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Sex Work in Ireland

In this blog post Doris Murphy, Sibéal Board Member, discusses her PhD research on sex work in Ireland, which she starts next month in UCC. 


Sex workers are a marginalised group in Ireland today. The media portrayal and political discourse about sex workers in Ireland re-enforces gender stereotypes of sex work, with women as subjects of men’s violence, and takes a simplistic viewpoint of the reasons people choose sex work as an occupation (Huschke, 2017; Huschke and Schubotz, 2016; Huschke and Ward, 2017). Sex workers are rarely seen as dignified members of society, and are denied the opportunity to discuss the wholeness and complexity of their lives (Grant, 2014). Currently, research is being conducted on the impact of legislation on the lives of sex workers (McGarry and Ryan, forthcoming; Ellison, Ní Dhónaill, and Early, 2019; Berry, 2020), and SAI is shortly to publish a special issue on sex work (FitzGerald, Wylie and O’Neill, 2020).    The context for sex work has shifted immeasurably with the current Covid-19 pandemic. It became immediately apparent that sex workers have no recourse to care. The Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI), a sex worker led organisation, created a ‘Hardship Fund’ to support sex workers on the island of Ireland during this crisis. Sex workers have no access to unemployment benefit, and their earning capacity is reduced. The pandemic exposed how sex workers have been marginalised, and continue to be excluded from caring and supportive networks. Therefore, one area I will address in my research is care within sex work - how sex workers care for others and themselves, and how sex workers are cared for by others. Research on care within sex work is limited to the barriers to healthcare that sex workers face in Ireland (Sweeney, Sixsmith, and Molcho, 2019; Sweeney and Fitzgerald, 2017). My research will look at care from a broader scholarly and activist perspective, investigating the interplay between care and sex work using participatory methods and Ecological Systems Theory to consider caring relationships that sex workers experience in various systems (Bronfenbrenner, 1994). Care within feminist activism was a core theme in my Master’s dissertation, completed at UCC last year (Murphy, 2020). I intend to build on my dissertation by interrogating care within sex work.  Sex workers are underrepresented in feminist research, theorising, and activism in Ireland. Indeed, the dominant discourse in many feminist organisations focuses on the need to rescue sex workers from the profession (Ellison, 2016). An example of this in the Republic of Ireland was the Turn Off the Red Light (TORL) campaign. This campaign group lobbied for the introduction of the current legislation, based on the Swedish model, where clients and brothel-keeping are criminalised (Levy, 2018). Sex workers and sex work researchers were not included in discussions during the TORL campaign (McGarry and FitzGerald, 2018; Ellison, 2016), and thus sex workers were not afforded the dignity of being experts in their own lives.  Given the dearth of research on the lived experience of sex workers in Ireland, I aim to address this gap by conducting Participatory Action Research (PAR) with sex workers, that includes walking interviews as a biographical research method (WIBM) (O’Neill and Roberts, 2019). PAR is a feminist epistemology which is based upon the principles of inclusion, participation, valuing all voices, and action oriented interventions (O’Neill, 2001). This approach promotes care-full research, which underpins my focus on care within sex work. One policy-oriented intervention that might emerge from this PhD action research project, is the development of caring networks that sex workers could access in confidence, knowing that they will be treated with dignity.   My primary objective is to generate greater knowledge and understanding of sex workers’ lived experiences and care within sex work, by collaborating with sex workers and health professionals on a research project about sex workers’ lives in Ireland. I will use PAR and biographical life history interviews to reflect with sex workers upon their lives. This research is policy relevant and will have impact i.e. effect legislative and/or societal change. These changes could include reducing the stigma that sex workers face in Ireland, and contributing towards a broader national discourse about the lives of sex workers. For example, destigmatising the conversation around sex work could contribute to debates, policy and practice regarding the decriminalisation of sex work in Ireland, supported by rigorous research findings.   There has been an increased focus on conducting ethical and robust research on sex work recently, and in Ireland the Irish Sex Work Research Network (ISWRN) has coordinated this effort. Ward and Wylie (2014) discussed the discomfort of researching sex work and trafficking in Ireland. FitzGerald (2018) noted that an essentialised view of sex workers as victims is evident in the justice system. This echoes the treatment of sex workers in the media in Ireland, and could be seen in the TORL campaign. O’Neill (2010) noted that we must move beyond discussing sex workers in terms of deviancy, and consider a fuller picture of their lives, suggesting PAR as a method for this. PAR is a process and a practice directed towards social change with the participants (O’Neill, 1991; Campbell, Coleman, and Torkington 1996; and O’Neill and Campbell 2006). Bowen (2015) noted that we reproduce structural inequalities and stigma when we exclude sex workers from policy design, so sex workers must be consulted in the design of research that will impact on their lives (Bowen and Doherty 2014). O’Neill and Laing (2018) advocate for artistic representations of sex workers’ life stories to make them accessible to an audience beyond academia.  The Department of Justice are currently conducting the three year review of Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, which criminalised the purchase of sexual services. This review will consider the impact of the law on sex workers, and has welcomed submissions from all interested parties. Submissions can be sent to s7areview@justice.ie by the 11th September 2020.   References Berry, A. (2020). Life for Sex Workers in Ireland Under the Swedish Model of Client Criminalisation. Unpublished thesis.  Bowen, R. (2015). ‘Squaring Up: Experiences of Transition from Off‐Street Sex Work to Square Work and Duality—Concurrent Involvement in Both—in Vancouver, BC’. Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie52(4), 429-449.   Bowen, R., and O’Doherty, T. (2014). ‘Participant-driven action research (PDAR) with sex workers in Vancouver, BC’. In S. Majic and C. Showden (eds.), Negotiating sex work: Unintended consequences of policy and activism, 53–74. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.   Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). ‘Ecological models of human development’. Readings on the development of children2(1), 37-43.  Campbell, R., Coleman, S. and Torkington, P. (1996). Street prostitution in inner city Liverpool. Liverpool Hope University College, Applied Research Centre.  Ellison, G. (2016). ‘Who needs evidence? Radical Feminism, the Christian Right and sex work research in Northern Ireland’. In S. Armstrong, J. Blaustein, & H. Alistair (Eds.), Reflexivity and Criminal Justice: Intersections of Policy, Practice and Research. Palgrave Macmillan.  Ellison, G., Ní Dhónaill, C., and Early, E. (2019). A Review of the Criminalisation of Paying for Sexual Services in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Queen’s University Belfast. FitzGerald, S.A. (2018). ‘Trafficked women’s presentation of self before the German courts’, European Journal of Women’s Studies: 1-15.   Grant, M.G. (2014). Playing the whore: The work of sex work. London: Verso Trade.  Huschke, S. (2017). ‘Victims without a choice? A critical view on the debate about sex work in Northern Ireland’. Sexuality Research and Social Policy14(2), 192-205.  Huschke, S. and Schubotz, D. (2016). ‘Commercial sex, clients, and Christian morals: Paying for sex in Ireland’. Sexualities19(7), 869-887.  Huschke, S. and Ward, E. (2017). ‘Stopping the Traffick? The problem of evidence and legislating for the ‘Swedish model’ in Northern Ireland’. Anti-Trafficking Review, (8).  Levy, J. (2018). ‘Racism, Xenophobia and Hegemonic Masculinity: The Nordic Model of Criminalising the Purchase of Sex’, in S.A. FitzGerald and K. McGarry (eds.), Realising Justice for Sex Workers: An Agenda for Change, ch. 1, London: Rowman & Littlefield International.   McGarry, K., and FitzGerald, S.A. (2018). ‘Social Justice through an Agenda for Change: An Introduction’, in S.A. FitzGerald and K. McGarry (eds.), Realising Justice for Sex Workers: An Agenda for Change, London: Rowman & Littlefield International.   Murphy, D. (2020). ‘Repealed the 8th: Self-care for reproductive rights activists in Ireland’, Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements, 12(1), 420-436.  O’Neill, M. (2017). ‘Sex Work, Censure, and Transgression’. In A. Amatrudo (ed.), Social Censure and Critical Criminology: After Sumner. Springer.  O’Neill, M. (2010). ‘Cultural Criminology and Sex Work: Resisting Regulation through Radical Democracy and Participatory Action Research PAR’, Journal Of Law and Society, 37(1), 210-232.  O’Neill, M. (2001). Prostitution and Feminism: Towards a Politics of Feeling, Cambridge: Polity Press.  O’Neill, M. (1991). ‘Current responses to prostitution: a multi-agency response’, report for Nottingham Safer Cities, Nottingham: Nottingham Trent University.  O’Neill, M., and Campbell, R. (2006). ‘Street sex work and local communities: creating discursive spaces for genuine consultation and inclusion’, in R. Campbell and M. O’Neill (eds.), Sex Work Now, ch. 2, Devon: Willan Publishing.   O'Neill, M., Jobe, A., Bilton, C., Stockdale, K., Kath, Hannah, and Community co-researchers (2017). 'Peer Talk : hidden stories. A participatory research project with women who sell or swap sex in Teesside.', Project Report. A Way Out, Stockton-on-Tees.  O'Neill, M. and Laing, M. (2018). ‘Sex worker rights, recognition and resistance: Towards a 'real politics of justice'’, in S.A. FitzGerald and K. McGarry (eds.) Realising Justice for Sex Workers: An Agenda for Change, ch. 9, London: Rowman & Littlefield International.   O'Neill, M. and Roberts, B. (2019). Walking methods: Research on the move. Oxon: Routledge.  Sweeney, L.A. and FitzGerald, S. (2017). ‘A case for a health promotion framework: the psychosocial experiences of female, migrant sex workers in Ireland’. International Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care.  Sweeney, L.A., Sixsmith, J. and Molcho, M. (2019). ‘Giving voice to women in the sex industry: A voice-centred relational model based qualitative study’. Journal of Social Care2, 4.  Ward, E. and Wylie, G. (2014). ‘Reflexivities of discomfort’: Researching the sex trade and sex trafficking in Ireland. European Journal of Women's Studies21(3), 251-263. 

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