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Sex workers must be listened to in the review of the sex work law 

Currently working sex workers in Ireland are central to the review of the law, says Kate McGrew, sex worker and director of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI). We are the experts in how this law has affected the health and safety of sex workers in Ireland. The voice of SWAI, the only frontline, sex worker-led organisation in Ireland, was largely excluded when this law was debated in 2017. This was unacceptable. 


In response to enquiring about other organisations receiving government funding during the pandemic, the Department of Justice, under the previous Minister for Justice Charles Flanagan, refused SWAI explicitly for as long as we refer to all sex work not as gender-based violence but as an economic activity. Without help from the state, sex workers – already on the margins –  were forced to risk their health by continuing to work for survival. SWAI was faced with doing the work of crowdfunding a hardship fund to successfully give small grants of €100 to over 150 female, male and trans sex workers in Ireland since the beginning of the pandemic to help flatten the curve.

SWAI exists to fight exploitation and to empower people in the sex industry via the labour rights other workers rely on and by removing stigma and criminal laws that have proven to leave sex workers with only illegal avenues, creating barriers to reporting crime and violence, and providing no viable alternatives to working. 

We hope that the new Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, who was so active on the repeal of the 8th amendment, remembers how it is essential to centre those with lived experience when discussing the law that affects their lives. Bodily autonomy is not just about abortion and we are the next in line to see the effect of a more progressive, caring Ireland who is moving away from its dark past. 

We welcome that the review will focus on the impact the law has had on the health and wellbeing of currently working sex workers. We do not speak over sex workers, we ARE sex workers and we know that this law has failed in its ambitions. 

The review will also focus on how the law has achieved and not achieved its aims. It has succeeded in prosecuting young migrant sex workers working together for safety. It has failed to lead to the arrests of traffickers. It has succeeded in increasing violence against sex workers by 92%. It has failed to decrease the number of people sex work. Its has succeeded distancing sex workers from supports including Gardai. It has failed to increase sex workers trust in the Gardaí, there was a near 20% decrease in workers who wished their reports of crime or violence would be passed on to Gardai. It has not made Ireland a safer place for sex workers. It has failed. 

We welcome the news that Maura Butler has been appointed to oversee the review of the Sexual Offences Law (2017). We note her many years of experience in the legal field, her academic record and her clear commitment to equality. We also note that she has been chair of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) and their representative at the European Women’s Lobby (EWL). Both of these organisations have a strong stance against sex work and SWAI has been refused membership of the NWCI for 3 years, an unacceptable exclusion of a key population of vulnerable women.

Government policy should be based on outcomes, not morality. We need to get real about sex work in Ireland and work towards a law that means that sex workers are safe, as healthy as they can be and have laws that protect us. We welcome the review of this law and the opportunity to finally be heard.