversial. Ruhama believes the phrase “sex work” sanitises the issue while SWAI believes “prostitute” is stigmatising and laden with moral connotations.
Both sides question the other’s motivations. Anti-prostitution groups say organisations such as SWAI are – inadvertently or otherwise – apologists for pimps and traffickers. They allege Ruhama is interested only in Government funding.
However, there’s one issue on which both sides agree: Tougher laws on brothel keeping are putting sex workers at increased risk of arrest or assault.
One of the changes to the law last February doubled the penalties for brothel keeping. Technically a brothel is any two prostitutes working out of the same premises. The law was designed to target pimps but SWAI says it is affecting independent workers who operate together for safety, forcing them back to street work.
The organisation has previously blamed the new law for a recent string of knife attacks on transgender sex workers operating alone.
“Unfortunately sometimes, law enforcement will target two women working together and say ‘right, you’re all running a brothel’ and possibly try to charge them with something,” Breslin says. “And what you’ll find is yes, those women were there selling sex but someone else has probably organised them and someone else is making money from them. But it’s the women who are punished.”