Prostitution and the girl child

Sex work proponents continuously create the impression that the adult female sex trade is populated by individual adult women who have made a choice to enter and that the sex trade can be policed to ensure children are not sexually exploited. TORL ensured that these myths were disproved by presenting the extensive research which indicates that choice to enter prostitution is circumscribed by multiple personal and socio-economic risk factors in the lives of girls and young women, which leaves them vulnerable to being recruited and targeted by pimps and traffickers. In a large scale study across nine countries involving 854 interviews with women in prostitution, 47% revealed that they had entered the sex trade before the age of 18.1 In a national study of children at risk of sexual exploitation, the UK children’s charity Barnardos found that the factors that put children and young people at risk are: disrupted family life; a history of abuse and disadvantage; problematic parenting; disengagement from education; going missing; exploitative relationships; drug and alcohol misuse and poor health and well-being.2

TORL highlighted how the global female prostitution market is sustained by adult women as well as under-age girls, who are inserted into the same cycle of exploitation and intended for the same kind of customer, where they are considered as ‘interchangeable goods’.3 International estimates indicate that 10 – 30 per cent of trafficked females are minors, which is reflected in Ireland in that 11% of those trafficked into Ireland for sexual exploitation were minors at the time they were first trafficked.4 As Kelly and Regan (2000) argue, attempts to make a rigid distinction between adult and child prostitution are not sustainable:

‘How can it be that on one day when the young person is 15 or 17 their involvement in the sex industry is exploitation and illegal, but on the next day – their birthday – when they are 16 or 18, this becomes not just legal but legitimate, a matter of choice, a form of work? What process can occur in 24 hours that transforms something inherently exploitative into an issue of choice and consent?’5 (Kelly & Regan, 2000)

Children’s organisations played a vital role in TORL, highlighting the risk to the girl child of being targeted for prostitution and the increasing number of children being trafficked for sexual exploitation. 
Statement by Tanya Ward for the Children’s Alliance

1Farley, M., Cotton, A., Lynne, J., Zumbeck, S., Spiwak, F., Reyes, M.E., Alvrez, D., Sezgin, U. (2003). Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries: An update on violence and post-traumatic stress disorder. In M.Farley (Ed.) Prostitution, trafficking and traumatic stress (pp. 33-74). Haworth Press.
2Barnardos (2007) Whose child now? Fifteen years of working to prevent the sexual exploitation of children in the UK: Believe in children. Barnardos.
3Monzini, P. (2005). Sex traffic: Prostitution, crime and exploitation. London: Zed Books.
4Kelly, L. (2002). Journeys of jeopardy: A review of research on trafficking in women and children in Europe. Vienna: International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Kelleher Associates, O’Connor M., and Pillinger, J. (2009). Globalisation, sex trafficking and prostitution: The experiences of migrant women in Ireland. Dublin: Immigrant Council of Ireland.
5Kelly, L. and Regan, L. (2000). Rhetorics and realities: Sexual exploitation of children in Europe. Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, (CWASU), London: London Metropolitan University.

Prostitution, Trafficking and the Impacts on Women

There is agreement across all positions in this contentious debate that ‘forced’ prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation should be criminalised. However, those advocating the legalisation of ‘chosen’ prostitution argue that trafficking is a distinct phenomenon that should be treated differently at a policy and legislative level, and that it is possible to address trafficking whilst allowing the commercial sex trade to flourish. TORL gathered research and evidence, which increasingly demonstrates that prostitution and trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation do not exist in separate distinct realms. Recent expert papers on supply and demand suggest that there is a direct corollary between the level of prostitution in a country and the number of victims of trafficking with a ratio varying from 10% to 24%.1 In other words, regardless of the prostitution regime, allowing the sex industry to grow as is happening in Ireland, increases the flow of trafficked people to that jurisdiction. Consequently, TORL argued that if we are serious about addressing trafficking for sexual exploitation, and the evidence indicates that prostitution and trafficking are intrinsically linked, it is not possible to prevent or eradicate trafficking in human beings without addressing the sex trade.

Women and girls are coerced and recruited by traffickers, pimps and prostitution agencies into the same market which needs a constant fresh supply to satisfy the demands of buyers.2 The range of tactics by pimps and traffickers may differ according to the context both in origin countries and within destination countries such as Ireland, including kidnapping, violence, coercion, deception, seduction and enticement, but the intention and outcome are the same.3

Once they are entrapped within the commercial sex trade, trafficked girls and women are subjected to multiple forms of abuse, control and violence by pimps and traffickers, resulting in devastating consequences for their physical and mental health. TORL recognised that the different levels of violation to which individual women are subjected to and the degree of control exercised over them by pimps, are of profound significance to each individual girl or woman. However, both prostituted and trafficked women are subjected to the demands of buyers for multiple unwanted, coercive and abusive sexual acts, regardless of their means of entry to or their location within the sex trade. TORL cited the body of evidence revealing that sexual objectification, abuse and exploitation result in specific harm and negative impacts on the well-being of women.4


The experience of Ruhama as a front line service provider was critical for TORL in articulating the lived reality of women in the Irish sex trade, and the need for a specialised, integrated response to both prostituted and trafficked women.

Ruhama is a specialist NGO providing holistic support on a national basis in the Republic of Ireland to women affected by prostitution, including women who have been trafficked. We have been providing our services for over 25 years, and have worked with thousands of women of more than 60 nationalities.

We currently support approximately 300 women per year offering a holistic service offering a wide range of supports which are detailed here:

Ruhama offers our services to women affected by prostitution regardless of whether they have been trafficked or not. In our experience, the needs of trafficked and non-trafficked women in prostitution are more similar than different. Ruhama’s endorsement of the Nordic approach is based on our extensive experience, evidence and research over the past 25 years briefly outlined below.

The interconnection between prostitution and sex trafficking

There is an inextricable connection between sex trafficking and prostitution. Sex trafficking occurs because of the existence of organised prostitution. The sex trade overall is highly criminally organised with very few women in prostitution falling into the category sometimes referred to as ‘independent escorts’. Ruhama has experienced the very clear overlap between organised prostitution and sex trafficking. We have had cases where women have reported being trafficked alongside other women who report that they have been ‘recruited’ by a pimp. In this case the pimp and the trafficker are one and the same – acquiring women to fill the demand for bought sex from wherever they can and by varying means. Victims of trafficking do not inhabit some other, abstract corner of the sex trade. They are advertised in the same place as the rest of prostitution, occupying sometimes the same brothels. They can become completely entrenched in the sex trade which makes them very hard to access and support.

Push and Pull factors

The backdrop to women and girls who enter prostitution very commonly includes experiences of one or some of the following circumstances:
  • Poverty
  • Debt – small or large amounts
  • History of abuse and/or severe neglect as a child or youth.
  • Institutionalisation as a child (in the State care system)*
  • Partner abuse
  • Homelessness
  • Lack of family/social supports
  • Addiction
  • Grooming/coercion (by family, partner, ‘friend’)
* Many first enter prostitution as minors.
This background is extremely similar to the profile of women and girls who are sex trafficked and whose vulnerability as a result of these experiences makes them a target for ruthless traffickers.

Prostitution in Ireland and experiences of those in prostitution

While street prostitution does persist, and Ruhama offers support on-street through our specially adapted mobile outreach van, most women in prostitution are situated indoors (with the majority under the control of a pimp) and most are migrants. Women in the indoor sector tend to be more controlled and more restricted in their movements than those on the street and are often dependent on their pimps or traffickers, having little or no knowledge of the country and with no social or support networks and often no English language skills. While there are a small number of women in indoor prostitution who are not directly connected with pimps and traffickers, these number are in the minority. It is important to note that every person in prostitution, whether trafficked, pimped or otherwise, is nonetheless vulnerable to the fundamental dangers and negative health consequences that are intrinsic to being in prostitution.

The experiences women reported to Ruhama in the last year sadly echo those reported by women every year of Ruhama’s existence as a frontline service. They attest to a fundamental harm and devastating consequences for the mental and physical wellbeing of the women involved in the commercial sex trade. These experiences include:

  • Women being raped, robbed and physically assaulted – including in cases where there was more than one woman/person in a premises. Street prostitution is recognised as very high risk but there is increasing evidence of prolonged abuse and sexual violence indoors.
  • Women being completely degraded through unwanted sex acts in conjunction with extreme sexualised verbal abuse.
  • Feeling a constant state of tension/hypervigilance due to the risk of something ‘going wrong’ (not only fear of serious violence but also including the possibility that a person they know, even a male family member, might be a buyer).
  • Men pay for sex generally for between a half hour up to several hours, which requires women to put on a persona of someone who finds each buyer interesting, attractive and agreeable no matter what they are like. It also requires women to take on a persona of their own as the ‘escort’ the man expects her to be. Women rarely, if ever, reveal the truth about themselves to buyers (name, age, life circumstances). This can result in what is known as ‘splitting’ and can have significant negative consequences for mental and emotional health.
  • Addiction (as a cause or consequence of women’s prostitution).
  • Being exploited as a child – often in a number of contexts (e.g. abused at home and then being trafficked into prostitution).
Women report and display serious negative physical and mental health impacts to our services including (as examples): acute suicidal ideation; PTSD; very poor overall physical health to serious internal injuries. There are also social consequences including, frequently, isolation from family and other potential social supports.

Interagency working and support to exit prostitution/trafficking situations

Collaboration with key stakeholders is also critical to the success of direct work to maximise positive outcomes for women. Given the complex needs of women affected by prostitution, and in particular victims of sex trafficking, Ruhama engage regularly alongside other important services. These include health, immigration, legal, addiction, education, family and other social services and statutory bodies including the HSE and Gardaí. This manifests itself in joint case-working and mutual support and referral.

Women do not commonly come through Ruhama’s doors saying, ‘Hi, can you help me to exit prostitution please?’ Our remit is broad – we work with women ‘affected by’ prostitution – this means those who were involved years ago, those who are currently involved now, those who have been directly coerced/trafficked and those who ended up drawn into prostitution as a result of vulnerabilities and other adverse life circumstances. Most women currently involved in prostitution who access our services (whether by agency referral or self-referral) come to us with much more immediate and practical concerns than ‘exiting’ – they may have experienced a violent assault, are facing homelessness, want to address serious addiction, or simply want to learn English or participate in one of our courses. It is at this starting point that we assess women, and then take some time to work together with them to help identify their needs, gradually building a care plan to address their different problems and also their goals – which ultimately include exiting for most clients.

All the research points to the fact that exiting is not a linear process, it is more accurately described as a ‘journey’. The research further explores ‘entrenchment’ in the ‘lifestyle’ of prostitution – demonstrating that no matter all the challenges and harms faced within prostitution it can still be an incredibly difficult thing to extricate oneself from.5 Importantly, as noted above, this can also apply to those who are victims of sex trafficking.

Ruhama works very closely with the dedicated Sexual Health Service for women affected by prostitution and sex trafficking, the HSE (Health Service Executive) Women’s Health Service (WHS). The projects mutually refer to each other, and Ruhama has an outreach presence in the WHS clinic which serves many women in the indoor sex trade. This collaboration creates a comprehensive overall response which covers sexual health through to emotional support, direct advocacy, education, housing and welfare support and other specific needs that individual women present with. Ruhama advocates this ‘joined up’ approach between holistic health care and broader support services as an excellent practice. Recognising that exiting is neither a linear nor a simple process, this approach facilitates a supportive response to women at all stages of their experience, including the point where they may wish to exit prostitution. Both services are confidential, free to users, do not require users to have a regular immigration status and are non-judgmental.

Further, it has been shown that resourcing prevention or early intervention for victims of sexual exploitation is far less expensive than ‘picking up the pieces’ from the fallout of prostitution and the highly detrimental impact it has on women’s lives in the longer term. Recent research emerging from France has made a very useful effort to estimate the social and economic cost of prostitution, and highlights the vast cost of prostitution to the nation (1.6 billion euro per annum) versus a tiny fraction of that amount that is actually invested in supporting people to exit (‘ProstCost’ by Mouvement du Nid and Psytel, France, 2015:

Also of critical importance in effectively tackling the exploitation of sex trafficking and prostitution is the police response and attitude to those in prostitution. Ruhama engages in work with the Gardaí (police) in both offering frontline support to victims whom the Gardaí encounter and also in delivering a highly successful training day for Gardaí – co-delivered with Garda experts in the field of organised prostitution and victim support. This training targets those Gardaí operating at the frontline to promote good practice responses to persons exploited in prostitution who may be victims of trafficking (or indeed victims of a range of other violent crimes which those in prostitution are often subject to). The overall message to frontline police is to encourage a focus on targeting those organising prostitution (including traffickers) and to respond to any person in prostitution as a vulnerable person who may also be a potential victim of trafficking (or other crimes) or a potential witness. It is an approach which has proven to be more effective in eliciting disclosures of exploitation from those in prostitution than police responses which either target women as criminals, or those who dismiss them at face value as ‘happy hookers’. Ruhama is currently engaging with Gardaí at a senior level to explore the potential for An Garda Síochána to develop and disseminate good practice guidelines for the policing of prostitution based on this approach, which will serve to fully complement any legislation which takes the ‘Nordic approach’ to prostitution.


1Danailova-Trainor, G. and Belser, P. (2006). Globalization and the illicit market for human trafficking: an empirical analysis of supply and demand. Working Paper No. 78, Geneva: Policy Integration Department, International Labour Organisation (ILO). Seo-Young, C., Dreher, A. and Neumayer, E. (2012). Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking? Economics of Security Working Paper, 71. Berlin. Economics of Security.
2Monzini, P. (2005). Sex traffic: Prostitution, crime and exploitation. London: Zed Books.
3D’Cunha, J. (2002). Legalising prostitution: In search of an alternative from a gender and rights perspective. In Seminar on the effects of Legalization of Prostitution Activities: A critical analysis organized by the Swedish government, 5-6 November, Sweden. Zimmerman, C., Hossain, M., Yun K., Roche B., Morison L. and Watts, C. (2006) Stolen smiles: report on the physical and psychological health consequences of women and adolescents trafficked in Europe. London: The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
4Coy, M. (2012). I am a person too: Women’s accounts and images about body and self in prostitution. In M. Coy (Ed.) Prostitution harm and gender inequality: Theory, research and policy (pp. 103-121). England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd. Kelly, L. (1988). How women define their experience of violence. In K. Yllo and Bograd M. (Eds.) Feminist perspectives on wife abuse (pp.114-133). London: Sage.
5Bindel, J., Brown, L., Easton, H., Matthews, R. and Reynolds, L. (2012). Breaking down the barriers: A study of how women exit prostitution. Eaves and London South Bank University (LSBU).

Prostitution and Gender Equality

TORL engaged partners and policy makers in a wider discussion in relation to the societal consequences of prostitution as an institution that undermines gender equality and violates women’s human rights. The campaign rejected the promotion of prostitution as a private individual transaction between two adults which fails to recognise the impact of the commercial sex trade on the lives of all women and on society in general. The campaign highlighted the commodification and objectification of women that is inherent in the sex trade and how prostitution promotes the idea that some women must be available for sale to satisfy men’s sexual needs. The declarative and normative aspect of the Nordic approach was highlighted, in sending out a clear statement that prostitution is harmful not only to the individual prostituted woman or child, but also to society at large.

TORL illustrated how the buying of a person for sexual gratification, primarily women and girls (although the law is gender neutral), is regarded in Sweden as contrary to achieving equality between women and men and to the dignity and human rights of all people; it seeks to give young men and women the message that buying a person for sexual gratification is not normal, acceptable or harmless behaviour. Criminalising the purchase of sex was considered necessary because ‘gender equality will remain unattainable as long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them’.1 (Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications, 2005.)

TORL rejected the accusation by those promoting sex work that it is moralistic and repressive to hold a position against prostitution. The campaign stated that it is legitimate to hold an ethical position that buying a person for the purpose of sexual gratification is an act of sexual exploitation by the buyer which is unacceptable. By not taking a position on men’s ‘right’ to prostitute girls and women it was argued, we are in fact accepting that a group of women and girls will be set apart where the normal standard of human rights laws and protections do not apply.2 The role of the state is to follow international human rights standards and ensure that all girls and women have ‘a right to be free of inhuman and degrading treatment’ which is not possible in the commercial sex trade.3

The National Women’s Council of Ireland was a key partner in promoting the importance of the law for gender equality and for women’s human rights.

Statement by the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) –
The role of a gender analysis

Founded in 1973, the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) is the leading women’s membership organisation. NWCI’s vision is of an Ireland and of a world where there is full equality between women and men. We represent and derive our mandate from our membership which includes over 190 member organisations from a diversity of backgrounds, sectors and locations. NWCI chairs the Irish Observatory on Violence against Women, providing a space for NGOs to work collectively on this issue. The NWCI is the Irish national co-ordination for the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) who has been working on the issues of prostitution and trafficking for many years and is currently running a campaign ‘Together for a Europe Free from Prostitution’, a campaign we fully support and endorse. NWCI also sit on the National Monitoring Committee to oversee implementation of the Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence 2016-2021.

NWCI has a clear mandate from our members to work on tackling all forms of violence against women. It is one of the key strategic goals of the organisation. In our Annual General Meetings members have put forward motions relating to tackling the demand for prostitution in Ireland and supporting women involved in and affected by prostitution. In our Annual General Meeting in June 2012 our members voted overwhelmingly in support of a motion

‘that the NWCI recognize the issue of prostitution of vulnerable women and girls in Ireland is a serious issue which requires a legislative response to reduce exploitation in the commercial sex trade.’

There have been subsequent motions calling for NWCI to support the activities of the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign (TORL) and to work for the passing of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 which seeks to criminalise the purchase of sex. It is very significant that women’s organisations have come together to hold a radical feminist position framing prostitution as a form of violence against women and a form of sexual exploitation. Consequently, NWCI has been a member of the core co-ordinating group of the TORL campaign which recognises that criminalising the purchase of sex is the best and most effective way to address prostitution as a form of violence against women and deter the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation.

In September 2012, NWCI made a submission to the Joint Oireachtas Co mmittee on Justice, Equality and Defence on the Review of the Legislation on Prostitution. In this submission we highlighted that prostitution is both a cause and consequence of women’s inequality and it constitutes a violation of women’s human rights. The system of prostitution perpetuates patriarchal views on women’s sexuality and legitimates male domination in society. As long as it is tolerated, it is an obstacle to equality between women and men.

NWCI argued that prostitution is one of the many forms of violence against women where women’s rights are pervasively violated. It is the view of the NWCI that prostitution is incompatible with equality for women and that Ireland needs a legislative solution that aims to curb the demand for the industry and create sustainable exit routes for women and girls in prostitution. Prostitution, and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it, are deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation. As well as the harm to each individual, there is the social and cultural impact – the damage to the social position and perception of women both nationally and globally, the proliferation of sex tourism and trafficking and the normalisation of all forms of violence against women. The dearth of any effective legislation in Ireland to curb the sex industry sends out a message to men and boys that women are sexual commodities to be bought.

Involvement in prostitution is rarely a freely entered choice for a woman. Most women have backgrounds of poverty, abuse and low self-esteem which limit a woman’s capacity to identify alternative income generation opportunities. Reasons for entering prostitution have been well documented by the Irish NGO Ruhama who support women every day and include poverty, debt, a history of abuse and/or severe neglect as a child or youth, institutionalisation as a child, partner abuse, homelessness, lack of family supports, addiction and grooming / coercion by a family or partner. Prostitution is in itself a high risk and exploitative situation for women. It has a devastating impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of women and girls. A society that tolerates prostitution cannot achieve gender equality.

In September 2015 NWCI welcomed the publication of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill which provides for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. Crucially we emphasised that for this provision to work in practice resources must be ring fenced to provide a range of support services for survivors of prostitution. These supports include access to social protection, to education and training supports and access to safe and appropriate temporary and more permanent accommodation, regardless of nationality or immigration status. This has always been and remains a critical point for NWCI in the development of a sustainable and women centred approach to the current laws on prostitution.


1Swedish Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications, Fact Sheet: Prostitution and Trafficking in Human Beings, 2005.
2Ekberg, G. (2004). The Swedish law that prohibits the purchase of sexual services. In Violence against Women 10 (10), 1187-1218.
3The European Convention on Human Rights.

Prostitution as ‘Sex Work’

The promotion of prostitution as a legitimate form of economic activity for women which should be legalised has gained considerable ground in recent years. Sex work advocates claim that girls and women who are experiencing poverty are making a good choice by entering prostitution and that sex work can be a manageable and lucrative career. Freedom of choice is a misleading and inaccurate term when applied to the constrained and limited contexts in which girls and women enter prostitution. Gender inequality, globalisation, poverty, and the collapse of women’s economic stability in poorer regions of the world are creating the conditions in which vast numbers of women are driven into the sex industry.1

The focus of much current debate advocating legalisation denies the inherent harm of prostitution sex and claims that legalisation will improve the conditions in which women sell sex. Sex work is increasingly likened to other service work provided by women such as domestic and social care work, and thus it is the conditions, low status and low pay that are presented as the problem, not the inherent nature and harm of prostitution.The TORL countered this position by describing the circumscribed circumstances surrounding the entry of girls and young women into prostitution and the harmful psychological, physical, sexual and reproductive health impacts arising from being in the commercial sex trade.2 We argued that promoting prostitution as a job fails to recognise the specific nature of prostitution which involves multiple unwanted, abusive and coercive sexual acts which would be considered unacceptable and illegal in any other form of ‘work’. The campaign challenged the false claims in relation to legalisation of the industry, namely that assumptions delivering a safe, harmless working environment for women in indoor settings can be made safe and clean; selling sex can be regulated as legitimate employment; and finally that pimps and exploiters can be removed from the sex industry.

We revealed the evidence from evaluations of jurisdictions where legalisation has failed on all counts in particular in the Netherlands where none of these desired outcomes have been realised (see box). Furthermore, we strongly rejected the position that prostitution is a way out of poverty, showing how this is not borne out by the testimony of survivors nor the front line services providing exit routes for women. Research and evidence was used to demonstrate how the lifelong impacts on mental and physical health, drug addictions, and lack of education and skills during those critical years of young adulthood, leave women vulnerable to lifelong poverty.3 These arguments were particularly important for engaging the Trade Union Movement.

Statement from Eamon Devoy, General Secretary of the Technical Engineering & Electrical Union

I believe public awareness has grown through the work of the ‘Turn Off the Red Light’ (TORL) campaign and I am proud that my own union, the Technical Engineering & Electrical Union (TEEU) has been part of that. The TEEU is an overwhelmingly male union, although one with a growing number of young women who opt for apprenticeships in electronics and other trades once regarded as all-male preserves. That is why we felt it was incumbent on us to raise the issues involved and challenge traditional perceptions and stereo-types which, at best, are indifferent to the complex issues involved in relation to prostitution, and at worst can be complicit in condoning the criminal exploitation of women and indeed children.

We invited Denise Charlton of the Immigrant Council of Ireland to be the keynote speaker at our Biennial Delegate Conference in Galway, in November 2010, and delegates were so impressed and moved by her presentation that they passed a motion to campaign for an end to sex trafficking. David Begg, the then General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and myself as General Secretary of the TEEU were among the main speakers at the “Irish Men Call for an End to Sex Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” meeting in February 2011. We then invited Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, the president of the Immigrant Council of Ireland to address the ICTU Conference later that year. Other unions have joined the campaign and contributed financially or in kind to TORL. Obviously much more needs to be done, particularly in relation to legislation and the low priority given by law enforcement agencies to the eradication of human trafficking that blights the lives of so many migrant workers brought into this country illegally.

The campaign has not been helped by the activities of those who claim that “the second most important and hard won freedom is the right of Sex Workersto say Yes”. Whether they like to admit it or not, advocates of this argument are providing cover to the illegal trafficking of women and children. In muddying the waters, they also provide a cop-out for those unwilling or unready to confront the realities of what is the worst form of exploitation on this island.

Given its historic role in championing the rights of workers, it is important that the trade union movement in Ireland challenges the concept that prostitution can be regarded as a legitimate form of employment that can be made safe under the right working conditions. There is no way that a trade that can have devastating consequences for the mental, physical and sexual health of women and children can be rendered safe or legitimate.

Nor is it simply Irish trade unionists who are saying this. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), a tripartite body on which employers and governments are represented, has also stated that the sex industry falls outside the definition of ‘Decent Work’, which it describes as productive work under conditions of freedom, equity, security and dignity, in which rights are protected and adequate remuneration and social welfare is provided. All criteria that the sex industry patently fails to meet.

New legislation is essential if we are to send a clear message to those who abuse women for profit or self-gratification, that this is not alone unacceptable behaviour, it is criminal behaviour. Unfortunately, as other problem areas such as drink driving have shown, exhortation or public education campaigns alone are not sufficient, they need the support of legislation and the commitment of law enforcement agencies to succeed.

I have no doubt that the ICTU and its affiliates will continue to support TORL and the campaign to end this stain on our society at the earliest opportunity. We need to engage with other TORL partner organisations to explore what would be the most appropriate strategies to pursue in order to increase public awareness of the problem and find ways of ‘naming and shaming’ pimps and clients. I believe legislation is an essential first step on the road to turning of the red light that will enable us to make Ireland a better place for all of us.

The Dutch Approach

The Netherlands has had a long history of a liberal prostitution policy so prostitution was not punishable and the commercial exploitation of prostitution was more or less tolerated prior to 2000. However, by means of legislation introduced in 2000 the commercial exploitation of prostitution has been fully legalised. The stated objectives of the law were: to penalise all forms of exploitation in the prostitution sector; legalise ‘acceptable’ commercial prostitution and remove ‘unacceptable’ forms of prostitution i.e. trafficking, involuntary prostitution, and child sexual exploitation. A further major rationale for the law was to improve the health and welfare of sex workers, reduce organised criminal involvement and eliminate pimping. A comprehensive evaluation indicates that few if any of the stated objectives have been realised and that the law has had many negative consequences.4

The Netherlands now has a legal sector of 1,300-1,700 brothels/location bound premises with a population of 16.5 million, with an estimated 25,000 prostitutes alongside an unknown number of illegal migrants, at least 1,000 of whom are victims of trafficking. The non-location bound premises i.e. escort agencies and internet prostitution continues to expand outside the regulated sector. The authors conclude that it was ‘virtually impossible’ to ascertain whether the law had succeeded in combating the exploitation of involuntary prostitution and that pimping is widespread. Although there was no evidence of children in the legal sector, a worrying phenomenon is that girls are arriving at legal places on their 18th birthday having been groomed and possibly prostituted elsewhere from an early age by boyfriend/ ‘lover boy’ pimps. There was also evidence that half those in escort business were very young and had started before the age of twenty. Perhaps given the constant reference to the welfare of sex workers in the discussion document a critical finding was that the emotional well-being of women is now lower than in 2001 on all measured aspects, and the use of sedatives has increased. Furthermore, despite a commitment to the setting up of exit routes for women, as the majority of women state their wish to leave the industry, only 6% of municipalities had done so.

Prostitution as a Health Issue

Concern for the health and safety of women has been used as a core argument for the introduction of regulation, legalisation and decriminalisation of the sex trade. Sex work advocates insist that the buying of a person for the purpose of sexual exploitation is in itself not harmful or exploitative; it is only the external conditions in which that act takes place which are not desirable and that safe sexual practice can be controlled and managed in well managed indoor settings. These claims disregard the extensive research which reveals that the consequences of sexual exploitation on women’s physical, sexual and reproductive health are severe and that rape and being coerced or being persuaded to perform sex acts without condoms are a primary source of infection among women and girls.1 In a study of prostitution in the United States, 47% of the women stated that men expected sex without a condom, 73% said that men offered to pay more for sex without a condom, and 45% said that men became abusive if she insisted that condoms be used.2 Women’s testimonies reveal how women in indoor prostitution may in reality be less able to control the conditions and interaction with men and research indicates that women are highly at risk of multiple forms of sexual violence and rape in indoor locations.3

The impacts on women’s mental health are also severe. In a study of 119 women in indoor and outdoor locations, performing prostitution sex was a negative and/or traumatic experience 90% of the time, with women feeling a range of negative emotions including sadness, worthlessness, anger, anxiety, and shame. Seventy per cent of respondents reported using substances to detach emotionally, and the findings suggest that while some women may enter prostitution in order to support their drug or alcohol habit, once in prostitution, the study found that women use substances to self-medicate and to manage their fears of being hurt.4 Understanding of the traumatic and long term effects of sexual violation have grown extensively in psychological clinical literature over the past two decades. The recognition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which includes symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks and emotional numbing as a consequence of being subjected to traumatic events, has been accompanied by a growing awareness of the emotional damage and mental health impacts of child sexual abuse, domestic violence, rape and sexual exploitation.5

The TORL worked closely with the Women’s Sexual Health Service of the Health Service Executive (WHS) who highlighted that a core part of the Nordic approach is to continue to provide services on health care and safety for women. The WHS also stressed that each contact with a woman is an opportunity to provide her with as much support and as many options as possible, including exit strategies.

Personal statement by Linda Latham, Manager of the Women’s Health Service, Health Service Executive, Dublin (WHS) and the Anti-human trafficking Team (AHTT)

The Women’s Health Service (WHS) service was set up for women involved in prostitution in 1991. At that time heroin use was prolific in Dublin and women were using prostitution as a means of getting money for drugs and also for general living expenses.

We also knew that women were under pressure to earn money to finance partners’ drug habits and many were also managed by pimps. From 2002 we began to see the emergence of women attending who seemed to be trafficked into this country for sexual exploitation. Staff worked women to develop individual care plan following on from the introduction of human trafficking legislation in Ireland in 2008.

WHS continues as a specialist sexual health, outreach and education service for women actively involved in prostitution. In 2010 the HSE established a dedicated Anti-Human Trafficking team which is first responder to women and men suspected of being trafficked for sexual/labour exploitation. Victims have access to case worker support, accommodation, legal aid, social welfare payments, Garda investigation into the crime of human trafficking and referral for education pathways once established as a victim of human trafficking.

Both teams now operate under one service and my management. This allows me a broad perspective on how the actual lives of women/men are affected whilst involved in the sex industry, of those who managed to exit it and indeed those trafficked into the Industry. This learning and overview over a long period of time, I hope allows for a more comprehensive evaluation on the needs of those individuals at the various stages and gives me the context upon which to base my requests for service provision.

Learning from Sweden

As part of the Dignity project6, I had the opportunity to visit Sweden and examine their approach first-hand. I was totally impressed by the comprehension of sexual exploitation, gender equality and resulting polices. I found the whole visit inspirational and transformative. The attitude to buying sex from vulnerable women was met with a natural understanding of gender inequality and it was ‘dealt with twenty years ago’ as a form of violence against women that was seen as unacceptable in a modern society. I also visited the services for women in prostitution. My learning from a purely service provision perspective formed a basis from which I could envisage a holistic health care service appropriate to the specific needs of all women involved in the sex industry. I had felt for a number of years working in the WHS that the service we offered was somewhat limited in its harm reduction ethos. If we wished to provide appropriate care for service users, we needed to wholly encompass the concepts of holistic care and properly address exit strategies with individual women. To continue giving out condoms and messages of ‘how to keep safe’ whilst women were ironically in a hugely exploitative and violent industry, would be defeating the object and perpetuating the issues.

My fundamental disagreement with sex worker right groups is that the pre-occupation with trying to make safe and improve the conditions for sex workers, I feel results in the loss of seeing what is actually causing the greatest harm of all, which is the prostitution itself. This is reinforced to me week in, week out by women in clinic traumatised and deeply affected by the impacts of the sex industry.

The harm of prostitution

All women regardless of their causative entry into the sex industry are exposed to significant harms and exploitation. The terms ‘forced’ or ‘unforced’ does not honestly reflect the routes into prostitution. Most women have experienced some form of disadvantage, abuse, poverty and resulting vulnerability, coercion or deception that results in their consequent exploitation. The harms for both trafficked and prostituted women are evident in any one of our 1700 patient files and are unarguably traumatising for the women themselves. All women are subjected to degrading violation of their bodily integrity evident from the sexual acts they are asked or demanded to perform. Many women disclose that they are constantly asked not to use condoms by men and they feel pressured into taking such risks exposing them to HIV, Hepatitis, Syphilis, Gonorrhoea and other sexually transmitted infections. (Kelleher et al, 2009). Many women in my experience begin at some stage to realise the effects of being involved in short or long term prostitution. A comprehensive thought out and financed exit strategy that enables women a pathway into education, training and employment is what is totally required if we are serious about effecting change and giving holistic care to women. So it does not have to be an either/or situation. Whilst WHS offer full and comprehensive health promotion on issues of safer sex, sexual health and contraception I feel we are morally and ethically obliged to support and assist women seeking to exit prostitution.

This change in perspective has shaped the work we do with women and our partnerships with the other services such as Ruhama and ICI who actively work with significant numbers of women in prostitution/victims of trafficking. Addressing exiting is performed sensitively and professionally over a phased period of time and gives the person the opportunity to review her options and life plan without pressure. I think it’s imperative that women are provided with assistance if they are at all in a position which affords them the possibility of exiting prostitution and empowers them to make positive changes in their lives.


To legalise a highly violent and damaging sex industry by endorsing the right to buy sex from these vulnerable women and girls only serves to create further demand for younger, more exotic girls/women that feeds the global trafficking and exploitation of all women and girls. Over 95% of attendees at our services are migrant women and therefore Ireland is part of that global network where so many are exploited and abused. With the full decriminalisation for women, which is a fundamental part of the Nordic approach, all of the concerns for health promotion/prevention could be addressed and holistic health needs, including assisting women in a position to exit, facilitated. Ireland is a destination country with a sizable commercial sex market which is led by Irish men’s demand but serviced by migrant impoverished women. I believe Ireland has a moral and ethical obligation to protect women and children from exploitation within our country by criminalising the buying of another person for sex.


1World Health Organisation (WHO) (2002). World report on violence and health. Geneva: WHO.
2Raymond, J., Hughes, D. and Gomez, C. (2001). Sex trafficking of women in the United States: Links between international and domestic sex industries. Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW).
3Raphael, J. and Shapiro, D.L. (2002) Sisters Speak Out: The Lives and Needs of Prostituted Women in Chicago, Chicago: Center for Impact Research.
4Kramer, L.A. (2003). Emotional experiences of performing prostitution. Journal of Trauma Practice, 2 (3/4), 187-197.
5Courtois, C.A. and Gold, S.N. (2009). The need for inclusion of psychological trauma in the professional curriculum: A call to action. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 1 (1), 3-23. Farley, M. (2004). Bad for the body, bad for the heart: prostitution harms women even if legalized or decriminalized. The case against legalizing prostitution. Violence against Women, special issue, 10 (10) 1087-1126.
6See section/link for description of the Dignity project.

Prostitution and the levels of sexual and physical violence experienced by women

TORL ensured that partner organisations were familiar with the substantial body of empirical evidence on the harm of prostitution, in order to reveal the truth of what women experience and dispute the claim that prostitution can be a safe occupation for women. International research consistently reveals that the rates and frequency of severe violence, including homicide, are exponentially higher for women in prostitution than the general population of women and girls.1 Research conducted in five countries indicated that 80% of women in prostitution had violence-related injuries, 60% had been sexually assaulted and between 60% and 70% had been subjected to verbal abuse and threats; the study also revealed that the sex demanded in prostitution was infused with degrading, humiliating and abusive acts.2

Street prostitution emerges as a very high risk setting in most studies in terms of physical assault, drug related crime and sexual assault, with studies indicating figures as high as between 60% and 86% for instances of rape, beatings and robbery.3 However, interviews with 854 women currently or recently in prostitution across nine countries revealed high incidences of violence and abuse in all types of settings including the streets, indoor brothels, massage parlours, and escort services. Between 70% and 95% per cent of women reported physical assault; between 60% and 70% reported being raped and over 95% reported levels of sexual harassment, which in any other context would be legally actionable.4

Research also indicates that the majority of women move between different settings and are therefore exposed to multiple forms of risk. Raphael and Shapiro (2003) measured the prevalence of violence that customers, managers, pimps, and intimate partners perpetrated against 222 women in Chicago, in 26 different types of prostitution activities/venues, including exotic dancing, escort agency, brothels, own homes and massage parlours. Street prostitution had the highest proportion of physical assault with 70% of women being punched, 79% being threatened with a weapon and 64% reporting forced sex. However, 50% of women reported forced sex in indoor venues and 33% reported threatened rape, fingers or objects inserted vaginally or forced sex in their own homes or in hotels. This study also measured frequency of the different forms of violence women were subjected to, with 21% of women on the streets and in escort services stating that they had been raped more than ten times.5

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre played a key role in the campaign in focussing the debate on the levels of sexual violence endemic in the commercial sex trade and the importance of challenging the issue of sexual consent within prostitution.

Statement by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) which for almost forty years has offered counselling, psychotherapy and a variety of related services to adults who have experienced rape, sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse. One of the enduring realities of Irish society is sexual violence. Its prevalence is a particularly challenging figure to determine. From the most comprehensive national longitudinal research, The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) study,6 we know that four in ten (42%) Irish women reported experiencing some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. While annual statistics provide general trends for those who choose to disclose abuse to professional agencies, such as the DRCC, it provides limited insight into the total number of individuals who have been sexually abused in the general population and reveals even less about those involved in prostitution. Rape and sexual abuse, like prostitution, have been hidden crimes in our society for far too long.

There are those who suggest that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession and that women select it freely. The partners campaigning under the Turn Off the Red Light banner, contend that prostitution is a form of gender-based oppression. Like rape and sexual abuse, prostitution is inherently harmful and abusive. It violates the human dignity and integrity guaranteed to all under the UN Declaration on Human Rights 1948. Human rights define what kind of life is worthy of a human being, what kind of life is worth living. Intrinsic to prostitution are numerous violations of human rights: sexual harassment, economic servitude, educational deprivation, partner and family violence, racism, classism, vulnerability to frequent physical and sexual assault, and being subjected to bodily invasions that are equivalent to torture.7 These human rights violations describe much of what is told and heard every day in the therapy rooms and on the National 24-Hour Helpline, 1800 77 88 88, operated from the DRCC.

The belief that prostitution is a choice allows the punters, pimps and traffickers to obscure the abuse involved and to focus on the concept of right and entitlement for the abuser because a payment has been made. The assumption being made, that once he pays, she no longer matters. The fact that money is exchanged cannot disguise the fact that what occurs in prostitution is sexual violence. Continuing to focus on the criminalisation of women and not on the punters and pimps underlines the shame and isolation caused by sexual violence, thereby reinforcing a woman’s reliance on the abusive and criminal network of those who control her life. All too often that violence and coercion are the realm of the pimp so that the punter can hold on to the fantasy that the sex is consensual. All of which creates an illusion; the illusion that women want to be there; that they deserve to be treated this way; which results in, not only normalising but also perpetuating violence against women in general.

The SAVI Report (2002) suggested that the general public needs to view prostitution as ‘violence against women and as a human rights issue’. It recommended public awareness and education aimed at increasing the understanding of the situation of women in prostitution. In 2015 the DRCC’s ‘AskConsent’ campaign set out to raise awareness on the issue of sexual consent. The aim of the campaign was to stimulate important discussion amongst Irish adults and encourage young people to think carefully about effective sexual communication. In educating young people how to communicate appropriately during sexual encounters, it will also play a preventative role by reducing the potential for non-consensual sexual activity to occur. And given the legal and societal uncertainties surrounding the concept of consent, initiatives like this are a vital tool in combating sexual violence. Accepting that prostitution is part of an exploitative sex industry, raises the question as to whether someone can freely consent to be exploited? Women in prostitution comply rather than consent to a punter’s demands. Rather than ask why, or if, women choose prostitution, attention needs to be focussed on why so many men choose to buy women.

The mission of the DRCC is to prevent and heal the trauma of rape and sexual abuse; it was one of our many reasons to get involved in the work of the TORL Campaign, to collaborate in combating the violence and exploitation associated with prostitution. The vast majority of those involved in prostitution are experiencing some form of coercion. Many of the women who are involved in Ireland’s sex industry, had no real choice –poverty and life circumstances, combined with deception and exploitation, are evident in many of their stories. Associated with the risk of selling their bodies repeatedly to strangers is the daily risk of physical and sexual violence. We need to decriminalise those exploited in prostitution, so that they are not punished for being abused. Rape and sexual assault are very difficult crimes to report and to get convictions because of the nature of the crimes. We know from our experience that victims of rape and sexual violence who are involved in the sex industry are less likely to report these crimes and get justice for themselves, hence the perpetrators will be less likely to be punished and may well continue to commit these heinous crimes with impunity.


1Potterat, J.J., Brewer, D.D., Muth, S.Q., Rothenberg, R.B., Woodhouse, D.E., Muth, J.B., Stites, H.K. and Brody, S. (2004). Mortality in a long term open cohort of prostitute women. American Journal of Epidemiology, 159, 778-785.
2Raymond, J., D’Cunha, J., Ruhaini Dzuhayatin, S., Hynes, P., Ramirez Rodriguez, Z. and Santos, A. (2002). A comparative study of women trafficked in the migration process: Patterns, profiles and health consequences of sexual exploitation in five countries. Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW).
3Hoigard, C. and Finstad, L. (1992). Backstreets: Prostitution, money and love. Cambridge: Cambridge Polity Press.
4Farley, M., Cotton, A., Lynne, J., Zumbeck, S., Spiwak, F., Reyes, M.E., Alvrez, D., Sezgin, U. (2003). Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries: An update on violence and post-traumatic stress disorder. In M.Farley (Ed.) Prostitution, trafficking and traumatic stress (pp. 33 74). Haworth Press.
5Raphael, J. and Shapiro, D.L. (2002). Sisters speak out: The lives and needs of prostituted women in Chicago. Chicago: Center for Impact Research.
6Mc Gee, H., Garavan, R., De Barra, M., Byrne, J. and Conroy, R. (2002). Sexual abuse and violence in Ireland: A national study of Irish experiences, beliefs and attitudes concerning sexual violence. Dublin: Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the Liffey Press.
7Farley and Barkan (1998) cited in Healy, G. and O’Connor, M. (2006). The links between prostitution and sex trafficking: A briefing handbook. European Women’s Lobby and the Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW).

The Intersection of Prostitution, Migration and Trafficking

The intersection of female migration, trafficking and prostitution was a core issue for the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) and TORL. At the present time, women constitute nearly half of the estimated 195 million migrants in the world and, not surprisingly, worldwide trends indicate a flow of women migrating from poorer, less economically advanced regions and countries into richer, post-industrialised areas of the world. The factors driving women to migrate are primarily poverty, war, conflict and socio-economic policies which have increased gender inequality and lowered social protection for women.1

For millions of women, the resources and possibility to legally migrate and the opportunity to enter regulated employment in advanced economies is minimal, forcing them to take huge risks, place themselves in debt, pay huge sums to intermediaries and smugglers for false papers and transport routes to escape situations of deprivation. It is within this context that vulnerable girls and women are easily targeted by traffickers who coerce and deceive in order to directly supply human beings as a commodity for sale and for exploitation, in co-operation with international networks and organised criminals in the place of destination.2 Consequently, the migration routes of the ‘transnational sex trade’ lead from the Global South to the North and increasingly in Europe from the poorer Eastern states to the wealthier Western EU member states.3

The burgeoning sex industries of destination countries have become one of the easiest and most lucrative locations in which to supply cheap female labour due to a number of factors including: the ever increasing demand for a fresh supply of girls and young women; the level of organised crime and illegal activity within the sex industry; the high profit margins in the organisation of the sale of commercial sex; and the potential for multiple occasions of use and exploitation.4 In this context, it is not surprising that migrant women are increasingly over represented in every aspect of prostitution and the ‘sexual entertainment’ sectors of western countries. Migrant women now make up between 80% and 90% of those in prostitution in Italy, Spain, Austria and Luxembourg, and between 60% and 75% in Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Greece, Denmark and Norway.5 The ICI research revealed a similar trend in Ireland, with up to 97% of women advertised for sale on the internet being migrant women from over 51 different countries.

TORL demonstrated that in the present era of globalization, migration and prostitution are structurally linked, and that the laws adopted in the past to regulate prostitution have to be revisited with a new lens, informed by migration. Prostitution thrives on inequality, violence and criminality, and trafficking for prostitution is the most prevalent form of human trafficking in Ireland as elsewhere. Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation represents on average 75% of the detected trafficking crime in Ireland. EUROSTAT (2013, 2014) reports indicate that sex trafficking accounts for 69% of the identified human trafficking cases in the European Union. Overall 80% of all victims are women, while their proportion climbs up to a staggering 95% within the crime of sex trafficking. Adopting a gender neutral approach to migration puts migrant women at a disadvantage, in the same way that a gender neutral approach to combatting human trafficking fails very vulnerable sexually exploited women.

The legal team of the ICI have played a key role in TORL, highlighting the experiences of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and women in prostitution who are accessing legal advice and legal representation.

Statement from the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) legal services team

The Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) legal services started seeing victims of trafficking in 2005 prior to any State recognition of trafficking or the provision of any legislative response. The facts were compelling and concerning. This case work resulted in the organisation prioritising the issue and seeking law reform to protect victims of trafficking and end demand. It has been a particular strength of the ICI’s lobbying position that it is informed by the experiences of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and women in prostitution accessing legal advice and representation services, provided by its Independent Law Centre. The Law Centre provides a specialist, holistic legal representation service to migrant women who have been trafficked to Ireland.

The Law Centre has advised and represented women on issues such as regularising their immigration status, their rights under domestic and EU law including free movement and access to social welfare. Many of the women presenting were vulnerable EU migrants, some of whom were not aware of their rights to engage in lawful employment in Ireland and other EU Member States and others who were in prostitution due to extreme poverty and the inability to access social benefits. Others entered Ireland as international students but have not been able to afford to continue their studies, especially if attending ‘rogue’ colleges that have been closed down.

The Law Centre has also acted for many clients who were victims of trafficking and provided advice or representation to 31 victims in 2015. The ICI represented women from the time of considering the safety implications of escaping from a situation of exploitation, through formal victim identification procedures, to securing more long term immigration status and being granted Irish citizenship. The core of the ICI’s legal work has been focused on victim identification by the State, securing immigration status and representing clients through the asylum process where appropriate. Being granted appropriate migration status acts as a key to unlocking access to rights, enables women to start to recover and establish a permanent future. The ICI has consistently challenged the Department of Justice and the Gardaí on the significant delays and inadequacies in the Irish victim identification procedure. The ICI has also represented women across a broader range of matters that are essential to rebuilding women’s lives. These include consular supports and applications for travel documents, reporting racist incidents, access to social welfare payments and, most importantly, family reunification with their children. Of critical importance for our clients’ future access to employment and citizenship applications, the ICI has made representations to ensure that clients are not prosecuted or that criminal convictions entered against them prior to identification as a victim of trafficking are not held against them.

Many of ICI’s clients who are victims of trafficking experienced some vulnerability or placed their trust in someone, which was exploited by traffickers promising employment opportunities as carers or nurses or in education. Many experienced extreme poverty in their country of origin. Some are orphans who had lost any family support network and found themselves alone. They tend not to have had many educational opportunities. Many of those of African ethnicity have strong beliefs in the power of voodoo to control them. Most women were informed they had enormous bills to repay for their travel to or across Europe.

Through advocating for individual rights, the ICI gained insights into the degradation and abuse women experienced in prostitution, the methods used to coerce and threaten women and maintain their vulnerability as well as the fear and emotional and physical pain that remain with many women for years after exiting. Case work was stark in highlighting that while others profited from the exploitation of clients, many clients themselves experienced ongoing financial hardship because of loss of time, loss of earnings, missed educational opportunities, missed early career development and sometimes criminal convictions relating to prostitution. Further, it showed the reality for women of living with the negative health implications of being forced to have frequent and unprotected sex. The Law Centre heard stories of the daily humiliations of being forced to do the ‘bad job’, the violence perpetrated against women on a regular basis, and the pain of recurring memories of men who raped them. The case work also evidenced the fact that some clients were groomed as minors and exploited in the sex industry as young teenagers.

Direct representation of women, experts in their own experience, not only informed the lobbying work but also lent it weight and credibility. It made it possible to point to case studies at critical moments in the campaign. One of the Law Centre’s clients, ‘Anna’, was featured in TORL’s advertising, postcard and online campaign to highlight the reality of prostitution and the young age at which most girls enter prostitution. ‘Anna’ was a client of the ICI for over six years. She was represented initially in relation to revoking a Deportation Order that had issued against her and being granted permission to reside in Ireland, and later in relation to family reunification, travel documents and access to child benefit. In a piece for camera for the ICI’s Moving Lives iportrait ‘Anna’ describes being sold by her brother-in-law as a 15-year-old child into prostitution in Ireland. The strong relationship that was built up between the ICI and ‘Anna’ enabled this story to be told on an anonymous basis to protect the client. ‘Anna’ explains that when she was told what she would have to do, ‘I started crying and screaming and this went on for about seven years’. She outlines her experience: ‘I used to work from 12 in the daytime until 6 o’clock the next day. That was like seven days a week… They could see I was a little child… There was a guy holding me by the throat. I couldn’t breathe for half an hour… They used to beat me up’.


1United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNESCO) (2004). Economic causes of trafficking in women in the UNECE Region. ECE/AC/.28?2004/10. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (2006). State of the World Population: A passage to hope, women and international migration. UNFPA.
2Bales, K. (2003). Because she looks like a child. In B. Ehrenreich and A. Russsell Hochschild (Eds.) Global women: Nannies, maids and sex workers in the new economy (pp. 207-230). London: Granta Books. D’Cunha, J. (2002). Legalising prostitution: In search of an alternative from a gender and rights perspective. In Seminar on the effects of Legalization of Prostitution Activities: A critical analysis organized by the Swedish government, 5-6 November, Sweden.
3Marttila, A.M. (2008). Desiring the “other”: Prostitution clients on a transnational red-light district in the border area of Finland, Estonia and Russia. Gender Technology and Development, 12, 31-51.
4Monzini, P. (2005). Sex traffic: Prostitution, crime and exploitation. London: Zed Books.
5Tampep (European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers) (2009). Sex work in Europe: a mapping of the 25 European countries. The Netherlands: TAMPEP International Foundation.

Prostitution, men and demand

A major focus of TORL was to address the demand for prostitution sex. The campaign argued that the supply of girls and women into the sex trade would not be necessary without male demand, and that the legalisation of sex work enshrines in legislation the right of men to have access to women’s bodies by the payment of money. TORL challenged the fundamental assertion that the State should recognise this demand by introducing laws which give permission to men to buy a person for sex, whilst failing in its responsibility to protect the rights of women from commercial sexual exploitation. TORL also made the link to trafficking citing numerous international instruments and European Directives obligating states to address demand as a critical anti-trafficking measure.1

TORL rejected the claim by sex work advocates that buyers desire mutual, consensual sex and that they are respectful of the women they buy. The campaign cited numerous studies which indicate that gratification of their own sexual needs with no thought or concern for the individual woman is the norm. International surveys with buyers consistently indicate that buyers objectify and denigrate the woman, with many believing that they could do anything to her once they had paid and that the concept of rape did not apply to women in prostitution.2 The analysis of Ireland in the ICI research reflects similar attitudes, where the language in their reviews of women is one of entitlement, aggression and consumerism. TORL refuted the myth that the profile of these buyers is one of lonely men in need of company and sex who are unable to engage with women in any other way. The profile of men in Ireland who reported that they buy sex (one in 15) bears out international research that the majority are married or in a relationship and they tend to be highly educated with incomes in the middle range.3

TORL also presented research indicating buyers are indiscriminate in relation to the supply of girls and women made available to them and are rarely concerned about the origin and circumstances of the person being bought. In a five country European study on demand which included Ireland, nearly one-third of buyers reported that they had encountered sellers they believed were being exploited.Similarly, interviews with over 100 male sex purchasers in the U.K. found that the majority of men who had purchased sex in indoor facilities were aware of pimping, trafficking, violence and coercive control over the prostituted women they purchased in massage parlours, brothels, and escort agencies.5 However, there is no evidence in either study that this belief deters buyers from purchasing sex from coerced and trafficked women, nor any evidence that they reported these crimes to the authorities. A consistent finding of all studies is that one of the most effective deterrents for buyers is the criminalisation of the purchase of sex.

The Men’s Development Network played a crucial role in the campaign highlighting the important role men can play in challenging sexual exploitation and the commercial sex trade.

Statement by Alan O’Neill, The Men’s Development Network
The Role of Men

The Men’s Development Network aimed to highlight a number of key issues including:
  • How promoting the concept of sex work gives a message to men and boys that it is ok to buy someone for sexual gratification
  • How this increases the commodification and objectification of women for men and boys
  • How the massive growth in the commercial sex trade undermines a positive message of mutual negotiated sex for young women and men which is based on respect and reciprocity
  • The importance of including and mobilising men to challenge prostitution as sexual exploitation and a form of violence against women
How promoting the concept of sex work gives a message to men and boys that it is ok to buy someone for sexual gratification

It starts early. Most boys growing up will hear other boys tell “jokes” about prostitutes, whores i.e. women in prostitution or women being sold for sex, but they will never be described in these latter ways.

Young men who don’t understand the circumstances in which women are exploited by the sex trade who are also young men who want to be supportive of women and feminism hear from women in the sex trade (in the media) that they want their “work” recognised and the right to be able to work legally. Men and young men who are supportive of workers’ rights are swayed by these proposals as they use the language of workers’ rights, trade unionism, women’s right to choose, women’s right to their own bodies, ending oppression, and sexual and social liberation.

There has been no widely available public analysis of the sex trade until the arrival of Turn Off the Red Light Campaign. Buying someone for sexual use (gratification is the pleasurable emotional reaction of happiness in response to a fulfilment of a desire or goal and seems an inappropriate term to describe the abuse that is involved in buying someone for sexual use) has only recently become clear as the purpose of the sex trade and this clarity is being constantly muddied by those promoting “sex work”. This leaves some men unclear about what is ok and what is not. The understanding that the purpose of selling women for sex is to make money for those who sell them helps explain this. Keeping the selling of women for sex hidden has helped those who sell the women exploit them as much as they want to make as much money out of them as they can.

The inequality in terms of men who have money being able to get what they want, combined with avoiding the necessity to face up to the exploitation involved by calling it ‘sex work’, is what keeps the sex trade going. TORL hasn’t distinguished between the buying of boys and young men for sexual use and the buying of women and girls, as the legislation we are working for will cover both.

How promoting the concept of sex work increases the commodification and objectification of women for men and boys

The fact that women in prostitution are a hidden group of human beings who are not given the same level of attention, support and equality as other human beings contributes hugely to the commodification and objectification of women for men and boys. Objectification of this oppressed group allows for them to be demeaned, dismissed, described, discussed in terms reserved usually for disposable objects or items, or things that engender disgust. This is how oppression of groups of human beings works. Among women in prostitution this oppression results in much higher levels of violence, abuse, injury and death. Women in prostitution are sacrificed by society in this way. Men’s empathy for them is virtually non-existent as a result of the misinformation that they receive and are encouraged to engage in. Calling the oppression of women by selling them for sex “sex work” is a huge reinforcement of this misinformation.

How the massive growth in the commercial sex trade undermines a positive message of mutual negotiated sex for young women and men which is based on respect and reciprocity

Heterosexual men’s fantasies include the fantasy of sexually available and willing women. In our fantasies we can be attracted to the idea of sex without commitment or responsibility. The commercial sex trade suggests that these fantasies are available in reality. This of course isn’t true. Availability costs money, it is a pretence, there is no willingness. For example, once a trade is completed availability vanishes. The sexual pressure from men on women who are not in the sex trade can be that they should also support this pretence. Pornography adds to this pressure. These huge contemporary pressures severely undermine the possibility of intimate relationships between men and women. Mutually negotiated sex for young women and men needs to be based on respect, reciprocity, consent and love. Prostitution and pornography are a world away from these levels of connection.

The importance of including and mobilising men to challenge prostitution as sexual exploitation and a form of violence against women

The importance of including and mobilising men in this regard is that the men who take part in the campaign must then engage in some level of understanding of the oppression of women, of abuse and violence as perpetrated in the sex trade, and of the misinformation about it that men have been exposed to since birth. This more aware group of men can then become a model for other men and this gives these other men the opportunity to question their own assumptions about the sex trade and its effects. It also allows men the opportunity to confront their misunderstandings and lack of empathy. The actual horror of the sex trade then impacts on men in a way that is effective and less easy to dismiss. When men who are leaders in key civil society and national organisations are prepared to be seen publicly supporting the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign then the idea that buying women for sex is wrong becomes more widespread and opposing buying women in this way becomes normal. Men are reminded of their inherent decency and are more prepared to remind other men of theirs too. This makes it easier to talk about the men who do buy women for sex in Ireland, how many of them there are and what social strata they come from, without the majority of men feeling accused when these details are presented. The distinctions that are required to be understood such as the need for the decriminalising of the women and the criminalising of the buyers become more easily understood. The capitalist exploitation that is involved in the sex trade becomes apparent. The necessity to end demand becomes clear.


1See the UN Palermo Protocol and the Council of Europe Convention on Trafficking. Also Directive 2011/36/EU of the European Parliament and the Council of 5 April on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Protecting its Victims, and Replacing Council Framework Decision 2002/629/JHA (Trafficking Directive).
2Marttila, A.M. (2008), Desiring the “other”: Prostitution clients on a transnational red-light district in the border area of Finland, Estonia and Russia. Gender Technology and Development, 12 31-5. Farley, M. Bindel, J. and Golding, J. (2009). Men who buy sex: who they buy and what they know. EAVES, London and Prostitution Research and Education, San Francisco. MacLeod, J., Farley, M., Anderson, L. and Golding, J. (2008). Challenging men’s demand for prostitution in Scotland. Glasgow: Glasgow Women’s Support Project.
3Keegan, E. and Yonkova, N. 2014 Stop Traffik! Tackling demand for sexual services of trafficked women and girls. Immigrant Council of Ireland, funded as part of the ISEC Stop Traffik! Programme, European commission
4Ibid 3.
5Farley, M., Bindel, J. and Golding, J. (2009). Men who buy sex: who they buy and what they know. EAVES, London and Prostitution and Research and Education, San Francisco.