I watched ‘Doing Money’ on RTE 1 last week with trepidation. Trepidation, because due to years of immersion in the subject of sexual violence and exploitation I was aware of most of what was to come.
“Doing Money” is based on a memoir — “Slave” — of a Romanian woman called “Ana” who was kidnapped by a gang off her London street and trafficked to Ireland, where she was raped by thousands of Irish men all over the country over the course of nine months before managing to escape. The pimps subjected her to beatings, rapes, and threats to her family in Romania. These were very real threats — the gang had the name and address of her mother, a common tactic traffickers use to gain control over their victim.
It was a very difficult watch, because it is real. It has happened and it is happening, right now, all across the country. I live close to Sandyford, an extremely popular prostitution zone. The last time I checked the Escort-Ireland website, there were 56 different advertisements for women in the apartment blocks found there. Considering that traffickers and pimps sometimes pay for one profile for multiple women (leading to men writing reviews of the woman which complain that ‘it wasn’t the girl in the pictures’), the actual number of women can only be estimated.
In discussions around sex trafficking and prostitution, the men and their choices are mostly invisible. The focus in debates is usually on the women and whether they are involved by choice or by coercion. In these debates choice is good, coercion is bad. The men’s choices to continue to ‘visit’ a woman who is clearly under control is ignored. The men’s choice to ‘buy sex’ at all is ignored. This narrow way of looking at the complex issue leaves out the spectrum of variables that can play part in pushing someone into the sex trade, pushing them into making that ‘choice’. It also omits the spectrum of coercion and power imbalance that exists in the actual room with a punter, starting with the handing over of the money. The man is paying to have sex how and when and with whom he wants. He is paying so as not to receive a ‘no’; this is the whole point. It also leaves out the spectrum of variables that lead a man to make that choice — most men do not pay for sex.
Most men who ‘buy sex’ are middle aged, middle class, and married. In 2009 a study was conducted of a sample of 103 men in London who used both trafficked and non-trafficked women in prostitution. Mirroring “Ana’s” experience of the Irish sex trade, many punters were aware of pimping, trafficking and other coercive elements present in prostitution. They were also aware of the vulnerability and risk factors that led women into prostitution including poverty, drug addiction, domestic abuse, homelessness and sexual abuse. Also mirroring Ana’s experience of punters, nearly 50% of participants expressed the opinion that women didn’t have certain rights during prostitution. A chilling 27% said that the customer is entitled to any act he chooses once he has paid. Nearly half were aware that prostitution has a negative impact on the women, and nearly half believed that most women in prostitution are victims of pimps. The study also found that the more accepting the men were of prostitution the more likely they were to accept ‘rape myths’ such as ‘women say no when they really mean yes’ and that women can ‘ask for it’ by how they dress. These men also believed that it was impossible to rape a woman in prostitution.
Last January, posters of a woman’s sillouette and telephone number were posted all around Dublin. When you called, eastern european sounding ‘Andreaa’ answered, telling callers she would give them a ‘sexy’, ‘fun’ time. As she continued, her tone changed and she described her situation as one of coercion and trafficking. She ends the call by asking for help. Despite hearing all of this, nearly 70% of the callers left voicemails enquiring about her ‘services’. A quarter asked about her prices. Voicemails included requests for threesomes, anal sex, and sex without a condom. Just like ‘Ana’s’ experience, despite knowing ‘Andreaa’ was a trafficking victim and is being pimped, the men did not care. They did not care.
‘Doing Money’ is detailed, allowing us into the workings of sex trafficking where the pimps place advertisements or ‘profiles’ for the women on escort websites offering various sexual ‘services’. The trafficked women don’t see these profiles and don’t know what it is they are ‘offering’, leaving them unable to negotiate anything when the punter is in the room alone with them. It appears that these websites are the biggest profiteers of sex trafficking and prostitution; in 2015, Escort Ireland had a turnover of €6,026,465.
The punters then leave reviews for the women on the profiles. Oftentimes a punter is explicitly aware that a woman is unhappy to be having sex with him, but his paying for it overrides his conscience and humanity, and he goes home to write a disgruntled review on the escort website he found her on. He can rate her out of five stars for different categories like ‘physical appearance’, ‘satisfaction’, ‘accuracy of photos’ and ‘value for money’. He can write details of his experience. You can imagine the consequences of a one star review for a pimped woman. Some reviews I have seen and which are repeatable here include the following:
‘She was disinterested’.
‘She was cold and mechanical.’
‘Not worth a punt.’
‘She was just looking at the ceiling in disgust’.
‘She was largely unresponsive.’
‘She has very little English and no enthusiasm.’
These are not descriptions sexual consent, which is enthusiastic mutual sexual pleasure. These are descriptions of clearly unwilling women. These are descriptions of rape. It seems that once a man has parted with his money the existence of consent or lack thereof is immaterial. He is paying in order not to have to care. As Ana’s experience demonstrates, and as the 2009 study also tells us, many punters ‘buy sex’ in order to feel power and control over the woman. These are the exact ingredients of rape.
The sex trade has been largely left out of the wider #metoo movement. It has also been left out of current discussions around sexual consent. As a country, we are finally exploring what sexual consent consists of, with accurate definitions being shared and taught in sexual consent workshops, all saying the same thing — that sexual consent is voluntary, enthusiastic and ongoing. The key word is ‘voluntary’. Unless the person having sex with you is doing it out of free sexual desire, you have stepped into abusing them. Countless studies show the impact of prostitution on the women — PTSD levels are reported on the same level as war veterans. This is unsurprising given not only the levels of violence the women experience, but also the psychological impact of constantly having to endure unwanted sex over and over again, and having to be polite to your abusers. As a psychotherapist I work with people who suffer from the symptoms of PTSD sometimes decades after the events. Sexual abuse lasts a lifetime. For a punter, his abusing lasts the half hour, or the hour, he ejaculates and leaves, his conscience clear because he’s paid, the ‘girl’ has been compensated for her abuse.
In March 2017, the sexual offences act was signed into law, making the purchase of sex illegal. Along with many other countries, Ireland has stated that it values human dignity and freedom over a man’s orgasm. But there has not been a single arrest of a sex buyer in the Republic of Ireland since the law changed. The pimps and traffickers and escort review websites continue to profit into the millions.
One in fifteen Irish men pay for sex. They are our brothers and colleagues and neighbours and friends. Most of them are aware of trafficking, pimping, domestic abuse and grooming. Most of them are aware that the majority of women in the sex trade are being pimped or controlled. I wonder how many punters sat alongside their wives watching Ana’s story, shaking their heads in false dismay at the reality that only exists because of them, because of their sense of entitlement to orgasm into another human being.
It is simple. If there are no customers there is no ‘product’. No punters means no sex trafficking, no exploitation, no repeated rapes, no beatings, no kidnappings, no torture. No punters means no lifelong PTSD, no lifelong physical injuries.
Until the police start arresting the demand to rape female bodies — the punters — the men who are raping these women, will continue to rape them, review them, and carry on to the next one.
A law is completely useless unless it is being implemented. As long as the men who do this remain unaccountable for their crimes, sexual exploitation and sex trafficking will continue. The pimping and beatings and rapes will continue. Lives like Ana’s will continue to be stolen and changed forever.