Sexuality worker and activist Laura Lee:’ It’s now far more difficult to stay safe’

The criminalisation of men who pay for sex in Northern Ireland was supposed to protect females but one of the few sex employees 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 succours of the oldest profession

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

There arent many sexuality 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 running) she wants to help with the process of get the interview out from the notebook on to paper.

Its true that she is managing to be remarkably upbeat, on simply four hours sleep; she had to get up at 10 am to prepare for an 11 am appointment two hours with a tall, cross-dressing man who came with a pink wig and bag of his own clothes.( He doesnt was of the view that his wife would understand his desire to dress up in womens clothes. I understand his hesitance, she says, with ready sympathy .) Our dialogue is slotted in before her 5.30 pm client builds his route to the bare but cosy basement apartment she is renting 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 building it illegal to pay for sex. Although, in the abstract, the altered in the law appears positive, shifting additional burdens of criminality from women securely on to their clients, most sex employees believe the new law constructs their work much more unsafe. Lee, a law alumnu, has crowdfunded more than PS7, 000 from clients, other sex workers and friends to try to secure a judicial review, is an attempt to get the legislation repealed.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 style to tackle exploitative treatment of women in the sexuality 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 employees, 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 performers from Meryl Streep to Kate Winslet are backing anti-trafficking legislation and noisily opposing a new campaign by Amnesty International that supports the full 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 largely simply extremely fed up at the exclusion of sexuality employees voices from much of the conversation.

Playing a sexuality employee in a movie does not build you an expert on the sex industry; someone please tell Anne Hathaway, she says, of the actor who won an Oscar for her performance of the prostitute Fantine in Les Miserables, and who also has spoken out against Amnestys campaign. Lee is annoyed by the determination of anti-prostitution activists to ignore the experience and sentiments 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 believe 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 results me down through the cold corridors, but which is remarkably mundane, with clean, white walls, a couple of small bedrooms and a smell of clean 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 constructing it illegal is payable for sex in Northern Ireland. Photo: Charles McQuillan/ Getty Images

She is enraged by the decision of the Northern Ireland government to brought under changes to the law governing prostitution, under the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act, a policy she believes is motivated by the moral conservatism of the Democratic Unionist Party, but shawl 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 said law has made working women much more vulnerable. Born in Dublin, she lives with her teenage daughter near Glasgow, but travellings around the country for work, advertising her tour dates ahead of period on her website. Currently about 50% of her work is in Northern Ireland; since the introduction of statute, she has found working there much more dangerous. People are not willing to use online booking kinds , not willing to disclose their details. Everyone abruptly 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, females have increasingly relied on the internet to protect themselves against violent or unpleasant clients, turning to sites such as National Ugly Mugs is how colleagues have rated mens behaviour. It might say lovely guy, very punctual; would definitely watch 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. It is enormously problematic, she says.

Only about 10% of her regular clients responded to the new law by deciding to stop using her services; the remainder 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 kind of surveillance; they worry. They ask: Do you think you are being watched? Do you think the police is making an effort to get the reg of my vehicle? I try to comfort them. I say: I guess the police might be a little bit too busy to be trailing your auto home. In the first six months after the change was introduced, merely one human was apprehended under the legislation. The police have attained it extravagantly 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, and most refuse to give any details that would allow her to check the online database of undesirable people. So my selection is to go with my gut instinct or to turn them down, and merely not make any money. Lee, who built what she describes as an unorthodox decision to start work in a massage parlor in Dublin when she was 19, to avoid having student indebtedness when she finished her statute degree, has been working in the industry for 20 years, and is better placed than most to judge which clients are unsuitable, but she has nevertheless 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 animosity of sex workers, a hatred of Catholics, simply a loathing of who we are and what we do. I maintained him as calm as I could, I use every soothing method I knew, I didnt attempt to argue back. My primary purpose was to get him out of the room, which I did eventually. She isnt often alarmed by her clients, but this new inability to screen them has frightened her and her colleagues. I was left seriously shaken by the experience and the knowledge that I had no way of tracing this man to warns other sex employees 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 overwhelming majority are humen aged between 40 and 60. Sometimes the spouse is ailment or in a care home, or they got married very young; they still adore their wives but the physical side is missing. Some clients are disabled, and she sees aspects of the job as closely connected to social work. Sex is likely 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 is entered into effect on 1 June 2015. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/ Getty

Her broadly upbeat description of her task is at odds with the more widely accepted position of the sex industry as a place where vulnerable girls are exploited by their clients. She argues that trafficking is a minuscule part of the 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 sexuality workers with trafficking victims, to create a moral anxiety, 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 are usually speaking, the sex employee 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 humen regularly dedicate large sums of money to working-class girls. I wonder if thats one of the reasons why people dislike us. She has some very glib lines about her run( Its not suitable for a lot of people, but then neither is nursing ), which voiced a bit 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 for purposes of prostitution because they are combating the consequences of benefit cuts and job losses. I dont push the happy hooker myth. Youd be surprised at the amount of day I expend talking girls out of going into the industry. It is a rough surrounding. It can build or transgress you. Some girls flourish within the industry I know because I am one of them. But some women just altogether break down. It is very demand; 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 I utterly adored 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 mothers were surprised ). Some years later, she moved with her small daughter to Ayrshire, took a poorly paid task 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 try our best to bag her. She spent four years fighting them in court, and although she lost, the indignation the experience unleashed fuelled her passion to fight for her fellow sexuality employees rights: That is what stimulated me an activist.

Explaining the crisis to her seven-year-old daughter was easier than she anticipated. I said: Mummy has this undertaking, I maintain lonely men company if theyve not got a woman with them. Its not illegal and its not immoral, but its probably best that we dont talk about it at mothers evening. Even at seven, she asked But why is that a bad thing? And I said, Well its not, but not everybody find 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 teen, is well-adjusted and sensible, and very uncurious about her job. She maintains her undertaking 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 deity! That mans manners; you should have ensure him eating his dinner at the table, like a giraffe. We dont mention the sex thing its not appropriate.

Activism and her legal challenge is taking up more and more of her hour. 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 sexuality run, advising police forces, maybe 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 set myself through this? Ill be feeing a Big Mac, and people will be gazing. It is hard. Im like: Can you not! Im trying to spend time with my daughter. Ive even had people take out their telephones and take photographs of me. Its not nice, she says, and drops her jaunty tone, abruptly serious. Understand, Im not doing what I do for notoriety. Im doing it because its right.

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