A discussion on the current state of the sex trade in Northern Ireland has taken place following a performance of Madame Geneva at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.
The audience heard from “Lucy”, a former sex worker who worked in Ipswich throughout the time of the Ipswich murders, actually meeting the murderer, Steve Wright, whom she described: “looked like any other normal man”. The media frenzy that accompanied the Ipswich murders highlighted social attitudes manifesting in the dehumanisation of the murdered women who ranged in age from 19 to 29 years. It was only when the family narratives began to appear that the full horror of the situation was expressed. Lucy spoke of her experience in the industry, insisting that it was a choice - nobody had forced her and further suggested that freedom to engage in sex work is a personal choice for many women. Panellist Michele Jordan suggested that NI society often stigmatises citizens that are sex workers, failing to support their needs, leaving them vulnerable and open to danger. Kellie Turtle (Belfast Feminist Network) maintained that some feminists compound stigmatisation by refusing to acknowledge the rights of people to freely choose a career as a sex worker, that behaviours of judgement and morality compound rather than support women being marginalised further.
Lucy described her journey from addiction and her decision to cease work as a sex worker twelve years ago. Some years following her decision, Lucy gave birth but because of her past her child was removed and given up for adoption. In support, Michele Jordan highlighted the reforming approach individuals working within the health service adopt towards addiction and sex work that can have devastating and long lasting impacts. This reforming approach is often underpinned by an individual health worker’s own personal experience but manifests in a judgemental and a “fixing people” approach that doesn’t acknowledge a service user's right to autonomy or listening to what they actually need.
Audience participants reflected on male attitudes of entitlement that manifest in sexual abuse and attacks. Michele Jordan felt that this argument, tangled with the debate on sex work shifts the conversation away from one of protecting sex workers. Another participant suggested that men need to stand up to other males when inequality is present in the workplace and not behave as if they are doing something out of loyalty or friendship. Inequality should be addressed for the good of all.
Kellie Turtle observed that during the debate to change the law on sex work, former sex workers supporting the attitudes of politicians promoting the 2014 law criminalising the male client, were treated with more respect than women currently working in the sex industry who felt the law would drive the industry further underground. One woman’s treatment was so severe she made a formal complaint. Judgement is placed on women who are openly or confidently sexual: woman shouldn’t be like that. One audience participant noted how sexually repressed NI is and how we are afraid of adult sexuality, both in its physical expression and discussion.
Another audience member wondered about support for women who wish to leave the sex industry. Kellie Turtle said current models of support require women to pretty much sign on the dotted line, promising to no longer continue sex work. Not only is this unrealistic with movement from one career to the next but it also echoes the narratives of control and harsh conditions faced by the women entering the first Magdalen home in 1758, witnessed on stage only minutes before in the performance of Madame Geneva.
Finally, Michele Jordan exhorted those present to take representative positions wherever possible. Men are deciding the futures of women, we need to join organisations, sit on decision making panels and seek effective political representation. It’s an uphill battle so we may as well roll up our sleeves and get to it now.
Michele Jordan holds an MA in Dual Diagnosis (Mental Health and Addiction) and specialises in issues related to women, substance use and reducing associated harm.