After a sex worker curated the @ireland Twitter account recently, our Politics Editor Tomas Heneghan, argues that questions related to the decriminalisation of sex work and the rights and safety of sex workers must be discussed.
Last week Twitter, or at least my own Twitter feed, was filled with discussions of sex work, women’s rights, trafficking, saving vulnerable women, and on and on it went. Why was this? Well, for the week, an Irish sex worker curated the @ireland Twitter account.
 
Catriona, presumably for anonymity not her real name, tweeted about everything sex work related, from Irish law, international law, misunderstandings of sex work, her own life as a sex worker and what she, as a sex worker, believes would be the best way forward for our country in addressing the sex industry.
 
Having already had the fantastic opportunity last year to interview a sex worker and then regularly discuss sex work issues, I watched as those on my Twitter feed read and opened their minds to what an actual sex worker was saying. I couldn’t resist the odd re-tweet and comment along the way too.
 
Catriona was actively, in the space of just one week, convincing hundreds, and possible thousands, of the merits of listening to the opinions and experiences of sex workers.  Various abortion rights advocates and LGBTQ rights activists started to ask themselves: “Should we really still be policing the sexual decisions of consenting adults?”
 
One woman asked a very important question of Catriona: Would she ever want her daughter working in the sex industry? The question was a mere red herring when broken down to its basic premise. How many jobs, and yes that is what sex work is, would parents be happy for their children to do? 
 
I remember growing up being told how horrible it would be to work in McDonalds or Supermacs. I’d have no issue working in the fast food industry though. I suspect many other parents too wouldn’t be thrilled with many of the jobs their children do. So why is sex work so horrible an industry in the eyes of so many parents?
 
Active sex workers in Ireland are lobbying and campaigning for the decriminalistion of sex work. They argue it would improve and make safer their working conditions. It would allow unionisation of sex workers to protect their rights as workers. 
 
It would not leave them as open to being victims of violence and poverty which they now face, and will face if further criminalisation of the sex industry is pursued. Some sex workers and sex worker rights advocates argue decriminalisation as the lesser of many evils and the best possible outcome for sex workers.
 
However I’m forced to ask, why are we looking for the “least worst” option? If sex workers were treated and protected as other workers, what is so terribly wrong about selling sex for money? Stigma, for example, cannot be tackled fully if we continue to treat sex as something shameful and something never to be commodified.
 
I’m a writer and a journalist. If I was offered or secured employment using these skills, am I not also selling myself to make money. How many journalists are always happy with what they have to do to earn money? Perhaps a sex worker would feel more dignified and less exploited if they were cleaning the toilets in Supermacs on a Thursday or Saturday night? I doubt it.
 
We are a nation consumed with shame surrounding sex. Many sex workers are forced into the industry by economic disadvantage, but there are still some who choose, willingly to do it, presumably because they are good at it and don’t feel ashamed doing their work. Are we really going to shame people for choosing to do a job which they are good at and where the job hurts no one?
 
Groups against sex work shower the public and politicians with arguments about trafficking of women for the sex industry. Trafficking is also a prominent part of farming in some countries and even here in Ireland during the “boom” years, trafficking took place for much more than the sex industry. It likely continues to happen.
 
Former sex workers speak of violence, drug addiction and trafficking in the sex industry, but in reality further criminalisation will only have the effect of worsening these issues, while decriminalisation would have a better chance of doing the opposite.
 
Where is the focus on anti-trafficking laws, tackling drug addiction and violence, especially against women? It doesn’t involve people making their own sexual decisions, so it matters little to many of the champions of criminalisation.
 
The most shocking revelation from the educational week came from an LGBTQ activist, Dil Wickremasinghe, who told Catriona: “it is my belief that no one with a sense of self-worth & positive mental health would choose to work as a sex worker.” Her comment was taken up as extremely offensive and condescending, but what stood as the most shocking was the apparent hypocrisy of a victim of open homophobia using demeaning language towards others simply for the choices they make for their own sexual lives. The tweet was later removed.
 
However Catriona did set a lot of minds to work over her week as @ireland. On one side stands sex workers and sex worker rights advocates, on the other stands most prominently the Turn Off the Red Light (TORL) campaign, an umbrella group for bodies invested in the further criminalisation of the sex industry in Ireland.
 
According to the TORL website, the group’s membership stands at over 70 various bodies including the Labour Party and its youth wing. Religious groups or those associated with them, such as the Religious Sisters of Charity and Ruhama take their place alongside others in the push for criminalisation. Although not advertised on its website, Ruhama was established by two religious orders who previously ran a number of the Magdalene Laundries around Ireland.
 
You see, why would anyone listen to actual active sex workers when they could choose to listen instead to religious groups and those which criminalistion wont directly affect? Catriona forced people to sit up and listen over the past week and for that she deserves admiration and respect.
 
 
Photo: Giacomo Carena/ Flickr