Hello, today the Irish Examiner speaks to Sarah Benson, chief executive of Ruhama, the organisation which offers support to women involved in prostitution. There has been an explosion in the numbers of women offering sexual services in hotel rooms, apartments, massage parlours and also through outcalls to the punters. With up to 800 women selling sex on a daily basis, trafficking victims are almost certainly being forced to offer sex in towns and cities around Ireland.
Hi Sarah, as an organisation which supports women in prostitution, what horror stories do your staff come across on a day-to-day basis. Do the women encounter violence at the hands of the punters?
HI Stephen, Ruhama is a frontline service for women affected by prostitution. We encounter women right accross the spectrum of the sex trade and sometimes often the experiences women report are appalling. Prostitution overal is very dangerous and women are frequently attacked, sexually assaulted, sometimes robbed and in some cases trafficked in circumstances that are almost unbelieveable. Buyers are the source of violence in some cases - not just sexual or physical assault but something women talk about a lot is verbal abuse that they find utterly degrading.
What would you say to those who claim the women make their own decision to become involved in the sex industry, and to the women themselves who claim "its my body, i am entitled to do what i want with it"?
The whole ‘choice’ question is one that is central to discussion and debate about prostitution: saying that women ‘choose prostitution’ and women ‘choose what to do with their bodies in prostitution’ are slightly different propositions and I don’t think either stands up to real scrutiny when you look at the global reality of the sex trade.
For many, if not most women, their so-called choice is preceded by and conditioned on earlier traumatic abuse and an interplay of personal and economic factors. Factors such as childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse, lack of resources, drug addiction, low self-worth, manipulation, grroming (particularly for vulnerable young girls - and indeed boys) and sometimes coercion all combine to make the question of free choice almost meaningless. The question of consent or choice needs to be framed, not only in terms of the degree of freedom involved, but also in terms of the range of choices open to a particular individual i.e. a choice between what options. Also – and this is something we hear all the time directly from women - the harsh experience of many women is that they do not realize how hard it is to leave until it is too late.
As to the idea that women in prostitution choose what to do with their bodies, this is simply not the way it works. The person who chooses what happens to a woman’s body when she’s in prostitution is the buyer. They pay in order to have that control. Even where women try to set boundaries on certain sex acts for instance we hear consistently that men have no regard for these and will push to coerce women to do things that they don’t want to. If a woman is pimped she may not even have the dubious ‘choice’ of even stating what sex acts she will engage in as they are chosen for her and there can be serious consequences if she is not compliant.
Rather than ask why, or if, women choose prostitution, attention needs to be focused on why so many men choose to buy women and children in prostitution. While women in prostitution do comply with demands, in fact it is the user’s choices that are promoted in prostitution. Clients are only too happy to believe that women become involved in prostitution by choice or because they like it and not out of need,
We have received the following tweet from questioning whether trafficking is happening to the degree claimed by organisations such as your own. How would you respond?
Are we as a society trying hard enough to locate victims of trafficking? Or are we turning a blind eye?
We are consistently working with new women who have been trafficked. Usually approximately 50% of women in casework with Ruhama are victims of trafficking. There is no doubt that this is happening in Ireland right now. As to numbers it is something very hard to put a figure on in terms of national estimates because it is so hidden. Ruhama can only reflect the numbers wer're dealing with but beleive that those who we meet represent only a small number given the massive degree of coercion and control exercised by traffickers in keeping their victims silent and under control.
in relation to the recent raids these were stated as being for intelligence gathering purposes and so the focus was on seizing materials to try to track the actual organisers. The engagement with women was relatively fleeting and while it is positive in our view that they did not arrest or charge women in prostitution, neither did they do significant interviews with the women they met. In our experience women who are heavily controlled by pimps or traffickers will not necessarily disclose their situation to police in such circumstances - it requires a building up of trust over time sometimes.
The Irish Examiner would like to remind all users that comments are moderated primarily for legal reasons and that Stephen and Sarah will endeavour to answer those questions they can at some stage.
How many victims of trafficking do Ruhama encounter on a yearly basis?
@Stephen - www.ruhama.ie for our recent statistics. usually about 25 new cases each year and the support work is often over a significant period of time so in a given year we would be actively working with approximately 80 women.
Where are the victims of trafficking you encounter typically from? How do they end up here?
To add to Dave's comment - There were 57 alleged
victims of human trafficking — including 13 children — reported to gardaí in 2011.
Of those, 37 were victims of sexual exploitation, 13 of labour exploitation, two were victims of both labour and sexual exploitation and five were victims of “uncategorised exploitation”.
The Annual Report of Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland was compiled by the Department of Justice’s Anti-Human Trafficking Unit.
All but nine of the 57 were women, and women also made up all but four
of the victims of sexual exploitation. Of the 13 children trafficked, eight were for sexual purposes.
In 2010 we worked with traffickign victims from 18 different countries (http://www.ruhama.ie/easyedit/files/2010statsreportruhama.pdf) so it is a hugely international crime. The predominant areas from which we are meeting women at present are Nigeria, eastern europe (Bulgaria, Romania, Poland...) and South America. Women are most commonly brought here using deception such as the offer of a new job and it is only when they arrive that they discover that they have been trafficked. Very commonly a large debt is presented to them on arrival and they are told to engage in prostitution to pay it off.
How can Ireland eradicate human trafficking? Is the Swedish model, criminalising the user, the answer?
We do believe an approach similar to Sweden is the best way to tackle not only trafficking but also the high level of organisd prostitution which we have in ireland at present. The buyers fuel demand and in Sweden and Norway and Iceland they took an approach to criminalise them and decriminalise those in prostitution. the objective is to reduce demand and thereby reduce the size of the sex trade by making it unattractive to criminals to exploit vulnerable women and girls for gain. The other strand of the approach is to ensure that supports are in place to assist and protect those in prostiution. This has proved effective in Sweden in particular who ahve had the law for over a decade now.
Sarah, we have received the following tweet from a woman who says "sex workers should be left in peace not exposed to pieces".
What are your thoughts on the legalisation of prostitution?
@123 the sex trade will always be connected to criminals but in terms of it being underground it couldn not be more underground than it is at present as the buyers always needs to find the women. If they can find them then so can others.
@jessica The approach we would advocate does not criminalise those in prostitution for that reason. Women in Sweden are not criminalised and our direct links with swedish police and the local support services in Stockholm confirm that this has created a far more positive engagement between women and the police because they don't fear prosecution.
@Beth this is true, the Swedes never said that trafficking didn't still exist however because the sex trade is so small compared to other jurisdictions who took different legal approaches they have the resources to actually police the persistent criminality that exists far more effectively than for example Germany or the Netherlands.
What would be the consequences/benefits of legalisation?
@John: The two main countries people would be aware of are Germany and the Netherlands and in both cases the internal reports indicate that legalisation as an approach has been a failurein terms of protecting the health and well beign of thos in the sx trade, reducing trafficking, reducing child prostitution, reducing organised crime.
What impact has mobile phones and the internet had on the prostitution industry in this country?
Just some details of the Dutch report findings: • Estimated 25,000 prostitutes; over 1000 trafficked annually
• Huge legal sector: 1,300-1,700 legal brothels/location bound premises
• Unknown number of illegal and non-location bound premises i.e. private apartments
• Increase in indoor prostitution and escort agencies
• Report states that combating the exploitation of involuntary prostitution 'virtually impossible' to ascertain
• Pimping is widespread as checks are focussed only on owners of the establishments; pimps operate outside
• Child-prostitutes: researchers did not encounter under age girls but admit age of young prostitutes difficult to ascertain
• Girls arriving at legal locations on 18 birthday; boyfriend/ 'lover boy' identified as pimps
• Evidence that half those in escort business very young and started pre age 20
• Emotional well-being of women is now lower than in 2001 on all measured aspects, and the use of sedatives has increased
• Only 6% of municipalities had a policy on exiting
• Police capacity being used up for inspections in the regulated sector rather than criminal aspects of illegal sector
• Highly regarded measures to tackle trafficking with huge resources yet still have over a 1000 trafficked victims a year
In relation to my question on technology in the industry the following tweet has come in regarding one of the websites which has lead to a massive increase in the sale of sex in this country
the website is escort-ireland.com
@Jessica - the focus on health is for the benefit of the buyers more than the women. in some jurisdictions enforced screening for women - but never for men. Sexual health screening should be a basic human right for all, including anyone in the sex trade irrespective of the legal status of prostituion. thanks fully free and confidential sexual health screening is available to women through the HSE Women's Health Service.
In relation to Samlad's question, the website is hosted outside the state so gardai would find it exceptionally hard to shut it down
@John - Ruhama works directly with women every day. The message boards you refer to are on the largest prostitution advertising site in Ireland and a large proportion of posts are from sex buyers. As we would call for the criminalisation of buyers there is bound to be some critical sentiment there. In terms of our work with women our services are completely non-judegmental and tailored to respond to individual womens needs. A significant amount of women we work with are still actively involved in prostitution and we work with them in relation to whatever their priorities are. We have had referrals that have come directly from some women who advertise on that website. That is not to say that we can't have a position on prostitution itself. We do beleive that the sex trade is harful to those involved.