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 front line service providers 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.

 Statement from Sarah Benson, CEO of Ruhama

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.


Sr Stan Kennedy –
Founder of the Immigrant Council of Ireland
Dr Monica O’Connor

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).