Mia De Faoite’s speech at the Ruhama conference entitled “Pathways through Prostitution,” illustrates how Ruhama’s is exploiting very particular circumstances by presenting them as being normal to sex work. Her presentation is designed to emotionalise public opinion against sex work. It is a cruel manipulation of a vulnerable person to secure a bill being presented by Lord Morrow, known as the “Morrow Bill”. This bill, if successful, would introduce the so called Swedish model to Ireland that will criminalise the clients of sex workers. If the Morrow bill becomes law, it will, as in Sweden, force sex work further into the shadows, and will reinforce existing prejudice and ignorance about sex workers and about sex work.
Mia tells us she is a drug addict, she tells us that she chose to work on the street. She eloquently and emotionally recalls her story, recalling her feeling of worthlessness and helplessness. It is at times heart rending and I have the greatest sympathy for her circumstances. Now let us look at hard facts. Street sex work represents the smallest percentage of sex work and it is acknowledged that street sex work attracts a high percentage of the socially disadvantaged, some may say problematic, although I prefer vulnerable. Drug addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, the list is long when we look at the many social problems common to many, but not all, street based sex workers. As a group they are not however representative of the majority of sex workers who work indoors, either as independents, or brothel/agency workers. Academic research, an example by Suzanne Jenkins Keel university, HERE tells a very different story to that of Mia. Even academic research involving migrant indoor sex work, such as that undertaken by Dr Mai, HERE suggests that the majority of sex workers are not victims but individuals who enjoy autonomy and prefer sex work to other choices open to them.
What Mia shares with all sex workers is social stigma and exclusion. Mia’s speech reminds us that mythologies about sex work feed populist prejudices and ignorance about who and what a sex worker is. They dehumanise the sex worker. It is these mythologies which Ruhama exploit in their campaigns advocating for Ireland to adopt a failed piece of social engineering exported from Sweden. The Swedish model that Ruhama advocates, will do nothing to address the demand of sex workers for recognition of their human rights, for protection and support from the law, and an end to harassment and criminalisation. Mia’s speech therefore is heard by sex workers not as an indictment against sex work, even thought it is presented as such. Mia’s speech instead is consistent with every grievance recognised within sex worker rights activism.
Sadly for Ireland the feminist theory that champions the so called Swedish model conveniently allies with familiar and age old angst about human sexuality, about sexual behaviour deemed undesirable, sinful and even evil. Ruhama we must remember springs from a tradition made infamous by the documented history of abuse within the Magdalene Laundries HERE in which thousands of young women were incarcerated, often for life, because they had sinned in the eyes of society and the church. For Ruhama it is therefore morality that motivates them even if they appropriation modern language and contexts about gender equality, concern about trafficking and the objectification of women and girls.
Mia’s drug problems, her concerns about trafficked women on the streets, her concerns about hostile attitudes toward sex workers, will not be challenged or dealt with if Ireland adopts the Swedish model. Instead sex work will be swept under the carpet, out of sight and out of mind. Sex workers forced to work in secret will become easy targets for criminals, for traffickers. History provides the evidence that prohibition profits criminals, not workers or clients. Sex workers already mistrust and fear the police, are already forced to work in isolation. If Ireland adopts the Swedish model that fear, the fear of the arrest of their friends, their clients, of being outed, moved on, will only intensify. Sex workers with problems such as Mia’s drug addiction will become even more isolated from vital support networks.
The Swedish model will do nothing to address the many issues raised by Mia in her speech. Those issues can only be addressed when sex work is recognised as work, when sex workers autonomy and consent is recognised and supported by positive legislation that no longer endorses and supports stigma and prejudice and lies about sex work and sex workers. The Morrow bill must therefore be defeated and Ireland must decriminalise sex work and begin a positive dialogue with sex workers at the centre of the debate rather than excluded or their voices hi jacked.