Apr 22, 2016

The Church’s Lingering Shadows on Sex Work in Ireland

Julianne Flynn speaks with sex worker Kate McGrew and members of Ruhama about the country's approach to sex work.

Alice McLoughlin for The University Times
Julianne FlynnDeputy Magazine Editor

The Magdalene Laundries cast a long, dark shadow over the relationship many Irish women have with sex, transforming it into something shameful and guilt-ridden. While the last laundry closed in 1996, this shadow remains and is kept alive by a powerful force: Ruhama, an organisation for women affected by sex work.

Sex remains something of a dirty concept in Irish society. Though it is in the margins of discourse, it is at the centre of most people’s minds. Why is it, in an age of hyper-sexuality, that Catholic sexual teaching still permeates national school sex education? Why is it that such teaching features in our government’s policy in both overt and covert ways? Why is it that, Ruhama, a state-funded organisation, is made up of the same groups that ran the Magdalene Laundries?

With the passing of the marriage equality referendum, we have clung to claims that we’re an advanced, liberal nation. Most believe the eighth amendment is the final frontier of church–state politics. But we must remember: this is Ireland, and the church and state are still very much intertwined.


The Criminal Law Bill 2015 criminalises the purchase of sex, but the sex worker does not face sanctions. Still, while this may seem like an advancement in sex workers’ rights, we must refrain from patting ourselves on the back for what we believe to be “liberal and progressive” policies. While they may appear so on the surface, upon delving deeper into their origins, a very different story emerges.

The Good Shepherd Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity previously ran the Magdalene Laundries and now run Ruhama. Their actions for the Magdalene Asylums have been condemned by many, including a 2014 UN report that stated: “Girls placed in the institutions were forced to work in slavery-like conditions and were often subject to inhuman, cruel and degrading treatment as well as to physical and sexual abuse. They were deprived of their identity, of education and often of food … imposed with an obligation of silence and prohibited from having any contact with the outside world … unmarried girls who gave birth before entering or while incarcerated in the laundries had their babies forcibly removed from them.”

Sex remains something of a dirty concept in Irish society. Though it is in the margins of discourse, it is at the centre of most people’s minds.

On their website, the Good Shepherd Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity boast of “a long history of involvement with marginalised women, including those involved with prostitution”. They are quick to ignore that this “long history” is a deeply troubled one – one that women all around Ireland try their best to forget and during which women and children were buried in unmarked graves.

According to an article by Patsy McGarry of the Irish Times, both the Good Shepherd Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity refused to meet with Justice for Magdalenes, a support network for women who had been in the laundries. Both associations refused to compensate the victims. As a result, the Irish government set up a state compensation scheme for survivors. It seems the church–state relations are happy to be overt when it suits them, but if anyone dares question it, they are greeted with paranoia and denial.

This characterised our dealings with Ruhama.

Ruhama receives the majority of its funding from the Department of Health and the Department of Justice, and thus the taxpayer. This is especially obscene in a society that allows elderly people in hospitals to sit on trolleys due to this so-called lack of funding. Therefore, it is the job of a functioning democracy to question where exactly this money is going and how it is being used.

According to the Irish Times, the Good Shepherd Sisters received more than €14.4 million from the Health Service Executive between 2006 and 2011. More recent funding data was difficult to obtain and nowhere in their website are there any links to their levels of funding.

The University Times Magazine spoke with Martha McGuire, the Communications and Policy Officer of Ruhama, via email correspondence. When asked “Does Ruhama separate itself from the Church’s sexual teaching?”, she replied: “The work of Ruhama is not led or in any way dictated by ‘church teaching’ … Prostitution is not about women’s sexuality but rather male entitlement to access women and girls bodies. On that basis we advocate women and girls right not to be bought – but to achieve empowered and fulfilling sexual expression on the basis of equality.”

We informed McGuire that we initially came across these claims about Ruhama’s Catholic Church involvement through another organisation and they were not made by The University Times Magazine. McGuire responded by saying we must reveal who told us this information, insinuating that they would not allow publication without their control on the matter.

We asked McGuire this in order to get Ruhama’s perspective. It did not seem like a particularly daring question considering four of the eleven senior board members are nuns. We later learnt that three of these nuns were Magdalene order nuns – something which would suggest that the Catholic Church ethos is at the core of the organisation.

We informed McGuire that our source was an article by the Irish Times‘s Religious Affairs correspondent, Patsy McGarry. Ruhama subsequently attempted to withdraw their statements and said we would no longer be allowed to print them. We approached Ruhama expecting to be dealing with a charitable organisation, but what we received was an institution seemingly characterised by paranoia.

In an email to The University Times Magazine, McGuire claimed they would not permit their responses to be used because the Irish Times article was “not accurate at the time of print”. She continued: “subsequent to print we had direct contact with both the journalist and the Justice for Magdalene group and it was acknowledged that Ruhama were unfairly targeted. They also acknowledged that they had no issue with Ruhama. The funding analysis is also wrong as it infers that the orders fund Ruhama which they do not.”

The University Times Magazine contacted McGarry who stated that his article was entirely accurate. Moreover, he said that Ruhama did not complain about the article’s accuracy at the time of print. When probed on this, McGuire said, by phone: “Discussions we had with him was that it was unfair and he had targeted Ruhama … it was two or three weeks after the article was published that it was dealt with here. We were offered a retraction from the newspaper but we said we don’t want to do that.” The University Times Magazine spoke to McGarry about this who stated he was “not aware of any offer of retraction by the paper or why there should have been. The article was accurate”.

Email correspondence between McGuire and Sarah Benson, Ruhama’s CEO, were inadvertently forwarded to The University Times Magazine. One particularly telling line between the two says: “I reckon once it goes to print we can criticise such attacks as ‘pimp-thinking’.” This shows Ruhama are so concerned with tightening its control of the thinking around this industry that it blames anyone who dares to question that power. By simply asking the question, “Does Ruhama separate itself from the Church’s sexual teaching?”, Ruhama were willing to tarnish the reputation of another person and publicly declare them an advocate of pimp-related activities. McGuire has since apologised for their actions, adding: “pimp-thinking would be following smear campaigns which affect our work … it wasn’t something we would do [in this situation] but it is something we do in the situation if it was a smear campaign.”

It seems the church–state relations are happy to be overt when it suits them, but if anyone dares question it, they are greeted with paranoia and denial.

Moreover, in these private emails, Benson says: “… If she is going ahead I think we can revoke our quotes …”, but Benson expresses concerns: “… unless she has a quote now from JFM?” JFM refers to the Justice for Magdalenes group. Why would Ruhama be concerned about Justice for Magdalenes when they had previously stated that Justice for Magdalenes “had no issue with Ruhama”?

The University Times Magazine contacted Prof James Smith, a spokesman for the Justice for Magdalene Research (formerly Justice for Magdalene). Smith “stands over the content of Patsy McGarry’s article … It is entirely accurate and represents the facts at the time”.

In a 2010 letter to Smith, Sister Sheila Murphy who is currently sitting on Ruhama’s board of directors and is a part of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, said she did “not wish to have, nor do I see any purpose in having, a meeting with you at this time”.

Ruhama believe the buyers of sex should be criminalised, whereas the sex worker would face no prosecution. Sweden adopted this model in 1999. Ruhama say: “We believe the Swedish approach comes closest to ensuring that the vulnerability and exploitation of those in prostitution is reduced. At the same time, we recognise the clear evidence any jurisdiction which as legalised or fully decriminalised pimping and procuring … has only served to increase the size of and degree of exploitation in the sex trade, making it more unsafe for those in prostitution themselves while privileging pimps as ‘entrepreneurs’ rather than exploiters.”

Other reports claim the sex trade in Sweden has been forced underground, meaning sex workers are often in unsafe environments and with greater risk of being seriously hurt. This view is supported by Amnesty International, who in 2015 voted to “adopt a policy that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work”. This was a result of endless research that suggested full decriminalisation protects and empowers sex worker. Sex workers around the world agree with this.

Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland is a group of current and previous sex workers formed to campaign for complete decriminalisation. They argue that women should be their own free economic agents and can use their bodies however they choose. The University Times Magazine spoke with Kate McGrew – a sex worker and the co-ordinator of Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland. Unlike most people in the industry, McGrew doesn’t hide her line of work and has spoken openly about her profession, most notably in the RTÉ reality show, Connected.

McGrew argues that the Swedish model, as proposed by Ruhama, is “being sold as a progressive model meant to address gender inequality. However, it is dangerously reductive. When the discussion around the issue becomes ideological it moves away from harm reduction”.

“If, at very best, the Swedish model is well intentioned and misguided, there also seems to be a willingness to throw some people under the bus. Framing the sex industry as inherent gender-based violence has led people to be accepting of more dangerous circumstances for the people who will continue to work, in the vain hope that people will not enter the industry … This is so unrealistic in part because people do sex work out of economic necessity”, she explains.

She continues: “It is important to note that in places where the work is criminalised, the workers can charge more. This is including Sweden where workers travel to work … the law has indeed made it more dangerous, but workers were able to raise their fees. We see here, even if you might think there are factors that you hope will decrease demand (like criminalising the client), they can actually be a reason for increased supply.”

“In Ireland, it is clear that the desire to send a message to the world that purchasing sex will not be tolerated is preferential to acknowledging that people are engaging in the industry to survive, and working on the structural inequalities that lead to poverty and sexism, whilst working to realistically help those involved”, she finishes.

Does McGrew and the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland believe institutions like Ruhama promote Catholic sexual teaching? While she is reluctant to answer, she says: “We know that Ruhama is led in part by Magdalene Laundry nuns. Then it becomes easy to understand why for some people, opposition to the sex industry stems from an attempt to enforce on other people, mainly women, when and why it is acceptable to have sex. It is this notion that there is good sex and bad sex. The only bad sex is nonconsensual.”

We approached Ruhama expecting to be dealing with a charitable organisation, but what we received was an institution seemingly characterised by paranoia.

McGrew is angry that sex workers are being ignored when it comes to policies that directly affect their lives – further marginalising a marginalised group. She explains: “If we say we want to continue working as long as there is a financial need to do so, they say we are suffering from false consciousness. That only once we’ve left the industry will we realise our trauma, and so our words now do not count. But even if a worker did look back with ill feelings, even that worker is not aided by further criminalisation, and her situation working is still made worse. They tell us we are unrepresentative, ignoring that underprivileged workers would still have more safety with full decriminalisation, and ignoring the extremely varying and nuanced experiences within the industry.”

McGrew is honest about her profession and does not rush to romanticise an industry often crippled with violence and sexism: “There are horrific abuses that happen in the sex industry and that reality should not leave no space in the conversation for the socio-economic climate and cultural history of a place that leads people to sexual labour … it is better to provide a legal infrastructure that helps workers access the justice system, get health care, improve relations with police. Whilst we fight for other better options for people we must make the current situation of their sex work as safe as possible.”

The people who suffer the most from lack of support systems are trans people. Neither Ruhama nor Turn Off the Red Light mention trans sex workers in their entire website or mission statements. When asked about this, Ruhama say they “support both women and transwomen affected by prostitution and sex trafficking and acknowledge that there is a need to support men who are affected by prostitution”. Although, they do not have a dedicated service for men, they “will not turn anyone away”.

According to McGrew, “more needs to be done to protect trans sex workers as their experiences are misunderstood and even denied, and they suffer disproportionate levels of violence. Many trans workers have felt that sex work was their only option because of workplace discrimination, and so may be more likely again to continue to work in conditions that are becoming more dangerous. Trans workers face further stigmatisation. When their lives and experiences are scrutinised and denied, it perpetuates hate and intolerance that leads to the crimes against them”.

McGrew’s responses reveal a well-educated and level-headed individual. She speaks of sex work as a positive experience but is wary that thousands of women are not so fortunate. Her answers are both rational and sensitive. They are, however, completely ignored by the government and policy makers.

If we say we want to continue working as long as there is a financial need to do so, they say we are suffering from false consciousness.

While the debate is multifaceted and complex, the facts remain clear: Amnesty International, the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland, the Union of Students in Ireland and most importantly, actual sex workers all support full decriminalisation of sex work in Ireland. Meanwhile, Ruhama and Turn Off the Red Light do not. It doesn’t take much to guess which side is having greater influence on government policy.

The argument continues to wage on and people remain divided: is it paternalistic for an organisation established and run by Catholic nuns to decide what’s best for sex workers, or is it irresponsible for a government to simply allow sex work? Is the argument for full bodily autonomy mere pseudo-liberal thinking or is the Swedish model putting sex workers’ lives in danger?

We live in a consumerist, sexualised age – a society where sugar babies connect with sugar daddies, where used underwear has become a lucrative market and where once-deemed weird fetishes have become mainstream. Yet amongst this orgy of excess, we have a state-funded institution founded and run by the same congregation who ran the Magdalene Asylums telling sex workers what’s best for them. And amongst this convoluted affair, the dark and oppressive shadow of the Magdalene Asylums remains. You can’t quite see it most of the time, as long as you don’t question it, and that’s exactly what they have always sought: silent obedience on all things related to sex.

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