A roundtable discussion took place with representatives from Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) and Front Line Defence (FLD) to discuss the realities surrounding sex work in Ireland. The event, organised by UCDSU’s Gender Equality Campaign Coordinator Jade Wilson was to inform students that “while the decriminalisation of sex work is a step in the right direction, it fails to secure the safety of sex workers.”

In preparations for the event, Wilson said “I was asked to support an open letter they penned to Brighton University, which had faced a lot of backlash for allowing a sex workers support group to run stalls at their freshers event. The university was not encouraging sex work but offering support and information to student sex workers who may need it. I think UCD should do the same.”

“[Sex workers] ability to report violence against them is limited due to the illegality of purchasing sex work. Clients of sex workers who fear prosecution are more likely to become violent towards sex workers.”

Director of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, Kate McGrew opened with explaining that SWAI found that “sugar-babying” is the most popular version of sex work for students.

Started in 2006 by academics and researchers in response to the “Turn off the Red Light” campaign, which attempted to criminalise the purchase of sex as an “end demand tactic.” McGrew described that the way this campaign was looking at sex workers “as really having no agency whatsoever. They would say ‘there is this tiny percentage that choose, but overwhelmingly, people are coerced to be doing this, or so desperate that they have no other choices and therefore have no agency.'” The campaign was “conflating all migrant sex work with trafficking.”

McGrew described how SWAI looks at sex work “in a much more nuanced way, because we also know what it’s like. Even when you might have a few options that you can still be making a decision for yourself…We’re more concerned about what can not only protect people when they’re in the industry to make things as happy and healthy as possible, but also to fix everything else that leads to people doing sex work that don’t want to.”

“If we really thought that we could tell people that ‘it’s a bad thing’, ‘it’s a shameful thing’; If we really told people it was going to be illegal, that there would be a high price to pay for it; if that end demand tactic worked, we would see it where not only it’s partially criminalised, but where it’s fully criminalised, and we just don’t.”

The current law in Ireland criminalises the purchasing of sex, where McGrew explained “you can still sell sex, only if you are alone. They also double the brothel-keeping law, which was very frustrating for us. If you want to work legally you have to work alone. People find it less expensive and people find it safer to work with other people, but that’s illegal and that’s the main strategy we see for disrupting the sex industry.”

SWAI have been involved in massive campaigning and educating politicians which involved writing briefing papers, having seminar and roundtables. As McGrew described “as we were discovering…it was just taking time for people to understand the math of what happens during transactional sex and how even if you just criminalise the purchaser, it is going to make the worker compromise his/her safety.”

Speaking to the University Observer before the event, Media Coordinator for Front Line Defenders Erin Kilbride said that one of the misconceptions people have around sex work is “people tend to have a very narrow, reductive view of what sex work is and really do not understand the incredible breadth of different types of sex work that exist and the different access to rights and services that sex workers have, depending on where in the world they are doing it…There are radically different experiences of sex work everywhere in the world.” Through her work with activists in different countries, Kilbride said “it has absolutely blown open the way I understand this field of work and I’m sure that it would be the same for other people as well.”

Front Line Defenders focuses on working with people who describe themselves as “human rights defenders”. In her current project, which was motivated through meeting different LGBT human rights defenders “who themselves identified as sex workers and who were facing unique and intersecting risks”, FLD is “researching and broadening our understanding of what sex worker rights defenders do, what risks they face and the what they need to try and protect themselves against those risks.” This project is planned to be carried out in four different countries: Myanmar, Tanzania, Turkestan and El Salvador in January/February 2019.

Kilbride emphasised the point “when I talk about a risk that ‘sex workers in Tanzania face,’ these are sex workers that are very grass-roots level, many of whom are living in communities that struggle with poverty and are marginalised in one way or another already. We are not necessarily talking about elite sex workers in Manhattan, who have access to a whole lot range of safety and security by virtue of the fact that they have money.” Through interviews with sex workers in Tanzania, Kilbride recalled how “all but two of them told me that they had been sexually assaulted by police, either in detention, or during the arrest or on the street as a form of harassment if they refused to pay a bribe.”

Wilson hopes that the take home message of the event was that “the best way students and the general public can support sex workers is by being better allies. By listening to them, their lived experiences, and acting when they call on us to do so.” All three speakers encouraged students and the general public to attend demonstrations on 17th December – International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.