By Michael Lanigan
Deputy InDepth Editor
Anyone who has ever visited Escort Ireland’s website could easily mistake the content for being an offshoot of Amazon, because in essence, it is. From the reviews, where users share their explicit satisfaction and rate the ‘girlfriend experience’, to the numerous photographs from different angles on display for your due consideration to assess the quality of the worker, the whole spectacle comes across as the flogging of a a product, rather than an actual person.
This depersonalised search, in a trade already notorious for being an emotional vacuum can only further enhance the sense of disconnection in the client and as a result, it comes as no surprise to find that sex workers, given the choice, tend to stay out in the open as ‘street walkers’. At least, when soliciting outdoors, one has the chance to suss out prospective buyers.
For those offering their service indoors, the paranoia escalates tenfold given that their sole system of weeding out liabilities are phone calls and, on fortunate occasions, when an online buyer is a marked threat.
In-calls are a paradox of sorts in terms of security for the escort. In order not to find their physical wellbeing solely at the mercy of the sympathy of the client, an escort might require a second party to be present. However, to have such an associate within the same confines runs the risk of authorities deeming the premise a brothel if this associate has any links to sex work, or deals with payment.
Outcalls are equally as dangerous, the sole protection is the driver, whose purpose is to transport the worker and receive confirmation that he, or she, has met with the client. They seldom wait outside. Hence, we see incidents such as recounted by former sex worker and now published author Rachel Moran, during which an outcall saw her threatened with a rifle, for failing to comply with a request.
The sense of entitlement ingrained in those who feel payment means total access to a body is a serious danger, as one sex worker by the name of Mia described. Agreeing to attend a Christmas party with a second worker, the two were gang-raped by eight men after the buyers refused their request to leave. Violently inserting objects into the two unsupervised women, the escorts finally managed to depart soaked in blood and urine, with the second woman found dead of a heroin overdose two weeks later.
On the other side of the transaction, it is a test of one’s own critical faculties when seeking out willing subjects: a considerable problem when pitted against sexual desire. There is nothing on these sites to be taken at face value. Out of the escorts whom I either contacted or encountered, the enthusiasm expressed in their bios proved false. This lie is merely providing peace of mind for the client to persevere. It is an act which might fool a paying customer, but is a performance nevertheless.
Plastering the site too are adverts urging those to report cases of trafficking and coercion. The escorts are seldom Irish and this harks back to the findings from an Immigrant Council of Ireland survey noting one in four prospective buyers had encountered a case of suspected trafficking during their pursuits.
This is a problem for all involved. Migrants in these situations often fear police having come from authoritarian backgrounds; hence they keep quiet and out of view by remaining in brothels. Client shame hinders the willingness to step forward and report suspected cases.
Meanwhile, despite encouraging whistleblowers, Escort Ireland comes across as a non-intervening, indifferent medium. Any notions of a moral duty are too risky since they are legally bound to withhold their voices, deterring them from interference. Any direct link means a breach of law, leading to a potential prosecution for pimping out the worker.
With these issues in mind, I began the process of meeting with three callgirls, starting in Santry. The first escort was Italian, under the name Crystal. Lacking in basic English, online reviewers have scorned her for being cold and concerned solely with her fee. A quick Google search of her image, found me on escort pages in the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands and England, so locating her would prove challenging. We agreed to meet outside a sports centre across from the IKEA in Santry, which was the next problem. The apartment blocks here are among the most infamous spots for escort activity, besides Temple bar, the IFSC and Connolly Station.
“Outcalls are equally as dangerous, the sole protection is the driver, whose purpose is to transport the worker and receive confirmation that he, or she, has met with the client. Hence, we see incidents, such as recounted by former sex worker Rachel Moran, during which an outcall saw her threatened with a rifle, for failing to comply with a request.”
Arriving outside the clinic, there were at least three women, whose applying of make-up, lack of sporting attire and swift departures with non-descript, non-sporting men made it clear that this building was a frequent drop-off point. That fact had not gone over the heads of the staff in the building.
After fifteen minutes of lingering about at the entrance, there was no sign of this woman, but I could not help noticing a people-carrier, driven by a single man, which had passed back and forth between the flats and the clinic four times since my arrival. After leaving a few voicemails and following two inquiries from staff as to whether I needed any help, it was clear that Crystal was not coming. Another appointment would be out of the question, since her page was advertising a national tour the following day.
I scheduled myself into two different appointments a few weeks later, one for a Chinese escort named Coco, the other with a Brazilian woman under the name ‘Exotic Massage’.
First calling the masseuse, telling her that I located her via the website, she gave me an extremely flexible slot for later that evening, saying that business was not exactly booming. On the other hand, I lied to Coco as to who had pointed me in her direction. This minor detail significantly altered her behaviour: “Can you come at five?” “Sure. Ballsbridge, yes?” “Yes. RDS. Who sent you?” “A friend recommended you.” There was a long pause. “Not the website?” “No, no.” “Not Ballsbridge. Burlington Hotel instead, okay? Call there”, she responded sternly and hung up.
There was no reason given for this sudden change, but it was clear that my experiment had triggered a reaction that was significantly less than welcoming.
After making my way down to the Burlington, I called her at five on the dot. She told me to walk towards a series of houses. Upon arrival, I called once more to confirm my location and met with her agitated voice:
“No, go away. You can’t come in. Done. Please go, now.”
She hung up straight away, startling me, and leaving me unsure as to what had sparked this outburst. A few hours later, it was time to venture over across the Liffey to Connolly Station.
Born in Sao Paolo, Brazil, Maria, as she later told me, had been working as an escort here for the past four years, but had been working beside Connolly Station for the past year. The idea of ‘flexible hours’ and free time as boasted by the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland seemed absurd from the word go, considering she struggled to direct me to her building as I described my exact whereabouts, only to find that I was a few metres away from her door.
There were clear signs that she was operating within a low-key brothel. There was audible activity of others over the phone, despite her noting that she had been alone for the past few hours. On entering the apartment I could hear others in both hers and the adjacent apartments. Adding to this, when I keyed in the instructed flat number XX, flat XY opened instead.
This explained her manner, which was friendly, but extremely muted, grim and borderline paranoid anytime I inquired into details about her work. I was met with nervous laughter and frequent glances away, often hiding her face completely. I doubt paying customers would have noticed these minor character breaks, but they were glaring me straight in the eyes the entire time. Expressing a clear desire to leave Ireland for good, she simply seemed depressed, despite her efforts to prove otherwise.
When the time came to offer her services, the smile dropped in a flash, coldly undoing her top and placing her hands on my shoulders. At this point, I stammered some indecipherable excuse and made my exit. Fully prepared for an outburst of rage, her mood hit a note of genuine friendliness, amicably labelling me a hopeless case before shoeing me out the door.
After concluding these encounters, it was not discomfort that I felt, but outright inadequacy. When Maria briefly let slip that she wanted to leave and return to Sao Paolo it did not inspire a heroic side of my soul to step forward, just total defeat in walking away.
Call me melodramatic, but after I walked away from the station, it felt as if I had just sat by and watched a slave return to its master. You may challenge that part, the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland certainly do, noting the ‘happy hookers’ who claim to enjoy their work, but then again, there were slaves in antebellum America who preferred bondage to freedom.