In 1993 the Second Commission on the Status of Women recommended that sex workers be included in decision-making regarding the type and level of services and support they require. More than twenty years later this promise to sex workers of inclusion has been firmly broken.
The two services funded to support sex workers in Ireland, the HSE Women’s Health Service and Ruhama, totally exclude sex workers and instead of providing any support to sex workers operate as anti sex work organisations.
The Second Commission on the Status of Women was set up in 1990. Its main task was to “consider and make recommendations on the means, administrative and legislative, by which women will be able to participate on equal terms and conditions with men in economic, social, political and cultural life and, to this end, to consider the efficacy and feasibility of positive action measures.” The Commission reported in early 1993, making an extensive list of recommendations covering a wide range of issues including sex work.
The excerpts of this report relating to sex work are reproduced below.
1.8.1 Prostitution as a potential public nuisance
The Commission addresses the issue of the health and safety of women engaged in prostitution and possible alternatives available to them in Chapter 5. This section concerns the aspect of public nuisance connected with prostitution.
The laws covering loitering and soliciting, Section 14(ii) of the Dublin Police Act, 1842 and section 16(i) Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1935, have become inoperative in recent years due to Court decisions. In particular, the term “common prostitute” has given rise to difficulty because it has been held that the use of that term to so describe any person charged with an offence introduces them to the Court from the start with an antecedent presumption of guilt. However, the Garda Siochana suggest that the prosecution or non-prosecution of prostitutes for loitering seems to make little difference to its incidence.
In certain areas of our cities, any woman may be approached on the erroneous assumption that she may be a prostitute. This gives rise to considerable distress and fear on the part of women so approached. It may also be a nuisance to local residents, especially those with young children. In addressing the public nuisance problem caused by soliciting there should be an even-handed policy in line with that set out in the Law Reform Commission Report on Vagrancy and Related Offences (LRC-11-1985), so that the person soliciting and the client are open to the same sanctions.
The Commission recommends that the same sanctions should be applied to persons soliciting and to their clients, regardless of sex.
5.9 WOMEN INVOLVED IN PROSTITUTION
(See also Chapter 1.)
5.9.1 Incidence of prostitution
Because prostitution in Ireland is largely undocumented, it is very difficult to form a reliable estimate of the numbers of women involved. However, it is clear from the testimonies which do exist and from research carried out elsewhere, that the lives of prostitutes are characterised by a sense of powerlessness, few opportunities, no voice in society, no choices in life and very little hope.
The Commission received one submission on the situation of women involved in prostitution in the Dublin area from an order of religious sisters who provide support in a low-key, practical way over a long time horizon to women involved in prostitution. This submission urged the adoption of strategies which recognise the dignity of all women irrespective of their condition, based on women’s right to choice, self-determination, non-stigmatisation and non-victimisation.
Case studies of over 200 women involved in prostitution in Dublin suggest that women often suffer sexual and physical abuse, resulting not only in physical injury but also in emotional pain and low self-esteem. In some cases, this impression is reinforced by Court evidence. Financial pressures, unemployment, a lack of education and poor housing were also shared common experiences. A quotation from Lyn: A Story of Prostitution, which deals with the lives of Dublin prostitutes conveys the isolation and risk of casual violence graphically:
“My jaws would clench and I would take a deep breath as I took up my position on the path. Then I’d look to my left, then my right, across the road: ‘Is that someone hiding in the garden over there? Who’s that in the parked car? Are there two or three men in it?’ Then I’d turn and peer into the bushes along the banks of the Canal. ‘Looks OK. No, did that bush move? What’s that noise? Coulda swore I saw someone lurking behind that tree or was it an optical illusion?’
Getting into a car was even more scary. Your heart raced as you assessed the client. And as you got in the car, you check that it had a door handle on the inside and a window catch, in case you had to get out in a hurry. The silent ones were the worst. ‘Why doesn’t he speak?’ So you small-talked, and I mean small-talk. And if your client was the silent type your palms were sweating with fear and you heard yourself asking inane things in an effort to get him to say something so you could hear the tone of his voice. Was there any kindness in it? If he made any sudden moves you jumped out of your skin even though he was only reaching for his wallet.”
(Levine, June and Madden, Lyn, Lyn: A Story of Prostitution, Attic Press, Dublin, 1987.)
5.9.2 A strategy to tackle problems
We make the point in Chapter 1 that any prosecution which might be taken for prostitution should be even-handed, as between the prostitute and the man. In this section, we are concerned with health and social supports for the women involved. This strategy must be based on recognition of the dignity of the women concerned. That the term “common prostitute” has fallen into disuse is a welcome development. Fundamentally, a strategy devised to assist women involved in prostitution must be based on practical assistance measures, support and initiatives geared to reintegration into society, e.g. through training for work. This is not easy to do. Whilst it is possible to train women in skills with which they might earn a living it cannot be easy for them to find work when most of their past must, in effect, remain a closed book. The most useful approach might be development of a cooperative or cooperatives and training for legitimate forms of self-employment. It would make sense in developing an intervention strategy to build on the goodwill, experience and resources of voluntary bodies already active in providing assistance, and on the experiences of the women themselves and on their sense of solidarity.
We do not underestimate the scope of the problem. Prostitutes can have very complex problems deriving from a mix of socio-economic disadvantages exacerbated by violence and drug-taking. The question we have to ask ourselves as a society is whether we are content to see women remain as part of this underclass without opportunities either to leave it or to improve their existence.
5.9.3 Recommendations on prostitutes
The Commission recommends that:
(a) an integrated approach involving the Departments of Health, Education, Social Welfare, and Justice and interested voluntary organisations should be adopted in order to provide health and welfare services and information to women involved in prostitution. Every effort should be made to encourage women involved in prostitution to participate in decision-making regarding the type and level of service they require and in designing “social rehabilitation” programmes;
(b) as a first step in this strategy the setting up of a drop-in centre or centres should be funded. The services provided would include short-term accommodation as well as opportunities for self-help and building self-esteem, along with relief from isolation, informal education and advice, medical and social assistance; these services could usefully be provided in association with voluntary bodies already engaged in helping women in prostitution;
(c) A rehabilitation centre should he established for women who want to get out of prostitution. The development and operation of this centre should draw on the experiences derived from the implementation of recommendations (a) and (b) above and the Centre should provide counselling and training for future employment.
(1) Reorientation of expenditure or no additional cost (2) Existing commitment entailing expenditure (3) Commission recommendation entailing expenditure (4) Non-exchequer expenditure 9. Recommendations on prostitutes (paragraph 5.9.3) (a) ✓*
(c) not possible to cost
* The costing at recommendation (b) is estimated as the minimum running costs of a drop-in centre incorporating a non-resident rehabilitation programme. A rehabilitation centre would give rise to greater costs but it should be possible to look for European Social Fund support for re-training.
(The only order of religious sisters listed as having made a submission to the Commission is the Good Shepherd Provincialate, who now use the name ‘Ruhama’ in relation to their anti sex work campaigning.)