Home > “We live within a violent system.” Structural violence against sex workers in Ireland.

Amnesty International. (2022) “We live within a violent system.” Structural violence against sex workers in Ireland. London: Amnesty International.

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In recent years, the #MeToo movement has galvanized millions of people around the world to share their experiences of gender-based violence and to demand change. However, despite the growth of strong sex worker-led activist movements, the issue of sex workers’ human rights and their experiences of genderbased  violence have been largely ignored or dismissed in these conversations. Concerns about sex workers’ human rights have begun to emerge from Ireland in recent years, together with media reports of their arrests and convictions. The Irish government is currently conducting a review of the operation of Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which in 2017 criminalized the purchase of sex in the country. In this context, this report can provide valuable insights into sex workers’ human rights in Ireland, in particular their right to safety and freedom from violence, at a crucial time.

This report is based on qualitative research carried out by Amnesty International between August 2020 and October 2021. Between December 2020 and April 2021, Amnesty International’s researchers interviewed 30 people who have engaged in sex work currently or in the past. In addition, between August 2020 and May 2021, researchers conducted interviews with 17 representatives of 13 civil society organizations, three lawyers, nine academics and two medical doctors. Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted in English and took place remotely due to the travel and public health restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Amnesty International also carried out interviews with representatives of the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Our requests for interviews with representatives of An Garda Síochána (the Irish police service), the Policing Authority and the Victims of Crime Office of the Department of Justice were not accepted. The Office of the Garda Ombudsman did not respond to a request for an interview but provided information in writing. All representatives of the Irish authorities mentioned in the report were provided with an opportunity to respond to its main findings prior to publication.

There are no reliable regional or global estimates or data regarding the numbers of people engaged in sex work, predominantly due to the stigmatization, marginalization and often criminalization faced by sex workers. Nevertheless, available estimates indicate that cisgender women account for the majority of the sex worker population, but that transgender people and cisgender men are also significantly represented among sex workers worldwide. In Ireland, reliable data about sex workers, who are not human trafficking victims, is also lacking. The Irish government’s reliance on dated and flawed research that conflated human trafficking for sexual exploitation with sex work, as well as unpublished information provided by An Garda Síochána, has led to the establishment of a legal and policy framework which our research indicates both directly causes and in other ways exacerbates violations of sex workers’ human rights, as outlined.

Sex workers in Ireland have significant concerns for their safety. The overwhelming majority of sex workers interviewed (23 out of 30) told Amnesty International that they have experienced various forms of violence at different times while doing sex work. Most (21) said the violence was from men contacting them as clients, one reported having experienced attacks by members of the public and one – intimate partner violence. Interviewees’ experiences included physical attacks and threats; sexual violence, including rape; robberies; stalking; verbal abuse and harassment, including online.

The people interviewed by Amnesty International were aged between 22 and 52 at the time of the interview. Twenty-four interviewees were women (21 ciswomen and three transwomen) and six were men (five cismen and one transman). Two of the transgender interviewees identified as non-binary in addition to being transgender and one transgender person was also intersex. 16 interviewees were Irish and 14 were migrants, some of whom preferred not to have their countries of origin identified in this report. Four interviewees reported having disabilities. In addition, seven interviewees identified as having formerly used or currently using drugs and four as experiencing homelessness currently or in the past.

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