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Neville Southall handed over his Twitter to Irish sex workers last night and here's what they had to say

Yes, Neville Southall the former goalie.

cover nev Source: PA Images

AT THE BEGINNING of 2018, former Everton and Wales goalie Neville Southall, known simply as ‘Big Nev’ by fans, became one of the most beloved figures on Twitter.

Why? Well, because of his eagerness to learn everything he possibly can about marginalised groups, like LGBTQ+ people, victims of racism, working class people and sex workers. Neville accepted that, as a 60-year-old, he’s just a bit out of touch with younger people and the issues that affect them, but he honestly and sincerely wanted to do his best to understand them. Over the last year or so, Neville’s been dedicating much of his time to learning how he can stick up for others and offer his platform of 145,000 followers to those that need a voice.  

This week, he offered that platform to SWAI, or Sex Workers Alliance Ireland – a group that works with sex workers to fight for and promote the health, safety, participation and dignity of all female, male, cis, non-binary and trans sex workers in Ireland. 

Here are the main points that this group wanted to get across to Neville’s audience. 

On behalf of SWAI, sex worker Kate McGrew spoke about the fact that yesterday was the two year anniversary of the Sexual Offenses Act in Ireland, “which criminalised the purchase of sex, and doubled already existing penalties for escorts working in pairs or groups”, while explaining that their major focus at the moment is preventing the criminalisation of sex work. 

SWAI explained that two years ago, when the government decided to criminalise people who pay for sex, they believed that it would “protect vulnerable people in sex work”, but instead it gives clients of sex workers what SWAI call “bargaining power”. Confused? That’s okay. They elaborated on this:

Sex workers NEED to sell sex to clients to pay for their rent, whereas a client is indulging in a recreation. This puts sex workers in precarious situation, as clients can more easily walk away from the transaction, and can therefore call the shots. 

This can increase the threat of danger at work, but it also affects sex workers financially, as many are finding themselves having to lower their prices and offer services they previously wouldn’t have offered, and working with clients they previously may not have worked with. This puts vulnerable sex workers, particularly migrant workers, at greater risk at work. 

Now, sex workers are afraid to report any threatening incidents to Gardaí. 

Imagine, if in any other line of work, employees had to take their personal security into their own hands, because they believed that alerting the Gardaí would put them into even more danger. It would be seen as pretty unjust, if not extremely dangerous. 

In order to look out for one another, sex workers in Ireland and the UK use an app called Ugly Mugs to report dangerous clients to other sex workers, to improve their chances of avoiding these people. Since client criminalisation was introduced two years ago, research done by Ugly Mugs revealed that there was a 92% increase in violent attacks against sex workers since the introduction of this law. They also found that 1/5 of sex workers are less comfortable reporting attackers to the Gardaí now than they were before client criminalisation. Since the introduction of this law, SWAI haven’t seen any decrease in the number of sex workers operating in Ireland. 

While all of this has been going on, the Sexual Offenses Act 2017 doubled the penalties for sex workers who work in brothels together, something that makes many sex workers feel safer at work.

During her time on Big Nev’s account, Kate McGrew spoke about a number of other issues that affect sex workers, particularly cis male and trans sex workers and she explained that ultimately, this model has been making it harder for instances of human trafficking to be detected, as there are so many barriers to support for vulnerable people.

SWAI supports and assists people who do sex work along the spectrum of choice, circumstance, and coercion. We have more in common than we have differences! As everywhere, it is the most vulnerable who bear the brunt of bad laws. 

McGrew compared the situation to how abortion was dealt with in Ireland until the last few months. 

Abortion, like sex work, happens, illegal or legal. As we have seen, like abortion, criminalising sex work just pushes people into risky and dangerous situations. Like abortion, you don’t have to like it nor choose it for yourself, to still support sex workers to have safer and better working conditions. Repealing the abortion law was a massive step towards Irish women having complete bodily autonomy. Ireland is moving away from its dark past of shaming, institutionalising, hiding and speaking over women for their sexuality. Sex workers are in the lineage of women who need to be listened to and respected.

To solve the issues that client criminalisation aimed to solve, McGrew says “We need to focus on the real roots of why people, who do survival sex work end up in the sex industry working under exploitative conditions.” 

If we want to help the most vulnerable in sex work leave, we need to have safety nets in place such as access to housing, childcare, healthcare or anything that alleviates why the person entered sex work in the first place. The current law does not respond to the circumstances of deep poverty, domestic violence, homelessness and drug misuse that lead to becoming susceptible to trafficking and abuse in the industry. 
People are selling sex to get the resources they need to survive. If the state provides those resources, we will finally help the most vulnerable in the sex industry. 

If you’re interested in looking at SWAI’s complete takeover of Neville Southall’s Twitter account from last night, you can do so here

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Kelly Earley

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