Alisson Spillane from RTE News spoke to Ruth Breslin, from the Policy and Communications team at Ruhama, about the sex trade in Ireland, how it’s changing and the influence of porn on consent and sex culture.
Off-street and online
Ruth began by explaining that the advance of the new age of technology and the rise of the internet has significantly changed the sex trade in Ireland. Previously you just had small pockets of prostitution on the street, at specific street locations, primarily in the big cities,” she explained.
Now the vast majority of the sex trade in Ireland takes place in what is known as off-street locations. There are women still on the street selling sex, but in very small numbers.”
Ruhama would usually work with up to 60 women a year on the street in Dublin through their outreach service but it is suggested that there are about 1,000 women involved in Ireland’s off-street sex trade at any one time.It is suggested that there are about 1,000 women involved in Ireland’s off-street sex trade
Ireland’s sex trade
Ruth spoke about the industry in Ireland, explaining that the sex trade is highly organised.
“The off-street sex trade is controlled primarily by a number of criminal gangs. They arrange the movement of women around the country. They arrange the apartments for them. They supply ‘new girls’ all the time to satisfy the local buyer’s demands.”
“We’ve seen the level of control and organisation over the last week. There are turf wars going on between different gangs in the city, gangs that are involved in a range of criminal activities, prostitution is just one of them. Pimps are prepared to be very violent towards each other to protect their territory.”
Discussing the most recent trends evident in the trade, Ruth described the concept of ‘touring.’
“A key thing amongst sex buyers is this thing of new girls, that there’s always somebody new in their locality that they can buy from. Women do a thing called ‘touring’ that they are moved around from location to location. The women never get to put down roots, especially the migrant women, which makes it more difficult to find help.”
The women never get to put down roots which makes it more difficult to find help
In plain sight
In relation to the visibility of prostitution in Ireland, she says, “It’s covert and in plain sight, at the same time, because all you have to do is go online.”
Stigma and prejudice have surrounded the sex trade in Ireland for a long time but Ruth went deeper into the problem to analyse the reality of how these women involved in Ireland’s sex trade got involved in prostitution.
“There’s a wide range of reasons but all of them lead back to adversity and vulnerability in their lives. Whether a woman has been trafficked or not, we would see a similar profile in their background.”
In a lot of these cases, the women are being controlled by someone and so they aren’t keeping all or any of the money involved.
“This isn’t where they want to be and this isn’t what they want to be doing. That’s the nature of the trade.”
Ruth went on to say that the vast majority of these people are migrant women who have been trafficked.
“A lot of women have been abused or neglected as children, or have experienced domestic violence in intimate relationships. There are women coming from backgrounds in poverty. Women coming from war-torn, impoverished countries that are trying to flee. Some have physical and sometimes mental health problems. Some suffer with addiction but it’s usually prostitution first then addiction, so they continue to sell sex to fund drug habits. When women get involved in prostitution they find it so hard to cope they start to take a range of drugs to numb their experience.”
The majority of these women don’t freely walk into prostitution. They’re targeted and trafficked.
How does it happen?
The majority of these women don’t freely walk into prostitution. They’re targeted and trafficked. Often, someone will see their desire for a better life and exploits that desire.
“Often the stories of the women that we work with is that they’ve been deceived.” Ruth gave an example based on the most common experiences Ruhama encounter with the women they work with.
Someone says, “I’ve a great job for you in Ireland. You’re going to be minding children. I’m going to sort you out. You’re going to have somewhere to live.”
They trust the person that’s inviting them because they have hope for a better life but, as Ruth goes on to explain, these stories seldom have a happy ending.
“They come through the airport all happy. They come in excited about their new life and next thing the job falls through” and the narrative changes to “you owe us a lot of money because we sorted out your paperwork and paid for your flight. You owe us a lot of money, so guess what you have to do.”
Many of these vulnerable women can be sexually attacked and raped as a form of initiation into prostitution. Ruth acknowledges that a minority of the women Ruhama encounter would say they chose prostitution because they were in really desperate circumstances, from addiction or needing to feed a family. There are those who independently get involved in prostitution but, while they exist, they are “a small and privileged minority.”
“In our thirty years of experience, that is not the situation of most women. Most are tricked, forced or coerced into this situation and don’t want to be there.”
Once the women become involved in prostitution, violence plays a huge role.
Huge levels of violence
Once the women become involved in prostitution, violence plays a huge role in the organisation and control of the trade.
According to Ruhama, “women in the sex trade report huge levels of violence. Physical violence. Sexual violence. Psychological violence. So many of these women are controlled through threats.”
“So even though they are not locked in a room, because usually today they aren’t. They aren’t chained to the radiator anymore like a stereotypical image but the situation is that they are controlled psychologically because whoever has brought them into Ireland will have told them ‘we know where your mother is, we know where your parents house is, we know where your children are, and you do realise that if you ever leave, if you ever diss me, if you ever don’t pay me what you owe me, you know who is going to feel the pain.”
“Women are terrified for their own safety but also really often for the safety of their loved ones. So they stick by that person who is controlling them and taking all or most of their money. They stick by them because they don’t know what else to do and they’re terrified about the repercussions for their family if they don’t.”
Ruth went on to describe the presence of physical violence in the sex trade. “There is also physical violence for somebody who is disobedient or not making enough money for them. And women also experience violence from sex buyers so women talk all the time about interactions with their buyers where the guy has decided that he didn’t get his value for money, that he didn’t get exactly what he wanted or paid for and so he gets violent.”
That isn’t the only challenge faced by women involved in prostitution. Not only do the women feel trapped but sometimes they can struggle to see a different way of life.
“This is the way they’ve managed to earn a living and feed themselves, clothe themselves. Now that they’ve been involved in prostitution, they feel like they have no other options. A lot of women feel ashamed regardless of how they got involved.”
Despite the work in education and development by Ruhama – which ranges from English and IT classes to work experience and access to Third Level education – they cannot eradicate the sex trade in Ireland because it is the demand that fuels and sustains its existence.
Ruth believes, “the sex trade only exists because there is a demand for it, because there are men out there who want to pay for sex. Pimps, exploiters and traffickers wouldn’t invest their time putting women into prostitution and controlling them, seeking to profit from them if it wasn’t making them good money. The reason they make good money is because the customers exist.”
Ruhama were involved in a recent campaign – The Andreea Campaign in Dublin, which they believe revealed a lot about the current landscape of the sex trade in Ireland.
Watch the video below to see what the campaign involved, the public response and the general attitude towards prostitution in Ireland in 2018.
Ruth believes this campaign highlights the fact that despite it being “illegal to pay for sex in Ireland since March 2017, the law is not deterring people.”
“We’re in a #MeToo environment with so many women speaking out about how they’ve been treated and sexually harassed and saying, I’m not going to take it anymore. And survivors of prostitution have been a part of that movement. One American activist says, ‘Prostitution is #MeToo on steroids’, it’s daily unwanted sex. It’s daily aggression. It’s daily violence.”
The issues surrounding sexual consent have featured a lot in the media in recent times and Ruth is of the opinion that that conversation also involves the sex trade.
“A lot of people would say that you have consented to sex for money but we think it’s a really important thing to explore – consent in the sex trade. Dublin Rape Crisis Centre describe consent as a freely given, enthusiastic and ongoing yes. We would argue that if a woman has had to take money to have sex with someone, is she really enthusiastic about that? The women that we work with tell us that they aren’t. They hate the sex. They badly need the money or they’re being forced.”
The role of porn
Ruth is of the opinion that just giving or getting consent sets the bar too low for sex culture in Ireland in general. “In an ideal world, what we want for everyone but especially for the next generation is to be having mutual intimate relationships. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Porn is one of Ruth’s biggest concerns about the current sex culture in Ireland.
“I believe porn has a lot to answer for in consent going out the window and not being understood. A new generation of boys are coming through who believe that sex is supposed to hurt a woman, that she’s supposed to say no. Porn is becoming boys teaching tool and it’s massively concerning to us. It runs the whole way through to the women we support in the sex trade.”
“What men are looking for is inspired by porn. Men who buy sex react to porn. Porn has a lot to answer for in men’s expectations of sex.”
“The bottom line for us is consent should be freely given, enthusiastic, clearly communicated and an ongoing yes. Is that too much to aspire to? I hope not.”
Ruhama is a frontline service that exists to support women in Ireland affected by prostitution and sex trafficking. They support over 300 women each year. They are increasingly working to support transgender people and men involved in prostitution.