Street-walking, kerbcrawling, and cruising red light districts in the twighlight hours of the morning, are becoming a thing of the past. With the advent of new technology and a new financially buoyant customer, the Irish prostitute industry has become more high class, and more socially acceptable.
Colm Kelpie meets one of the women involved in Ireland’s escort business.
The pretty blonde strolling along the city street could be a model. Tall, elegant, her long tanned legs shine at the bottom of a short, flower-patterned dress, covered on top by a tight- fitting, chic denim jacket. She walks up and down the street, coyly observing those who pass her by, approaching only a small number, many of whom ignore her advances. Then it happens. She slowly and seductively approaches a man, possibly in his thirties, casually dressed in jeans and a white, opened necked shirt. She flirts, he smiles, shuffles awkwardly, but walks on. Some minutes later, he returns, they exchange a few brief words, and then disappear off a side street together. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Prostitution is a flourishing Irish industry.
The area of Dublin once known as ‘Monto’, immortalised by James Joyce’s Ulysses, has seen better days, and, some would say, far worse. It was once the centre for the lucrative sex industry in this country. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, brothels lined the streets of this now respectable, if somewhat grim area, near Connelly Station. Streetwalkers would ply their forbidden trade while brothel-keepers presided with an iron fist over whorehouses, the majority of which were squashed between sprawling slum tenements, housing the city’s poor. One hundred years later, while Ireland’s infamous red-light district may no longer exist, the world’s oldest profession is still thriving throughout the country, both north and south. Escort agencies and lap-dancing clubs have become the new acceptable face of the burgeoning Irish sex industry.
Tina (not her real name) is the envy of many of her friends. She is a confident, determined, strong woman, with a modern little house, steady income and clear view of what she wants to achieve in life. But, working as a female escort, she lives a life shrouded in secrecy and in the shadow of an illegal profession, a profession that many regard to be morally repulsive. Understandably perhaps, she tends to be coy and cautious about what she says, especially when talking to journalists.
“No, I don’t waste my time talking to the press”, she says curtly. “You never do anything in anybody’s favour. Why would I talk to you?”, she quizzes.
When I stress to her I’m interested in learning something about the life of an escort, she snubs off the sentiment with a dismissive laugh.
“It’s [prostitution] going to get negative press regardless”, she insists, but after a moments hesitation, she begins to open up.
“I think in some cases they’re right [the press]. Unfortunately, the big guys, who own the big businesses, are giving it the bad press”, she concedes. “There are a certain amount of big cats in the whole business and they’re ruining the whole thing. They’re running shit places and we all know it, but that’s not the case for everywhere. There are many good people who come in here, just normal people.”
Tina (35) is an independent escort, operating out of either an apartment or a house somewhere in Galway. She would not reveal the location of her business premises, preferring instead to speak only under the condition of anonymity, and only via telephone. Like street prostitution, it is not clear how many women are involved in the escort business. Women involved in the profession attract many of their clients via advertisements on the internet. Webpages display their photographs, with the face, and other distinguishable features, blurred out to protect their identities. Many of these women hide their true profession from families, partners and spouses. Most work from agencies, but, a lot decide to work independently where they sacrifice their personnel security for the possibility of more money.
“It’s not all about sex”, says Tina, referring to the needs of her various clients. “And for the girls, it’s not all about drugs or drink, certainly not in my case. There are girls who will fall into that wayside though.”
After a brief period of unease, Tina seems to feel more comfortable talking openly. She appears determined to prove that many of the women involved in prostitution are there by choice, and should not be treated as vulnerable, fragile victims, forced into the sex industry because of some malevolent force. Soft-spoken, she sounds younger than her 35 years, but her voices bristles with resentment when she talks about the way in which society views her chosen profession.
“I would say that 85-90% of the women in prostitution are not forced into the business”, she says, “and I know quite a lot of girls working in this position. A lot of these girls don’t want to do normal jobs, I’ve seen them trying to do normal jobs and they can’t do it.”
“It’s the money that’s the big attraction. Would you work for €4.50 per hour, or whatever the going rate is these days?”, she asks.
Ruhama, one of the only NGO’s in Ireland which works with prostitutes, insists that a large majority of the women involved in the sex industry in Ireland, are there not by choice, but because of poor socio-economic conditions, drug addiction, or even the threat of violence from an abusive pimp or brothel owner. Tina is sceptical of such support groups.
“There are a certain amount of do-gooders out there saying this and that”, she says, “ but I have to say, a lot of this [business] is pretty harmless. The girls come in willingly.”
Despite Tina’s involvement in the industry, she is, surprisingly, not keen on the idea of legalising the trade.
“Well, if we legalise it, then it becomes an Amsterdam thing and I think that’s even more tacky than what we may have now.”
“They should (the authorities) just leave the safe houses alone. Some of them are actually quite well run”, she says. “ Regardless they’re going to have to leave a certain amount because there are a lot of bad rapes and attacks in the area.”
Tina is just one of hundreds of female escorts working throughout Ireland. She would not say whether she was married or had a partner, and when asked if her immediate family knew of her profession, she confessed to not having any. She never openly admitted that she would offer sex as part of her services, but did imply that once money was produced, the services offered may increase.
“Escorts are expected to have sex with their clients”, notes Linda, the founder of Escort Watch, an internet site which offers safety and health advice to women involved in the escort business.
“For legal and other reasons, many agencies and escorts are keen to stress that escorts, unlike prostitutes, are paid for their time and companionship only, ‘anything else that occurs is a matter of choice and coincidence between consenting adults’, as the various sites say”, but I don’t read into that, that escorts are not expected to have sex with their clients, as they are. I cannot stress this strongly enough.”
It is widely accepted that escort agencies are little more than fronts for prostitution rackets.
Tina assertively defends her right to work in the business though, and stresses that it is her choice to sell her body for sex, not to facilitate a drug habit or an abusive pimp, but to use the money to create a better existence for herself.
“Basically I am here to make a better life for myself and I will do that. I’m not pushing it up my arm, contrary to popular belief, nor am I having it shoved down my throat.”