I didn’t really want to write about prostitution again. When I did so in 1981, research exposed a horrible world of sexual violation and violence. I didn’t really want to go there again, but was challenged by Patricia Kelleher who did the research for Turn Off the Red Light, the Immigrant Council of Ireland campaign. When articles by women who I had considered feminists started appearing in the press, defending prostitutes’ right to choose to work in the sex industry, and by implication, men’s right to continue to dehumanise and violate women, I felt I could not be silent any more. Reading Rachel Moran’s book, Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution (Dublin: Gill and McMillan, 2013), persuaded me to support the demand to fight prostitution by criminalising clients, hence this article. I was going to use Moran’s photograph to illustrate the article, but decided not to objectify her – her words speak for themselves. Please read the book.
To complete the argument, I am also pasting below the Israeli journalist Vered Lee’s article, calling to criminalise clients, not prostitutes.
The proposal by the Oireachtas (Irish houses of Parliament) to adopt the ‘Swedish model’ that seeks to abolish prostitution by criminalising the buyers rather than the sellers of sex, has incurred opposition by several Irish academics. In a recent Irish Times article Dr Eílis Ward of NUI Galway criticised the lack of evidence for this proposal, based on the ‘Turn off the Red Light’ campaign. Her liberal feminist argument that women should be free to be sex workers ignores the violence, coercion and abuse that dominate the sex trade, in Ireland and throughout the world. Prostitution, she argues, without a shred of evidence, cannot be abolished.
Unlike Ward, I did research the topic. In April 1981 Geraldine Niland and I published a two part series in the Irish Times on the lives of real prostitutes in Dublin. We spent several weeks ‘on the beat’ with the women, interviewing many prostitutes and male clients. The women insisted that without clients, prostitution would not exist. Clients came from all walks of life. From married men seeking casual sex on Percy Place on the way home from the pub, to priests whose dog collars on the back seat gave them away, and who the women described as ‘taking from the poor to give to the poor’. Many of the women were abused as children, most had a drug habit and all spoke of their wish to leave prostitution. For most the decision to enter ‘the life’ was a lack of real choice. Most of the women we interviewed would agree with how one of them described herself: ‘you’re dirt, and no good to anyone’. Read more
In New Delhi the trial of five men accused of gang raping and murdering a 23 year old physiotherapy student on a private bus opened last week amidst protests and a fierce public debate over the failure of the Indian police to stem what has been described in the press as ‘rampant violence’ against women in India. The protests by angry, young anti-rape protesters met with water cannons, tear gas and long sticks used by the police to brutally disperse what the Indian finance minister called a ‘flash mob’ – a term used to describe internet age crowds which in this case were spontaneous and inspired by social media and a sense of common purpose.
According to the Financial Times, the protests were not simply against the brutal rape and the lack of safety for women in India’s capital. The rape, says New Delhi-based sociologist Dipankar Gupta, was just the tipping point, and the protests stemmed from a feeling ‘that this government doesn’t deliver on anything, including the safety of women.’
A woman died. A day after Diwali, when the Irish Times had a front page image of a lovely little Indian boy lighting Diwali candles, it had another beautiful Indian face on its front cover, this time of a woman who died in an Irish hospital. Savita Halapanavar has since become a household face, even if we are not entirely certain on how to pronounce her surname, and a symbol of the oppression of women, whose lives and health are put at risk in Ireland’s maternity hospitals.
The minute details of the circumstances of Savita Halapanavar’s death are yet to be ascertained. Savita was in her 17th week of pregnancy, presented at Galway University Hospital with severe pain in her lower back, sent home because the foetus’s heartbeat was sound, came back to hospital with her waters broken, told the foetus’s heartbeat was still sound. When she was still having pains, Savita, clearly aware she was miscarrying, asked for a termination to be told her foetus’s heartbeat was still sound, and, as ‘this is a Catholic country’, she could not have a termination. Her reply that she was not a Catholic, not even Irish, was of little help. Savita suffered until her foetus’s heartbeat was no more, at which stage septicaemia set in and Savita died along with her foetus. And a day after Diwali her picture adorned our screens and newspapers and we held vigils and demonstrations, saying ‘we are all Savita’, declaring ‘never again’ and demanding that the government enacts the long-promised legislation, 20 years after the Supreme Court ruling in the x case, to protect the life of birthing mothers. Abortion was again big news as the ‘Pro Life’ and ‘pro choice’ camps battled it out over Savita’s dead body.