- 26 Jul 22
Last week, DCU announced the death of Dr Vicky Conway, a human rights lawyer who was the Dublin college’s convenor of equality. In an interview, conducted earlier this year, Dr Conway argued convincingly for the legalisation of all sex work. Hot Press believes that we should continue to agitate for that change, in her honour…
Dr Vicky Conway, the renowned DCU academic who died last week, was a unique and powerful voice for human rights in Ireland. Nowhere was this more evident than in the way she acted as a clear-minded, completely unapologetic advocate for the rights of sex workers. It is a feminist stance – but one that placed her outside the ranks of conventional contemporary feminism in Ireland, making it all the more valuable.
The death of the accomplished and highly articulate academic, activist and policing expert, at the age of just 42, was announced by the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University (DCU), last Wednesday. Dr Conway was the department’s first convenor of equality, diversity and inclusion, and it was in this role that I spoke to her, in February of this year, as part of my work on a Master’s degree.
In the interview, she was typically direct and outspoken about the rights of sex workers – and the way in which the Irish legislation, introduced in 2017, and based on the so-called Nordic model, discriminates against and endangers them. She made the case to me for full legalisation of sex work in Ireland.
DEFINITION OF BROTHEL
The purchase of sex is a criminal activity in Ireland according to Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. However, the suggestion is frequently made by apologists for the law that the 2017 act offers protection to sex workers.
This argument has been dismissed by groups representing those who engage in sex work – and Dr Conway left me in no doubt as to where she stood on the issue.
Irish sex work laws, she told me, “do in effect criminalise the seller of sex in a way that significantly endangers them.”
She was not alone in this view. Other human rights organisations have criticised the law, insisting that the State fails to protect sex workers from violence by forcing them to take greater risks, in order to avoid the police. In fact, the Amnesty International report We Live Within a Violent System, released earlier this year, concludes that Irish law substantially increases the risk of physical attacks and rape for sex workers.
During our conversation, Dr Conway argued that Ireland must decriminalise not just sex work, but also the purchase of sex, in order to stop sex workers being pushed to the margins. Nor was she impressed by the way in which the issue of ‘trafficking’ is elided into sex work, and used as a pretext for anti-sex work laws.
“I would be against any criminalisation of the space at all, even criminalisation of the purchaser,” she told me. “If we're seeing this as a trafficking issue, we deal with that under human trafficking laws. All of the evidence from a number of different jurisdictions shows that criminalisation of the purchaser endangers the sex worker, because they will take more risks to satisfy the purchaser.
“For instance, Amnesty International published a report last week [on 25 January 2022] and even within that, we have a quote from a woman saying that she went very far down a lane so that the guards couldn't find him. But she didn't have an escape route when she did so. And that's just very clear evidence of the risks that criminalisation of the purchaser forces sex workers to take.
“The Minister for Justice at the time, Frances Fitzgerald, suggested when the laws were changed in 2017, that it was to criminalise the purchaser and not the seller. But that is not how our laws are operating. And we do have laws, particularly through the brothel keeping laws, which do in effect criminalise the seller of sex in a way that significantly endangers them.”
The 2017 Act increased the fine for brothel keeping to €5,000 or a jail term of up to twelve months, effectively barring women from working together for safety.
“Our definition of brothel is so small,” Dr Conway said. “The definition of brothel is two persons living together, which is something a lot of sex workers do for their own safety. It doesn't even have to be organised. Two women who live together and engage in sex work in their home – that is a brothel.”
Common sense tells you that this is absurd.
“A lot of sex workers want to live with someone that understands what they're doing and who can also be there as a safety requirement,” she explained. “So, the laws are having a very chilling effect. It also means that sex workers won't go to the police ordinarily to report an assault or abuse by a client. Sex workers are in fear that their behaviours may be investigated if they go to the guards about anything.”
The effect can be to leave dangerous predators free.
“If a sex worker is raped by a client,” Dr Conway said, “they might not go to the Guards, because they're worried that it happened in their home, there's another woman living there, and that they would then both be investigated for brothel keeping.”
ASSAULT AND COERCION
Sex workers also live in constant fear of being evicted, according to Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI), because their landlords are said to profit from the proceeds of sex work under the ‘Nordic model’. This approach to prostitution, which has also been adopted in countries like Sweden, Canada and France, aims to decrease the demand for sex work by criminalising sex buyers, rather than sex workers.
It is supported by various women’s rights organisations in Ireland, such as the National Women’s Council (NWC). According to Dr Conway, there are no advantages to Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act. She criticised its proponents.
“It's quite unfortunate that most of the agencies in this space, like the National Women's Council, all support the Nordic approach,” she said emphatically. “I think they're wrong. I don't think that's in the best interests of all women in society. Most of those in Ireland who state their preference for the Nordic model do so out of a fear of exploitation and human trafficking. My response to that is that we have other laws. We need to get the Guards using those effectively – and they don't use them very effectively. We shouldn't be finding other loopholes to address a problem. We should be addressing that problem head on.”
Is there any sort of argument at all against the legalisation of sex work in Ireland? Dr Conway was unapologetic in her views.
“Decriminalisation is one thing, legalisation is a whole other thing again,” she said. “I'm a big fan of the New Zealand approach where the legislation very specifically discusses the human rights of sex workers and the need to protect those. I think viewing sex work as a valid employment brings many safety benefits, not just for the sex worker but to society as a whole. We can start to regulate it, we can have systems whereby they have to engage in sexual health check-ups so we can be confident about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
“We would then need to work proactively on relationships with the police. Just because you decriminalise doesn't mean that you necessarily have a positive relationship with the police. That takes other work like education and trust building that has to happen for strong relationships to exist so that sex workers feel safe in reporting crimes (when they occur).”
Dr Conway emphasised that decriminalisation and legalisation of sex work are not the same.
“If you have a legal right to work in a certain space,” she explained, “all workers' rights would then apply, whether that's unionising, rest breaks, conditions of work, or health and safety. If we legalise sex work, all of that comes into play, which is a different thing to just decriminalising it. There are two different steps. The first step is decriminalisation. A second step then is legalisation, which brings with it all of those rights.”
The results of this can be observed in eight European countries – Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Greece, Hungary, Latvia and Turkey – where sex work is legal and regulated. In Austria, for instance, sex workers enter the market as ‘new self-employed’ and qualify for hardship funds and other social welfare schemes once they are formally registered and able to provide proof of a regular income, according to Sophie, the advisory body for sex workers in Austria.
The legal market lets legislators influence working conditions, carry out checks and support potential victims of sexual assault and coercion, with many provinces requiring sex workers to regularly undergo testing for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.
POLICED IN IRELAND
According to Dr Conway, legalisation is the right step – but sex workers must be supported additionally to ensure their safety.
“Under the Irish constitution, for instance, you have a right to bodily integrity,” she said. “This is the basis if we want to achieve gender equality – my body, my choice. But we should always be working to ensure that any woman or any man who engages in sex work is doing so freely and voluntarily.
“The idea that women are driven to it out of poverty, that they are being pushed into it either by partners or traffickers is deeply problematic. The greater the level of gender equality we have in broader society, the more we can ensure that nobody is being forced into this position. Removing the stigma is essential so that we can have those conversations properly, so people really feel free to talk about why they are engaging in sex work as a form of employment.”
Laws have a communicative power, Dr Conway said, which can help reduce stigma in society. This is key to encouraging people to have free conversations about why they are engaging in sex work as a form of employment.
“It is all about open conversation,” she argued. “Whether it's decriminalisation or legalisation, that does send a signal to broader society about these views. The more that we discuss this in the media and uplift and explore the research that has been done, the better. I've covered this on my podcast (Policed in Ireland) – in order to pursue a brothel keeping conviction, gardaí are seizing used condoms from apartments.
“The only impact of that is to push women to not use condoms, which is dangerous in many respects. If Ireland is committed to ending male violence against women, then changing this is essential. And bringing it into the conversation, which is getting much deserved and needed recognition at the moment, is really important.”
• With special thanks to the late Dr Vicky Conway and her extraordinary research and activism in the field.
Our sincere condolences to her family, friends, colleagues and students. She will be greatly missed.