On the 4th of July, the BBC reported an investigation into prostitution in Northern Ireland, which found that £500,000 were spent each week on prostitution spread amongst 88 brothels. This is higher than many other European countries, and it is thought that many of the prostitutes are in fact trafficked into NI (so, ‘used’ against their will).
Later in the month, on the 31st of July, The Sunday Life (the Belfast Telegraph’s Sunday paper) published a feature on the sex trade in Belfast, investigated and written by reporter Ciaran Barnes.
I’m glad that they had the courage and vision to approach the issue. Indeed, the sex trade and human trafficking are topics which are, if at all, despite being increasing and significant in our country, very far from people’s minds. They used time, energy and a feature slot to cover the problem of the sex trade in Northern Ireland. It is clear that more investigation into the truth of what happens in the world of prostitution in NI is necessary. It often feels that we are blindly piecing together a puzzle, throwing around figures and stories in the hope of discovering truth to find a path out of the darkness of the sex trade.
I was so looking forward to running into the newsagents’, purchasing The Sunday Life and soaking in a wonderful piece highlighting the broad problem of the sex trade in Northern Ireland, and perhaps, maybe, dare-I-hope-for-it, suggestions of how to stop the problem. I refer to it as a problem in relation to the people involved in prostitution who wish to get out of it, which is thought (research into the true thoughts and attitudes of sex workers is understandably difficult) to be 90 % of prostitutes. Perhaps due to time constraints, word limits, and the need to sell papers, there are a few points from the feature that I feel should be addressed.
I don’t fully understand Barnes’ approach to his investigation: was going undercover in such a way as to be in a room with naked prostitutes absolutely necessary? He states that he did not engage in sexual activity with his ‘interviewees’, but was it a necessity to go as far as putting himself in the situation of being in the prostitutes’ rooms when they were undressed and ready to act with him as they would with actual clients. Did he feel that in order to gain their trust he should go down the road as far as possible without sexual interaction? Surely this was a misuse of their trust? I understand the fact that women in the sex trade do not easily share any information and that their safety, as well as Barnes’, would easily have been jeopardised through this report. But was getting them to strip a way of making them feel comfortable enough to talk to him? Was the information he gathered really worth it? Was it for the pictures he littered the feature with?
Pictures which present for me another problem. The subject matter is one, at heart, of devalorisation and exploitation of vulnerable human beings who are stripped of their dignity and worth. Why take this further in displaying pictures of these particular victims need in naked and lingerie-clad provocative positions? In choosing to cover this topic, one that involves such degradation, surely it would have been more constructive to refrain from entering into that aspect of it? Indeed, prostitutes are degraded enough in society without reporters further robbing them of their dignity. There will have been prostitues reading the paper – did the feature encourage them to see themselves as more than what they are treated as, or fight for freedom if they are being kept against their will?
My general feeling about the report was that it was rather sensational. I understand that in order to attract readers, with the view of financial gain but also of increased awareness, their attention must be grasped. However, pictures of prostitutes in their lingerie were not The Sunday Life’s only way of achieving this. Furthermore, the language used (“plump” in reference to a prostitute – why do we need to know that?) is frustratingly sensationalistic. Is the fact that a sex trade in and for which women are coerced and exploited not scandalous enough, in and of itself?
The only prostitutes mentioned in the feature are of Asian nationality. Whilst many of the women involved in the NI sex trade are Asian, the sex workers are from many different countries and it should have been said that there are a fair few from Northern Ireland. The stereotypical painting of a young girl from Bangkok being coerced into coming to Europe for a menial job and ending up in prostitution is representative of a certain number of prostitutes, but is exclusive and allows the general public to think of the problem as more removed than what it truly is. Furthermore, the only prostitues mentioned are female – what about the male prostitutes that ‘serve’ female and gay male clients?
Barnes’ aim seems to have been to get an interview with a pimp and find out more about the trade from that perspective; a very worthy goal as research into pimps and pimping is very limited. However, when he realised that this was an impossibility, it would have been more beneficial, and frankly, better journalism, to perhaps widen the investigation into the lives of the prostitutes or better still, to suggest ways in which readers could actively become involved in fighting against the problem of innocent girls being forced into the sex trade. Readers are left with, in actual fact, very little substantial information about the prostitutes and no idea where to turn if they are one of the women caught in the trade, or if they wish to help in some way.
I am thankful for the media having begun to cover the problems of prostitution and human trafficking in more depth and quantity in recent months. Nevertheless, I believe caution should be exercised in how investigations are carried out and reported…because 2 truths are to be remembered here. Firstly, that the picture NEEDS to be painted and light shed on the sex trade in NI in a manner that is faithful to truth and committed to the betterment of society, and secondly, that prostitutes are already degraded enough, without narrow, sensationalistic and stereotypical reports pushing them further into the ground.