- 02 Dec 14
Irish sex worker and rights campaigner Laura Lee says proposed changes to the prostitution laws here are based on false data. She discusses the ‘Swedish Model’ and life as a dominatrix
Irish sex worker Laura Lee can still vividly recall her very first client, whom she serviced in a Dublin massage parlour when she was just barely out of her teens.
“He was a car dealer from Carrickmacross, in a long trench coat,” the curvy, 41-year-old dominatrix recalls. “Really stereotypical. It was his first time, too, so we both shook from head to toe, and it was quite comical. We got through it, though. I still remember the first thing I bought, as well, which was a Roxette cassette tape – that’s probably giving away my age! And I suppose I thought, ‘I ought to be feeling dirty or disgusted right now’, and I wasn’t at all. I felt very empowered.”
At the time Laura Lee (her professional name) was a 20-year-old law student, from a very respectable middle-class Dublin family.
“I was the daughter of a banker and a teacher, and myself and my younger brother and sister grew up in a nice affluent neighbourhood. Nothing to report, no horrendous background tales of abuse or anything like that. Yeah, it was good. Stable.”
She had lost her virginity three years previously.
“Yes, at the age of 17 in a sandy bunker in a golf club, and it was horrendous,” she laughs. “After that, I had a couple of relationships and the usual absolutely appalling one-night stands. Experimenting.”
She made the decision to become a part-time sex worker as an insatiably horny and open-minded young student.
“I was doing a Law degree in Portobello College. A lot of my friends were working three nights a week in bars and restaurants, but I took the unorthodox route of becoming the ‘Saturday girl’ at the local massage parlour. It was my own decision. I was always fascinated with the sex industry. It was something I had read a lot about, and it was an informed decision on my part. It’s not something I’ve regretted.”
More than two decades on, Lee is now based in Glasgow and still working in the sex industry as a much in-demand dominatrix. The single mother of a 13-year-old daughter, she is also a high profile campaigner for sex workers’ rights, writing a regular blog on her website, contributing articles to newspapers, and engaging in radio, TV and college debates.
Her teenage daughter is aware of her mother’s occupation.
“It was very much a drip-feed process,” she explains. “When she was seven or eight, it was like, ‘Mummy has this job which is not very orthodox. It’s not illegal, it’s not immoral; however, it’s probably best we don’t mention it at Parent’s Night!’ And from there it went to, ‘Mummy keeps men company who are lonely and don’t have a woman for one reason or another’.
“Bearing in mind that she’s only 13 and has only since last year found out how babies are made and she still thinks sex is the most appalling thing she’s ever heard of in her entire life, that she’s never, ever, ever going to do it. Then the conversation ends there. But she comes with me when I do a lot of my media work, my interviews, and when I’m arguing with politicians and stuff, so she’s well aware of what I’m at.”
BECOMING AN ESCORT
We’re meeting in a four-star hotel on the outskirts of Limerick. In Ireland for a few days, Lee has already seen a couple of regular clients and has also just participated in a University of Limerick debate on the proposed ‘Swedish model’ to curb prostitution, which would see the clients, as opposed to the prostitutes, prosecuted. She was debating against a representative of Ruhama, an organisation she holds in the utmost contempt.
“Ruhama didn’t have the best of starts in that they come from the same order of nuns that were behind the Magdalene Laundry atrocities,” she fumes. “They are very, very heavily-funded and they have a vested interest in making sure that this law goes through. Because if there is no-one to rescue, then their role is significantly reduced. They continuously misrepresent statistics in the media. I have asked them to stop it, on several occasions, and they won’t. It’s as simple as that.
“I don’t think mistruths have any place in a debate as important as the one around sex work right now. We can acknowledge that there is a certain small element of coercion and trafficking, but to extrapolate that out to the whole sex work industry is wrong. And it’s very injurious to consider implementing the Swedish model.”
A bright, witty and highly articulate woman, Lee’s prospects of a career in law ended when it transpired that one of her regular clients was an influential barrister. Another career in banking was similarly scuppered.
“I wasn’t allowed through my bar exams. I knew I had aced them and I wasn’t allowed through them. A certain individual, who was involved with the Bar Council of Ireland at that time, might have had similar interests to myself, and got a bit nervous about letting me through to the Bar Library. I’m not saying any more than that. I can’t. He’s dead now, anyway.
“He kind of made sure that I wasn’t going to be in the Bar Library, in that elite set. I firmly believe that to be the case. So, I dusted myself off and went into banking, being a bit of a daddy’s girl, and I did that for nine years, which also facilitated my move to Scotland. And the bank found out that I was working part-time as an escort, and they sacked me. I fought them for four years through the courts. I lost on a technicality in the end, leaving me over £40,000 in debt, which is where I’m at right now.”
Although she has taken breaks on a few occasions, her career in sex work has been relatively constant throughout her adult life.
“Well, I’ve retired three times so far. Never had a carriage clock yet. As I told you, I joined banking for nine years. I also trained as a barrister, both positions I lost by virtue of my association with the sex industry.”
Initially, as a happy go lucky 20-year-old, she was content just working Saturdays in the massage parlour.
“Yeah, I mean it wasn’t high-brow sort of stuff. Quickies, in-and-out type thing.”
Eventually she graduated to escorting.
“It was actually a client who said to me, ‘Why don’t you do escort work? You’d make a fortune, you’re so young and so pretty’, etc., so I migrated from the massage parlour to working for escort agencies. At that point, my life become a lot more chaotic, because it wasn’t shifts, it was long, long weekends, long nights. There was a lot of heavy partying and falling in with the wrong crowd. I became a gangster’s moll and, like an idiot, fell for the wrong guy who later went on to be shot dead.”
That ‘wrong guy’ was the notorious Dublin criminal PJ Judge, known to the redtops as ‘The Psycho’. It was reportedly a well-deserved moniker, but Lee has fond memories of him.
“He was kind to me,” she reveals. “He looked after me. He gave me money, paid my rent, brought me out. There was a side to him that nobody ever saw. But then, at that time, I didn’t know about the serious, psychotic side of him. When I was going out with him, he had a spade in the boot of his car, but I didn’t actually know that it was used to bury the bodies of guys that he had killed.”
Their relationship became so serious that Judge actually proposed, but Lee was smart enough to realise the serious drawbacks of being married to a mobster.
“I asked him to stop,” she recalls, becoming visibly upset. “I asked him to stop being a criminal. He had enough money, enough power. We could have been a family. He asked me to marry him and I thought about it. I told him that no criminal I know is enjoying being a grandparent, that they all end up either dead or in jail or not enjoying their grandkids, and to stop. He wouldn’t listen.”
Lee ended the relationship and moved to London for a time.
“Yeah, I ran away to London. I was 22 or 23 maybe. I hid. I called myself ‘Samantha Hyland’ and hid for six months in London, until it all died down. PJ said he wanted me to leave Ireland for good. So that was the wild six months. I arrived in London a size 16, blonde, and I came back a size 10, brunette. My dad walked past me at the airport. So that was a wild six months.”
She and Judge remained good friends upon her return from London. He was eventually shot dead outside the Royal Oak pub in Finglas, in December 1996.
“We were still friends, still met for coffee and stuff. His car was tagged, which was a nightmare. We were stopped every 10 minutes, going to the cinema. I asked him to stop and he wouldn’t. And I got up one Sunday morning and went to work in a massage parlour in South William Street, and I picked up the Sunday World and there it was: he’d been shot dead in a car park in Finglas.”
Laura Lee continued working as an escort, eventually specialising in BDSM.
“A lady I worked with in the escort agency in Dublin, she took me under her wing and showed me what was what, in terms of training me up for Dom work. It’s something I really, really enjoyed from the start because it’s like just taking yourself away from real life for an hour, that kind of fantasy role play.
“I was so green when I started, really pathetic. The first time a client asked for water-sports, I thought I had really made it in life and we were going yachting for the afternoon. And everyone else was laughing their arse off! So I had a lot to learn, but I had some good coaches.”
She doesn’t have any regrets. All told, it’s been quite a lucrative career.
“Apart from losing my case against the bank, yes, it has been financially rewarding,” she admits. “I’m now studying for my second degree. I’ve bought property, a car. I’ve had holidays and I’m able to support my little girl, as well, which is obviously the most important thing.”
She started campaigning for sex workers’ rights in 2008, after she’d been outed as an escort and sacked from her bank job.
“Some employees found my website and blew the whistle,” she explains. “I had gone to some lengths to hide my face, actually, but the curly hair gave it away. It was a really, really black time. I was in a very, very small highland town and I had dog excrement put through my letterbox, I had eggs thrown at my car, abuse screamed at me in the street, and I had a guy stroll up to my daughter, who was seven at the time, and say, ‘Your mum is going to die of AIDS!’
“At that time, in the same town, a guy was released from prison having served time for interfering with young children and the feeling in the town was, ‘Ah, leave him alone, he’s done his time’, and yet I was pilloried for having consenting sex with adults. So that was it, I just flipped: ‘I’ve had enough, I’m going to start standing up for myself here!’ That’s where my journey started.”
She does consider it a journey.
“I do, yeah. I think I’m getting stronger all the time, and more indignant and more angry. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
Having worked in the sex industry for most of her adult life, she claims never to have actually met a trafficked girl.
“Nope, never – and I’ve worked in some real dives,” she says. “Never ever met a trafficked girl. Remember that definition of ‘trafficking’ doesn’t coincide with the Palermo Protocol, so it doesn’t ask for coercion or deception to be included. So, for example, if I’m working in Dublin and I place a call home to Glasgow to one of my friends and say, ‘Hey, it’s really busy here, come out and work with me for a couple of days’, and I purchase her airfare online, I am then deemed to have trafficked her. So, the statistics that you’re presented with are completely skewed.”
What about the stories about Eastern European girls whose passports are taken away?
“I have no doubt that it does happen to a certain extent, but I would say, hand on heart, that the vast majority of sex workers in Ireland right now are there of their own volition,” she says. “The way to tackle the ever-increasing number of sex workers is to look at the driving forces that put them into prostitution in the first place. That’s poverty, it’s drug addiction, it’s a cut in benefits, and it’s the fact that we’re in the middle of a bone-crushing recession, which a lot of people tend to miss. 70 per cent of all sex workers are mothers, and that’s crucial in this debate.”
According to Lee, most sex workers would willingly report a trafficked girl to the law themselves.
“We’re actually quite a self-regulating industry and a community,” she explains. “We do have each other’s backs in that respect. If I got word of an underage girl or a girl who was coerced or frightened in any way, I would report that straight away. So would the clients.
“The clients do report these things all the time as well. Ruhama will tell you that they never do, but they do. I have done third party reports on behalf of clients. This law, this Swedish model that they’re trying to introduce: what they’re going to do is push the client further away from the authorities that can help these girls.
“No client is now going to come forward and say, ‘Look, I went to an apartment in Limerick and I’m really not happy with what I saw: that girl was very, very frightened’, because he’s essentially admitting to a crime now. That’s how serious it is that this is stopped. If they really want to see an end to suffering and exploitation in the sex industry, as I do, then surely they can see how nonsensical that is.”
Currently Laura Lee is planning to retire from escort work in the next couple of years.
“Just from sex work, I would say,” she explains. “Campaigning is going to be a lifelong thing. I’m adamant to reduce the stigma around sex work, particularly in Ireland. Somebody made a comment on Twitter the other day and I thought it was very funny but very true. We used to think that Father Ted was a comedy, but it’s actually a fecking documentary. It is. And I don’t think we’ve come very far from that mindset, at all.
“What worries me is that up in the North, you’ve got Lord Morrow working with CARE [Christian Action Research and Education], the Christian organisation,” she continues. “CARE have come up with this wonderful plan for these ‘poor fallen women’. They’re going to take them and put them into sheltered housing. This is, and I quote, ‘in case in the absence of sex work, they become thieves or drug dealers’.
“They’re going to get huge government funding for taking these ‘fallen’ women and locking them into this sheltered accommodation. Is this ringing any bells with anybody? It’s the Magdalene Laundries all over again!
“I really feel that in 20 years, there will be a huge apology to sex workers by Enda Kenny or whoever takes over from him – but by then, it will be 20 years too late.”