Sex worker and activist Laura Lee: Its now far more difficult to stay safe

The criminalisation of men who pay for sex in Northern Ireland was supposed to protect women but one of the few sex workers prepared to talk publicly says it will do the opposite. As Laura Lee prepares to challenge the new law in court, she explains the trials and consolations of the oldest profession

At the end of our conversation, Laura Lee smiles helpfully and dictates the beginning of this article for me. Despite having stayed up working until 6am, Laura Lee isunexpectedly bright and cheerful when we meet. Thatll do, wont it?

There arent many sex workers in Britain happy to talk openly about their work, so Lee is used to being interviewed, and she is so friendly and kind, and so anxious to be as informative as possible that (despite being genuinely a little tired after a night working) she wants to help with the process of getting the interview out from the notebook on to paper.

Its true that she is managing to be remarkably upbeat, on just four hours sleep; she had to get up at 10am to prepare for an 11am appointment two hours with a tall, cross-dressing man who came with a pink wig and bag of his own clothes. (He doesnt feel that his wife would understand his desire to dress upin womens clothes. I understand his hesitance, she says, with ready sympathy.) Our conversation is slotted in before her 5.30pm client makes his way to the barebut cosy basement apartment she isrenting by the day in Edinburgh.

Lee will need all her reserves of cheerful energy during the next fortnight, as she prepares a legal challenge against the government of Northern Ireland, which last June introduced radical new legislation making it illegal to pay for sex. Although, in the abstract, the change in the law appears positive, shifting the burden of criminality from women firmly on to their clients, most sex workers believe the new law makes their work much more unsafe. Lee, a law graduate, has crowdfunded more than 7,000 from clients, other sex workers and friends to try to secure a judicial review, aiming to get the legislation repealed. The first hearing at the Belfast High Court is listed for 19 February.

Arguments about this case, and the broader debate about the best way to tackle exploitative treatment of women in the sex industry, are unexpectedly rancorous. On one side, there are those who favour the Swedish model, which is what Northern Ireland has adopted, of criminalising consumers rather than sex workers, a model also backed by some Labour MPs, who have launched the EndDemand campaign, hoping to introduce similar legislation in the rest of the UK. Meanwhile, Hollywood actors from Meryl Streep to Kate Winslet are backing anti-trafficking legislation and noisily opposing a new campaign by Amnesty International that supports thefull decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work.

With both sides arguing that they are campaigning for womens rights and safety, it is a confusing and curiously fractious area of feminism. But Lee is mostly just extremely fed up at the exclusion of sex workers voices from much of the conversation.

Playing a sex worker in a film does not make you an expert on the sex industry; somebody please tell Anne Hathaway, she says, of the actor who won an Oscar for her performance of theprostitute Fantine in Les Misrables, and who also has spoken out against Amnestys campaign. Lee isirritated by the determination of anti-prostitution activists to ignore the experience and opinions of sex workers. We have asked them on several occasions to stop speaking over our heads. Its patronising. Its shh, shh, we know whats best for you, were going to get you out of this industry because youre harming yourself and you dont even know it. I think Id know if I was being harmed, she says.

She makes tea in the shiny clean kitchen of the holiday-let flat a place she describes jauntily as her dungeon as she leads me down through the cold corridors, but which is remarkably mundane, with clean, white walls, acouple of small bedrooms and a smell ofclean laundry. She talks over the friendly rumbling noise of the boiler.

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Lord Morrow of the Democratic Unionist Party, who first proposed making it illegal to pay for sex in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

She is enraged by the decision of the Northern Ireland government to bring in changes to the law governing prostitution, under the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act, a policy she believes is motivated by the moral conservatism ofthe Democratic Unionist Party, but cloaked in more universally acceptable anti-trafficking justification. Anyone convicted of paying for sex under section 15 of the new Act can be sentenced to a maximum of one years imprisonment, or a fine, or both.

Because she combines her activism with her sex-work career, she has direct experience of how the new law hasmade working women much more vulnerable. Born in Dublin, she lives with her teenage daughter near Glasgow, but travels around the country for work, advertising her tour dates ahead of time on her website. Currently about 50% of her work is in Northern Ireland; since the introduction of law, she has found working there much more dangerous. People are not willing to use online booking forms, not willing to divulge their details. Everyone suddenly became John, she says. There hasnt been a reduction in demand, but it is far more difficult to keep myself safe.

During the past decade, women have increasingly relied on the internet to protect themselves against violent or unpleasant clients, turning to sites suchas National Ugly Mugs to see how colleagues have rated mens behaviour. It might say lovely guy, very punctual; would definitely see him again. Its a bit like eBay; both sides leave feedback. We have a number of online screening processes, but clients [in Northern Ireland] are point-blank refusing to use those systems. They are paranoid about anyone coming across their activities online. Itis hugely problematic, she says.

Only about 10% of her regular clients responded to the new law by deciding tostop using her services; the rest continue to come but feel very stressed by the hypothetical threat of prosecution. (Whether that should prompt sympathy is another question.) Theyre afraid of being put under some form of surveillance; they worry. They ask: Do you think you are being watched? Do you think the police will try to get the reg ofmy car? I try to comfort them. I say: Ithink the police might be a little bit too busy to be trailing your car home. In the first six months after the change was introduced, only one man was arrested under the legislation. The police have made it abundantly plain that they are stretched to the max. There is a hierarchy of crimes; youve got someone who is zooming around Belfast in a stolen car, or consenting adults behind closed doors having sex. Well, I know which one I would go after, she says.

Still, clients remain unreassured, andmost refuse to give any details that would allow her to check the online database of undesirable people. So my choice is to go with my gut instinct or toturn them down, and just not make any money. Lee, who made what she describes as an unorthodox decision to start work in a massage parlour in Dublin when she was 19, to avoid having student debts when she finished her law degree, has been working in the industry for 20 years, and is better placed than most to judge which clients are unsuitable, but she hasnevertheless been badly shaken recently by her own misjudgments.

I had a guy call a number of months ago. He was perfectly polite a little curt, maybe, but I put that down to nerves. When he got to my place, he was very clearly disturbed. He started with hideous verbal abuse, based on sectarianism, and his hatred of sex workers, a hatred of Catholics, just a hatred of who we are and what we do. I kept him as calm as Icould, I used every soothing method Iknew, I didnt attempt to argue back. My primary purpose was to gethim out of the room, which I did eventually. She isnt often alarmed byher clients, but this new inability to screen them has frightened her and her colleagues. I was left badly shaken by the experience and the knowledge that I had no way of tracing this man to warn other sex workers about him, she says. Other women have told her that they are very scared.

Until now she has felt relatively safe. She has a few younger clients, but the vast majority are men aged between 40 and 60. Sometimes the wife is ill or in a care home, or they got married very young; they still adore their wives but the physical side ismissing. Some clients are disabled, and she sees aspects of the job as close to social work. Sex is probably about 25% of what we do; it is compassion, it is companionship, it is listening, she says.

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A protest in Belfast in 2014 against the proposed changes, which were later passed and came into effect on 1 June 2015. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Her broadly upbeat description of her job is at odds with the more widely accepted view of the sex industry as aplace where vulnerable women are exploited by their clients. She argues that trafficking is a minuscule part ofthe picture, and claims that concern about rising numbers of women trafficked into the country to work as prostitutes, is whipped up by prohibitionist campaigners who conflate migrant sex workers with trafficking victims, to create a moral panic, and to justify their funding. (This is not the view of groups such as the Human Trafficking Foundation, which points to police estimates that 50% of women working in Londons 2,000 brothels have been trafficked.) She also asserts that the business is not sexist, that generally speaking, the sex worker gets to keep most of the money, and that the sex industry is one of the very few industries in which middle-class to upper-class men regularly give large sums of money to working-class women. I wonder if thats one of the reasons why people hate us. She has some very glib lines about her work (Its not suitable for a lot of people, but then neither is nursing), which sound abit brittle, and defensive, as theyve been wheeled out over the years to bat off disapproval.

Despite her defiant cheerfulness, she doesnt try to gloss over the industrys brutal sides; many of her colleagues are mothers, who see clients when their children are at school, nudged into prostitution because they are battling the consequences of benefit cuts and job losses. I dont push the happy hooker myth. Youd be surprised at the amount of time I spend talking women out of going into the industry. It is a rough environment. It can make or break you. Some women flourish within the industry I know because I am one of them. But some women just completely break down. It is very demanding; the lies, the secrecy, the danger of being found out, she says. My past was anything but glamorous. I have worked in penthouse apartments, right down to what can reasonably be described as a chicken coop. I have been through some very tough times. There are some days Iabsolutely adore my job. There are some days I could cheerfully dangle my client by the ankles out the window.

After her first foray into the industry while a student (a decision she cant really explain fully, saying unpersuasively that she was inspired by Cynthia Payne), she was outed by a tabloid newspaper (her parents were surprised). Some years later, she moved with her small daughter to Ayrshire, took a badly paid job in a bank, and realised that there were no escorts operating in the Highlands, so she set up a website and started work again (Old habits die hard). But she was outed again, her neighbours were vile and her bank tried to sack her. She spent four years fighting them in court, and although she lost, the anger the experience unleashed fuelled her passion to fight for her fellow sex workers rights: That is what made me an activist.

Explaining the crisis to her seven-year-old daughter was easier than she anticipated. I said: Mummy has this job, I keep lonely men company if theyve not got a woman with them. Itsnot illegal and its not immoral, but its probably best that we dont talk about it at parents evening. Even at seven, she asked But why is that a bad thing? And I said, Well its not, but not everybody sees it that way.

They moved to a new home, where both her neighbours and the school have been supportive and protective of her. She says her daughter, now a teenager, is well-adjusted and sensible, and very uncurious about her job. She keeps her job well away from her home, which is over-run with hamsters and cats. Sometimes I might come home and growl a bit, and say, Oh my god! That mans manners; you should have seen him eating his dinner at the table, like a giraffe. We dont mention the sexual thing its not appropriate.

Activism and her legal challenge is taking up more and more of her time. As well as fighting to get Northern Ireland to remove Section 15, she is also fighting for the legalisation of brothels, because she sees them as a much safer environment for women. She would like to see the UK move towards full decriminalisation of prostitution, as New Zealand has done, and believes that with Amnestys decision to champion the cause, this is not an unrealistic goal. Meanwhile, she is in her third year of a psychology degree, and wants gradually to change her career to lecturing on sex work, advising police forces, possibly pursuing a PhD.

But its clear that taking on the role as a rare public spokesperson for the rights of a largely invisible workforce is not always much fun. Because she is so often on television, and instantly recognisable with her curly hair, she sometimes attracts unwelcome attention in public. Sometimes I think: Why did I put myself through this? Ill be eating a Big Mac, and people will be staring. It is hard. Im like: Can you not! Im trying to spend time with my daughter. Ive even had people take out their phones and take photos of me. Its not nice, she says, and drops her jaunty tone, suddenly serious. Understand, Im not doing what I do for fame. Im doing it because its right.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/feb/05/sex-worker-activist-laura-lee-northern-ireland-law-challenge-interview