Here are some of the lies we tell ourselves, the myths and stories we pretend are true and the awkward justifications we can allow ourselves to believe.
And then there are the other stories - the facts.
The vast majority of those who sell sex are women and girls. A significant minority are first prostituted as children under the age of 18. There is a small minority of women who freely choose to sell sex, but the overwhelming majority do not. On any one day, it is estimated that there are at least 1,000-1,500 women involved in prostitution on the island of Ireland. A small proportion are Irish/Northern Irish, but most are migrant women. The women who come to the attention of support services originate from almost every continent on the globe, representing a wide variety of ages and ethnic backgrounds. Many have limited or no English and may have no friends or family support networks here
Most women and girls who become involved in prostitution are drawn into it as a result of poverty, exploitation and huge adversities. They are victims of child abuse. They have grown up in state care. They have experienced domestic abuse, lived in extreme poverty, have insecure immigration status, poor physical or mental health or may have substance abuse problems. These adversities make them easy prey for pimps and other controllers.
These women, and particularly those controlled by pimps and traffickers, are often cut off from all contacts, outside of their buyers and pimps, making access to support very difficult. They may not know what services and assistance are available to them and tend to live wherever they sell sex, in extreme isolation from mainstream society. The only people who really profit from prostitution and sex trafficking are criminal gangs.
Women and girls who sell sex report a wide range of negative consequences, including damage to their physical, sexual and emotional health, often as a result of abuse experienced at the hands of pimps, traffickers and sex buyers themselves.
Women often report feeling trapped in prostitution – for the many who want to leave they face a number of sometimes insurmountable barriers, including debt, the risk of homelessness, addiction as a result of using substances to try and cope with the experience of selling sex, a criminal record and a lack of other viable alternatives for survival.
Every day on the island of Ireland women and girls are being trafficked into and within the sex trade, representing a serious breach of their human rights. It is estimated that up to 97% of women involved in the indoor or ‘off-street’ sex trade in Ireland (in locations such as brothels and massage parlours) are migrant women. While this is not to say that all of these women have been trafficked, it is highly likely that a significant proportion have been – because there will never be enough ‘willing’ women in domestic prostitution markets to satisfy the demand for paid sex.
Many women operating in the market have been trafficked. These women tend to be very tightly controlled, often by debt bondage or psychological means (such as threats of violence to the woman, her children, her family, through the use of voodoo/juju etc.). Their traffickers move them regularly and in a planned fashion to brothels throughout the island of Ireland to maximise their profits, whilst at the same time preventing the women from finding their feet and potentially seeking help. Indeed, the highly managed and controlled nature of these movements indicate the extent to which organised crime networks are heavily involved in the trafficking of women and girls into and throughout the island.
In addition to those who fit the official definition of a victim of trafficking, are those women and girls who may not meet all the criteria of a trafficked victim, but nevertheless have been pimped or coerced into prostitution. There are many similarities between this group and those who have been explicitly trafficked – both groups tend to share similar vulnerabilities and experiences of adversity, including childhood abuse, poverty, and violence experienced whilst in prostitution – which can make it almost impossible for buyers to know for sure whether or not the women they are purchasing have been trafficked or subject to some form of coercion or control.
Let’s get one thing straight. Most men never buy sex.
Amongst the small group of men who do buy sex in Ireland there is no ‘typical’ sex buyer.
However, research has found that they are more likely than not to be in a relationship, they tend to be well educated, have incomes in the middle to high range and are employed in professional occupations. This shatters the stereotype of the sex buyer as a lonely or socially awkward single man.
Buyers appear to view sex and the women who sell it as a commodity to be purchased with their disposable income, at their convenience. Buying sex in indoor locations (primarily brothels) on lunch breaks from the office and in the evenings after work is common. There is also some evidence to suggest that some men buy sex for the first time at quite a young age (under 21), often the result of peer pressure from friends or ‘initiation’ by older relatives.
Research with sex buyers highlights the extent to which they normalise their behaviour, which includes the common assumption held by buyers that most men pay for sex. But this is simply not true, most men don’t buy sex and say that they have no intention of ever doing so in the future.
There is no single answer to why men buy sex. The reasons can be complex.
Most men who buy sex pay for high-risk practices (e.g. unprotected sex of various kinds). Some buyers see paying for sex as an expression of their masculinity and sexual prowess, in contrast to the ‘sexual availability’ of the women they are purchasing. Some express a desire to be able to dominate and control the woman they are purchasing. Others see it like any other transaction - as the consumption of a ‘commodity’ to fulfil their needs.
Some express a great deal of guilt, ambivalence and negative feelings about buying sex. But then they go ahead and do it anyway.
A key, common characteristic is that many sex buyers, and particularly those that express no ambivalence about their behaviour, appear to hold very little regard for the women they purchase, no-matter what their circumstances.
Research from a major London study shows that over half of sex buyers believe that the majority of women in prostitution have been ‘lured, tricked or trafficked’. A similar number believe that most women in prostitution are controlled by a pimp and many have observed that control. Furthermore, half the men in the study stated that they had bought sex from women whom they believed to be under the control of a pimp. This suggests that a significant proportion of men are aware of the exploitation of women that occurs in the sex trade.
Even amongst those who are not, it is important to understand that buying sex in any circumstances fuels the growth of the trade, and in turn increases the number of women and girls who will become trapped or coerced into it.
The sex trade is thriving on the island of Ireland and is not just confined to the major towns and cities. The internet and mobile phones have fueled the trade because it allows all involved to to operate with greater anonymity and invisibility. The ability to operate under cover greatly advantages the sex traffickers and controllers. They can operate behind the scenes with near impunity while also reducing the risk of exposure for men who buy sex.
The modern sex trade on both sides of the border is primarily located off-street, with fewer women in street‐based prostitution than ever before. It is predominantly operating out of apartment blocks and houses spread throughout the island. In addition to premises operating as brothels, some ‘massage services’ also act as a front for prostitution.
A range of evidence links the trade to the activities of organised crime gangs. Women are advertised online as ‘independent escorts’ to give the illusion of their independence to sex buyers and the authorities. Those under the control of pimps/traffickers are moved frequently from premises to premises to avoid the attention of the police, to maintain the women’s extreme isolation and to provide a steady stream of ‘new girls’ to satisfy buyers’ demands.
While crime gangs may manage the trade, it is fuelled by the buyers who choose to pay for sex.
The majority of the Irish sex trade is highly organised and tightly controlled by a variety of criminal gangs who are profiting handsomely from the exploitation of women and girls. The bulk of prostitution on the island of Ireland is connected with organised criminality. It is also a lucrative, international trade with criminal gangs of numerous nationalities operating across both jurisdictions. There is ample evidence of Irish prostitution organisers collaborating with international recruiters and traffickers in the commercial sexual exploitation of primarily young migrant women, in multiple locations throughout the island of Ireland.