Motley Investigates: Prostitution in Cork City

In an attempt to infiltrate Cork city’s booming prostitution industry, Current Affairs and Sport Editor Dylan White talks to Mary Crilly, the Director of the Sexual Violence Centre Cork, about her experiences dealing with sex workers on Leeside.

Every day in Ireland, businesses close. The already swollen dole queue bloats a little more and doomsday economists remind us that we’re in the mother of all recessions. But despite all this, prostitution in Ireland remains big business, with more people buying and selling sex than ever before. It is said that over a quarter of a billion euro passes through the hands of punters, prostitutes and pimps every year. Tucked away in the lawless shadows, the Irish sex trade is quietly booming. This much we know for certain but behind the newspaper headlines, the political rumblings and the urban myths lies a world where secrecy is king and sex is for sale.

Mary Crilly, the Director of the Sexual Violence Centre Cork, and her colleagues first got involved in the issue of sex trafficking in 2006 when the UN declared Ireland a transit country for trafficked migrants. “We became aware of the issue of human trafficking and that more women had been trafficked in the past ten years than in the 400 years of human slavery,” Crilly explained.

Prostitution requires a commitment to code of silence from all those involved, but the day to day realities of the industry are starting to unravel quick and fast, with many calling on the Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter to reform the nation’s famously tangled and at what some believe outdated sex laws with Crilly saying “Prostitution has become more dangerous in a way because it’s now much more hidden. Punters are demanding something different; they’re not demanding sex from the women but rather control. They want to be able to do whatever they want to do to them”.

Traditionally, tens of thousands of Irish sex tourists travel to Europe’s famous red light districts to fuel their biological demands. However, the internet has revolutionised Ireland’s sex industry, with online brothels replacing the once deeply sought after sex bars and strip clubs of Amsterdam, Hamburg and Prague.

The major players involved in orchestrating prostitution have become knee deep in a bloody turf war that appears to have no end. Chinese and Thai vice dens have carved out a niche in massage parlours and health clubs in Cork city centre locations, muscling in on the many brothels run by Irish, African and Eastern European crime lords. “These gangs are only coming in because there’s a demand for them. The men are demanding it. Prostitution is topping the underground industries with regards supply and demand because you can reuse the young women [and men involved]”.

Crilly believes that this mafia type prostitution takes advantage of some women who are in desperate need of a fix, willing to numb body and mind with drugs in order to please. “You take a young woman from a country where there is extreme poverty.  The trafficker may not necessarily be a big burly guy; it could be a young man or woman, or maybe even a couple that seem quite credible. Originally she might think this is too good to be true but there is hope in her heart. However, the reality is very different. They are ‘owned’ and controlled [by the pimp],”Crilly said.

Traditionally, tens of thousands of Irish sex tourists travel to Europe’s famous red light districts to fuel their biological demands. However, the internet has revolutionised Ireland’s sex industry, with online brothels replacing the once deeply sought after sex bars and strip clubs of Amsterdam, Hamburg and Prague.  Escort-ireland.com is the country’s most notorious website that advertises sex for sale and has seen the number of escorts it offers increase by 50% in the space of just three years. With the click of a button, punters in Cork city can have access to over 90 (during peak times, such as Jazz weekend) of the almost 1000 women working in the sex trade in Ireland at any given time. This modern twist gives the wrinkled profession a new lease of life, with the convenience of browsing before purchasing offering an almost inhumane feel. The website dubs Cork “as a capital of the Irish sex industry”, while almost reshaping and repackaging prostitution as harmless fun.

However, Crilly believes that behind the airbrushed photos, the beaming smiles and the come-hither comments lies the element of criminal activity that makes the sex-for-sale business so attractive. “Prostitution is all about money. The [Escort-Ireland] server isn’t in Ireland [rather Britain], so they’re allowed to do it. They are not advertising sex but rather a massage. Very few of those advertised are allowed to work by themselves .The women and the young men are spoken to and treated like merchandise, and they’re bought and sold by the pimps and the punters”.

With a view to understanding how the the industry works, I decided to contact a number of the escorts advertised on the Escort-Ireland website. One English escort claimed to be located in an apartment “five minutes” from University College Cork’s main gates. A Romanian escort touring the country with over 160 reviews said she was “fully booked” and was only willing to discuss a future appointment if I “set up an Escort-Ireland account”.  A Hungarian woman was willing to offer “full sex for half an hour” for just 30 euros, while a South American sex worker refused to do an outcall after having some “very bad experiences with clients” in Cork city in the past.

I see this as a human rights issue. With political will we can stand up and say that we don’t want this kind of abuse in our country.

-Mary Crilly, Director of the Sexual Violence Centre Cork

The increase in the number of prostitutes advertised on the internet has ultimately taken the majority of them off the streets of Cork.  “The escorts that are advertised on the websites are the ones in apartments but I have no doubt that there are people working on their own. There’s still some around the quays and in various spots not too hard to find. They’re really at their wits end, addicted to chemicals and in a bad way. You could find some Irish women on Cork’s streets,” Crilly noted. In some cases, pimps still pull the strings in the background, either to collect money or simply oversee the ‘casual encounter’ before slinking back into the darkness.

In Crilly’s 30 years working in the Centre, she has heard various different stories from trafficked women. “Trafficked girls start in prostitution at the age of 14. Many are on call 24/7 and the food they get is very poor. You look into the eyes of a woman who has been trafficked and there’s nothing behind them. They talk about not being able to speak English and the fear of what will happen to their families back home if they don’t do as they’re told. In African culture, witchcraft is still very strong,” she explains.

The other side to prostitution is the health of the women involved. Crilly claims that most sex workers “get check-ups all the time in order to prevent getting sexual transmitted infections from sleeping with up to 14 [or maybe even more] guys a day. There is a unit in Dublin that’s been looking after women in prostitution for about 20 years and all the women involved in prostitution know exactly where this is and go regularly. However, the clients coming into them don’t get check-ups all the time so that’s how they keep getting the infections,” Crilly added.

Crilly claims that the current economic climate has made prostitutes more accessible and affordable to the average punter, but is adamant that Irish society must stop the demand and the exploitation of human flesh. “I’m not trying to take away an income from these people.  It has to be done hand in hand with creating some sort of training and employment for women and young men involved in prostitution. We need them to start looking at these people as human beings.  If the Irish public knew how sex workers are treated and that animals are treated better, there would be uproar.  A considerable amount of those who have been trafficked have said to me if they were not on drugs before they started they certainly were by the time they finished because it was the only way they could look at themselves in the mirror”.

A Hungarian woman was willing to offer “full sex for half an hour” for just 30 euros, while a South American sex worker refused to do an outcall after having some “very bad experiences with clients” in Cork city in the past.

According to a spokesperson from the Garda Press Office, “the policing of prostitution in Cork has become more focused in recent years with the emphasis on the organisers of prostitution rather than the individual sex workers. Relationships between An Garda Síochána and sex workers in the region may have been somewhat negative but a number of initiatives are now in place in Cork city with a view to establishing better relations”. The spokesperson elaborated  that “seminars have been held to increase awareness within the region where both statutory and voluntary organisations involved on the ground in the Cork city area with sex workers have contributed to these concerns with regard to prostitution and the policing of it. Garda liaison officers are appointed in Cork city to deal with human trafficking and organised prostitution”.

However, Crilly believes that “the oldest profession in the world” and in her opinion “the oldest abuse in the world” is “not top of the Gardaí’s agenda”. She added:  “I see this as a human rights issue. With political will we can stand up and say that we don’t want this kind of abuse in our country. Along with the Immigrant Council of Ireland and Ruhama, we have pushed to raise awareness about sex trafficking by physically going out on the streets with information week in week out. I think young people voices need to be heard on this issue too”.

By its very nature, prostitution is regularly seen as degrading, dehumanising and isolating for those involved.  For every punter who rolls the dice and purchases the services of an escort, it may be difficult to identify those who are trafficked. All the signs may be present- bruises, addiction and the abject fear of mere objects being used, but those don’t identify trafficking. They sadly only identify a victim, of which there are many. The devil lies in the detail, and when we separate fact from fiction, it may become clearer that behind this well-oiled machine is an industry that is rotten to its core.