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Turn off the Red Light Campaign in Ireland

MIND MOVES: Changing attitudes can help to end the abuse

PROSTITUTION is not an easy subject to talk about. It stirs up a range of emotions, from horror to fascination, that make it hard for us to see clearly what is happening around us and the damage being done to those involved.

The nature of prostitution in Ireland has changed from involving Irish women on the street to migrant women who “work” indoors. A minimum of 1,000 women are estimated to be involved in prostitution every day in Ireland, with web-based ads indicating that these include 51 nationalities. We know that child prostitution exists because children have been found in brothels raided by the Gardaand because the majority of women involved in prostitution have described how they first started when they were under 18.

Those who defend prostitution argue that it is possible to discriminate between voluntary and non-voluntary prostitution; that adultsshould have the right to freely sell and buy sex. While a small percentage of women may retain some control of the type of services they offer, the vast majority –87-97 per cent –of people involved in prostitution in this country do not.

Their apparent consent to participate has been solicited by drugs, threats of violence and deportation, and with empty promises that it will all end soon when their outstanding debts (for travel and subsistence) have been paid off. Furthermore, any sense of control they might have is eroded by moving them regularly around the country, so that they are socially disconnected and made to fear the consequences of reaching out to authorities for help.

Currently we have services that support women involved in prostitution by focusing on harm reduction and safer sex. The workers in these services acknowledge that this alone is a painfully inadequate response to women embroiled in prostitution. What is needed is a much bolder intervention, the best example of which is the approachtaken by Sweden.

In 1999, Sweden became the first country in the world to introduce legislation criminalising the purchase, but not the sale, of sexual services. By targeting the buyer, this measure has radically reduced the demand for sexual services, the incidence of sexual trafficking and child exploitation. It has also led to a change in mindset about prostitution.

Last September, the Irish Council for Immigration (ICI) led a European delegation to Sweden to examine their 10-year review of the legislation. This led the main political parties to consider whether the Swedish approach could be adopted here. On February 2nd, a number of Irish men lent their voices to a new campaign –Turn Off the Red Light –and launched a website (, to ensure this issue is given priority by our incoming Government.

I hesitated to write about this subject for fear I would come across as moralistic, judgmental or hypocritical. As a man who grew up in an era that was overshadowed by sexual shame, I was part of a generation who imagined prostitutes as “happy hookers” who enjoyed and benefited from the services they offered every bit as much as their customers.

Reading the various reports that have been published on the actual experiences of these women has acted as a grim reality check. Two studies by the Women’s Health Project in Ireland refer repeatedly to the horror of witnessing a person’s “downward spiral from [being] a young confident girl to a depressed sick and broken person”.

We know full well the pain of children whose lives were blighted by sexual abuse. Physical abuse hurts, but the abuse of another’s sexuality impacts even more deeply on the personality. Our sexuality is deeply personal; when it is broken into it can destroy a person’s entire sense of worth.

It’s time for us to grow up and change how we may think about prostitution. There is a challenge now to respond to the sickening exploitation that these women and children are being subjected to everyday. By supporting the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, we can help to bring it to an end.