Prostitution in the Republic of Ireland

"Prostitution in Ireland" redirects here. For Northern Ireland, see Prostitution in Northern Ireland.

Life in Ireland

Prostitution in Ireland is, itself, legal, but most activities associated with it (such as soliciting in a public place, operating brothels, and other forms of pimping) are illegal.


Eighteenth century

Prostitution was both highly visible and pervasive in 18th-century Dublin, centred on Temple Bar and reflected the whole spectrum of socioeconomic class, from street prostitutes, through organised brothels to high class courtesans, who were often illegitimate daughters of the upper class. A well known example was Margaret Leeson. The role of the prostitute in 18th century Ireland was at least partly a product of the double standard of female sexuality. Typical of this was the way that venereal disease was constructed as being spread by prostitutes rather than their largely male clients. Irish prostitutes were frequently the victims of violence against women. Early 'rescue' campaigns emerged in this time with Lady Arabella Denny and the Magdalene Asylums. These provided shelter but in return expected menial labour and penitence.[1]

Nineteenth century

The changing nature of Irish society following the 1801 Act of Union saw a redefining of the status of women, with an idealisation of nuns at one extreme and a marginalisation of prostitutes at the other. Yet it was estimated that there were 17,000 women working as prostitutes in Dublin alone, and a further 8 brothels in Cork. Dublin's sex trade was largely centred on the Monto district, reputedly the largest red light district in Europe.[1][2] A major part of the demand came from the large number of British army military personnel stationed in Ireland at the time. The ‘Wrens of the Curragh’, for instance were a group of some sixty women working as ‘army camp followers’ around the Curragh.[1][3][4] Increasing concern regarding venereal disease, particularly as a threat to the military led to the introduction of a series of Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s, enabling authorities to apprehend and detain any woman suspected of prostitution and force her to submit to examination for disease. As in many other countries opposition to the Acts, provided a rallying cry for emerging women's movements. Anna Haslam in Dublin and Isabella Tod in Belfast, both of the Ladies National Association, organised opposition and a recognition not only of the plight of these women but also of the root causes.[1]

Twentieth century

Emerging nationalism tended to see prostitution and venereal disease as legacies of colonialism that could be resolved through independence. This movement became linked to Catholic conservatism which demanded social purification of the pure Irish soul. Thus the 1920s saw the decline of Monto, as the Legion of Mary founded and led by Frank Duff successfully crusaded to close down the brothels of Monto and bring religion to the area. Prostitution continued to exist in the form of individual women selling sexual services on the streets in cities, but it was a long time before organised prostitution was seen again.[5] However, street prostitution remained intrinsically linked to the Dublin Underworld. The 1920s and 1930s witnessed a new era Church-State morality and censorship. The Magdalene Asylums became more punitive, imprisoning young women who transgressed conventional sexual morality, some for the duration of their lives, the last asylum closing only in 1996.[1]

The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935[6][7] prohibited contraception and required sex crimes cases to be tried in camera, preventing media coverage and contributing to the illusion of Irish purity. In the 1950s there was much public attention around the plight of Irish women working as prostitutes in England. These were portrayed not so much as 'fallen' women, but rather as innocents lured into evil. The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s helped to expose the double standards. Notable was the story of June Levine who collaborated with Lyn Madden, a former Dublin sex worker for twenty years in the 70s and 80s, to write Lyn: A Story of Prostitution (1987)[1][8] Madden had seen her lover and pimp John Cullen firebomb the home of former sex worker and women's rights activist Dolores Lynch. Lynch perished in the fire together with her elderly mother and aunt. Madden denounced Culen and began writing the book during the ensuing trial, at which Cullen received eighteen years imprisonment. At around this time a group of street sex workers brought a successful supreme court challenge to the constitutionality of Victorian laws that required a defendant to first be identified as a common prostitute through the citing of previous convictions before conviction was possible. This successful challenge created a situation of effective decriminalisation, that also offered the women the same access to the protection of the law as anyone else. During this period prostitutes were largely independent and had a good relationship with the Gardaí. Pimping was almost unheard of, as were the other crimes previously associated with prostitution. Any suggestion of organised prostitution was limited to a small number of massage parlours in an environment where the workers were empowered to negotiate favourable terms and conditions for themselves. Also improving economic conditions and a weakening force of the Church allowed for a more visible and largely tolerated sex industry.[1]

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993,[9] made soliciting an offence for both prostitute and customer and independent prostitution declined as the women were forced into the massage parlours to avoid arrest, where they were now disempowered by necessity and terms and conditions rapidly declined. By the late 1990s the age of the brothel, and the brothel-keeper, had truly returned. Society seemed accepting of discreet, indoor prostitution establishments and every week the mainstream entertainment magazine In Dublin ran advertisements for escort services and 'massage parlouirs' (brothels), which were usually the business operations of a small number of men and women, who knew running brothels was illegal, but were prepared to take the risk, given the massive profits involved. The magazine earned substantial revenue from these advertisements.[1]

The blatant wealth of Ireland's brothel-keepers in the 1990s was such that the media began to take more interest.[1] Section 23 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994[10] prohibited the advertising of brothels and prostitution and in 1999 the Censorship of Publications Board banned In Dublin magazine from carrying escort advertisements. Criminal proceedings were also brought against the magazine's publisher, Mike Hogan. The In Dublin magazine case heralded the end of escort advertising in print publications. However, the suppression of advertising had little effect as the internet and mobile phones were changing the nature of the trade. Ireland's first escort website, Escort Ireland, had already established itself the previous year to take over In Dublin magazine's role.[1]

Of note was the frequent reference to the inadequacy of the existing legislation, but there was little debate about possible alternative models.[1] While Ireland has an international commitment to protecting the well-being of women trafficked to Ireland for the purposes of prostitution, there was little or no discussion about the rights and well-being of Irish women working in prostitution. The violent murders of prostitutes Belinda Pereira, a UK resident working for a Dublin escort agency on 28 December 1996[11] and Sinead Kelly[12] a young street prostitute in 1998 caused questions to be raised about the benefits of the 1993 act. Until Belinda Periera was murdered in a city centre apartment in the winter of 1996, the last murder of a prostitute while working (Dolores Lynch was murdered in her home in 1983, and seems to have no longer been working as a prostitute at the time) was in 1925 when the body of Lily O'Neill (known as "Honor Bright") was found in the Dublin Mountains.[13]

1999 also saw the launch of Operation Gladiator, a police operation targeting those who profit from organised prostitution. It was the first operation of its type and lasted under a year, but in that time it identified and built cases against several major Dublin brothel-keepers.[14]

Twenty first century

Operation Quest was launched by the Gardaí in 2003, with the aim of tackling human trafficking, prostitution and criminality within the lap dancing industry, followed by Operation Hotel in 2005, with the aim of tackling the trafficking of females from Eastern Europe to work in the sex industry in Ireland.[15] Essentially the legal framework has not changed over twenty years, but discussions about alternatives emerged in 2011 (see Politics).

Prostitution itself is not an offence under Irish law. However, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act of 1993 prohibits soliciting or importuning another person in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution (this offence applies to prostitute and client). It also prohibits loitering for the purpose of prostitution, organising prostitution by controlling or directing the activities of a person in prostitution, coercing one to practice prostitution for gain, living on earnings of the prostitution of another person, and keeping a brothel or other premises for the purpose of prostitution. Advertising brothels and prostitution is prohibited by the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act of 1994. The minimum legal age for a prostitute in Ireland is 18 years (child prostitution legislation exists to protect persons under this age). The Criminal Law (Trafficking in Persons and Sexual Offences) Bill 2006 came into force making trafficking in persons for the purpose of their sexual exploitation a specific offence, though previous legislation already covered much of this area.[16][17][18]


Discussion of proposed law reform became an issue in the 2011 elections, with some support from opposition parties likely to become the new Government. A group of non-government and union bodies emerged pressuring both the current government and opposition parties to abolish prostitution, by criminalising the buying of sex, along Swedish lines. At the same time, those supporting the status quo or advocating a more liberal approach challenged this argument.[19][20] In the ensuing Dáil election on February 25, a new Government was formed by Fine Gael (70 seats) and Labour (34 seats). The women's branch of the Labour Party support criminalisation of purchase.[21]

In June 2012, the Department of Justice and Equality issued its Discussion Document on Future Direction of Prostitution Legislation.[22] In September 2012, the Oirechtas produced a background document entitled Prostitution regulation in Ireland: which way now?[18] This was followed by a conference in Dublin organised by the Department, to discuss policy alternatives.[23] Following a request by the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Oireachtas Justice Committee held hearings on discussion document between December 2012 and February 2013. Prior to the hearings, a number of the committee members, such as Independent Senator Katherine Zappone, had already committed to a sex purchase ban, and the majority of submissions and presentations supported this measure and were associated with Turn Off the Red Light.[24] In June 2013, it produced a unanimous report [25] [26] [27] recommending reform of Ireland’s laws on prostitution, including criminalising purchase, and providing services for those wishing to exit prostitution.[28][29] Of the opposition parties, both Fianna Fáil (20 seats) and Sinn Féin (14 seats) have expressed support for this approach at their 2013 Ardfheiseanna (party conferences), with the only dissenting voices coming from the independent bloc of deputies in the Dáil.[24] However, there has been a reluctance on the part of the Government to act on the recommendations.[30] A Private Member's Bill was however introduced in the Dáil in March 2013, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2013,[31] by Independent TD Thomas Pringle which would criminalise the purchase of sex, on behalf of Turn Off the Red Light,[32] which was given a second reading in May 2013,[33] receiving the support of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. The Government preferred to wait for the Justice Committee report, and the bill was defeated on May 7, 2013.[34]

In August 2014, former US President Jimmy Carter wrote to all Irish politicians urging the adoption of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. Carter had been briefed by the Immigrant Council of Ireland, a leading figure in the Turn Off the Red Light campaign.[35][36]

Forms and extent of prostitution

There are no up-to-date reliable figures estimating the number of women or men currently working in prostitution in Ireland, but one estimate is 1,000.[18] During Ireland's economic boom male demand for female prostitution services increased. There has been a marked increase in people turning towards the internet and sites as a more effective means of advertising.[37]

For many years prior to the 1993 Sexual Offences Act, most female prostitutes worked on the streets, but, since this time, brothels marketed as escort agencies have been the most prevalent form of prostitution. Advertising in print publications is illegal, but a very developed Internet advertising medium exists.

Prostitutes of many nationalities now reside in Ireland and Ruhama, an organisation opposed to prostitution, reported to the government in 2006 claiming that over 200 women were trafficked into Ireland.[18][38][39]



SWAI (Sex Workers Alliance Ireland), is an advocacy group for sex workers in Ireland, was formed in 2009 by an alliance of individuals and groups to promote the social inclusion, health, safety, civil rights, and the right to self-determination of sex workers. SWAI actively advocates for the decriminalisation of sex work in Ireland and believes sex workers in Ireland should be free to work in safety without fear, judgment or stigma.[40][41]

Ruhama (Hebrew: Renewed life), established in 1989, is a Dublin-based NGO which works on a national level with women affected by prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation. The organisation regards prostitution as violence against women and violations of women's human rights. Ruhama sees prostitution and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it as being deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation. Ruhama offers a range of services to support women in and exiting prostitution. Ruhama also seeks to highlight sex trafficking.[42][43]


A campaign set up in 2011 to end prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland called "Turn Off the Red Light" is run by an alliance of more than 66 community, union and religious groups,[44][45][46] including the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation,[47][48] and the Irish Medical Organisation. Core members are the Immigrant Council, Ruhama and the National Women's Council.

In response, a counter-campaign called "Turn Off the Blue Light" was created by sex workers and supporters in favour of decriminalisation to rebut what they see as misleading information and to present a positive image of sex workers in Ireland. A chief complaint it has of the "Turn Off The Red Light" campaign is that it conflates legal and consensual sex work with illegal human trafficking.[49][50]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Striapacha Tri Chead Bliain Duailcis (Prostitutes: Three Hundred Years of Vice) Niamh O’Reilly, J Irish Studies
  2. Terry Fagan. Red-light alert. Independent April 10 2011
  3. The Curragh Wrens, by Con Costello, The Curragh History Web Site
  4. "An Outcast Community: the 'wrens' of the Curragh" (PDF), by Maria Luddy, Women's History Review, Volume 1, Issue 3 (1992), pp. 341–355]
  5. Fagan, Terry; North Inner City Folklore Project (2000). Monto: Madams, Murder and Black Coddle. Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  6. Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935 (No. 6 1935)
  7. “Prostitution and the Irish State: from Prohibitionism to a Globalised Sex Trade” Eilís Ward. Irish Political Studies, Vol. 25 (1): 4-66, 2010
  8. Lyn: A Story of Prostitution, by June Levine and Lyn Madden, Cork University Press (1987) ISBN 9780946211456
  9. Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 (No. 20 1993)
  10. Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 (No. 2 1994)
  11. Nicola Tallant (28 December 2005). "NEW PLEA IN HUNT FOR BELINDA KILLER". The Mirror.
  12. Unknown (23 June 1998). "We knew prostitute would be murdered". The Mirror.
  13. Karl Whitney. ""Honor Bright" and "Death in a Lonely Spot"".
  14. Reynolds, Paul (2003). Sex in the City: The Prostitution Racket in Ireland. ISBN 0-7171-3688-4.
  15. Equality & Law Reform and An Garda Síochána Working Group (May 2006). "Report on Trafficking in Human Beings" (PDF). Department of Justice.
  16. "Irish Statute Book". Office of the Attorney General, Ireland.
  17. "Criminal Law (Trafficking in Persons and Sexual Offences) Bill 2006" (PDF). Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
  18. 1 2 3 4 Prostitution regulation in Ireland: which way now? Oirechtas Library & Research Service, No. 6/2012
  19. "Pressure groups lock horns over changes to laws on prostitution", Jim Cusack, Irish Independent, 20 February 2011.
  20. "Irish Justice Minister in move to change laws on purchase of sex", Cathal Dervan, Irish Central, 3 October 2011.
  21. Labour Women: Submission on the Review of Legislation on Prostitution. August 2012
  22. Discussion Document on Future Direction of Prostitution Legislation. Department of Justice and Equality, June 2012
  23. 'Ireland considering the Swedish model against prostitution? Maybe not after all'. Louise Persson. Harm Reduction International
  24. 1 2 The campaign to introduce the Swedish Model into the Irish Laws on Prostitution. David Walsh. Turn on the Red Light 2014
  25. Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. Report on hearings and submissions on the Review of Legislation on Prostitution. June 2013 Part I
  26. Part II: Witnesses & Submissions
  27. Part III: Committee Debates
  28. Law reform ‘will make prostitution more dangerous’. Irish Examiner June 21 2014
  29. Prostitution and legislation. Ronit Lentin et al. Irish Times. May 20 2014
  30. James Downey. We'll never eradicate prostitution - so target vile trafficking instead. Independent December 14 2013
  32. Pringle Introduces Bill Criminalising Buying Sexual Services, press release, Thomas Pringle TD, March 13, 2013. Archived 6 September 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
  33. Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2013 Second Stage Debate May 3 2013.
  34. Second Stage Debate (resumed) May 7 2013.
  35. Jimmy Carter calls for reform of Irish law on prostitution. Irish Examiner Sept 2 2014
  36. David Walsh. Carter's intervention over prostitution law is ill judged. Independent Sept 3 2014
  37. "Lucrative 'escort' website claims new owner is a former Irish prostitute", Ali Bracken, Irish Tribune, 11 January 2009
  38. Kathleen Fahy (May 2006). "Presentation to the Oireachtas Justice Committee". Ruhama.
  39. "Irish Escort Clients 2006 Survey". February 2006.
  40. Sex Workers Alliance Ireland
  41. "Sex workers must not be viewed as victims, says group", Irish Times, 11 November 2009
  42. Ruhama website, retrieved 3 September 2013.
  43. "Ruhama reports 18 per cent increase in demand for support services", The, 22 August 2012.
  44. Turn Off the Red Light, website
  45. "Group calls for reform of prostitution laws", RTÉ News / Ireland, 2 February 2011
  46. "Prominent Irishmen seek change to prostitution laws", Connor Lally, Irish Times, 3 February 2011
  47. Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation. Irish Nurses call for new prostitution laws in Ireland 2014 Archived 12 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
  48. Prostitution – target the real criminals. WIN October 2012 Vol 20 Iss 8. INMO
  49. Turn Off the Blue Light, website
  50. "International Workers Day and the Labour Rights of Women", Máiréad Enright, Human Rights in Ireland


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