'We end up like broken jigsaw puzzles': Chilling reality of sex work revealed in study

'We end up like broken jigsaw puzzles': Chilling reality of sex work revealed in study

Report author Ruth Breslin said the women sampled in the report were often very young, undocumented and vulnerable and were driven into prostitution by poverty, coercion or a combination of both. File picture: PA

The chilling reality of the health, psychological and emotional problems suffered by many women trapped in Ireland’s sex trade have been revealed in a new study.

Confronting the Harm documents the experiences and impacts on the health and wellbeing of women in prostitution. The research was carried out by UCD’s Sexual Exploitation Research Programme (SERP) and the HSE's Women’s Health Service (WHS).

It took a sample of 144 women currently involved in the sex trade who are accessing the WHS. They examined 50 of their medical files and conducted in-depth interviews.

Some 94% of the women were migrants: 37.5% were Brazilian, 31.9% were Romanian, 6.3% were Irish, 3.5% were Hungarian and 2% were Bolivian.

On average, women were aged 27, but they ranged in age from 18 to 56. Transgender women made up 6.3%.

Only 8.3% were registered with a GP.

Precarious immigration and poverty had driven many into prostitution. 

Immense financial pressure

Many women were under immense pressure to financially support family back home and some were fearful of retribution by traffickers on their families.

Although the report found the majority of women were doing all they could to protect their health, buyers were demanding unprotected oral, vaginal and anal sex and tried to remove condoms without the women knowing.

Some 79% were experiencing one or more of the most common sexual health issues, often caused by the frequency with which buyers had sexual access to their bodies.

Crisis pregnancies were common while HPV and chlamydia were the most common STIs.

Women were often frightened or repelled by buyers and their demands.

One woman in the report identified only as ‘Luciana’ said offering penetrative sex made her “sad” and she was “sick in her head” for the years that she did it. She started offering massage instead because buyers could not touch her body as much.

Another participant called ‘Elena’ said suicide was not uncommon. “I heard like a lot about the girls who kill herself also or take many pills because their lifestyles don’t make sense after a while. You have the money but you don’t have nothing,” she said.

Permanent state of fear

The report authors spoke of the permanent state of fear many of these women are trapped in. Instead of their home being a refuge, their home, if they have one, has the potential for violence and sexual abuse.

One woman told them of being attacked with a knife shortly after she returned to work after taking a break after an earlier attack.

“[After the first attack, I was] really scared, really unhappy. I had paranoid. A lot of problems… I not trust the men anymore. I take a break [from prostitution], like a month. And then I back again. But after a month I was attacked again, with knife… You can't get happiness from that money [prostitution]. Always you’ll be sad, will be paranoid.” 

Crystal meth, cocaine and ecstasy were drugs either used by study participants or those they knew in the sex trade. Buyers often wanted women to use drugs, or they were used to block out discomfort, pain, violence and other aspects of prostitution.

The report authors called for a dedicated, specialist, countrywide health service for women in prostitution, with trauma-informed mental health and wellbeing supports and further supports to exit the sex trade.

Report author Ruth Breslin said the women sampled in the report were often very young, undocumented and vulnerable and were driven into prostitution by poverty, coercion or a combination of both.

Co-author Linda Latham, who has worked in women’s health for 20 years, said it hits her every time she goes home that her patients do not have a safe home to retreat to at the end of a day. Many people curl up in their beds to feel safe, but their bed is where much of the abuse takes place.

Language a barrier

Language is also a barrier for many. And while many of the physical health problems she sees can be fixed, Ms Latham said the mental and emotional impact can be much more difficult to treat and heal.

Mia de Faoite, former prostitute, activist and the Beyond Exploitation campaign coordinator with the National Women’s Council, said prostitution cuts “deep psychological wounds”.

She said studies have found that women in the sex trade suffer similar or higher levels of PTSD to veterans returning from wars.

“For six years, I was sexually exploited by strangers. In six years, I was bought approximately 4,000 times," Ms de Faoite said.

"They buy us when we’re sick, they buy us when we’re weeping, they buy us when we’re disconnected, stoned or intoxicated. They buy us when we have visible bruises, cuts and scars. Even when we bleed, they buy us.

“We end up like broken jigsaw puzzles.” 

She promised the National Women’s Council and SERP would not leave these women’s sides until they were helped out of the sex trade and allowed again the chance to fulfil the dreams they had as little girls.

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