Prostitution in the Republic of Ireland
|Life in Ireland|
Prostitution in Ireland is legal. However, since March 2017, it has been an offence to buy sex. Third party involvement (such as operating brothels, and other forms of pimping) is also illegal. Since the law that criminalises clients came into being, with the purpose of reducing the demand for prostitution, the number of prosecutions for the purchase of sex increased from 10 to 92 between 2018 and 2020. In a report from UCD's Sexual Exploitation Research Programme the development is called ”a promising start in interrupting the demand for prostitution.”
Prostitution was both highly visible and pervasive in 18th-century Dublin, centred on Temple Bar and reflected the whole spectrum of socioeconomic class, from street prostitutes, through organised brothels to high class courtesans, who were often illegitimate daughters of the upper class. A well known example was Margaret Leeson. The role of the prostitute in 18th-century Ireland was at least partly a product of the double standard of female sexuality. Typical of this was the way that venereal disease was constructed as being spread by prostitutes rather than their largely male clients. Irish prostitutes were frequently the victims of violence against women. Early 'rescue' campaigns emerged in this time with Lady Arabella Denny and the Magdalene Asylums. These provided shelter but in return expected menial labour and penitence.
The changing nature of Irish society following the 1801 Act of Union saw a redefining of the status of women, with an idealisation of nuns at one extreme and a marginalisation of prostitutes at the other. Yet it was estimated that there were 17,000 women working as prostitutes in Dublin alone, and a further 8 brothels in Cork. Dublin's sex trade was largely centred on the Monto district, reputedly the largest red light district in Europe. A major part of the demand came from the large number of British army military personnel stationed in Ireland at the time. The ‘Wrens of the Curragh’, for instance were a group of some sixty women working as ‘army camp followers’ around the Curragh. Increasing concern regarding venereal disease, particularly as a threat to the military led to the introduction of a series of Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s, enabling authorities to apprehend and detain any woman suspected of prostitution and force her to submit to examination for disease. As in many other countries opposition to the Acts, provided a rallying cry for emerging women's movements. Anna Haslam in Dublin and Isabella Tod in Belfast, both of the Ladies National Association, organised opposition and a recognition not only of the plight of these women but also of the root causes.
Emerging nationalism tended to see prostitution and venereal disease as legacies of colonialism that could be resolved through independence. This movement became linked to Catholic conservatism which demanded social purification of the pure Irish soul.
In Kevin Kearns' oral history collection Dublin Tenement Life, he comments that many of the prostitutes in the Monto had, like Philomena Lee, been unmarried and pregnant and were disowned both by their families and by their babies' fathers. Although middle class Dubliners viewed them as whores, the residents of local tenements referred to prostitutes as, "unfortunate girls," and understood that they had turned to prostitution as a last resort. According to Kearns, "By all accounts, the girls were typically young, attractive, and known for their generosity, especially to slum children."
Billy Dunleavy, who grew up in the Monto during the Irish War of Independence, later recalled, "It was a hard life for them girls. They were really all country girls that got into trouble and that's where they finished up. A girl (unwed) with a baby,she was in trouble... from farmers' sons. There was a convent around there and they were put up in there for twelve months with the nuns. They had a hard time. Scrubbing floors and everything else and the nuns standing over them. Oh, the country girls got a hell of a time of it, that's why all the girls was, 'on the town'. That's where they finished up. Now the madams had them dressed up in good new clothes, that was the attraction."
Thus the 1920s saw the decline of Monto, as the Legion of Mary founded and led by Frank Duff successfully crusaded to close down the brothels of Monto and bring religion to the area. Prostitution continued to exist in the form of individual women selling sexual services on the streets in cities, but it was a long time before organised prostitution was seen again. However, street prostitution remained intrinsically linked to the Dublin Underworld. The 1920s and 1930s witnessed a new era Church-State morality and censorship. The Magdalene Asylums became more punitive, imprisoning young women who transgressed conventional sexual morality, some for the duration of their lives, the last asylum closing only in 1996.
The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935 prohibited contraception and required sex crimes cases to be tried in camera, preventing media coverage and contributing to the illusion of Irish purity. In the 1950s there was much public attention around the plight of Irish women working as prostitutes in England. These were portrayed not so much as 'fallen' women, but rather as innocents lured into evil. The Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s helped to expose the double standards. Notable was the story of June Levine who collaborated with Lyn Madden, a former Dublin sex worker for twenty years in the 70s and 80s, to write Lyn: A Story of Prostitution (1987) Madden had seen her lover and pimp John Cullen firebomb the home of former sex worker and women's rights activist Dolores Lynch. Lynch perished in the fire together with her elderly mother and aunt. Madden denounced Culen and began writing the book during the ensuing trial, at which Cullen received eighteen years imprisonment. At around this time a group of street sex workers brought a successful supreme court challenge to the constitutionality of Victorian laws that required a defendant to first be identified as a common prostitute through the citing of previous convictions before conviction was possible. This successful challenge created a situation of effective decriminalisation, that also offered the women the same access to the protection of the law as anyone else. During this period prostitutes were largely independent and had a good relationship with the Gardaí. Pimping was almost unheard of, as were the other crimes previously associated with prostitution. Any suggestion of organised prostitution was limited to a small number of massage parlours in an environment where the workers were empowered to negotiate favourable terms and conditions for themselves. Also improving economic conditions and a weakening force of the Church allowed for a more visible and largely tolerated sex industry.
The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, made soliciting an offence for both prostitute and customer and independent prostitution declined as the women were forced into the massage parlours to avoid arrest, where they were now disempowered by necessity and terms and conditions rapidly declined. By the late 1990s the age of the brothel, and the brothel-keeper, had truly returned. Society seemed accepting of discreet, indoor prostitution establishments and every week the mainstream entertainment magazine In Dublin ran advertisements for escort services and 'massage parlouirs' (brothels), which were usually the business operations of a small number of men and women, who knew running brothels was illegal, but were prepared to take the risk, given the massive profits involved. The magazine earned substantial revenue from these advertisements.
The blatant wealth of Ireland's brothel-keepers in the 1990s was such that the media began to take more interest. Section 23 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 prohibited the advertising of brothels and prostitution and in 1999 the Censorship of Publications Board banned In Dublin magazine from carrying escort advertisements. Criminal proceedings were also brought against the magazine's publisher, Mike Hogan. The In Dublin magazine case heralded the end of escort advertising in print publications. However, the suppression of advertising had little effect as the internet and mobile phones were changing the nature of the trade. Ireland's first escort website, Escort Ireland, had already established itself the previous year to take over In Dublin magazine's role.
Of note was the frequent reference to the inadequacy of the existing legislation, but there was little debate about possible alternative models. While Ireland has an international commitment to protecting the well-being of women trafficked to Ireland for the purposes of prostitution, there was little or no discussion about the rights and well-being of Irish women working in prostitution. The violent murders of prostitutes Belinda Pereira, a UK resident working for a Dublin escort agency on 28 December 1996 and Sinead Kelly a young street prostitute in 1998 caused questions to be raised about the benefits of the 1993 act. Until Belinda Periera was murdered in a city centre apartment in the winter of 1996, the last murder of a prostitute while working (Dolores Lynch was murdered in her home in 1983, and seems to have no longer been working as a prostitute at the time) was in 1925 when the body of Lily O'Neill (known as "Honor Bright") was found in the Dublin Mountains.
1999 also saw the launch of Operation Gladiator, a police operation targeting those who profit from organised prostitution. It was the first operation of its type and lasted under a year, but in that time it identified and built cases against several major Dublin brothel-keepers.
Operation Quest was launched by the Gardaí in 2003, with the aim of tackling human trafficking, prostitution and criminality within the lap dancing industry, followed by Operation Hotel in 2005, with the aim of tackling the trafficking of females from Eastern Europe to work in the sex industry in Ireland. Essentially the legal framework has not changed over twenty years, but discussions about alternatives emerged in 2011 (see Politics).
Prostitution itself is not an offence under Irish law. However, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act of 1993 prohibits soliciting or importuning another person in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution (this offence applies to prostitute and client). It also prohibits loitering for the purpose of prostitution, organising prostitution by controlling or directing the activities of a person in prostitution, coercing one to practice prostitution for gain, living on earnings of the prostitution of another person, and keeping a brothel or other premises for the purpose of prostitution.
Advertising brothels and prostitution is prohibited by the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act of 1994. The minimum legal age for a prostitute in Ireland is 18 years (child prostitution legislation exists to protect persons under this age). The Criminal Law (Trafficking in Persons and Sexual Offences) Bill 2006 came into force making trafficking in persons for the purpose of their sexual exploitation a specific offence, though previous legislation already covered much of this area.
On 27 March 2017, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 was commenced into force. The Act significantly amends the 1993 Act to provide that a person who pays, gives, offers or promises to pay or give a person (including a prostitute) money or any other form of remuneration or consideration for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity with a prostitute shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine of up to €500 for a first offence, and a fine of up to €1,000 for each subsequent offence.
Discussion of proposed law reform became an issue in the 2011 elections, with some support from opposition parties likely to become the new Government. A group of non-government and union bodies emerged pressuring both the current government and opposition parties to abolish prostitution, by criminalising the buying of sex, along Swedish lines. At the same time, those supporting the status quo or advocating a more liberal approach challenged this argument. In the ensuing Dáil election on 25 February, a new Government was formed by Fine Gael (70 seats) and Labour (34 seats). The women's branch of the Labour Party support criminalisation of purchase.
In June 2012, the Department of Justice and Equality issued its Discussion Document on Future Direction of Prostitution Legislation. In September 2012, the Oirechtas produced a background document entitled Prostitution regulation in Ireland: which way now? This was followed by a conference in Dublin organised by the Department, to discuss policy alternatives. Following a request by the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Oireachtas Justice Committee held hearings on discussion document between December 2012 and February 2013. Prior to the hearings, a number of the committee members, such as Independent Senator Katherine Zappone, had already committed to a sex purchase ban, and the majority of submissions and presentations supported this measure and were associated with Turn Off the Red Light. In June 2013, it produced a unanimous report    recommending reform of Ireland's laws on prostitution, including criminalising purchase, and providing services for those wishing to exit prostitution. Of the opposition parties, both Fianna Fáil (20 seats) and Sinn Féin (14 seats) have expressed support for this approach at their 2013 Ardfheiseanna (party conferences), with the only dissenting voices coming from the independent bloc of deputies in the Dáil. However, there has been a reluctance on the part of the Government to act on the recommendations. A Private Member's Bill was however introduced in the Dáil in March 2013, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2013, by Independent TD Thomas Pringle which would criminalise the purchase of sex, on behalf of Turn Off the Red Light, which was given a second reading in May 2013, receiving the support of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. The Government preferred to wait for the Justice Committee report, and the bill was defeated on 7 May 2013.
In August 2014, former US President Jimmy Carter wrote to all Irish politicians urging the adoption of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. Carter had been briefed by the Immigrant Council of Ireland, a leading figure in the Turn Off the Red Light campaign.
Forms and extent of prostitution
There are no up-to-date reliable figures estimating the number of women or men currently working in prostitution in Ireland, but one estimate is 1,000. During Ireland's economic boom male demand for female prostitution services increased. There has been a marked increase in people turning towards the internet and sites as a more effective means of advertising.
For many years prior to the 1993 Sexual Offences Act, most female prostitutes worked on the streets, but, since this time, brothels marketed as escort agencies have been the most prevalent form of prostitution. Advertising in print publications is illegal, but a very developed Internet advertising medium exists.
Prostitutes of many nationalities now reside in Ireland and Ruhama, an organisation opposed to prostitution, reported to the government in 2006 claiming that over 200 women were trafficked into Ireland.
SWAI (Sex Workers Alliance Ireland), is an advocacy group for sex workers in Ireland. It was formed in 2009 by an alliance of individuals and groups to promote the social inclusion, health, safety, civil rights, and the right to self-determination of sex workers. SWAI actively advocates for the decriminalisation of sex work in Ireland and believes sex workers in Ireland should be free to work in safety without fear, judgment or stigma.
Ruhama (Hebrew: Renewed life), established in 1989, is a Dublin-based NGO operated by the Catholic Sisters of Our Lady of Charity order, which works on a national level with women affected by prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation. The organisation regards prostitution as violence against women and violations of women's human rights. Ruhama sees prostitution and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it as being deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation. Ruhama offers a range of services to support women in and exiting prostitution. Ruhama also seeks to highlight sex trafficking.
A campaign set up in 2011 to end prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland called "Turn Off the Red Light" is run by an alliance of more than 66 community, union and religious groups, including the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, and the Irish Medical Organisation. Core members are the Immigrant Council, Ruhama and the National Women's Council.
In response, a counter-campaign called "Turn Off the Blue Light" was created by sex workers and supporters in favour of decriminalisation to rebut what they see as misleading information and to present a positive image of sex workers in Ireland. A chief complaint it has of the "Turn Off The Red Light" campaign is that it conflates legal and consensual sex work with illegal human trafficking.
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- Sex workers' rights
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