Trafficking and the Irish Sex Industry

Cathy Molloy is a Research Officer with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice
February, 2007


‘These stories are horrific. They made us really angry that this could be happening in our country.’ ‘We are not going to stop until the legislation is changed.’ (The Carlow Nationalist, 19 May 2005 quoting Catriona Kelly a then Transition Year student at St. Leo’s College.)

At the Young Social Innovator of the Year Awards 2005, the Transition Year class of St Leo’s – founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1839 – won the Global Citizenship Award. Their project, ‘Stop the Trafficking of Women into Ireland for Sexual Exploitation’, was inspired by stories of young girls and women whose experiences were so shocking that they could not be ignored.

The discovery of the body of a 25-year old Malawian woman near Piltown, Co Kilkenny, and the story of an 11-year old non-national trafficked into Ireland and raped and abused, spurred the students into action to raise awareness of the issue of trafficking and to work for a change in the laws that will reduce the possibility of such events being repeated.1

Move on to 8 May 2006 and a Prime Time Investigates programme on the trafficking of women and girls prompted many people to engage with the issue. At the Dail Adjournment Debate on the Sexual Trafficking of Women on 10 May 2006, Ciaran Cuffe TD (Green Party) put it to Michael McDowell TD, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, that, although a 2002 EU Council Framework Decision obliged all EU Member States to introduce legislation to criminalise human trafficking by 2004 at the latest, Ireland remained the only Member State that had yet to do so. He also asked for sensitivity and compassion in the treatment of victims who have suffered terribly at the hands of traffickers, rather than arrest and imprisonment followed by deportation, as in the case of a Romanian woman whose traffickers were never brought to justice.

‘The idea that they are acting with relative impunity makes me sick to my stomach.’ So said Senator Mary White in reference to traffickers, on 29 June 2006 speaking at the Seanad Order of Business.

There must be an end to the ignorance that women who have been trafficked for sex are not being exploited in Ireland. The Prime Time Investigates programme highlighted the way women are being exploited in country towns and in cities throughout the country. There must be a concerted effort to highlight the fact that this is a modern day slave trade of vulnerable people, mostly women and children, for the sexual gratification of morally depraved individuals.

We, as legislators, must initiate a zero tolerance approach to those who are engaged in trafficking human beings for sex. The idea that they are acting with relative impunity makes me sick to my stomach. I want to see this issue accorded the priority it deserves and zero tolerance legislation introduced as quickly as possible.2

Trafficking is a virtually non-quantifiable aspect of the migration issue. By its nature it is secretive, exploitative, and thrives on a culture of oppression and fear in which human beings are literally treated as commodities to be moved, bought and sold, used or dumped at the whim of those whose aim is to profit at their expense. Trafficking in human beings includes also the moving of people – men and women and children – for cheap labour and is rightly called the ‘slavery’ of our time.

The issue of trafficking of women and girls into Ireland for sexual exploitation is becoming more widely acknowledged. A certain momentum is being built up among various State and non-governmental bodies who are including the issue in their research and publications. For example, the Irish Refugee Council Report 2006 includes a Draft Information note on human trafficking; in May 2006 the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and an Garda Siochana Working group reported on Trafficking in Human beings; in Northern Ireland the PSNI reported on trafficking in January 2006; Ruhama, a Dublin-based NGO, working since 1980 with women involved in prostitution, published The Next Step Initiative, research report on barriers affecting women in prostitution in 2005; the print media and RTE have also been picking up on the issue.

What precisely do we mean by trafficking?
A United Nations (November 2000) document provides a definition. Article 3 of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, states:


‘Trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

Organisations working on this issue point out that it is important to recognise that trafficking can occur regardless of whether victims are taken to another country or simply moved from one place to another within the same country. It involves violation of the most basic rights to freedom, autonomy and human dignity. It is fostered in part by demand for sexual and other services which, in effect, provides the economic impetus for trafficking. So while deterrence and criminal punishments, awareness raising and so on are part of the solution, there is need for much more explicit analysis of the conditions that drive both the supply and demand.

International studies cited in the Ruhama report show that poverty in its various forms, abusive backgrounds, drug abuse and homelessness and the exploitation of women in these situations by unscrupulous men and women, drive the supply side, and increased wealth and some of its manifestations and side effects – emotional and psychological as well as financial – the demand.

The Expanding Sex Industry in Celtic Tiger Ireland
Among much interesting data in the report, The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships, commissioned by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency and the Department of Health and Children, was the finding that young men are more likely to pay for sex in the present financial climate.4   Notably, there is no section in the report with a question about trafficking, and only brief reference to ‘commercial sex’.

It is no doubt impossible to estimate how much the vastly expanded sex industry of the Celtic Tiger is an unacknowledged contributor to GNP in the Ireland of 2006. Maybe such information might be part of a future report on sexuality in Ireland. If the amount of money spent in sex shops, massage parlours, escort agencies, sex chat lines, web sites, so-called adult video outlets, lap-dancing clubs and other ‘entertainment’ (quantifiable and verifiable because publicly advertised by presumably financially accountable businesses), were to be added to the non-quantifiable (because exchanged covertly) amount of money changing hands in the sexual exploitation involved in prostitution and trafficking in Ireland – North and South – the figure might surprise. Or maybe it would not, and what would be surprising would be any genuine, concerted effort to stop the sexual exploitation involved in these activities. On the face of it, it would seem that while there are occasional noises about human rights abuses, we are not very serious about putting a stop to this particular form of exploitation.

Legislation and enforcement of laws are one necessary way for governments to deal with the problem of the exploitation of women and girls, and sometimes children and men too, but can never be the whole answer. The Ruhama report indicates that radical societal and cultural changes in relation to social, economic and educational disadvantage, and to gender relations, are needed for many women to participate fully in society: ‘The denial and secrecy operative in the area of prostitution allows society to avoid the issue and to overlook the fact that the majority of women involved in it believe that they did not have a choice’. Among its recommendations is that awareness of the realities of prostitution should be raised among all those connected with social, medical and educational services and that all ‘education and training should present sexual exploitation in a human rights framework and as a gendered issue.’5

There remains the more fundamental problem of sexuality in general in our society which seems to lunge from crisis to crisis. The debates in recent years on contraception, marriage and divorce, the change in law making rape within marriage a crime, the issue of sexual abuse of children, the question of recognition of marriage between homosexual and lesbian couples, the case of the stored embryos, the debate on the age of consent, show human sexuality to be a central issue in our self-perception as people, and what we believe and do about it are of enormous significance. Clearly, it cannot really be said to be a private matter as some would wish. How the provision of sex education in the schools can meet the different needs and expectations of people with strongly opposing views as to whether or how it should be conducted is a frequently aired topic. The numbers of children being reared in single parent families who are at high risk of poverty is an ongoing cause of concern. Problems about how sex offenders and those who have been released after serving prison sentences should be treated in society continue to emerge when high-profile cases are reported in the media, often accompanied by a kind of hysteria. The lack of sufficient places in treatment centres for offenders and the seemingly conflicting views about the effectiveness of treatment are recurring issues. From the issue of HIV/AIDS to child sexual abuse, from the reported vast increase in the incidence of other sexually transmitted infections to the increase in sexual violence and rape generally, many people see a real problem in our society which has gone from virtually no talk about sex and sexuality to a situation where talk of recreational sex, or commercial sex is relatively common currency.

Making Connections
Have we really arrived at a mentality that sees ‘commercial sex’ as though it were just another option in the exercise of sexuality? Is it now acceptable at societal level to consider sex as something apart from persons, something to be bought and sold, and the people involved, whether buying or selling, as mere commodities to be exploited for the financial gain of those controlling the industry? Is the sexual abuse of children – because that is what we are talking about in relation to underage girls who are trafficked or involved in prostitution – somehow less offensive because money changes hands? Is it really prudery to suggest that, for example, Christmas office parties, or private or corporate entertainments that involve visiting lap-dancing or other ‘clubs’ offering women’s bodies – whether to be touched or not – as the principal entertainment, are representative of something really sad in our society?

The more benign side – if such a thing can be said of it – of sexual exploitation, as instanced in some advertising, so-called soft pornography on offer as the norm on late and not so late evening television, some ‘fashion’ on offer for young people, some of the surgical remodelling of bodies, that seems to part of the daily diet of print and visual media today, seems omnipresent. Is there really no connection between some of these and the list of crisis issues in relation to sex listed above? Do we honestly think the solution to any of them will be found in more and better STD clinics, absolutely necessary though these are, the tagging of convicted sexual offenders, the deporting of some women or girls working in prostitution while the traffickers go free? Are these kinds of measures the limit of our imagination in terms of ways to a healthy and happy societal attitude to sexuality? Is there truth in the suggestion that interpersonal relationships of all kinds are bearing the brunt of economic success, that the price of getting ahead economically is too often to fall behind emotionally, not to have time or energy for relationships – especially emotionally and sexually fulfilling relationships?

This may be why it seems to have become more acceptable to make light of what many have called the sexual saturation of our society, the coarseness of much reference to sex, and to imagine our sexual needs and desires are well enough met by participating in whatever aspect of the ‘sex industry’? Studies cited in the Ruhama report point to men’s desire to separate sex from intimacy with the convenience of sex with a prostituted woman requiring less effort, negotiation and time than within an intimate relationship and being also a way to allow greater control and power during the sexual encounter. The normalisation of sexual exploitation has made that increasingly possible.6

Libby Brooks, in a piece entitled ‘A New Sexual Manifesto’, suggests we are all the poorer for much of the so-called sexual liberation of today. She asks about a world in which it is considered fine, even trendy, for middle-class men and women to visit swanky lap-dancing clubs while ‘remaining oblivious to the continuum of exploitation that links these polished performers with the crack-addicted working girls on the street corner’.

It is not a question of being prudish, or easily embarrassed, or un-liberated, she writes, But it is about anger, about feeling short-changed and wanting to shake awake the majority of us who have been badgered into apathy by the sexual saturation of modern western culture. It is about taking back control of sex, its meaning and representation from the market before it’s too late. It’s about celebrating the human freedom that sex embodies, how desire can take us to the heart of our greatest potential: that in a moment we might be anybody or anything.7

The gender differences reported in relation to sex show the male sex drive to be higher, and that women find greater satisfaction in emotional intimacy than in genital sex. Is it simply that this is how men and women are? Or is there a cultural factor strongly at play, which, subtly or not, tells girls that sex is about love, commitment and having children, while boys are told that it is more about a measure of masculinity? Girls must make themselves attractive, pleasing to men, which, in the present culture, seems to mean overtly sexually inviting and available in dress and manner.  And boys must be macho, cool, sexually conquering, out to prove themselves in this way. Is this as far as we have got to in societal terms as regards expectations of what it means to be sexual beings? And what should be made of the signs of a cultural change that may be emerging with the so-called sexual liberation of ever younger girls and reports of their taking the initiative in sexual matters?

There is pressure on young men and young women to conform to approximations of these caricatures. At one end of the spectrum it is obvious that, at the least, girls and women suffer from conflicting messages: ‘Look like this but do not behave like this’. And girls and women can be their own worst critics in this regard. Boys and men suffer too from the pressure to appear confident and powerful, sometimes even dominating in their relationships. At the other end of the spectrum, as the Ruhama report points out, “the attitudes of men as buyers of sex, and society’s acceptance of these attitudes, serve to exempt men, and society as a whole, from accountability for the damage and social problems created by prostitution …”8

The fact remains that this translates for some men and women into the giving to themselves of permission to engage in commercial sexual transactions with vulnerable and exploited people. Is it right that because someone is paying for sex they are justified in blinding themselves to anything of that person’s reality? Are they justified in turning a deaf ear to the growing knowledge that many ‘sex workers’ are victims of the most appalling human rights abuses, that they may have no control over any aspect of their lives, be without papers, living in fear of their traffickers, without the connection of friends or family, without access to adequate or perhaps any health care, in short be trapped into what is rightly called slavery?

It is hard to imagine that men who buy sex are all that very different from men who do not. Reports suggest that they come from all social groups and walks of life. It is hard to imagine that if they were asked whether they approved of slavery in general they would answer in the affirmative. Yet are they in a position to be certain about who is trafficked and who is not, about who is literally and immediately coerced and who may think she is exercising ‘choice’ in this matter? Do people who purchase sex think about whether ‘choice’ has real meaning in context of women in prostitution? How would property owners who let their property to people running such businesses react to the knowledge that they were an important link in the slavery chain? What is the connection between the Ireland of the big charity donations and the Ireland of the exploitation of trafficked girls and women? Are there places where these overlap? Could that place of overlap be a place of the beginning of hope for some of those exploited? What would be needed for this to happen?

Sexuality and Justice
The equal dignity and basic rights of every human person form the basis of Christian  social teaching. Explicitly from this perspective, Michael J. Kelly SJ (well known and widely acknowledged for his work with and on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS in Zambia, and for his tireless efforts to educate in relation to prevention) strongly believes that the gender issues in relation to sexuality must be addressed. Although treating the question from the perspective of HIV/AIDS, and specifically with regard to HIV transmission, his notion of ‘A Just Sexuality’ offers practical insights, which are as relevant in considering some of the issues in Celtic Tiger Ireland as they are in some poverty-stricken and AIDS-torn parts of Africa.

For a just sexuality to prevail, justice must be respected in every type of sexual encounter. At the minimum this implies the observance of two principles:
1. The no-harm principle that induces people who move into intimate sexual contact with their occasional, varying, or semi-detached partners to take the necessary efficient measures so that pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases … are prevented.
2. The equality principle that attaches as much value to the other as to oneself. This principle requires that, at the very least, a person should never be forced, directly or indirectly, to have sexual contact with another.

Among a series of possible injustices in the area of sexuality he includes: narrow understandings that identify sexuality with physical sexual activity; failure to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of young people to comprehensive sex education; a moralising approach that fails to take account of the personal or socio-economic circumstances that may influence or even dictate a person’s behaviour.

In another publication, Faith and AIDS in Zambia, Kelly notes that some system of patriarchy, with men in a dominant decision-making role, seems to be almost universal. Even in countries where women occupy highly prestigious positions many say that decisions about when and how to have sex are made by their boyfriends and husbands, not by themselves.

Commenting on ‘casual and commercial sex’, Kelly notes that this may be the only way available to many women to support themselves and their children. For them, it is a business and a livelihood. He is critical of a stigmatising attitude that makes it difficult to see deeper than the woman waiting at the street corner.

We fail to see that …  the person beneath is a tired, harassed, caring, concerned, loving mother doing the only thing she is able to do for the support of her children (and too often of her husband as well). For her, sex is not pleasurable or glamorous. Neither does she see it as a moral issue. For her it is a matter of life and death, a survival strategy for herself and her children.10

A first response to these comments might be to wonder what Zambia has to do with Ireland in these matters. A second look might see that experiences of some of the vulnerable people in the Irish sex industry are not so far removed from their Zambian counterparts. A third look might see that attitudes to the gender issue as signified in attitudes in the society generally to sexuality, and to casual and commercial sex in particular, may be closer than we would have imagined.

The closing down during 2006 of Stringfellow’s club in Parnell Street, Dublin –probably due to a combination of factors, but the silent protest of local people undoubtedly played its part – was greeted with mixed responses. The reporting of this high-profile case tended to bring out the simplistic prude/conservative versus liberal/broad-minded taking of sides. It was something of a pity that the arguments did not often lead to a discussion of values, to a reflection on how the entertainment on offer affected not just the people living in the surrounding area but those who were part of the various aspects of the enterprise and indeed the sex industry generally up and down the country. The serious issues of poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, lack of educational opportunity and of meaningful choices in life for many involved, and their connection, directly or indirectly, to the exploitation of many young and indeed older people both among the buyers and sellers of ‘commercial sex’, could do with broader exposure in the newly wealthy Ireland.

The issue of trafficking of women and girls into Ireland and within Ireland is gradually gaining importance in the public mind.  Trafficking represents the most dramatic negative side of recent migration and the vigilance of many groups and individuals in society is needed if this gross injustice is to be curtailed and stopped. Some politicians are already playing a significant role in raising awareness but much more is needed from the many people who wittingly or unwittingly are part of the spectrum which runs from what is seen as ‘harmless entertainment’ to the serious exploitation and violation of women and girls, to even the death of some of them.

The proposed referendum on the rights of the child in Ireland has been almost universally welcomed. However, Ireland still remains the only country in the EU which has failed to pass a law criminalizing human trafficking – despite the EU Council Framework decision.

Legislation, however, is just a part of what will be needed to right the situations of injustice currently experienced in the sexual exploitation of people. The notion of ‘a just sexuality’, proposed here from the Zambian context has much to say to the current situation in Ireland. Our understanding of the cultural factors at play in the new Ireland would benefit from being accompanied by a more concerted effort at discussing some of the values we are absorbing as a society, whether consciously or by default, and whether these are compatible with the kind of understanding and experience of sexuality we would want for ourselves and our future generations.

Making the connections and links between our own situation and the radical injustice involved in the explicit exploitation of women and girls, whether local or from other countries, is a challenge for the whole society if we do want to retrieve control of sex, its meaning and representation, from the market, and to try to restore its full potential as a fundamental way of human relating.

3. Report on Human Trafficking and Prostitution in Northern Ireland – talk given 28 January  2006 AGM of Queen’s Women Graduates. File Store.
4. Richard Layte et al, The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships, Dublin: Crisis Pregnancy Agency and the Department of Health and Children, 2006.
5. The Next Step Initiative, Research Report on Barriers Affecting Women in Prostitution, , Dublin: Ruhama, 2005, p. 137.
6. Ibid, p. 7.
7. Libby Brooks, “A New Sexual Manifesto”, The Guardian, 8 April 2006.
8. Op. cit. p. 67.
9. Michael Kelly SJ, HIV and AIDSA Justice Perspective, Lusaka:  Jesuit Centre for  Theological Reflection, 2006, p. 2.
10. Michael Kelly SJ, Faith and AIDS in Zambia, Lusaka: Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, 2006 (Chapter 3, Section 11: ‘Women, Child Abuse, Sexuality’, pp. 22–4).