Belfast Telegraph

Sex worker Laura fighting to keep her business within law

Legal challenges to Lord Morrow's new Human Trafficking Act, which becomes law on June 1, could clog up the courts here for years, argues Henry McDonald

Belfast-based dominatrix Laura Lee, a sex worker plying her trade
Belfast-based dominatrix Laura Lee, a sex worker plying her trade

When she comes to Belfast on business, sex-worker Laura Lee brings a whole new meaning to that notorious locally minted phrase "punishment beating". Lee offers a range of sexual services to consenting adults, including a menu of S&M options that makes Fifty Shades of Grey seem as tame as a Sunday school picnic outing.

Her list of domination and submission offerings include some eye-watering, spine-chilling scenarios, which we will avoid mentioning in a family newspaper.

Suffice to say that some customers choose to be on the receiving end of bare hands, riding crops, whips and chains if they hire her as their dominatrix-for-a-day.

However, as the 37-year-old law graduate points out, all of those consumers she works with are consenting adults and some are unable, through physical disabilities for instance, to have sex via the conventional, non-fiscal way.

Some of them, Lee stresses, are in wheelchairs, or are elderly, or even terminally ill.

Most probably simply ask for vanilla sex - a more intimate experience than being hog-tied, chained or handcuffed in preparation for some stringing corrective punishment.

Yet, after June 1, those individuals who seek her out for sexual services could find themselves facing prosecution under the new law outlawing payment for sex.

Once Lord Morrow's Human Trafficking Bill becomes law in less than three months' time, "punters", as they are known in the sex industry, could be arrested for seeking out prostitutes.

This is the so-called "Nordic model", which some anti-prostitution campaigners want introduced not only across the border in the Republic, but also throughout the UK and the EU.

Supporters of the Nordic model and Lord Morrow's legislation argue that the law represents a power-shift in the sexual relations of the sex industry.

By putting the focus on men who purchase sex, it acts as a powerful deterrent, reducing the dark market demand for vulnerable and trafficked women.

The woman selling sex is, therefore, no longer the criminal, but rather the male predator crawling the kerbs and scouting the brothels in search of their prey.

The trouble behind this line of thinking is that it cannot explain the existence of Ms Lee and many others like her, who insist they choose to do sex work for a variety of reasons - the majority economic ones.

Ms Lee argues that she has a right to decide what to do with consenting adults in private. Ms Lee revealed in an interview with the Guardian newspaper this week that she is building a legal case with her lawyers, aimed at overturning the Morrow law.

Her court battles ahead may even go as far as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg as she and her team reference various aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights to challenge the legislation.

Aside from the points of complex human rights law that will be examined in Ms Lee's legal challenge, there are other practical problems facing the authorities here in enforcing the Morrow-Nordic law.

Justice Minister David Ford pointed out as far back as last year that there is a serious issue over evidence-gathering when it comes to the sex worker-sex consumer relationship.

In Nordic countries, police rely on the intercepts of mobile phone calls between prostitutes and their clients as evidence to arrest and convict. Whereas, in Northern Ireland, intercept mobile phone call conversations are not permitted as evidence in courts (as Ford noted).

The only other way to gather evidence would be lightning raids on apartments and flats where sex workers ply their trade.

Ms Lee claims similar crackdowns on brothels and sex-workers' bases in Scotland have resulted in working girls, for instance, being strip-searched - a practice which she believes is a greater violation of an individual's human rights than any perceived act of sexploitation.

There are further practical barriers to enforcing the Morrow-Nordic law, as evidenced by what happened in Limerick city almost four years ago. After raiding a number of premises in the city, Gardai arrested 21 men who were allegedly hanging out with sex workers. Critics of the raid cried illegal entrapment and the local, widely-respected newspaper, the Limerick Leader, took a decision not to publish the names of the 21, due to the unusual nature of the arrest operation.

So, on top of the forthcoming legal challenge by Laura Lee, you can imagine a raft of other potentially controversial court cases from customers and workers alike, claiming police raids are an invasion of their privacy and a possible breach of European human rights law.

After all, former Formula 1 chief Max Mosley successfully sued the News of the World, not for saying he was cavorting with prostitutes in a London dungeon, but that in doing so the paper breached his human right to privacy.

It is understood that Ms Lee will continue to work in Northern Ireland even after the Morrow law kicks in after June 1. She will go on taking part in consensual one-to-one sessions. Meanwhile, the majority of the populace of Northern Ireland, according to supporters of the legislation, back outlawing such activities, including hunting down the "punters" themselves.

Advocates of the Nordic model in Northern Ireland point to opinion polls showing support for banning the purchasing of sex. They also remind you that the Morrow legislation was passed by 81-10 votes last year in the Stormont Assembly and that this outcome reflected popular will.

Speaking of "punishment beatings", a TV documentary earlier this week returned to the subject of paramilitary attacks; the instant "justice" still being meted out on our streets.

One of the telling elements to the documentary was the consensus between some of the commentators on camera, from the columnist Brian Feeney to the human rights campaigner Dr Liam Kennedy, about what wider Northern Irish society thought about these human rights violations.

Both admitted that there was either a considerable degree of support for such rough justice in working-class communities, or - at the very least - a significant lack of moral outrage over the shooting, beating, torturing and humiliation of so-called "anti-social elements". (Although popularity is, of course, never an excuse for barbarity.)

Nonetheless, the support during and even after the Troubles for so-called "punishment attacks", even when the innocent and those who had simply crossed paramilitary groups are targeted, is a disturbing signal of moral doublethink.

Because, while a majority of our society can be incensed and outraged over an adult woman, a free agent, making money out of, among other things, doling out mild correction to willing submissives, far fewer people are exercised about the involuntary punishments still being meted out - mainly on men convicted by kangaroo courts, without access to legal defence, or appeal.

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