“Today is International Sex Workers Day and we are marking it while slowly emerging from the throes of a global pandemic”, says Kate McGrew, current sex worker and director of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI).
She continues “Even a global pandemic cannot successfully eradicate the in-person sex industry in Ireland. Over half of the workers who we in the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland – the only frontline sex worker-led organisation in Ireland – are in touch with, have been contacted by clients requesting in-person sexual services. In fact, some workers have not seen a reduction in the number of clients at all. In some instances, clients are offering double the workers’ rates, in an attempt to get them to come out of quarantine. Clients are also threatening workers by saying if they don’t see them now, during the pandemic, they will not hear from them when it all blows over. Desperate workers cannot afford to lose what little future income they can expect.
This virus exposes one of the great fallacies of the Nordic Model and lays bare the state’s abandonment of so many vulnerable people. Providing structural and economic supports and safety nets are what really reduces the number of sex workers and ensures that those who don’t want to do sex work aren’t. Criminal laws are not the answer, and they never were. Unless proper financial support for everyone, including undocumented people and those traditionally unwilling to engage with the state, are explicitly offered support with no barriers or strings attached, we are about to see a lot more harm. These supports cannot solely be tied to exiting strategies if we want them to succeed.
Media campaigns by anti-sex work NGOs have used vital money that could have provided support for sex workers but instead has been squandered. Their campaigns to pressure financial platforms to ban sex workers has resulted in sex workers being unable to receive emergency funds, forcing people back to work.
Health and safety is a top priority right now. This pandemic is putting our society and communities to the test in a way we have not seen before. Are our laws up to the task?
COVID-19 has had a catastrophic effect on in-person sex work in Ireland. The numbers of people doing in-person sex work are reduced, but not because of the failed experiment that is the Nordic Model laws. Rather it is because of health warnings from the government and the HSE. The government’s refusal to recognise our means of survival as work has left sex workers overwhelmingly excluded from emergency payments.
While the pandemic continues, rents will continue to need to be paid, migrant college students still have to pay for colleges and universities which they can no longer attend, children need to be fed, debts accrue, food needs to go on the table. One-third of the workers we are in contact with have not been able to give up selling sex.
This desperation will exacerbate an already existing problem; the laws have created a buyers’ market where clients can demand more risky behaviours such a no-condom use and workers will comply because they need the money more than the client needs the sex.
Everyone deserves to be safe and as healthy as they can be. The criminalisation of the purchase of sex is not going to achieve that. We need a social safety net, affordable childcare, a health system that works for everyone and focuses on harm reduction, affordable third-level education, affordable and secure housing and legal avenues for migration.