Stigma, safety threats and barriers to human rights: DU Amnesty’s talk on sex work in Ireland

Kate McGrew, member of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, and Lucy Smyth, creator of, outlined the problems affecting sex workers in Ireland in a talk on Wednesday night as part of International Women’s Week.

On Wednesday night this week Dublin University Amnesty International held an event entitled “Sex Workers in Ireland: Lives, Problems, and Solutions” in the Mairtín Uí Cadhain theatre. Kate McGrew, a sex worker and sex worker rights activist with the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) and Lucy Smyth, creator and administrator of, were the guest speakers on the night. Both speakers shed an illuminating light on the stigma, safety threats and legal barriers to rights associated with the working lives of sex workers and the criminalisation of the trade in Ireland.

McGrew began the event by discussing a few aspects of her working life. She initially discussed the most pertinent concern for sex workers today in Ireland – that of stigma. She stated that aside from damaging personal relationships and business, stigma “creates in people’s minds a vision of us that we are either vulnerable or weak and bad women”, and that this perception of sex workers as inferior directly manifests in the workers being “disproportionately targeted for violence.”

She recalled an incident, while taking part in a radio show, where one woman stated she wanted to “wring [her] throat”. The woman was not questioned for her behaviour, a sign, McGrew felt, that the presenters of the show “didn’t realise that tolerance of stigma and hate-speech perpetuate actual violence against us”. She then explained her methods of protecting herself from abusive clients, using and buddy systems to better identify and ensure against violence.

According to SWAI’s site it’s not just clients that can pose a risk: “people who are violent towards sex workers are not always clients but are often criminals engaging in violent assaults specifically targeting sex workers.” Lucy Smyth’s website, that she singly-handedly designed and developed, aims to ease such risks for sex workers. The free site and accompanying app allows sex workers to share information with each other on abusive clients.

Features include a database of offenders’ phone numbers, and a reporting facility. Only about 3.2% of such reporting offence victims also report to police. She highlighted the need for transparency around sex work crimes, giving the example of a young Eastern European sex worker who was raped by a Garda last year; the offender received nothing but a fine.

In  response to an Ugly Mugs report in 2013, that revealed 66.7% of sex workers surveyed had been a victim of a crime they did not report to the police, a sex worker affiliated with SWAI named Maria stated:“How can we feel safe and free from violence when the police, supposed to protect us, are keeping us under surveillance and forcing us to work alone?”

McGrew mentioned that when Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald was questioned by sex worker Laura Lee, about a horrific murder case in Northern Ireland following the criminalisation of outdoor work, Fitzgerald replied that such cases would act as a “deterrent from entering the industry”.

Adopting the Swedish model in Ireland, a country with declining social services and none of the exit supports that are available in Sweden, is considered inappropriate by many sex workers, according to a blog piece written by Christina a member of the SWAI. McGrew explained that such a model, the criminalisation of the purchase, but not the sale of sex, comes with “an explicit willingness to throw some under the bus” in the name of deterrence and a “greater good”.

On the topic of decriminalisation of sex work, McGrew strongly advocated for the move in preference to legalization of the trade, or the criminalization of clients. Currently two sex workers living together could be arrested and charged facing fines, jail time, and a record of “brothel keeping”- essentially keeping women in the industry. She argued passionately that criminalization of the sex industry threatens the safety, health, wellbeing, and exit of workers in the sex industry.

Speaking about the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2014, which outlines this Swedish model approach, McGrew reprimanded the government’s action: “Do the Government and TDs and Senators actually think they know more about the impact and effect of criminalisation on the rights of sex workers than Amnesty International and sex workers themselves? […]If these changes so blatantly target sex workers, then who is this legislation for?”