Sex trafficking won’t be solved by villainising all sex workers in Ireland

SIPTU and the Department of Justice may want to protect victims of sex trafficking, but their campaign with Ruhama will only alienate sex workers more

On November 23, Dublin-based NGO Ruhama launched the “Get the Full Picture” campaign. Supported by the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, more commonly known as SIPTU, the campaign aims to highlight the prevalence of human trafficking for sexual exploitation throughout Ireland and to tell the stories of those who are impacted by it. The campaign calls on the public to know the signs of human trafficking and to report suspicious activity to the relevant authorities. 

In addition, the campaign aims to break the silence around sexual exploitation. And while this may seem well and good, when you take a closer look at the history of Ruhama, you’ll find direct links to religious oppression and not one but two orders of nuns that ran the notorious Magdalene laundries. 

“Ruhama, which is an undeniable legacy of religious oppression and imprisonment of Irish women has received more than €14.4 million in funding from the Health Service Executive since 2006.”

The agency works “with women affected by prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation” and was previously described as “a joint initiative of the Good Shepherd Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, both of which had a long history of involvement with marginalised women, including those involved in prostitution”. This admission of religious involvement appears to have been scrubbed from their website. Both congregations refused to meet with Justice for Magdalenes, a support group for survivors of the laundries. Ruhama, which is an undeniable legacy of religious oppression and imprisonment of Irish women has received more than €14.4 million in funding from the Health Service Executive since 2006.

The actions of both of these religious orders in regards to the asylums and laundries have been condemned nationally and internationally, with a 2014 UN report stating that: “Girls placed in the institutions were forced to work in slavery-like conditions and were often subject to inhuman, cruel and degrading treatment as well as to physical and sexual abuse. They were deprived of their identity, of education and often of food … imposed with an obligation of silence and prohibited from having any contact with the outside world … unmarried girls who gave birth before entering or while incarcerated in the laundries had their babies forcibly removed from them.” Both the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity have refused to compensate victims.

Also funded by the Department of Justice, this is far from Ruhama’s first attempt to grab the nation’s attention. But what makes this campaign harder to swallow is the overwhelming promotion of the campaign by bodies like SIPTU and the Women’s Council of Ireland. Seeing prominent female politicians focus on this issue should be a relief, it should be a moment where sex workers are finally heard but instead, I fear it is a campaign that shouts over the community who witnesses trafficking and abuse. If the Government wants to genuinely combat this issue, they need to let sex workers sit at the table where decisions are being made.

You may be wondering as their new campaign is “survivor-led” and wants to prevent human trafficking, surely it’s better than nothing? And yes, to some extent that is true. It is a positive trend for the Department of Justice to be taking some action to prevent exploitation, just as they’ve done with image-based sexual abuse and sexual harassment in the past year. It is promising that there is only one clergy member, Sister Noreen O’Shea, on the board of directors of Ruhama and that she appears to be more focused on eradicating men who encourage sexual exploitation rather than sex work as a whole. But then again at a forum on sex work in 2007, she called for the end of strip clubs and exotic dance in Ireland. 

The key problems with the “Get The Full Picture Campaign” lie in the ways Ruhama describes likely victims of human trafficking. Some characteristics listed on their website make sense such as “appearing dishevelled, bruised, injured or malnourished” and “not being allowed to speak for themselves or make their own decisions”, but others seem to be encouraging community policing when taken at their very best. Ruhama states on their website that “A lack of English or literacy skills” and “Constantly seeing new neighbours in your community or what appear to be different neighbours every few weeks” are signs of sex trafficking, which is fair, but it places the responsibility of reporting on strangers, who within this campaign are encouraged to be concerned about all forms of sex work rather than just nonconsensual sex work.

Any form of exploitation of sex workers in Ireland is a huge issue and should never be tolerated or go unpunished. But when I was researching for this article, I found no mention of the issue of people in Direct Provision engaging in sex work on the Get The Full Picture campaign page. Akidwa, the national network of migrant women, submitted a report to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality in May warning that women in direct provision centres were being pushed into prostitution. The report revealed that many women, and in some cases children, are offered money for sex by staff, other residents and neighbours from local towns near the centres. Most women who go through Direct Provision have been propositioned by a stranger near where they live, while others are groomed by male residents who operate as pimps within the accommodation. 

Exploitation is occurring under a system that wasn’t designed for migrants to live comfortably. Direct Provision was designed to be an emergency measure, a short-term solution that has now turned twenty years old and has housed residents for up to twelve years. Targeting men via an ad campaign won’t stop the (what seems to be) open secret of soliciting sex from refugees who can’t support themselves on less than 40 a week. I personally knew that survival sex work existed in Direct Provision, but I was too naive to realise that staff and residents from nearby towns were part of the exchange. And that’s what is missing from Ruhama’s messaging. It needs to call a spade a spade and underline the failures of the government to protect vulnerable people in Direct Provision. 

According to research conducted by UCD’s Sexual Exploitation Research Programme (SERP) and the HSE’s Women’s Health Service (WHS), migrants make up a significant amount of the sex worker population. In a sample of 144 women, 94% were not Irish and stated precarious immigration and poverty as reasons for engaging in prostitution. Although the report found that most of the women were doing all they could to protect their sexual health, clients were demanding unprotected sex and tried to remove barrier contraception when it was used. 79% of the women were experiencing at least one health issue, including sexually transmitted infections. 

In a report by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, it is acknowledged that victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are “almost exclusively migrant women”. So why aren’t Ruhama campaigning for better facilities for migrants? Why are their national campaigns focused on villainizing everyone engaged in sex work, even those who make the conscious choice and are proud of it? There is a case that sexual exploitation and human trafficking is far too high in Ireland, but we cannot hand such a vulnerable issue to an agency that was born from the ashes of institutions that housed thousands of unmarried women, sold their children and buried bodies in unmarked graves and septic tanks. 

So why isn’t exploitation reported? According to the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI), the answer is quite simple. The Criminal Offences Bill (2015) and Sexual Offences Act (2017) have made sex workers less likely to report dangerous clients to gardaí. The Sexual Offences Act prohibited the purchase of sex and increased penalties for sex workers sharing premises. The maximum fine for “brother keeping” increased from €1,000 to €5,000 and the maximum jail term doubled from six months to one year. A conviction on indictment (which requires a Jury trial), remained unchanged by the act with a maximum fine of €10,000 remaining and/or a maximum five-year jail term.

“They are bound by law to suffer in silence as there is no reward for coming forward, only stigma and perhaps retaliation by clients or co-workers.”

Sex workers are actively punished for attempting to live together – if someone were to discover their profession they could lose their home and livelihoods as they have no way of proving they don’t use their residence for their services. If they are assaulted at work and choose to report it, their landlord or employer will be arrested. They are bound by law to suffer in silence as there is no reward for coming forward, only stigma and perhaps retaliation by clients or co-workers. 

There are plans within Cabinet to introduce a national referral mechanism for victims of sex trafficking but an app for sex workers to report dodgy clients already exists in Ireland. Ugly Mugs, founded in 2013, is a free service that allows Sex workers to report instances of abuse. What is most notable about this platform is that it previously had ties to Rahuma but has since ceased any connections to the NGO and has publicly denounced the “Get The Full Picture” campaign on their social media.

Ugly Mugs Ireland took a clear shot at Ruhama’s practices in a tweet on November 22: “The full picture is that the government is throwing money at @ruhamaagency again, for them to whip up hate against people in sex work. This has violent consequences that we have to deal with.” In another thread, the platform called out the NGO’s performative activism: “The saddest thing about the #getthefullpicture campaign is that there is not adequate support for people in sex work (including victims of trafficking). What we have here is a media campaign being run by Ruhama (a lobby group.) What we don’t have is actual support services.” 

“According to Adeline Berry, SWAI activist and author, it is Rahuma and the Immigrant Council of Ireland’s petitioning for the Sexual Offences Act that has increased dramatically increased human trafficking and abuse in Ireland.”

But even if you believe Ruhama can change, or even has changed, and that all institutions have their faults it is hard to ignore the anger of sex workers and sex work activists around this campaign. It is clear from the reactions of SWAI and numerous sex workers in Ireland that Ruhama is not trusted to handle such a sensitive issue. According to Adeline Berry, SWAI activist and author, it is Rahuma and the Immigrant Council of Ireland’s petitioning for the Sexual Offences Act that has increased dramatically increased human trafficking and abuse in Ireland. In their most recently published research on the topic, Berry states: “Parties responsible for sex work legislation in the Republic of Ireland appear to have contributed to a cycle of desperation with little opportunity for escape for those unfortunate enough to find themselves relying on sex work to support themselves and their families.”

Is Ruhama trying to help sex trafficking victims? I’d like to hope that they have good intentions, but they have clearly missed the mark will these campaigns. As an organisation, they will never be able to escape their religious past, and they should not be the sole group that speaks for sex workers who have experienced abuse. Ruhama has effectively positioned itself to be the solution to a state that refuses to acknowledge that sex work can occur safely and instead forces sex workers to hide their livelihoods from the law. Just as abortions were carried out under the 8th amendment, sex work will continue to happen under the Sexual Offences Act. Preventative legislation takes agency away from sex workers, just like the Get The Full Picture and We Don’t Buy It. I’m not saying Rahuma doesn’t have the capacity to change and I’m sure they have in some ways, but painting sex workers with the brush that they’re all victims isn’t helpful long-term. 

Ireland’s perception of sex and sex work is inherently flawed. We live in a society where the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, couldn’t admit the extent of the infamous Discord leak in November 2020. Despite activists’ claims that over 40,000 images had been leaked and that child pornography had been found amongst the files, Harris asserted to national media that Gardaí were not investigating any crimes in relation to the leak. He also claimed that no formal complaints had been made, which contradicted the stories of several victims. 

“How can the Department of Justice fund campaigns raising awareness around image-based sexual abuse but continue to support the vilification of sex work as a whole?”

Furthermore, a distinct line was drawn between victims of the leak by the public. Sex workers were seen to be “asking for it”, and were told that they should have expected their NSFW images to be leaked if they were posted on websites such as OnlyFans. They became public commodities – throughout the following days of the Discord leak, several Irish influencers and top creators on OnlyFans trended on Pornhub. But where is Rahuma’s stance on online sex work? Where do these national bodies draw the line? How can the Department of Justice fund campaigns raising awareness around image-based sexual abuse but continue to support the vilification of sex work as a whole?

Dublin once had the largest red-light district in Europe. Known as the “Monto” it was effectively shut down due to the combined efforts of religious organisations and police. But sex work in Ireland has never gone away – it has constantly evolved as the Church attempts to eradicate it. In 2021, the Church/State collaboration remains. Until there are sex workers involved in developing supports for sex workers, we won’t see campaigns or services let alone legislation that will fully protect them. 

Eva O'Beirne

Eva O'Beirne is the Deputy Life Editor of Trinity News and a Junior Sophister History student.