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Sexism bears the blame for a vile trade in human flesh

Often it's the little details, the ones that stick in your mind, that illuminate the bigger picture. The recent BBC investigation into prostitution in Northern Ireland came up with plenty of shocking headline revelations.

It revealed that £500,000 is spent every week here on prostitutes; that many of the women working in the brothels have been trafficked from abroad, held captive and forced into prostitution; and that criminal gangs make millions of pounds from this evil trade.

But here's what made the story come alive for me — the news that one night is busier than any other for prostitution in Northern Ireland and that's Thursday night.

The idea is that men accompany their partners into town and, while their other half takes a dander round Victoria Square or Castlecourt, they secretly set themselves up with a very different kind of retail transaction. It certainly puts a whole new spin on late-night shopping.

Details like this matter, because they bring home the reality of a heinous situation.

It's all too easy to imagine the prostitution racket here as something that happens in a kind of alternative reality, something we don't need to pay much attention to — a night-time activity, down some anonymous side-street, a faceless deal between faceless people, while all the rest of us are safely tucked up in bed asleep.

It's a kind of hear no evil, see no evil defence strategy that many of us put up when we're confronted with unpalatable facts.

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We pretend that it isn't happening, that it's nothing to do with us. But when you see that some men are treating an evening session with a young prostitute as a handy kind of adult creche while the wife gets busy with the credit card in TK Maxx — well, that's what brings you up short.

In spite of the everydayness of the transaction, there's nothing benign about it. Often the women are so traumatised by their experiences that they're too terrified to help the police bring convictions against the traffickers.

The other aspect of the investigation that stood out for me was PSNI Detective Inspector Douglas Grant's comment that the demand for prostitutes in Northern Ireland is higher than in other parts of the UK and Europe.

According to DI Grant: “The market is so great that there are not enough prostitutes to service that market and that is where the human traffickers are coming in.

“Because of the demand in Northern Ireland ... that is attracting persons who control the prostitutes and persons who traffic into Northern Ireland to service that industry. This is the major concern in Northern Ireland at the moment.”

So why on earth is the appetite for prostitutes here so excessive?

There's no easy answer as to why the shameful demand for commodified female flesh outstrips supply in Northern Ireland to the extent that traffickers are working overtime to fill it.

An unhealthy attitude to sex — seeing it as something furtive, dirty and secretive, a view |carried over from the benighted religious and social mores of a repressed and repressive past — could be in there. More than that, though, I believe that a lingering contempt for women themselves, a slow-burning ancient misogyny that has continued to fester in the deepest, darkest, most inadmissible parts of our collective psyche, could also be fuelling this hateful practice. There have been other signs of neanderthal ideas about sex and sexuality here.

A few years ago, an Amnesty International poll found that almost half (46%) of Northern Ireland students believe that a woman is partially, or totally, responsible for being raped if she flirts.

According to one-in-10 local students in the same survey, it's okay to hit your girlfriend if she nags, flirts with other men or refuses to have sex.

This is frightening stuff — and the fact that these are young people makes it even worse.

They are supposed to be the ones skipping open-mindedly into the glad new post-conflict future, not shoring up benighted old rubbish like this.

The sad fact is that Northern Ireland remains a place with deeply-rooted sexist attitudes.

A trenchantly politicised culture, not to mention the long years of violence, have sustained those outmoded ideas well past their sell-by date. Correspondingly, women's rights have long |languished near the bottom of the political agenda, constantly displaced by the constitutional tug of war.

With that history we shouldn't be surprised that so many local men are happy to use and abuse traumatised young women as a way to while away the time while their wives go shopping.

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