In a Northern Ireland media first, escorts working in County Antrim speak to County Antrim Post reporter Andrew Coffman Smith about proposed changes to prostitution laws, the media’s portrayal of them and the real story behind human- trafficking.
Sex sells but if NI peer Lord Morrow has his way, it will be illegal to buy in Northern Ireland.
As part of his bill to stop human trafficking and forced labour, the DUP MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone seeks to criminalise the purchasing of all sex – voluntary or not – by making the client the offender.
Similar legislation is being considered in the Republic and Scotland as well.
Equating prostitution with slavery and lobbying for its abolition has been the latest cause to be taken up by politicians and the media alike.
Currently in the UK and the Republic the selling and purchasing of sex between individuals is legal while kerb-walking, public solicitation, pimping and brothel keeping remain illegal. Many anti-trafficking activists and politicians insist there is no such thing as voluntary prostitution and claim to speak on behalf of these “sexually exploited victims” in calling for an end to their profession.
These women (and men) who would be most affected by the passing of Morrow’s bill have yet to have their voices heard in the Northern Irish media until now. As the following shows, they clearly can speak for themselves and also have ideas of their own on how to combat real forced labour.
“I am not trafficked. This is my life choice,” said Davina, an English escort who works in Belfast and Derry; and has put her daughter through university as a result. “I’m doing it for the income and because it was something I thought I could do well and the hours would fit in with my life.”
She finds the vilifying and victimising of escorts amusing as those who attack her in the press are often her clients.
“I see a lot of different people. I see the police, barristers and politicians,” she said.
“Some of the people who are involved in the legislation and the activist groups… come to see girls like us. They’re our clients. It’s widespread.”
“It seems to me in a way that women have seized upon it [opposing prostitution] and that the men have to sort of agree with them and be seen doing something about it because lots of men are coming to see me anyways who are involved [in the movement to criminalise the purchasing of sex].”
As for Morrow’s bill, she believes even the threat of a criminal record will not deter those who already pay a lot less to be with a possibly trafficked victim and will instead just reduce the trade of escorts. She can still see a bright side to the criminalisation of the purchasing of sex as it could force the work environment to become safer for escorts.
“We wouldn’t be seeing strangers. I think men would refer us through a referral system so that we only see clients that we know or would have been recommended by other girls,” Davina said.
Laura Lee, as she is known, is an online blogger and active sex workers’ advocate. Originally from the Republic and currently living in Scotland, her work as an independent escort routinely brings her to Belfast.
At the moment, clients can discretely seek out escorts online or through magazine advertisements found in newsagent shops. However if Lord Morrow’s bill becomes law, Laura believes the already secretive industry would be forced further underground and worse, would make it harder to reach trafficked and forced victims.
“In the vast majority of cases where there are trafficked victims, the only people who actually see those women are the clients. So surely to push those clients further away will create further distrust between police and clients will completely go against the grain of what they are trying to achieve.”
Laura instead recommends police should open and maintain friendly communication with both escorts and clients so that suspected cases of trafficking and forced prostitution can be reported.
As for proposed anti-trafficking legislation in Ireland and Scotland, she said, “It’s got nothing to do with trafficking. This a moral issue and really what it comes down to is the abolition of prostitution – pure and simple. They don’t want us to work. They don’t want adults to enjoy paid, consensual sex. That’s what is at the heart of it.”
“I have met a lot of the ladies that work on the ‘touring circuit,’ as we call it. It is a very far cry from the picture they try to paint. Look nobody denies trafficking does take place but it is a very low extent. The vast majority of the sex workers are perfectly healthy women who are just paying their bills.”
“I really don’t think the media’s portrayal of the stereotypical pimped out, beaten up, drug-addicted, coerced woman is going to do anybody any favors,” Laura said.
“The reality is that we know from studies, actually only between five and 20 percent of all sex work takes place on the street.”
“I have worked in everything from five star apartments to what would be reasonably described as a chicken coop,” Laura said. “In 17 years of sex work, I only felt in fear of my life once and that was when I worked for a bank and got caught up in an armed raid.”
Another vocal escort is Rachel, a Romanian who mainly works in the south. As she lives with another woman for safety, the police could charge her with brothel keeping. The only way to avoid the charge and fine along with having her laptop, money and phone confiscated would be to declare herself “trafficked,” she said.
She said it will be absurd to enforce the criminalisation of prostitution as police wouldn’t have enough resources. If they did, not only would it take the complete invasion of an escort’s privacy to determine she sells sex but it would not stop the real criminals – the traffickers. She also said escorts and clients should be able to report to police of suspected cases of trafficking without fearing of ill-treatment or arrest.
As for her escorting, she said, “It should not be the state’s concern to tell me who I can sleep with and if I can charge or not. It is no one’s business what I do with my body, with my life and my choice of work.”
“The escorts will still be here. We will not disappear,” Rachel said. “If our work has to be quiet, we will be quiet but I still would have my regulars and I will make money from them. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to still be here.”