Two of the researchers pictured at UL
Billie Stoica, Report Coordinator and Dr Anca Minescu, author of the report and lecturer in psychology at UL Picture: Alan Place
Thursday, 25 August 2022

New research published by the University of Limerick has revealed that street sex workers have faced discriminatory behaviour at the hands of An Garda Síochána.

The Department of Justice funded research reveals that the 2017 Criminal Law Act has drastically affected the lives of street sex workers in urban areas.

The report found that one in five street sex workers interviewed had experience of being sexually exploited by the Gardaí.

The report by the research team at University of Limerick will be officially launched this Thursday.

The researchers argue the study is important because the voices of these street workers have largely been silent in the national discussion around legislative changes governing sex work.

The report, ‘I Must Be Some Person: Accounts from Street Sex Workers in Ireland’, investigated street workers’ knowledge and experience of the legislation around sex work since the introduction of the 2017 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act.

The findings are based on interviews with a sample of 25 street sex workers based in Dublin (15) and Limerick (10), conducted by a team of researchers and peer-researchers, in a collaboration between the University of Limerick and Gender, Orientation, Sexual Health, HIV (GOSHH).

The report found a deep mistrust by sex workers of An Garda Síochána. It found that sex workers who face rape, violence, or other crimes felt discouraged to report such incidents to Gardai for a range of reasons, including:

  • a history of trauma inflicted by aggressive Garda tactics from the past among sex workers; 
  • the belief and experience of some officers sexually exploiting street sex workers and abusing their power; 
  • previous cases of sex workers reporting incidents of physical assault or rape, which were dismissed or mishandled, not leading to receiving help or justice, and
  • a wide-spread stigma around sex work in the Irish society, and hence, sex workers being afraid of publicity

The report also found that around one in five sex workers have experienced incidents of officers manipulating a lack of knowledge of their legal rights. This includes threatening to charge workers with prostitution, despite outdoor sex work being decriminalised in 2017.

The report found that the 2017 Act, which purportedly aimed to prevent the exploitation and sex trafficking of vulnerable people, has in fact drastically marginalised already vulnerable populations and has made the lives of street sex workers in urban areas even harder.

The report provides recommendations for the Department of Justice, which is currently engaged in a review of the 2017 Act, regarding the law and policy around sex work, which include:

The full decriminalisation of sex work, including the purchase of sexual services

  • A clear distinction between sex work versus sexual exploitation and sex trafficking
  • A strengthening of services for sex workers to ensure they have safe working conditions
  • An end to the policing of sex workers by An Garda Síochána
  • Encouraging the redirection of funding from An Garda Síochána to sex worker led organisations
  • That the discourse on sex work going forward is actively influenced towards destigmatisation of the occupation, humanisation of the workers and the overall concern of the well-being of sex workers

Dr Anca Minescu, author of the report and lecturer in psychology at University of Limerick, said: “Our findings show our current law on sex work negatively affects lives, safety, and wellbeing of sex workers. Portraying all sex workers in Ireland as ‘exploited victims’ and the way the Gardaí are interacting with the street sex workers contribute to violence and stigmatization.

“This enables very serious incidents of Garda misconduct against sex workers, including sexual assault and verbal abuse, and false legal information surrounding sex work spread by others. This also leads to further marginalisation and isolation of an already economically and psychologically vulnerable population,” Dr Minescu explained.

Linda Kavanagh, spokesperson for SWAI, Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, said: “Criminalising the buying of sex has driven more clients to visit indoor workers, putting street sex workers at higher risk of abuse by clients due to an inability to refuse work opportunities. It has also led to increased street presence and patrolling by Gardaí, limiting sex workers’ ability to evaluate potential clients.

“The Act also doubled the existing criminal penalty for ‘brothel-keeping’, which prevents sex workers of any number working together indoors. These two measures combined has made being able to work together for safety impossible. In fact, the ability to work together as a way of ensuring safety and security, was the most frequently mentioned issue that the sex workers wish to see changed in the law.”

According to the research team, the report shows that the state’s law and policing approach, which portrays and treats all sex workers as ‘exploited victims’, instead of treating “sex-work as work,” alongside wider societal stigma and discourse, causes additional direct and indirect harm.

Sex workers cannot disclose their occupation, sometimes even to family, so lack critical psychosocial support. They feel uncomfortable seeking legal or social supports from state services because of their justified fear of being judged, abused, or harassed.

Billie Stoica, the coordinator of the funded project, explained: “The street sex workers who spoke to us had so many aspects of their lives to juggle. Caring for parents and children, negotiating housing, achieving education, or managing addiction. How sex work is policed only added to the pressure they were under and left them with little or no access to justice.”

The whole research team of authors and contributors, including peer-researchers, acknowledged the bravery of the street sex workers who participated in this project and shared their stories of survival.

The report includes direct quotes from sex workers: “We’re actually good people. We’re people that are just living every day, and we’re alive”, “It’s not like working in a shop, but… it is work [...] I’m not robbing people. I’m going out and making me own money”.

Dr Minescu explained: “This sense of agency and free choice in the work they do was amplified by their participation in the research project. The peer-researchers and participants alike found a safe space where their identities were validated and where they were seen as human beings making a living. It was the peer participation design of the research that led to the high validity and quality of our data: authentic honest accounts of street sex workers who survive hardships while fighting the stigma of their profession: ‘being a working girl is not the worst thing in the world’.

“It is crucial to understand how sex workers experience the law, and how the law impacts on their lives, while considering their voices, their interpretations, and their own positioning in society, from a psychological perspective. Given that there is an upcoming legislative review, we are hoping the results of this research will feed into the review process.

“In addition to the potential legislative impact, our research aims to develop a trauma-informed, low-threshold, psychological best practice toolkit to guide future research conducted with sex workers,” added Dr Minescu.