Walking down Joy Street, a sense of irony passes you by as you walk alongside an incoming punter. Sneakily the car grinds to a halt and the lady in waiting approaches her potential client. Neither she nor he show any hesitation. Who exactly is in the wrong here, the woman selling her body or the man willing to pay for it? The taboo topic of prostitution is finally rearing its seedy head in the Belfast area.
Prostitution is one of the longest running trades in Northern Ireland and has been well hidden for many years until recently. What people may not know is that Northern Ireland falls out of both the British and the Republic’s legislation to prostitution and brothels. Our current legislation regarding kerb crawling and massage parlours has been valid for approximately one hundred and fifty years. Officially, paying for sex is not illegal. However, kerb crawling and procuring a prostitute for sex is an offence. Despite this fact, sources have suggested that this law is flouted most nights behind city hall.
This seemingly twisted law blurs the question of legality and limits, making prostitution and the sex industry extremely difficult to tackle, not only by the authorities, but by society in general.
In a similar way, brothels walk the line of questionable legality in the United Kingdom; Although there have been suggestions made that support the wish to legalise such houses, if they contain more than two girls and a maid. However, if more girls are employed or there is an actual brothel owner, it then becomes illegal.
It was only early this year that thousands of unaware citizens saw the extent of the sex industry in Northern Ireland as over forty brothels were closed down in the Belfast area. Yet, The Gown can reveal that there is huge suspicion regarding a larger than life ‘massage parlour’ in the main university area. Sightings of various men leaving at strange times of morning and night aroused suspicion in late December. Curiosities were raised further as male students claimed they were being offered ‘special services’ from this particular parlour.
Brothels or ‘massage parlours’ are harder to identify than the obvious tactics of street walkers, nonetheless they are just as dangerous and inhumane. Human trafficking and brothel work are closely entwined as brothels allow easy entrance of foreign nationals into a house for sex exploitation. A brothel owner can effortlessly organise and maintain the trafficking of women into their premises without suspicion from neighbours or authorities. This dimension of the sex industry proves more dangerous than kerb crawling as the ladies are hidden away from society and cannot be monitored by the police, unlike the streets where the law can be explicitly enforced.
However, it seems that the issue of safety has been almost ignored by the authorities in Northern Ireland. This is an outrageous disregard for the safety of these women and should be addressed, especially when the Ipswich murders in 2006 is taken into account, or the recent increase in the number of sexual assaults in both South Belfast and the city centre.
In response to these attacks, Anna Lo of the Alliance party has called for increased police patrols and warned women against walking alone at night. But what about the females who are employed to walk the streets at night in order to earn a living? Policing and safety procedures seem to fail these women; calling into question whether these women, who sell their bodies, are victims also?
On mainland Europe, the safety of such women is viewed with greater importance. In the Netherlands, prostitutes are treated as self employed persons, and brothels are legal but subject to licensing. The Dutch solution has seen a number of cities creating official ‘street walking zones’ which outlines special car parks for prostitutes. Cameras have been installed for both the safety of the prostitutes and their clients. In addition, social services are available for advice, medical information and condoms. These provisions have caused uproar from various factions of the global community, as they seem to heighten the debate of morality and fuel the dispute around the government’s lax attitude.
The SDLP’s, Pat McCarthy has always been outspoken on the topic of prostitution, and this came to the surface in 2006 when he called upon the government to extend the legislation covering kerb crawling into Northern Ireland. He believes that the Northern Irish laws on the subject need to be tightened and revamped in order to deal with present day circumstances. However, he disagrees with the European measures of legalised red light districts and branded them a “step too far” as they were exploiting women and permitting legalised prostitution.
The Gown decided to walk the streets that these women walk, entering into the life of a prostitute. When strolling around the linen quarter area two definite streetwalkers were identified. However, when approached, they backed away in fear and avoidance. The Gown then, theoretically scared away potential business and the prospect of earning between thirty and forty pounds per hour. While no prostitutes were available for comment, The Gown were able to talk with Kiera Mc Cormack, a counsellor who operates a helpline for females in the sex industry. With eight years experience in counselling, Kiera knows exactly what prostitutes and escorts are feeling and how to help. Kiera spoke freely of her support for the work of prostitutes, escorts and brothel workers, provided that they haven’t been forced against their will into this profession.
During the consultation of prostitution legislation in 2006 Kiera was one of the very few to voice her opinion in support of street workers, and as a result found tough opposition within the authorities and local politicians. When quizzed on what her solution to Northern Ireland’s prostitution problem should be, she said that the sex industry should be separated from laws and discussion on sexual assault and rape. She belives these connections only serve to criminalise the sex workers and their clients, heightening the stigma connected with prostitution. Kiera believes that prostitution is here to stay and society will “never get rid of it”.
Many believe that the government has to tackle the wider ring involved in the sex industry such as the pimps, brothel owners, and to a certain extent the men paying for sex. In effect targeting prostitutes is only a short term fix, and assistance should be given to prostitutes and brothel workers to obtain regular health checks and set up an organisation to support them, such as the Poppy Project. This project, set up in 2003, provides accommodation and support for women who have been trafficked into prostitution. It helps improve the safety and wellbeing of women from all over the UK.
The future of prostitution in Northern Ireland has a troubled path ahead and it will take co-operation on both sides, although a final view may never be reached on a topic so controversial. For some it’s a matter of morals, for others it’s a matter of money.