- 11 Aug 20
Sex workers in Ireland have been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. But unlike other sectors of society, no government support has been provided to what are – as a result of the imposition of the so called Nordic Model – among the most vulnerable groups in society…
Green activists and members are calling on the Green Party to oppose a recent decision by the Department of Justice, which denies a sex workers advocacy group Government funding.
Last week, Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI), was told that accessing Government funding would only be possible if the NGO changes its core philosophy and ‘admits’ that prostitution is unequivocally exploitative.
The Department of Justice has told the group that the current ‘values’ of SWAI are not in line with "wider Government policies." This is a deeply controversial stance, in that it implies that only organisations that toe the Government line are entitled to benefit in any way from Government funding.
“The Department’s understanding of organised prostitution in Ireland is also informed by strong evidence from An Garda Síochána that this activity is inextricably linked with organised crime involved in human trafficking,” a spokesperson for the Department of Justice has said.
Sex workers reject this view, arguing that it is based on the entirely false assumption that any non-Irish sex worker operating here is automatically ‘trafficked’.
In addition, SWAI believes that this policy runs foul of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) clear recommendation to member states to ensure a fair and equal inclusion of sex workers in State support, during the coronavirus pandemic.
The plea for Government support is no trivial matter. SWAI has said that 160 new sex workers have turned to them for help during the health emergency.
There may be those who are hoping that sex workers, male and female, will be forced to beg NGOs that are hostile to their profession, like the Roman Catholic Church-driven Ruhama, for support as a result of the lockdown. However, the greater likelihood is that those who provide sexual services for money will be forced to take risks with their own health and that of clients, in order to earn money to live on. In this way, the decision of the Department of Justice can be seen as a potential health hazard in itself.
CONSENSUAL SEX WORK
Civil Rights advocates and radical feminists alike have long felt uneasy about the extent to which the Ruhama organisation has been allowed to dominate the debate about what they like to call ‘prostitution’. Ruhama, which was founded by two religious orders, Good Shepherds Sisters and Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, is largely State-funded.
In contrast to Ruhama’s essentially moralistic and judgemental position, SWAI believes that sex work is often undertaken as a result of poverty and social inequality. But it is also, SWAI insists, most often a decision freely taken by those who see it as a better way to earn a living than the available alternatives.
It was under pressure from Ruhama that the so-called Nordic Model was introduced in Ireland in 2017. The approach, pioneered in Scandinavian countries, criminalises the purchase of sexual services, while decriminalising the sale of sexual services by an individual.
However, in a move that was clearly designed to divide and conquer, the new law increased the punishment for so called ‘brothel-keeping’. The effect was to jeopardise the safety of sex workers who operate in pairs.
In 2019, in a judgement that would astonish any sane people, two women were sentenced to nine months in jail by Naas District Court under the offence of brothel-keeping because they were working together in the same location. In contrast, in April, a man prosecuted for the purchase of sex did not face any jail time. His sentence was a €200 fine.
Opponents of the ‘Nordic Model’ also argue that by criminalising the purchase of sex, the policy makes sex workers complicit in criminal activities, a far cry from the stated – and rather condescending – objective of ‘protecting’ them.
Against that background, SWAI is campaigning for the full decriminalisation of consensual sex work in Ireland.
ALLIANCE BETWEEN CHURCH AND STATE
Adeline Berry, an intersex and transgender sex worker in Dublin and secretary of the board of SWAI, told Hot Press that the recent decision by the Department of Justice to exclude the organisation underlines the fact that, where it is convenient, the old hand-in-glove relationship between Church and State still operates here.
"It's just another example of a disastrous and shameful continued alliance between Church and State," she said. “Because, remember, that the State had no problem giving thousands of Euros for an advertising campaign aimed at stigmatising the clients of sex workers.”
Berry is referring to the ‘We Don’t Buy it’ campaign, which was jointly co-ordinated by Ruhama; the self-styled Men’s Development Network; and the Department of Justice. The campaign was aimed at ending male demand for prostitution by distributing literature and images intended to shame people away from buying sex.
One poster produced by the campaign, for example, labelled as a ‘myth’ the following statement: "Some women don't mind it. It's just a job, and they make good money." It goes on to describe as the 'truth' the much more emotive: "Vulnerable women are trafficked, beaten and enslaved because of the lies we tell ourselves."
While no one would say that sex work is free of exploitation or that there are no risks involved, sex workers refute that depiction of their role as inaccurate, moralistic and anachronistic.
Adeline Berry also criticised the campaign for linking sex work to a surge in HIV infections in the country, when in reality, she said, the Church and State have a history of perpetuating "ignorance toward the use of condoms in Ireland.”
Ms. Berry said that SWAI had to crowdfund support for its members during the pandemic due to lack of State support, raising over €24,000 thanks to the generosity of the Irish public.
“Many of those [sex workers who came to us] weren’t eligible to receive Covid-19 payments or didn’t believe that they were," she said.
“We do not see all sex work as inherently exploitative because it just isn’t. We are the experts in this, not those high-salaried board members in NGOs, funded and run by members of the Magdalene laundries order.
“We at SWAI would like nothing more than for every individual that would prefer not to be engaged in sex work to have other options available to them,” she said.
SWAI had been hoping that the inclusion of The Green Party in the new coalition Government would ease access to State funds for its members, who have been adversely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
In the past, the Greens had always expressed solidarity with Irish sex workers, advocating and supporting the adoption of the New Zealand model.
In the 2000s, New Zealand implemented full decriminalisation of sex work. The surge that had been threatened by opponents of the policy never materialised. The number of sex workers in New Zealand stayed flat at about 6,000. According to a New Zealand Government survey, condom use surged over 99 per cent following the adoption of the new law. A 2012 report also revealed that levels of depression and anxiety among sex workers in New Zealand was at the same level as women in the general population.
The Cork-based Green Party councillor Lorna Bogue, who has no difficulty criticising her own party, told Hot Press that she was disappointed about the party's failure to support sex workers.
“Once again, a progressive Green Party policy has had zero impact on the actions of Government,” she said. “It is clear that the idea that we would have influence at the table was vastly overstated to members, in order to convince them to vote to go into Government. Those who did this on purpose bear direct responsibility for the harm this Government causes as a result.”
Cllr Bogue said that she is not hopeful that her party could convince Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to “do the bare minimum of not actively harming people.”
"This paternalistic decision by the Department of Justice must be reversed as it is directly causing harm to sex workers," she said. "I'm disappointed that the position of Green Party, which is in support of New Zealand model and was democratically decided by our members at our convention, has been ignored and directly contravened by Green Party cabinet members."
Cllr Bogue is also the interim chair of an affiliate Green Party group known as 'Just Transition Greens', which includes party members who are campaigning for the adoption of progressive social justice policies as a vehicle to combat climate change.
Robert O'Sullivan, a young member of the Just Transition Group – who elects to use the pronoun 'they' rather than 'he' or 'she' – described the Department of Justice's decision not to provide funding for SWAI, and thereby to discriminate against sex workers, as an "ideological mis-step."
“This decision as it stands could fairly be seen as a statement of intent on behalf of the government, that it intends pursuing the Nordic Model regardless of the risks to safety for vulnerable workers,” they said.
“It is disappointing to see the Green Party seemingly allow this to happen. In the lifetime of the previous Dáil, the Greens were the only Party with a united platform in favour of supporting the welfare of sex workers.”
A spokesperson for The Green Party did not respond to Hot Press’ request for comment.
Main pic (l to r): Green Party members Bernadette Connolly, Liam Quaide, Lorna Bogue and Eamon Ryan. Pic Shamim Malekmian