UglyMugs.ie response to Irish Government public consultation process on the future direction of legislation on prostitution
Introduction to UglyMugs.ie
The UglyMugs.ie scheme is a free service for Irish sex workers operated by E Designers (E Designers Ltd. is registered in England & Wales No. 4923492 & VAT No. GB 834015458). The main activity of E Designers is operating commercial escort advertising websites, including Ireland’s most popular escort website, Escort-Ireland.com (E-I), which has made a separate submission to this consultation.
The History of Ugly Mug Schemes
Ugly Mug schemes aim to improve the safety of sex workers, and reduce crimes committed against them, by alerting them to dangerous individuals. The first Ugly Mug schemes came about in the late 1980s, and typically involved sex workers reporting incidents to sex work projects and those projects then placing warnings about dangerous individuals on notice boards in sex worker drop-in centres. However the basis of Ugly Mugs schemes, the practice of sex workers sharing information with each other to help keep each other safe, is probably as old as sex work itself.
Ugly Mugs schemes are all about sex workers supporting each other. Organisations operating successful Ugly Mugs schemes can claim to have a role in facilitating the sharing of information between sex workers, but the success of the Ugly Mug schemes must be credited to there being a community of sex workers who want to share information with each other to protect each other. Any Ugly Mugs scheme would be worthless without sex worker participation.
There are Irish Ugly Mugs schemes beyond the one operated by E Designers. Some organisations that work with sex workers operate their own local Ugly Mug schemes, for example the Chrysalis Drug Project in Dublin. Groups of sex workers will also operate Ugly Mugs schemes amongst themselves. But E Designers recognised that there was a very strong need for more Ugly Mugs scheme work in Ireland some years ago, and it wasn’t being met by any other organisation nor did it seem likely that it would be in the near future, and therefore looked at the idea of E Designers operating an Ugly Mugs scheme and ultimately decided to do so. The Ugly Mugs scheme operated by E Designers and identified as UglyMugs.ie (to differentiate it from other schemes) was launched in its current format on 23 September 2009, though earlier schemes had been operated since 2007.
UglyMugs.ie is a free service for Irish sex workers. It is a closed service, access is restricted to sex workers working in Ireland only. Public discussion of UglyMugs.ie is limited and rare.
The usual route to gaining access is becoming an advertising customer of Escort-Ireland.com (E-I) but it is not a requirement to be a customer of E-I, and a significant number of the scheme users are sex workers who may have been an E-I customer at some stage but no longer are, or have never been an E-I customer but applied to join, usually after hearing about it from another sex worker. As a guide as to how many Irish sex workers use the service, there are 734 active users on 31/08/12.
Some features of UglyMugs.ie are:
- Full web-based service available 24/7 on your computer or smartphone
- Basic by-SMS service for times when you don’t have Internet access
- Confidentially report bad persons encountered or other dangers
- Reports are reviewed by staff and a warning to all sex workers is published
- Option to subscribe to receive new reports by email and/or SMS alerts
- Private discussion forums and chat room where you can talk with other sex workers about safety, health, legal, accommodation and other issues
- Safety advice, legal information and industry news
- Staff support available 7 days a week online or by phone/SMS
- Referrals to specialist support services for sex workers
- Service available in 15 languages, English, Bulgarian, Czech, Chinese, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Ukrainian.
E Designers employs a dedicated UglyMugs.ie Manager, backed up by a team of six other ‘Community’ managers or staff who also help out with UglyMugs.ie. Many other E Designers staff, usually who work in ‘Sales’, will also work on UglyMugs.ie issues at times too. This is because it suits some sex workers better to speak to a member of the Sales staff about UglyMugs.ie issues, either because there is a person on that team they have gotten to know and trust and feel comfortable talking to, or because of language issues (Amongst our Sales team, we have staff who speak many languages, currently Czech, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Portuguese, whereas the Community team which UglyMugs.ie falls into has not got so many languages.)
Categories of Incidents
The categories and subcategories system for formally reported incidents give a good indication as to the types of problems that sex workers encounter. These are listed below.
Abusive Phone Call(s) or Email(s)
- Abusive phone call(s) or text message(s)
- Abusive email(s) or other online message(s)
In-Person Abusive Behaviour
- Verbal abuse
- Threatening behaviour
Assault / Held Against Will
- Attempted assault
- Assault (slapping, punching, kicking)
- Assault with a weapon (knife / gun / other)
- Strangulation / Suffocation
- Held against will
Rape / Sexual Assault
- Attempted rape / sexual assault
- Vaginal rape
- Forced oral sex
- Anal rape
- Other sexual assault
Robbery / Non Payment / Vandalism
- Attempted Robbery
- Didn’t pay or paid with fake money etc.
- Caused damage to property
Deception / Fraud
- Impersonating a police officer
- Undercover journalist
- Unauthorised photography
- Other deception or fraud
Unsafe Sex / Drug Use
- Sought vaginal / anal sex without condom
- Infected with STD / infectious disease
- Drug user or in possession of drugs
Exploitation / Extortion / Illegal Acts
- Pimping, trafficking or other exploitation
- Blackmail or other extortion
- Requested illegal acts, e.g. underage sex
- Malicious Timewasters
- Repeat Timewasters
Bad Service Providers
- Bad Landlords
- Other Bad Service Providers
Suspicious Persons / Other
- Suspicious Behaviour
Whilst with most of these categories and sub-categories it is probably self-explanatory why they exist, there are some categories and sub-categories that may not be.
Undercover journalist. Most sex workers find journalists pretending to be clients, making appointments with them, secretly photographing/filming/recording them and then exposing them in newspapers, on websites and TV and radio programmes, often in a state of undress and often with no attempt to blur out their face or in any way make them less identifiable, extremely disgusting behaviour and so do we. Every time you see such an exposé, remember that’s probably a sex worker and her family’s life decimated. It is also normally a clear breach of press and media codes of conduct and the sex worker’s human rights. However complaining only brings more publicity, so most sex workers don’t.
Sought vaginal / anal sex without condom or Infected with STD / infectious disease. Contrary to the old myth that sex workers are wanton disease spreaders, most sex workers are the most educated people you could meet regards safe sex and very careful and concerned with their own health.
Malicious Timewasters or Repeat Timewasters. ‘Timewasters’ are people who make appointments with sex workers and then don’t turn up or turn up for a look and then leave without paying. This is very common and often it is simply bad manners. But sometimes the timewasting behaviour is carried out repeatedly or in a clearly malicious manner and incidents of this nature can be recorded, because it is clearly deliberate abuse of the sex worker’s time and interruption to his/her business. Whilst you could imagine these types of persons are not the greatest threat to the safety of sex workers, it has been our experience that in many cases they go on to engage in more serious abuse and/or are pimps trying to prevent sex workers working because they have a sex worker or sex workers working for them in the area and don’t want any ‘competition’.
Bad Landlords or Other Bad Service Providers. Exploitation and mistreatment of sex workers by landlords and other service providers is a common problem.
Suspicious Persons or Other. There are incidents where sex workers encounter someone or a group of persons they believe to be a threat, but an incident of assault or robbery or whatever threat it was they perceived, did not actually occur, or incidents that don’t fall into any set category.
At the end of UglyMugs.ie Year One (23 September 2009 to 22 September 2010) 571 reports were available. 259 of these related to old incidents and 312 related to incidents that occurred during Year One. The high number of ‘old’ incidents recorded is because this was the first year, but many older incidents had been informally recorded before this date. Full Year One statistics are available at the following URL and also attached to this submission:http://uglymugs.ie/year-one-statistics/. Year Two & Year Three Statistics will be published in September 2012. As an indication as to the number of incidents, on 31/08/12 the total number of incidents from Year One to date is 2734.
We regard UglyMugs.ie as a success and a very useful service for Irish sex workers and that is backed up by repeated feedback to E Designers from sex workers that they find the scheme useful.
UglyMugs.ie is a great credit, not to E Designers, but to the decency, humanity, care, support and friendship sex workers in Ireland routinely show each other every day.
Many sex workers do not chose to report incidents to UglyMugs.ie but use it to network with other sex workers, which is very important as working as a sex worker can be very isolating, especially due to the law which forces indoor sex workers to work alone in order to work legally.
UglyMugs.ie provides compelling evidence that Ireland’s current brothel keeping laws that force sex workers to work alone are putting sex workers at risk and must be changed to allow sex workers to work with a friend for safety. It also shows the level of discrimination, hate, violence, abuse and crime directed towards sex workers, many of whom are additionally migrants or also belonging to a group already frequently discriminated against in society, like transgender or gay or Roma.
Contrary to popular belief, the persons who abuse sex workers are not all sex worker clients, far from it, though often they are pseudo-clients in that they pretend to be clients in order to offend. In 2011 we started recording whether or not the offender was a client and the statistics due to be published in September 2012 will show some data regards this.
There is a huge lack of support for persons in sex work.
The main NGO in prostitution, Ruhama, is an “exiting” model organisation, they assist women only and exit only. Management of the Women’s Health Project in Dublin is also anti-prostitution to our knowledge, though we would also like to acknowledge that some sex workers tell us they use this service and the staff there can be very good. With many NGOs that could help sex workers, their position is firmly anti-prostitution. For further example, Rape Crisis, Immigrant Council of Ireland, Doras Luimní and the list could go on and on. The situation is such that often the only organisations providing certain types of help are also campaigning for sex worker clients to be criminalised to take away sex workers’ incomes, for landlords not to rent to sex workers, for hotels not to allow sex workers to stay in them, that all paid for sex is rape, that a person cannot choose sex work and the list could go on and on. For obvious reasons sex workers frequently don’t engage with such services.
We would like to mention at this point the Chrysalis Drug Project in Dublin and the Red Ribbon Project in Limerick as two services many sex workers have told us are very useful and not judgemental of sex workers. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, we acknowledge many other services offer help to sex workers.
Our UglyMugs.ie staff frequently seek help for individual sex workers, who need some help finding help, because they may be lacking English language skills or are very nervous about seeking help, and often the phone is slammed straight down or the emails ignored. This is the divide in sex work in Ireland. E Designers staff are unable to engage with almost all NGOs who supposedly provide help to sex workers as they refuse to even speak to us. It’s not E Designers that is being hurt by this, but the sex workers who need help and who call UglyMugs.ie trying to get help, and we have to tell we cannot find any help. This is a situation replayed weekly if not daily at UglyMugs.ie. We wish people in these NGOs would get past their distain of E Designers enough to not behave like this, or if that is not possible, if you are an NGO that can provide any help to sex workers, please put up a webpage listing what help you can offer, that we can at least link to and refer sex workers to.
We note that there are calls for sex worker websites and phone numbers to be blocked and wish that it be noted that the Internet and phones play an important role in sex workers helping themselves stay safe, UglyMugs.ie being an example of that.
The following help for sex workers is desperately needed.
Garda Sex Worker Liaison Office
There are many individual gardai who are a great help to sex workers. UglyMugs.ie informally circulates details of “friendly police” and this is very useful, but frequently we have no contacts for “friendly police” in particular areas and at particular times. It would be hugely beneficial in keeping sex workers safe and detecting and preventing exploitation of sex workers and trafficking for there to be a Garda Sex Worker Liaison Office and we would implore the Government to make this happen.
Many of the problems sex workers face are legal. Problems with landlords, with immigration issues, with the law (remember many activities associated with sex work, like advertising or working with a friend are currently illegal) and with media intrusion and violations of their privacy. For a dedicated sex worker officer to be appointed within existing legal advice services would be a very beneficial.
There needs to be sex worker friendly health services in all major areas. Existing sexual health services should be organised so they are sex worker friendly and information about their services for sex workers is available.
Although exiting services exist, notably Ruhama, it is questionable whether organisations so at odds with sex workers are suitable to provide such services. There are always people in sex work who would like to exit and there should be help for those people to exit, but how can sex workers be expected to engage with organisations so anti-sex work? In 2009 Ruhama gave an award for journalism to Eamon Dillon of the Sunday World, in our opinion the worst offender in the country in terms of media outlets that ruin sex workers’ lives by exposing them in the media to sell newspapers, using subterfuge and hidden cameras. This is the only award for journalism Ruhama has ever given out. Instances like this show the size of the gap between Ruhama and sex workers. It is logical to think that exiting services not operated by organisations who are so anti-sex work they literally celebrate the destruction of sex workers’ lives by the media would be more appealing to sex workers and thus better able to provide useful exiting services.
Violence Against Sex Workers
The radical feminist position that all sex work is itself violence against women, is core to current attempts to criminalise the purchase of sex. Anti-prostitution campaigners frequently assert in the media that all or most sex workers are controlled by pimps, beaten, raped and forced to perform degrading or un-safe sex acts, and have no choice but to do as clients want. This is very damaging and actively encourages a culture of violence against sex workers. We would say that sex workers are the best people to define what it and what is not violence towards them and instead of sending out a message that sex workers are there to be abused, we need to send out the message that it is not ok to abuse sex workers.
Ugly Mugs in the UK
The UK Network of Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP) provides excellent information on its website – http://www.uknswp.org/- about Ugly Mugs schemes including hugely detailed and informative guides to operating them. The “Liverpool Model”, where Merseyside Police have defined crimes against sex workers as hate crimes, has proved very successful. In July this year the National Ugly Mugs (NUM) Pilot Scheme – funded by the Home Office but managed independently by the UKNSWP – went live. This is the first nationwide Ugly Mugs scheme and is bringing together many local schemes. It helps sex workers stay safe and the intelligence gathered can also be used to help the police take murderers, rapists and other violent criminals who are a risk to all of society off the streets. We note the UKNSWP has visited Ireland on occasions in recent years, in association with Chrysalis, to talk about their work with Ugly Mugs. We feel the UK is a world leader in Ugly Mugs schemes thanks to the work of the UKNSWP and others and would strongly encourage the Government to look to the UK and learn from the UK here. We would also at this point like to thank all the UK people and organisation that have helped us with UglyMugs.ie by providing advice.
This is a public consultation and we do not feel it is appropriate to discuss much of the detail of UglyMugs.ie in public. To divulge too much information about UglyMugs.ie in public is something many sex workers, and UglyMugs.ie would be nothing without sex workers, have previously told us they feel is wrong. However we also feel it is important we make a submission to this consultation to try to convey the need for help services for sex workers to the Government, and that many sex workers understand that too. We would be pleased to discuss UglyMugs.ie further privately.
To those who find it distasteful that any commercial business operates an Ugly Mugs scheme, we would say we are filling a gap, and we would warmly welcome a better Ugly Mugs scheme than ours for Irish sex workers, not operated by us, but until that happens we will continue to do what we can. We regard the ideal situation regards Ugly Mugs schemes as choice for sex workers. We think commercial escort Internet advertising businesses are well placed to include Ugly Mugs schemes, but the situation should not be that they are the only such services. The UK’s National Ugly Mugs (NUM) Pilot Scheme is in its infancy, but many sex workers have told us they’d like to see that scheme extended into Ireland or a similar Irish scheme established.
We would like to again note that UglyMugs.ie is only a useful scheme because so many sex workers in Ireland are so fantastically supportive of each other, and we believe these sex workers deserve some support from the Government now, including the Garda, legal, health and exiting services.