Laura Lee talks to TLR about Sex Work in Northern Ireland, the difficulties posed by Morrow’s law and the need for decriminalisation. Laura can be found on Twitter. Laura is challenging Morrow’s bill in the courts, you can help by donating some hard earned monies to her legal costs here.
Since the introduction of Lord Morrow’s law making it illegal to purchase sex in June 2015, Northern Ireland has seen radical change to the sex industry, but not in the way it was sold as a measure to “End Demand”, tackle human trafficking or even obliterate the industry completely. Trafficking was and is already an offence in its own right. Rather, the only people to have suffered have been sex workers, you know, the group the law was supposed to “save”. So what’s changed?
There is a real climate of fear amongst sex workers in Northern Ireland now, fear of the press, of the police and of vigilante groups. It’s a climate based on fire-fighting. As a group, we have to be ready to face whatever is next around the corner, rather than concentrating on doing our jobs and raising our families in peace.
In three years of campaigning I made it clear that any further criminalisation would exacerbate existing harms, and Lord Morrow’s law has done exactly that. As a first example, clients are refusing to use online screening processes, to avoid detection. They’re also withholding their phone numbers. In real terms, that means that if a client turns nasty or violent, we have no way of letting other sex workers know, via the Ugly Mugs scheme, or even word of mouth. There’s no detail, and they’re free to target other sex workers as they please. Of course we can insist on seeing verified clients only, but if we want to make an income sufficient to live on, that’s not an option.
Since the law passed, sex workers have grown ever more afraid of the PSNI. There is a feeling in the community that if we report a crime, our premises will thereafter be targeted as a “brothel”, (even if there’s only one sex worker present, which is legal) or worse, that it will be recorded on police files that (for example) – “Ms. Lee is a known prostitute”, which is of course a barrier to exiting the industry. Neither of these activities are being pursued by the PSNI and their record in dealing with sex work has improved dramatically, not least since the appointment of two sex work liaison officers. Unfortunately, further criminalisation brings more fear of ANY authorities and it will take a great deal of effort and time to mend that relationship, but we’re working on it. That any law would prevent a person from going forward and reporting crime against them is nothing short of appalling.
The third and by no means last fall-out from the law is far more immediate and sinister. The recent recorded vigilante attack on Ross road on a house where sex workers were operating is hard to watch. With chants of “dirty fucking hoors” and “put them on fucking fire”, the hatred of that crowd towards sex workers is entirely obvious. Such incidents aren’t new. In another case, the crowd had already smashed windows and were assaulting the sex workers before the PSNI could get there. The crux of the danger is simply this; where an activity is deemed illegal, there will be those who think they can take the law into their own hands.
The solution is simple, repeal Lord Morrow’s law, and the older laws on brothel keeping, so that we can work together in safety, something which was illegal even before Lord Morrow’s intervention. We are compelled to work alone, and attackers know that, it is this which makes us vulnerable in the first place. As awful as that footage from Ross road was, imagine if that was one sex worker operating on their own, and surrounded by screaming haters? It’s only a matter of time now before someone gets seriously hurt, or even killed. That’s the reality, and it will be too little too late if change doesn’t come quickly, the recent murder of Jessica McGraa in Aberdeen is testament to that.
What a lot of people missed in that footage though, (and I certainly did at first) was a very quiet woman’s voice in the background of the crowd. She said, “sure they’re only trying to make a living.” We are. What’s coming through in Northern Ireland is a younger, more progressive and cross-community generation, a generation not afraid to fight for human rights, and a generation that can see through political ambition to heartless deprivation of those rights. Change is coming.