The Sexual Exploitation Research Programme (SERP) was established in 2017 under Associate Professor Ursula Barry in the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice at University College Dublin. In 2020, SERP joined UCD’s Geary Institute for Public Policy.
SERP conducts independent feminist research on all forms of commercial sexual exploitation that creates useful knowledge for law and policy makers, practitioners, survivors, supporters and activists.
SERP aims to strengthen the evidence base on current and emerging issues of sexual exploitation in Ireland, and beyond. Our work is designed to enhance understanding of the commercial sex trade, its impact on women and girls who are sexually exploited, on communities and on society at large.
In addition to strong links with international partners and allies, SERP also works collaboratively with support services for victims and survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking on the ground, seeking to bridge the gap between academia and frontline practice in generating new knowledge, insights and solutions on these issues.
SERP also provides learning opportunities, training, evaluation and bespoke consultancy services on the theme of commercial sexual exploitation and related issues. We are always seeking new ways to communicate and share our work and its findings and implications.
SERP is overseen and chaired by Associate Professor Marie Keenan who acts as the Principal Investigator with overall responsibility for the management and financial accountability of research projects, alongside Dr Maureen Lyons (Research Manager).
The team includes Dr Monica O’Connor (Senior Researcher) and Ruth Breslin (Researcher) who between them have decades of experience researching and publishing on issues of commercial sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls more broadly.
The work of SERP is guided by an Advisory Committee comprising academics, frontline practitioners and other experts in the field. Current members include Emeritus Associate Professor Ursula Barry, UCD, Dr Paul D’Alton, UCD, Salome Mbugwa, AkiDwA, Dr Sarah Morton, UCD, Dr Denise O’Brien, UCD, Emeritus Professor Philip O’Connell, UCD and Dr Nusha Yonkova, Immigrant Council of Ireland.
SERP is underpinned by the principles of gender equality, social justice and human rights. The team is committed to rigorous, ethical, collaborative and participatory research practice.
Exploitation ‘as usual’
Exploitation ‘as usual’: Emerging evidence on the impact of Covid-19 on Ireland’s sex trade
With the support of the Community Foundation for Ireland, the aim of this study is to formally and rigorously document the impact that Covid-19 was and is having on Ireland’s sex trade at this unprecedented time in our history. It was designed to enhance understanding of how the sex trade responded to the pandemic, and examine the implications both of the crisis itself, and the way the trade adapted to it, for sex buyers, women in prostitution and the services that support them. The study also contributes to the wider evidence base on the continuing operation of the commercial sex trade in Ireland and highlights some of the measures required to tackle, overcome and prevent sexual exploitation in this context in the future.
To read the full report click here
Author Ruth Breslin discusses some of the findings at this event:
Prostitution under Covid-19: Research presentation and panel discussion
Shifting the Burden of Criminality
Dr Monica O’Connor has worked on gender-based violence for over thirty years, as a practitioner, policy analyst and researcher. She has acted as a principal researcher on key projects that have investigated the nature and impacts of male violence. She is the author and co-author of numerous publications on violence against women, including a major study of the sex trade in Ireland (Kelleher Associates, O’Connor, and Pillinger, 2009). In 2010, she received a three-year Government of Ireland Scholarship from the Irish Research Council to undertake doctoral research examining the issues of choice, consent, agency and harm in the lives of prostituted and trafficked women in Ireland. Dr O’Connor has worked closely with non-governmental and statutory services in developing ethical guidelines surrounding the participation of service users in research. She has conducted over fifty in-depth interviews and numerous focus groups with women who have been subjected to domestic and sexual violence and with women affected by prostitution and trafficking. She is currently a senior researcher at the Sexual Exploitation Research Programme (SERP), University College Dublin and a Research Fellow at the WiSE Centre for Economic Justice, Glasgow Caledonian University. In 2019, Dr O’Connor published her first book on the global commercial sex trade: The Sex Economy.
Ruth Breslin has over twenty years of research experience in both NGO and academic settings. She has an MSc in Social Research Methods (Social Policy) from the London School of Economics and Political Science. The focus of Ruth’s work has been efforts to tackle and prevent violence against women and girls, and she has developed particular expertise in research and policy development on the interrelated issues of prostitution and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Ruth is regularly called upon to input into the development of evidence-based policy, legislation and practice in this regard. Ruth was the Research Manager for Eaves on the first ever national study on women exiting prostitution in the UK (Exiting Prostitution: A Study in Female Desistance). Ruth also designed, led and co-authored the study Capital Exploits: A Study of Prostitution and Trafficking in London, commissioned by the Mayor of London as part of his strategy to end violence against women and girls in the city. More recently in Ireland, in her role with the specialist frontline support service Ruhama, Ruth designed and undertook research to gather professional views on how to reach out to vulnerable women and girls involved in Ireland's sex trade (The REACH Project: Practitioner Insights). Ruth is now a core member of the research team at SERP.
1. The health impacts of prostitution on women in the Irish sex trade – a collaboration between SERP and the HSE
Commissioned and funded by the HSE Social Inclusion Unit
The overall aim of this study is to provide empirical data on the impact of prostitution on women’s physical, sexual, reproductive and mental health. The research has been devised to support the Women’s Health Service (HSE) in documenting the presenting issues of their service users in terms of general health problems, sexual and reproductive health issues and their short and long-term psychological support needs. Specifically, this study is designed to:
- Provide a profile of women in prostitution presenting to the Women’s Health Service
- Investigate the factors and circumstances which draw women into prostitution in the first instance
- Explore women’s experiences within the Irish sex trade
- Document the impact of prostitution on women’s physical, sexual, reproductive and mental health and wellbeing
- Document the risks and violence women have experienced within the Irish sex trade
- Explore women’s intentions to exit prostitution and the challenges they face in doing so
- Contribute to the body of academic evidence in an under-researched area in Ireland, which can also directly inform policy and practice, as well as pointing the way for future research.
2. Assessing the changing nature of the commercial sexual exploitation of the girl child in the Irish context
Funded by the Community Foundation for Ireland
This research aims to deliver a literature review and scoping report on the issue of the commercial sexual exploitation of the girl child (girls under 18) in Ireland. Drawing on practice-based evidence and interviews with expert informants, including frontline service providers, this scoping exercise will assess what is known and unknown about this issue in the Irish context, whether any specific trends and patterns of commercial sexual exploitation of girls exist, and what data is available for further analysis. It is intended that this initial scoping will provide insights and recommendations for further, more detailed research in this area.
3. Developing a theoretical framework on prostitution with the National Women’s Council
Funded by the Irish Research Council, New Foundations 2020 (Strand 1a: Engaging civic society)
This research aims to develop a theoretical framework on prostitution with the National Women’s Council which is compatible with their goal of achieving gender equality, respects individual choice and sexual autonomy, and also recognises how individuals are constrained in their choices by structural, socio-economic and cultural forces. It aims to develop a critical understanding of consent within the prostitution contract and whether the buying of sexual access to some women’s bodies undermines the movement for meaningful sexual consent for all.
4. Pathways to Exit: How women leaving prostitution can be supported to rebuild their lives and regain their voice
A collaborative project in partnership with Ruhama and the Immigrant Council of Ireland
Funded by the Community Foundation for Ireland – Covid-19 Response Fund
The majority of women in prostitution in Ireland are vulnerable young migrants. They face many adversities in their lives that both drive them into prostitution, and trap them within it, including poverty, severe financial pressures, homelessness, lack of English, insecure immigration status, and violence and coercion perpetrated by sex buyers, pimps and traffickers. All these existing adversities were further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving many migrant women more entrenched in prostitution than ever before.
As a result of the pandemic, there is growing recognition that women need urgent support to exit prostitution. This collaborative project will document the extensive work undertaken by specialist frontline services to support women to exit (leave) prostitution, rebuild their lives and regain their voice. We will examine how agencies involve women in shaping their services, and how they build women’s capacity to have a voice on issues that affect their lives. We will be directly informed by women’s own views and experiences in identifying what quality service provision looks like for those who have been trafficked and exploited in the sex trade. This study will generate a model of good practice for the provision of exiting supports.
Breslin, R., Latham, L., and O’Connor, M., (forthcoming, 2021). Confronting the Harm: Documenting the Prostitution Experiences and Impacts on Health and Wellbeing of Women Accessing the Women’s Health Service. Dublin: HSE.
Breslin, R., 2020. Exploitation ‘as usual’: Emerging Evidence on the Impact of Covid-19 on Ireland’s Sex Trade. Dublin: SERP.
O’Connor, M., and Breslin, R., 2020. Shifting the Burden of Criminality: An Analysis of the Irish Sex Trade in the Context of Prostitution Law Reform. Dublin: SERP
O’Connor, M., (2019). The Sex Economy. UK: Agenda Publishing.
O'Connor, M., and Yonkova, N., (2019). Gender, trafficking for sexual exploitation, and prostitution. In Black, L., and Dunne, P., (eds). Law and Gender in Modern Ireland: Critique and Reform. UK: Hart Publishing (pp. 39-54).
Charlton, D., and O’Connor, M., (2018). Disrupt Demand: Comparative Report Examining Campaign Strategies in Member States to Introduce Legislative Measures to Discourage Demand for Sex Trafficking. (Funded by the Internal Security Fund of the European Union, under the call HOME/2015/ISFP/AG/THBX). Dublin: Immigrant Council of Ireland.
O’Connor, M., (2017). ‘Consent, agency, choice and coercion: Complex issues in the lives of prostituted and trafficked women’. Women’s International Studies Forum, 62, (pp. 8-16).
Cosgrove, C., O’Connor, M., and Yonkova, N., (2016). Exploitative Sham Marriages and Human Trafficking in Ireland. Dublin: Immigrant Council of Ireland.
O’Connor, M., (2015). Upholding Legal Rights: Early Legal Intervention for Victims of Trafficking. (EU/ISEC Programme). Dublin: Immigrant Council of Ireland.
O’Connor, M., (2014). REACH Project Consultation: Reaching Women and Girls Vulnerable to or Experiencing Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation. Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality and Ruhama.
Breslin, R., (2014). The REACH Project: Reaching Women and Girls Vulnerable to or Experiencing Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation – Practitioner Insights. Dublin: Ruhama.
Brown, L., and Breslin, R., (2013). Cycles of Harm: Problematic Alcohol Use Amongst Women Involved in Prostitution. London: Alcohol Research UK.
Bindel, J., Breslin, R., and Brown, L., (2013). Capital Exploits: A Study of Prostitution and Trafficking in London. London: Eaves.
O’Connor, M., and Pillinger, J., (2011). Feasibility Study for Refuge Provision in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown and the Development of an Assessment Model for Refuge Provision. Dublin: Sonas Housing and Homeless Agency.
O’Connor, M., and Pillinger, J., (2010). Formative Evaluation of an Interagency Initiative Working to Deliver Quality Services for Victims of Sex Trafficking in Ireland. Dublin: Dublin Employment Pact.
Kelleher Associates, O’Connor, M., and Pillinger, J., (2009). Globalisation, Sex Trafficking and Prostitution: The Experiences of Migrant Women in Ireland. Dublin: Immigrant Council of Ireland.
O’Connor, M., (2008). Silencing feminism: Making sexual exploitation invisible and legitimate. In Barry, U., (ed). Where Are We Now? New Feminist Perspectives on Women in Contemporary Ireland. Dublin: Tasc at New Island Press.
Healy, G., and O’Connor, M., (2006). The Links Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking. European Women’s Lobby and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.
O’Connor, M., (2006). Second Report of the National Observatory on Violence Against Women: Focus on Pornography. The National Women’s Council of Ireland and the European Women’s Lobby.
Thiara, R., and Breslin, R., (2006). ‘A look at domestic violence among families from ethnic minorities’ in Community Care, 2-8 November 2006, pp. 32-33.
O’Connor, M., (2004). First Report of the National Observatory on Violence Against Women: Focus on Prostitution. The National Women’s Council of Ireland and the European Women’s Lobby.
O’Connor, M., and Wilson, N., (2004). Safe Home: A Model of Transitional Supported Housing for Women and Children Out of Home Because of Violence. Dublin: Sonas Housing Association Ireland.
O’Connor, M., (2002). ‘Consequences and outcomes of disclosure for abused women'. In International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics; 78 Suppl 1: S83-S89.
Breslin, R., and Wingfield, R., (2001). The British Council Directory of UK Resources on Violence Against Women. London: CWASU.
Kelleher, P., Kelleher, C., and Breslin, R., (2001). A Framework for Developing an Effective Response to Women and Children Who Experience Male Violence in the Eastern Region. Dublin: Eastern Regional Committee on Violence Against Women.
Breslin, R., (2000). The Directory of Eastern Regional Service Provision for Women Who Experience Violence. Dublin: Eastern Regional Committee on Violence Against Women.
Kelleher Associates and O’Connor, M., (1999). Safety and Sanctions: Domestic Violence and the Enforcement of the Law in Ireland. Dublin: Women’s Aid.
Kelleher Associates and O’Connor, M., (1995). Making the Links: A National Prevalence Study on Domestic Violence in Ireland. Dublin: Women’s Aid.
Cronin, J., and O’Connor, M., (1993). The Identification and Treatment of Women Admitted to an Accident and Emergency Department as a Result of Assault by Spouses/Partners. Dublin: Women’s Aid and St. James Hospital.
Presentation to the Citizens Assembly on Gender Equality – Dr Monica O’ Connor of SERP presented expert evidence to the Citizens Assembly on Gender Based Violence and Gender Equality, March 2021
You can watch her expert evidence here
And the subsequent Q&A session on her evidence here
Shifting the Burden of Criminality – launch webinar, November 2020
Sexual exploitation in the shadow of Covid-19: Experiences from the frontline – first in a series of SERP webinars, May 2020 Video
An audience with Mickey Meji – South African survivor of the sex trade and leading women’s rights activist: Public seminar at UCD in collaboration with SPACE International, November 2019
The Sex Economy – author Dr Monica O’Connor in conversation with Senator Ivana Bacik, Books Upstairs, June 2019 link
Prostitution, harm and gender inequality: Public seminar at UCD with Dr Maddy Coy, University of Florida, March 2019
Child sexual exploitation and the prostitution of adult women – Joining the dots: Roundtable event with Dr Maddy Coy, March 2019
The Sex Economy by Dr Monica O’Connor – book launch, February 2019.
Teaching and training
Lectures and seminars:
- Masters in Applied Social Research, School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin (2016-2019)
Masters in Social Work, School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, UCD (2018-2019)
- Gender Studies, Centre for Gender, Feminisms and Sexualities, School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, UCD (2018-2019)
- BSocSc, School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, UCD (2018-2019)
- Global Development Society, Trinity College Dublin (2019)
- UCD Seminar on UN Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (2019)
- Dr O’Connor is also a Research Fellow at the WiSE Centre for Economic Justice, Glasgow Caledonian University (2017-2020).
Collaboration / Membership / Policy engagement
SERP is a member of Ireland's National Women’s Council (NWC). SERP also engages in:
- Regular briefings to the members of the Dáil and Seanad on matters relating to commercial sexual exploitation
- Advising non-governmental and civil society organisations across Ireland on issues relating to prostitution and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation
- Submitting oral and written evidence and expertise to parliamentary and public inquiries on the issue of commercial sexual exploitation, both in Ireland and internationally.
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For enquiries about SERP’s work or to join our mailing list to receive updates about our research and events please contact: email@example.com