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Exploitation ‘as usual’: Emerging evidence on the impact of Covid-19 on Ireland’s sex trade

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Exploitation 'as usual': Emerging evidence on the impact of Covid 19 on Ireland's sex trade

This research was funded by the Community Foundation for Ireland and was supported by the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, UCD.

Exploitation as usual report cover image

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

Principal Investigator

Assoc. Prof. Marie Keenan, UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, Dublin, Ireland

Other Investigators:

Ruth Breslin, Researcher, UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, Dublin, Ireland

Dr Monica O'Connor, Senior Researcher, UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, Dublin, Ireland

Project Profile

With the support of the Community Foundation for Ireland, this study formally and rigorously documents the impact of Covid-19 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 findings clearly demonstrate that prostitution has not provided a solution to women’s poverty during Covid-19. Overall, the study 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.  In particular, support providers who take a woman-centred approach have the ability to adapt and innovate in the face of a global crisis. But building a positive post-pandemic legacy for women trapped in the Irish sex trade will require the political will and commitment to ensuring that all women and girls in prostitution have full access to systematic, structured forms of exiting support that allow them to create new lives free from sexual exploitation.

Aim of the study

The aim of this study is to formally and rigorously document the impact that Covid-19 is having on the Irish sex trade at this unprecedented time in our history. The trade attempted to respond to the pandemic with a ‘business as usual’ approach as far as was possible, but it was clear that this crisis had a devastating impact on the lives and wellbeing of many women in prostitution right across Ireland.

Key Findings

  • When the pandemic hit, the numbers advertised online for prostitution by Escort Ireland (EI) slipped below 300, less than half the norm, but steadily increased again to pre-Covid-19 levels, with almost 700 advertised at the end of July. Those who continued to be advertised were women in the most precarious situations;
  • In an effort to protect their profits, EI speedily adapted, incentivising women to remain in prostitution. This included providing options for women to go ‘virtual’ by interacting with sex buyers via smartphone, webcam and other online means;
  • Despite this, over 94% of women advertised on the website had no option but to continue to see buyers in person, such were the severe financial and other coercive pressures they were under during the pandemic
  • The pandemic also led the website to hasten the development of a new platform to ‘connect’ women and buyers, modelled on OnlyFans. This is despite serious concerns about the role of such platforms in the proliferation of image-based sexual abuse in Ireland and globally;
  • When lockdown arrived many migrant women in prostitution became trapped in brothels around the country. They were extremely isolated, and some were facing destitution, unable to access any form of State supports
  • Many women remained in prostitution because of significant pressures to send money to their families in their country of origin so that their loved ones could access healthcare during the pandemic. In other cases, women under the control of pimps and traffickers had no choice but to acquiesce to their demands for money, regardless of the global health crisis;
  • In addition to the risks of exposure to Covid-19 through prostitution, women’s sexual and mental health were negatively affected, with buyers demanding risky practices at this time;
  • Physical and sexual violence against women in prostitution increased during the pandemic, with a number of different perpetrators responsible, including buyers, pimps and partners;
  • The pandemic led specialist support services for women in prostitution to innovate by adapting their services and developing new supports and ways of reaching women during lockdown, to provide vital assistance at a time when they were extremely isolated;
  • Many buyers continued to purchase in-person sexual access to women in prostitution throughout the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, sometimes travelling cross-county or even further to do so. They saw this as something they needed, but also deserved, to relieve the boredom and stress of lockdown. Many demanded risky acts that heightened exposure to both coronavirus and STIs;
  • Motivated by a strong sense of sexual entitlement, sex buyers prioritised their sexual desires over the health of the women to whom they purchased sexual access, their own health, the health of their close contacts and public health in general.

Contact the UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington Building, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
T: +353 1 716 8198 | E: sp-sw-sj@ucd.ie | Location Map