I thank the joint committee for its invitation to address it today.
The matter of Ireland's prostitution legislation is of deep importance to Ruhama, as the only NGO that works on the front line exclusively with women affected by prostitution, including victims of sex trafficking, which we have been doing for more than two decades. In that time we have worked with thousands of women and girls who have been involved actively in prostitution, both indoor and on-street, who are seeking to exit or still remain involved and with those who are victims of trafficking, as well as with women with a past experience. Notwithstanding the actual research which we also conducted over a period of two years and published in 2005, as well as this international research, most importantly, our direct contact with women and girls over this period of 23 years informs our position on the entire issue of prostitution. We have concluded that, overall, prostitution is both intrinsically harmful and violent to the women and girls involved. In addition to the significant physical damage and risk, there is the emotional and psychological harm which has long-term consequences, even after women have exited the sex trade. It erodes self-esteem and self-confidence, can cause depression and, as has been mentioned, creates issues regarding post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to the harm to each individual, there is the social, cultural and global impact, that is, the damage to the social position and perception of women both nationally and globally. If one woman's body is perceived as being for sale, the implication is that all women and girls potentially are for sale, which undermines directly the potential for gender equality. Unless we recognise the harm caused by prostitution and the real challenges faced in getting out, once one finds oneself involved in that life, as a society, we are falling short of meeting the needs of those who need support and are involved in the sex trade.
Those who argue in favour of decriminalising or legalising prostitution tend to take a highly utopian view of the sex trade. They take the perspective that if one regulates, it will all be okay, that one can eliminate or minimise child prostitution and child trafficking and can make it safer for everyone involved. Our experience - I have travelled to both Sweden and Amsterdam - is that this is an utterly unattainable goal because prostitution is predicated on the availability of vulnerable young girls and the exploitation of vulnerability of impoverished women in the main to ensure the demand for sex for sale is met. It is not possible that there would be enough of that small cohort of freely choosing independent women who are without control, coercion and have other positive viable choices available to them. There are simply not enough of those woman to meet the demand. Consequently, there will always be exploitation in the sex trade, no matter where it is situated or how it is regulated.
As a support service, we are completely non-judgmental of individual women's involvement in prostitution because we understand the complexities of entering therein and the barriers to exiting therefrom. However, after 23 years of witnessing and hearing from women about their experiences and the awful challenges they often face, it simply is impossible not to judge the systems and structures, as well as the other stakeholders who complete the picture. Pimps are pimps. They are not agents or managers, which tends to be the dialogue one hears. These are pimps who are making money off the backs of others for the profit of others at very high gain and low risk to themselves. Buyers, equally, simply do not care about the reality of the women and girls they buy and this has been well documented internationally. Their focus is entirely selfish. I draw the joint committee's attention to an appendix to Ruhama's submission which gives a sample of the reviews left by Irish sex buyers of the women they purchase right across this country.
One example is as follows:
First of all, she is not the girl in the photos. She kept me waiting half an hour. We met at her apartment, then with another girl. I had the choice of two and went with the so-called [name]. One good thing, she has a tight pussy but that is where it ends. I would avoid.
That is the attitude of the sex buyer with regard to the women and girls being bought. These people simply do not care where the women come from and it is about the good time the buyers have.
The commercial sex trade in this country is also actively organised by criminality, and there are numerous criminal gangs organising and profiting from prostitution of vulnerable women and girls right across this island in urban and sometimes very rural settings. To separate trafficking from organised prostitution, as the representative of the Immigrant Council of Ireland has indicated, defies logic. Given the mechanisms by which the sex trade operates, victims of trafficking are advertised in the same places as all other forms of the commercial sex trade and not in a separate corner or cohort that is restricted. A cohesive approach to organised prostitution is also the means by which perpetrators and victims of trafficking can be identified and assisted.
We have spoken much about the Swedish model as a way forward but this is really about examining the Swedish example. We must develop an Irish model fit for an Irish purpose and Ruhama believes there is scope to create an environment in Ireland which is hostile to those criminally organising and truly profiting from prostitution while recognising and ensuring that those who find themselves involved in prostitution are not prosecuted and criminalised but supported.
Targeting the sex buyer sends a clear message that buying sex is not socially acceptable. There is no human right to buy sex and sex buyers are not a vulnerable group whose rights need protecting in this regard. This minority of men - it is one in 15 men, compared to up to one in three in Spain - drive a very large and profitable criminal trade. In addition to considering the criminalisation of the purchase of sex, there is a need to recognise that existing laws are out of date and fall short, making the organised sex trade difficult to police. This is particularly with reference to the Criminal Law (Sex Offences) Act 1993, as there have been so many changes in the Irish sex trade since the law's enactment. In reviewing legislation there should be a strong increase in penalties and sentencing for specific offences involving the organisation of prostitution. There should also be a review of the legislation to account for the use of modern telecommunications such as the Internet and mobile phones by pimps and traffickers in both the advertising and organising of prostitution, which has contributed significantly to the large-scale growth in the Irish sex trade over the past decade. The use of these technologies allows for anonymity in pimping and trafficking, as people no longer need to be on-site to operate crimes, making it much more difficult to police organised prostitution.
For those in the sex trade it is equally important that they receive the message that they are not criminals and that they can seek health, emotional, practical and police support when required. For the majority of people, who are trying to get out, it is critical that the maintenance and further development of resourced exiting programmes and health services creates alternatives and viable choices. Updating the 1993 legislation in tandem with criminalising buyers and the continued provision of health and social support services for those in prostitution form an Irish model that would achieve the best outcomes in reducing the degree of organised crime and exploitation in the sex trade in this country.