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. 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.



1Kelly, L. (2002). Journeys of jeopardy: A review of research on trafficking in women and children in Europe.  Vienna: International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
2Farley, 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 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder’, in Farley, M., ed, Prostitution, Trafficking and Traumatic Stress, Haworth Press.
3DeRiviere, L. (2006). Human capital methodology for estimating the lifelong personal costs of young women leaving the sex trade. Feminist Economics, 12 (3), 367-402.