Niamh O’Reilly
Global Women’s Studies Programme at NUI Galway

Creative Commons 4.0 by Niamh O’Reilly. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Striapacha: Tri Chead Bliain Duailcis screened on TG4 on May 1st, 8th and 15th 2008.

Produced by Katie Holly for Blinder Films / TG4

Written and Directed by Virginia Gilbert

A three-part documentary series written and directed by Virginia Gilbert, Striapacha: Tri Chead Bliain Duailcis (Prostitutes: Three Hundred Years of Vice), is an astutely crafted, honest and engaging account of prostitution in Ireland from the 18th century to the present.  The series excavates the social, economic, cultural, moral and political context that has shaped everyday attitudes and practices surrounding prostitution in Ireland through three centuries. Narrated by Carrie Crowley, this lively documentary includes commentary from an array of well-chosen social historians, experts and politicians including Ivana Bacik, Diarmaid Ferriter, Mary Kenny, Mary Luddy, Liz McManus, David Norris and Paul Reynolds.

The series intelligently interweaves cogent commentary with contemporaneous art and popular media images, including graphic clips from early pornographic films, to cast a critical light on what is known as ‘the oldest profession’. Using real-life stories, Gilbert successfully maintains a focus on the humanity of girls and women who engage in prostitution  —  whether through ‘choice’ or the complete lack thereof.  The series effectively highlights the interplay of sexual double standards, limited economic options available to many women, and deep class divides, which emerge as the common denominators of prostitution in Ireland from the 18th century to the present. In doing so, Striapacha holds up a mirror to persistent problematic stereotypes about women, female sexuality and male sexuality in Ireland and how these have shaped societal and policy responses to prostitution.

The first episode, Enlightened Vice explores prostitution in Ireland in the 18th century; the second episode,Poor, Unfortunate Girl underlines the links between the abject poverty surrounding the Great Famine and the rise of urban prostitution; and the final episode in the series, The Pleasure Chest problematises the extensive and widely accepted presence of the ‘sex industry’ in contemporary Ireland.

Enlightened Vice reminds us that prostitution was a highly visible and pervasive aspect of everyday life in 18th-century Dublin. In particular, the presence of the Irish Parliament, the large concentration of taverns and theatres and high numbers of women living in poverty made Temple Bar a centre of prostitution. Unsurprisingly, the prostitution trade reflected class divides of the day, not dissimilar from the present.  Women from very poor and marginalised backgrounds engaged in street prostitution, primarily dealing with working class men; indoor brothels organised by madams were largely patronised by middle-class men; while ‘courtesans’  —  often the illegitimate daughters of the upper classes  —  were organised by well-connected madams to meet the sexual needs of the wealthiest men in the highest echelons of Irish society.  The story of the top end of the prostitution trade is captured in this episode’s portrayal of the life and times Margaret Leeson. From the age of 15 (after she became pregnant and was abandoned by her upper-class seducer), Margaret Leeson effectively navigated upper-class society to ensure her survival, first as the ‘kept woman’ of a succession of wealthy men and later as the operator of a lucrative, high-end brothel frequented by the rich and famous of the day.

Such ‘success’ however, was highly unusual. One commentator draws attention to the deeply ambivalent societal attitudes to women that prevailed at the time; on the one hand all women were expected to be ‘meek and genteel’, on the other hand, women were assumed by nature to be passionate and irrational with voracious sexual appetites that would inevitably led them to promiscuity and prostitution if they were not properly controlled. Within this context, there were few ‘respectable’ forms of employment for working-class women in the 18th century, which were limited to jobs in the textile industry or domestic service, and work as shop assistants.  Even in these contexts, the ‘reputation’ of girls and women was always questionable; any real or perceived sexual indiscretion could be used against them and end up with them on the street.  Thus caught between male-defined societal expectations of female virtue and exceedingly limited opportunities for economic independence, Striapacha highlights the experience of prostitutes in 18th-century Ireland as a life-and-death struggle for survival.

This reality is further underlined by the documentary’s graphic coverage of venereal disease, a rampant, disfiguring and often fatal condition for which there was no effective treatment prior to the discovery of penicillin in the 20th century. Moreover, within the logic of the prevailing sexual double standard, prostitutes were constructed as the source of the disease rather than the men who used them, who were seen  —  like society at large  —  as victims of prostitution.  The parallels between such attitudes and contemporary discourses around HIV/AIDS is chilling  —  especially the references made in this episode to prevailing myths in the 18th century that having sex with young girls was a way for men to avoid contracting sexually transmitted disease.   In addition to the scourge of venereal disease, Enlightened Vice underlines the alarming pervasiveness of violence throughout society, particularly violence against women, including many rapes of prostitutes.  Indeed, the brutal realities of the sex trade in 18th-century Ireland are poignantly captured in the final chapter of the ‘successful’ life of Margaret Lesson, who died following a street gang rape and resulting complications of venereal disease from which she did not recover. Fortunately for many, there was some relief  —  albeit mediated through the strictures of Christian piety.  In the mid 18th century, Lady Arabella Derry founded the Magdalene Asylums to provide basic shelter and subsistence in exchange for ‘penitence’ and menial labour.

Episode two, Poor, Unfortunate Girl foregrounds the links between poverty and the rise of prostitution in 19th-century Ireland. While the Act of Union in 1801 heralded the end of the Irish Parliament and demise of affluent Georgian Dublin, the Napoleonic Wars prompted a massive mobilisation of the British army, including the intensified militarisation of towns and cities around the country. At the same time, an impoverished, rural population  —  37% of whom lived in clay dwellings  —  was about to be decimated by the Great Famine.  Culturally, the Victorian era brought the deepening influence of middle-class Christian mores whereby the institution of marriage and women’s confinement to the private sphere were reinforced as integral to maintaining social order and containing women’s unruly sexuality.  In Catholic Ireland, ‘the nun’ came to signify idealised womanhood with marriage and motherhood offering the next best route to social affirmation for women. In the media, prostitutes were despised and their existence deemed an affront to ‘respectable ladies’.

Yet, in Dublin alone some 17,000 women were engaged in prostitution  —  the neighbourhood of the Monto was the single biggest prostitution district in Europe.  In addition, 85 brothels operated in Cork at this time.  The episode reveals that much of the prostitution was fuelled by the expanded military presence in Ireland with up to 30,000 soldiers stationed around the country.  Most notably, it tells the story of the ‘Wrens of the Curragh’  —  a community of about 60 outcast women ‘army camp followers’ who lived and died in the bushes surrounding the Curragh.  These women, however, were not simply victims of a sexist Victorian morality and deep class and rural–urban inequalities. They also embodied a spirit of solidarity by providing makeshift shelter to women who were out of options and support to women too old or too ill to earn money through prostitution. Against this backdrop, the pandemic of venereal disease worsened in the 19th century.  In response, a series of contagious diseases acts in the 1860s were introduced that permitted the authorities to apprehend any woman suspected of prostitution, submit her to forced internal examinations and even detain her for a period of time.  Isabella Tod of the Ladies’ National Association organised against the acts and struggled for the recognition of the humanity of women engaged in prostitution and of root causes of the sex trade – poverty, ‘inequality of law’ and ‘inequality of social judgement’. Tod was exceptional in 19th-century Ireland, when few paused to consider the role of social inequalities in underpinning prostitution, preferring to see it entirely as a reflection of women’s moral inadequacies.

The final episode, The Pleasure Chest surveys changing attitudes and practices in relation to prostitution and sexuality in Ireland through the 20th century. In the first half of the century, within emerging discourses of Irish independence, nationalist and feminist suffrage movements were understood as modernising forces.  From this perspective, the prevalence of prostitution and rampant venereal disease were viewed as part of the legacy of the British presence, which would be resolved with Irish independence and improvements in the status of women. These modernising discourses, however, were inevitably inflected with a conservative Catholic ethos which sought to cast the new Irish identity as ‘pure’ and to link the process of political independence to a campaign of social purification  —  starting with the Monto.  In particular, Frank Duff who founded the Legion of Mary and worked assiduously (often negotiating deals with brothel madams) to put an end to the open brothel system.  The documentary portrays 1920s and 1930s Ireland as a new era of Church–State moral policing and censorship of all matters pertaining to sex and sexuality. During this time, the Magdalene Asylums became more punitive, effectively imprisoning for indefinite periods young girls and women who transgressed acceptable moral boundaries at the request of family members or local priests.  Many women remained in these institutions  —  where they were forced to work ‘as human washing machines’  —  for their entire lives.  The last Magdalene Asylum closed only in 1996.

Also during the 1930s, the Criminal Amendment Act prohibited contraception and required all sex crimes cases to be heard in camera, thereby curtailing media coverage of sex crime trials and contributing to the illusion of a purified Ireland.  By the 1950s public attention shifted to the plight of Irish prostitutes in England who were cast not as ordinary ‘bad’ prostitutes but as innocent, vulnerable girls lured into prostitution.  The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s did much to raise the lid on the oppressive double standards and institutionalised hypocrisy surrounding sexuality in Ireland, including the realities of prostitution.  In particular, June Levine collaborated with Lyn Madden (who had been a prostitute in Dublin the 1970s and 1980s), to write Lyn: A Story of Prostitution, which exposed a vicious circle of heroin addiction and prostitution.  By the 1990s, burgeoning economic buoyancy and the weakening grip of Catholic morality set the stage for a more visible and largely tolerated sex industry.

The 1993 Criminal Amendment Act made it an offence for prostitutes or their ‘clients’ to transact in public. This had the effect of driving prostitution indoors. A key player in the underground prostitution industry of this time was the mainstream entertainment magazine ‘In Dublin’, which earned substantial revenues by advertising ‘massage parlours’ and ‘escort services’ until it was prosecuted in 1998.  As crime journalist Paul Reynolds notes, however, the clamping down of magazine advertising did little to curtail the prostitution business as internet websites and untraceable mobile phones provided the advertising and marketing infrastructure needed to reach motivated ‘clients.’  More generally, commentators highlight the inadequacy of the current legislation and policy covering prostitution in Ireland. In another version of an ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’, there has been virtually no public debate about prostitution and the different approaches that might be taken.  Politician and academic Ivana Bacik notes that there are two competing feminist views on the issue in Europe  —  the Dutch model, which treats prostitution as a valid form of work and regulates it accordingly, and the Swedish model, which criminalises users and supports prostitutes in finding alternative income-earning activities.  Ireland falls between both. We learn that while the Irish government is, at least in principle, committed to EU law on safeguarding the well-being of women trafficked to Ireland for the purposes of prostitution, it remains silent on the rights and well-being of Irish women engaged in prostitution.

This documentary series does an excellent job dealing with a complex and difficult topic in an engaging and non-didactic way.  It reveals the varying forms that prostitution has taken, the different experiences of women engaged in prostitution, and the shifting social issues that have accompanied prostitution in Ireland over three centuries. In highlighting all that has changed, however, Striapacha draws attention to what has not changed: the persistence and prevalence of prostitution. Some will fault Striapacha because it does not give much space to the possibility that prostitutes and their ‘clients’ are simply engaging in a freely chosen and consensual ‘contract’ to provide and receive sexual services.  Instead, it contributes much more to the argument that women’s agency and freedom is deeply compromised in and through prostitution, which ultimately relies on women’s economic and social disadvantage as well as deeply engrained, old-fashioned sexism, which normalises the idea that women selling sex to men is an inevitable (and even liberating) dimension of human existence.