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An Activist Hails Law Criminalizing Purchase of Sex in Ireland

Posted on Apr 5, 2017

By Rachel Moran

  Leinster House, the Irish Parliamentary building in Dublin, where lawmakers passed the Sexual Offences Act on Feb. 14. (Tebibyte / CC-BY-SA)

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On March 27, the Sexual Offences Act finally passed into Irish law. The activists involved in its passage, including myself, had pressed for this law for anything between six and 10 years. It is difficult to describe how it feels to live in a country where the purchase of sexual consent has finally been outlawed. We activists are assumed to be jumping for joy, clinking wine glasses and smiling. There has been a bit of that, for sure, and that has lent some light relief, but it is far from the whole story.

This victory arrived in stages. On Feb. 14, the legislation finally passed through the Seanad (Senate) after a 4 ½-hour performance that would have been better suited to a theater stage, and had it played out there, Sen. Michael McDowell would certainly have had the starring role. We were subjected to descriptions of the issue bizarrely removed from reality, while McDowell glared at activists in the public gallery and thundered about the “poor lonely housewives” who would have their “lives destroyed” for “renting gigolos.”

We were asked to consider “the plight of 18-year-old boys, up in Dublin for the all-Ireland hurling match,” who also were looking into bleak and miserable futures because of this disastrous legislation that would expect them to keep their penises to themselves. Then McDowell expected us to feel sorry for the “poor divils, likely with drink,” apparently inebriated to the point of irresponsibility for their own exploitative actions.


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Nowhere in these myriad permutations did the profile of actual johns feature—the wealthy white men who make up the enormous majority of those who choose to exploit the desperation of women and children. Was it a coincidence that the diatribe was delivered by a wealthy white man?

Then we were treated to McDowell’s view of prostituted women, who were, he bemoaned, “free to roam the streets and public houses” under this legislation. From my point of view, the display was bloody hilarious. There were points where I choked back laughter, and other points where I didn’t bother choking it back at all. Here was a man describing prostitution as predatory females dragging innocent young boys up alleyways and preying on them in pubs while the poor boys were too naive to know better and too inebriated with drink to do anything about it even if they did.

It was a cartoon fantasy come to life, ludicrous almost beyond the point of offense. Almost—because every now and again, while McDowell was treating us to this display of idiocy, my mind would serve me up a memory. The first time Annie (some names have been changed to protect identities) got out of a john’s car, lost, used and broken. The first time I saw Louise shove a needle in her arm. The last time I saw Maebh, except I didn’t really see her, because her coffin was closed.

I must have retained a sardonic edge to my sense of humor, because nothing McDowell said infuriated me so much that I had to leave, unlike the young woman, also a sex-trade survivor, sitting beside me. After all his rantings, the law passed. It was nine o’clock in the evening. I went across to the local pub with my friends and colleagues and ordered a glass of wine at the bar. I had the most surreal moment, standing beside a man—a stranger—just minding his own business and drinking his pint, and I thought, “No matter what happens in my life, you have no right to buy me.” I couldn’t make it sink in. It didn’t feel real.

For International Women’s Day on March 8, we had planned a celebratory event in city hall. I was due to speak, alongside other sex-trade survivors and activists, all of us welcoming in the new law. The taxi that took me there drove past a college that used to hold art classes. I had enrolled Maebh there and would sometimes pick her up after class and take her for something to eat. We’d talk about what she had created that day and what she might want for her future.

She was still knee-deep in prostitution and addiction, and I was trying—really trying—to help her make some sense of her life, to give her something to strive for. She had always loved art and had been employed as an artist in her very first job. She lost that job when the studio folded, and she got into prostitution later that same year. She was 17 at the time.

Driving by that college, I was assaulted by the thought: “You’re just as dead as you were before we got this legislation.” I immediately berated myself for my pessimism. Here I was, on my way to deliver a public speech about the new dawn of women’s rights in our country, on International Women’s Day, and all I could think about was the women who were dead because they had no rights, or because their rights were seen not to matter, or, more to the point, because the rights of men to unfettered sexual access to women’s bodies had been tacitly approved for so many centuries in my country that we’ll never be able to count our women and girls who’ve died in the service of it.

We hear, over and over, about the shockingly high homicide rate in prostitution, and we should be shocked at a homicide rate that’s been recorded at 40 times the national average, but the truth is that homicide deaths in prostitution are only the tip of the iceberg. Suicide has also been found to be a significant consequence of prostitution, and every death in my circle was a result of drug overdose, cirrhosis of the liver or cervical cancer. There is also, of course, HIV. These ways that prostituted women die, taken together, outstrip the homicide rate by many, many times.

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