The public face of the sex trade in Northern Ireland says that DUP proposals to criminalise its clients will drive vulnerable women further underground and put them more at risk of violence.
Laura Lee, a Scottish-based escort, is campaigning against Lord Morrow’s bill, which aims to tackle human trafficking and exploitation by criminalising men who buy sex from escorts.
Laura – she uses a pseudonym to protect her family – started working as an escort to fund herself through university in Dublin.
“I wanted to bring happiness into people’s lives and these days with my work with disabled clients that is something I do a lot, it is very rewarding,” she said.
She charges £150 per hour and normally sees three to four clients a day.
Laura trained as a barrister and went on to become a mortgage advisor in the Scottish Highlands. But she started selling sex again in the Highlands when she saw the lack of competition and the potential money to be made.
She was inspired to start in the sex trade by a film about convicted London pimp, Cynthia Payne, whom she prefers to describe as “a madam”.
“She did run a house of ill repute but it was more of a community thing she had going on there.”
She then volunteered why she dislikes the term “prostitute”, saying it “resonates harshly”. She prefers the term “sex worker”.
Lord Morrow’s bill will, she argued, put women like her in more danger by increasing the stigma around their work. She cites the case of Swedish escort Petite Jasmine, who was stabbed to death by her ex-partner last year during a custody visit to see her children. Jasmine was classed as mentally unbalanced in Sweden because she liked selling sex and refused to give it up, Laura said.
If the criminalisation of sex buyers in Sweden had not happened, she argued, “she would have been protected from her ex-partner”.
Laura was meeting Billy Hutchinson and PUP members that evening for dinner to brief them on such issues and the DUP bill.
She said her mandate comes from the many escorts who contact her. She is a spokeswoman for the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW). However, she also conceded the organisation is “largely disbanded”.
One IUSW activist she campaigns alongside is Douglas Fox, a male escort whose civil partner runs a major escort agency in England. Laura said the IUSW faces ongoing claims that it does not represent vulnerable women – “I get that all the time. Pimp lobby this, pimp lobby that. I am not a pimp. Never have been.”
She is in “no doubt” that a “very small proportion” of women in the sex trade are being coerced.
But a key part of rescuing them, she says, is ensuring that men who buy sex are not scared off from reporting their concerns to police.
She argued that escorts will always have to advertise online; her alternative is for police to track them down and see if they are under coercion.
Advocates of the Morrow bill argue that criminalising men who buy sex would reduce demand and cause crime gangs to reduce the supply of trafficked women, which Swedish police say is exactly what happened in Sweden.
But Laura said that what actually happened in Sweden after buyers were criminalised was that escorts moved indoors to protect their clients from police surveillance. The women still advertise online and work indoors, she said. But now they won’t go to police to report attacks because that will result in their clients being arrested; this makes them more vulnerable to violence.
Women’s Aid, however, reject suggestions that the bill will drive vulnerable women underground. Spokeswoman Louise Kennedy says most of the escorts in Northern Ireland have already moved off the streets.
The argument that prosecuting the men will drive abuse further underground was exactly the same objection Women’s Aid faced 30 years ago when trying to increase prosecutions against men for domestic violence, she said. But instead of that problem going underground “more and more women are reporting domestic abuse to police today than ever before”.
Men who buy sex are “aware” of “the exploitative nature of the industry”, she added.
Vast majority of Ulster escorts are ‘independent’
PSNI Organised Crime Branch Det Chief Supt Roy McComb says “significant” numbers of women in the Northern Ireland sex trade are coerced, not even knowing what country they are in. The PSNI say the trade here makes £30m profit per year.
On BBC Spotlight last year the PSNI estimated that out of 175 escorts in Ulster, 50-60 are trafficking victims.
But Laura Lee, who sees clients here monthly, insists “the vast majority” of women in the Ulster sex trade are independent, because she knows “upwards of 50” of them.
In a conversation on Twitter two months ago, a man told her that a sex trade organisation she was promoting had no need for extra funding, claiming it had wealthy owners.
She had replied to him: “If you are implying what I think you are implying then to be honest I don’t care. My main concern is for the welfare of sex workers and as such I don’t give a flying **** who owns the company.”
The person responded that the organisation in question was “helping some sex workers by exploiting others”.
Her answer had been: “All I care about is that this ******* law [Lord Morrow’s bill] doesn’t go through.”
She told the News Letter she “absolutely” rejected any suggestion that she was turning a blind eye to claims of exploitation. She added: “I will tweet at him and ask him if he has actual evidence.”
Later she added: “I am a dominatrix, I see a lot of powerful, very influential men. They like to relinquish that for an hour or so.” Asked if they would use their influence to oppose Lord Morrow’s bill, she replied: “I am sure if they thought it would criminalise their fun, they would.”
Laura’s father had concerns that she would “fall foul of paramilitaries” in Northern Ireland. “I have since had discussions to make sure that is not the case,” she said.
She laughed about how she recently thought her father’s worst fear had come to pass.
“Last month I opened my hotel room door, and I have got a personal attack alarm in my hand, and this guy was at my door. He was 6’4” with a shaven head and covered in the Union Jack and tattoos. I thought ‘Oh my God, I have had it!’.”
However, she relaxed when he revealed he was a client.
“My dad is one of my biggest supporters,” she said. “Not in terms of the work I do obviously, but in terms of fighting those who are against the sex industry.”
Her mother supports her “in so far as I am her daughter and she does love me”. But they do not discuss her job.
Laura would prefer her own daughter went into medicine or law. The young girl thinks her mum is “quite mad”.
Laura also said she would be “upset” if her partner or husband bought sex from an escort. But she denied she promotes similar deception.
“Come on. I advertise a service. They come looking for me, not the other way around. I don’t go and snatch these guys from their front room in front of their kids,” she said.