“Treated Like Trash” | Why Irish Sex Workers don’t report assaults to the Gardaí

‘Susan’ worked as an escort on-and-off about four years before she met with Donal Lehane in a Dublin hotel on March 28th 2010. Both were travelling up to the capital that weekend. Lehane a self-employed accountant, married with three children, made the arrangement via her Escort Ireland profile, where she was advertised as a “well-educated former-model.”

Lehane was looking to get the ‘Girlfriend Experience’, a standard service offered, but prior to arriving, he sent in an additional request. He wanted to know if she would answer the door either wearing leather or latex. This, she replied would not be possible. So instead, he asked if she might wear nothing at all, to which, she said yes.

According to Susan in her deposition at the Central Criminal Court, what happened next was that Lehane came to the door. He wore a jacket, which apparently remained on for the duration of the stay. Upon entering, his behaviour, she said, rapidly descended as he started handling her roughly. She told the court he pushed her onto the bed, before forcefully performing oral sex on her in an “aggressive, unpleasant” manner, while continuously slapping her body.

Out of fear, she said she complied with his demands, telling the court “I didn’t sign up for this.” There was no consent, she maintained. He would make her perform the act on him pulling her hair back at the same time, before then covering her mouth and nose during penetrative sex.

“To antagonise him in any way would have been a very dangerous thing to do,” she insisted. “I thought he was going to kill me, I couldn’t breathe. I screamed. It was muffled. His full body weight was on me… I begged him to go. I was ranting. I was shaking.”

Once this was done, she says he climaxed into her mouth. The semen, she spat into the en suite sink, wiping what was left on her face into a towel. He offered an apology, leaving shortly thereafter, and when finally alone, she contacted two different parties. One was another client, who urged her to go the police. The second was UglyMugs.ie, an online database for sex workers, which records crimes committed in the trade. When UglyMugs.ie received the report, one of the site co-ordinators, Lucy Smith contacted Susan.

Corresponding with Ms. Smith via email, she remembered how Susan was “extremely distraught” when they talked.

“I don’t phone most sex workers who make reports,” she wrote. “But it is not unusual, especially if I think they might need advice. She reported it to the Gardai only after communicating with me by phone and email for a couple of hours.”

When later Susan informed police, their response was swift. Detective Ronan Conway led the investigation, but as this commenced, Lehane was made aware that he was now a wanted man.

His identity at the time unknown, Lehane proceeded to track down any available information on Susan using Google. Managing to get her home address, along with her email address and personal phone number, on April 29th both he and one other friend began messaging her, warning of potential consequences if the search continued.

“I assume your family know you are a prostitute. I’ve passed on your messages,” read one of the texts.

Then, there was an email sent on May 28th, “Never ride a guy who keeps his jacket on, they always record it on their mobile.”

“He will also sue you over false allegations unless the allegations are withdrawn,” was one threat. When Susan appeared to label the meeting not as one of consensual sex, but as rape, Lehane replied, “Are you completely unwell in the head? Rape? Refer to the dictionary. We arranged to meet.”

In the meantime, Detective Conway was using each available piece of contact information to reach out to Lehane. Urging Lehane to come forward, Conway was met with dismissive responses. Lehane expressed doubt over the detective’s credibility, suggesting he might just be running a scam.

Conway proceeded then to trace Lehane’s whereabouts using the 250 IP addresses connected with the emails and his username on Escort Ireland. This provided a solid lead in the form of a former employer, who identified the accused via CCTV.

Lehane was arrested and detained thereafter, at which time, he was quoted to have said, “I didn’t record having sex with that girl.” Claiming an inability to “recall sending” those messages, he added, “If it was me it was to get her to withdraw false allegations.”

When Susan later reflected on the period in her impact report, she said, “I was left alone, terrified with no support. Each time my phone rang or I received an e-mail, I immediately thought it was Donal Lehane attempting to intimidate me. He knew where I lived and said he was going to expose all.”

Fearing her safety and wellbeing, Susan installed CCTV outside her home. “I really couldn’t cope with the constant looking over my shoulder.” The effect of the assault and subsequent blackmailing motivated her to move out of her house “for the welfare of my family,” relocating “a large distance away.”


More than five years passed before the case was brought to the Central Criminal Court. It commenced on November 27th, 2015. Presided over by Justice Patrick McCarthy, the verdict would be delivered by a jury of six men and six women. Lehane pleaded not guilty to sexual assault and two counts of witness intimidation contrary to section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999.

One of the main arguments brought forward by the defence was that the alleged conduct of Lehane was highly out of character. Described by a friend as “a straight and decent person,” Lehane added to this by insisting that neither his manner nor his texts were threatening as Susan claimed. “I’ve never physically or sexually assaulted anyone in my life,” he told the court.

The sole source of income in his family, Lehane’s legal representative, Thomas Creed SC called him a “much loved husband and father,” the latter being taken into consideration by Justice McCarthy. Acknowledging his clean criminal and employment records, the jury found Lehane guilty of witness intimidation, but innocent of sexual assault. McCarthy sentenced him to three years imprisonment, the last eighteen months suspended.

Smith, called as a witness in the case, expressed her dissatisfaction with how the prosecution overall was handled. “I watched her give evidence and get cross-examined over two-days, and yes, that was awful.”

“The defence attacked the victim a lot,” she continued. “Their argument was that this was a consensual transaction, not rape.”

Quoted in news reports from the case, Creed put it to her that: “There may have been abusive talk or exuberant sex,” but that “There wasn’t the violence that you describe. At all times he was under the impression that you were consenting.”

“It is not, as she describes, a violent encounter. It might have been a humiliating encounter but that does not mean it is not consensual… There was no threat of violence. It was never suggested that he said if you don’t do as I’m telling you, I’m going to kill you, I’m going to beat you up.”

When speculating over why Susan reported Lehane, Creed suggested she may have taken issue with his payment. This “quickie” was to cost between fifty and one hundred euro, the amount not specified. Susan however, said no money was passed over. Creed however, went against her here by wondering if she simply saw the sum as insufficient. Lehane added that his calling her a “whore” may have also “hit a raw nerve.”

In the end, the decisive factor in the case was the prosecution’s inability to corroborate any sufficient evidence against Lehane. This included a mismatch of semen samples tested on the towel. Smith, agreeing with these shortcomings, lent further criticism towards the prosecution in how it failed to discuss the generals of the trade.

“They didn’t seem to try explaining sex work to the jury at all. There were lengthy discussions by the defence on things like what does the ‘girlfriend experience’ mean? But I didn’t see the prosecution telling the jury what the ‘girlfriend experience’ means or bringing forward any witnesses to talk about how sex workers operate in Ireland.”

“My time on the stand was very brief,” she noted. “I would have liked to have given more evidence than I was asked. Then when the verdict came, I was disappointed. I didn’t understand why the jury returned not guilty verdicts on the rape and sexual assault charges. I still don’t. I accept it, but I don’t understand it.”

Concluding her point, she noted, “It is said that a not guilty by a jury does not mean the jury does not believe the victim, rather it means they don’t feel they have enough to convict.”

The case was brought to my attention in July of 2016, when Lucy Smith posted on Twitter using the UglyMugs.ie profile to question why no Irish media outlets were publically naming Lehane. When the case was heard in late 2015, he had been granted the right to anonymity. However, upon taking his case to the Court of Appeal on June 16th 2016, his name was made public on the Courts Service website.

The grounds for appeal herein were twofold. According to Record No. 26/2016 on the Courts Service website, “The learned sentencing judge failed to attach sufficient weight to the appellant’s previous good character and his complete lack of previous convictions.” Furthermore, the judge had also “failed to attach sufficient weight to the severely punitive effect of a custodial term of eighteen months” with regard to Lehane and his family.

As a first time offender, with his familial situation factored in, Lehane’s sentence of eighteen months imprisonment and eighteen suspended were ruled to run concurrently, not consecutively. In addition, the final nine months were suspended for a two year period and he was ordered not to have any further contact with Susan.

UglyMugs.ie however, wrote in a statement on July 14th, that the sentencing was too “lenient.” “It is remarkable for a sex worker to feel able to report a crime to the Gardai, let alone for a case to get to court,” Smith wrote to me in our first email exchange. “I note this case took nearly six years to get to court, that’s how long the victim had to wait.”

The Lehane case appears to be almost an anomaly in the context of Irish sex work. The point that his alleged conduct being reported to Gardai is unusual needs emphasising. Yet this is only second to the fact that this case actually made it to a court. Looking at statistics provided by UglyMugs.ie, which document crimes committed against sex workers between 2009 and 2016, one can see quickly the cause for concern expressed by Smith.

UglyMugs.ie was set-up in September 2009 to offer sex workers a space in which to record crimes committed against their person. Since then, approximately 6,000 users have registered on the site, this number being consistent throughout according to Smith.

2010 saw a total of 309 crimes submitted to the website. Of these, only 23 incidents were then reported to Gardai. This number rose to 367 the next year with only 10 subsequently reported to Irish authorities.

In 2012, the number reached 490. Official reports were down to 6. 2013 saw a minor decrease with 459 to 13, but, numbers began to rise again in 2014 with 583 to 18; 688 to 18 in 2015; 910 to 8 in 2016 and in January of 2017 alone, 106 to 0, the second highest month to date.

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Total
2009  –  – –  –  –  –  –  19 (1)  8 (0) 11 (1) 4   (0) 42 (2)
2010 10 (0) 20 (1) 26 (1) 35 (6) 32 (1) 26 (3) 15 (2) 21 (1) 29 (3) 28 (2) 45 (1) 22 (2) 309 (23)
2011 38 (1) 30 (1) 31 (0) 33 (0) 44 (1) 42 (0) 22 (0) 28 (3) 31 (0) 22 (2) 20 (1) 26 (1) 367 (10)
2012 18 (0) 32 (0) 47 (1) 44 (0) 45 (1) 55 (0) 42 (1) 35 (0) 32 (1) 52 (2) 49 (0) 39 (0) 490 (6)
2013 35 (0) 32 (1) 35 (2) 33 (1) 40 (1) 24 (0) 32 (3) 52 (2) 50 (0) 42 (2) 35 (0) 49 (1) 459 (13)
2014 31 (2) 46 (2) 39 (5) 49 (0) 60 (0) 46 (0) 59 (0) 37 (1) 57 (2) 54 (1) 58 (1) 47 (0) 583 (13)
2015 69 (2) 61 (3) 49 (0) 51 (0) 81 (1) 69 (3) 50 (2) 51 (2) 48 (1) 45 (0) 61 (3) 53 (1) 688 (18)
2016 41 (1) 45 (0) 82 (1) 96 (0) 72 (1) 60 (1) 61 (2) 92 (0) 96 (1) 73 (0) 107(0)  85 (1) 910 (8) 3848 (93)

The exception

These reports are compiled on a monthly basis. When Ms. Smith and I spoke on the 9th of November, a small indicator as to how concerning 2016 has proven already was that in the space of nine days a total of forty reports had been submitted. Once the month was out, the number was at 107, the highest number to date. This was all the more stark when it was revealed that none of these were then taken to Gardai.

In total, between 2009 and 2016, there have been 3,848 reports. However, only 93 were brought before the authorities in all of this time. That is a rate of 2.42%.

2016, which accounts now for 23.6% of the total number of reports, shows that of the latest annual figure only 0.88% were then brought to Gardai. That is down from 2.6% in 2015, which had been relatively consistent since 2012 when the number was 1.22%.

In short, communication between those within the sex trade and those working in law enforcement is non-existent. The Lehane case is not the norm. It is the exception.

Yet, when Lucy Smith and I began messaging online, her qualm was not, as one might expect, with An Garda Siochana in this specific instance. If anything, she thought their efforts to follow up an investigation on the report was worthy of commendation.

That, however, was six years ago. “Things were probably better then. Generally speaking, I think the Gardai response to crimes against sex workers has been awful in recent years.”  

She said “probably,” because then she added: “I am concerned at the overall lack of successful prosecution of men who rape or sexually assault sex workers. Over the last decade I’m only aware of four such successful prosecutions.” These cases, wherein a verdict of guilty was delivered were in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012.

“It appears to have been eight years since a man accused of raping a sex worker was found guilty by a jury, and in that case, the offender, Billy Keogh, was only sentenced to two years in jail, which is pitiful for the crime of rape.” On the other hand, between 1996 and 2005, there were a total of nineteen successful prosecutions.

The number of sexual assault cases relating to sex work taken to court, or at least those archived in the Irish press, amount to twenty-nine. Of those, twenty-three saw a verdict of guilty, four not-guilty (Lehane included) and two not stated, but assumed not guilty.

These are however unevenly distributed over the course of the past two decades, indicating a steady decline during the latter period. Between 2006 and 2016, only eight cases were heard in the Criminal Court. The other twenty-two were between 1996 and 2005. Furthermore, since 2009, the year UglyMugs.ie was set-up, there have only been four cases heard, with the verdicts being two guilty and two not guilty.

One factor which may have proved influential is that until 2015, the bulk of the cases were presided over by Justice Paul Carney, a High Court judge who is said to have handled seven in ten of all murder, assault and sexual assault cases in the Central Criminal Court. Carney dealt with fifteen of the last twenty-nine sexual assault trials involving a sex worker, and his record of delivering a guilty verdict was 100%.

Of the two most recent guilty verdicts, these too were Carney. However, he retired in April of 2015 and passed away in September of that year. Excluding Carney, the ratio of guilty to not guilty verdicts is 4:3. Whether this might actually affect future proceedings is unknowable, but certainly, given his being a factor in more than half of these cases, one could argue now there is even less of a reason to feel secure in attempting to seek justice for any sexual assault case.

“Many offenders recognise that there is a decreased risk of there being consequences to their offending if they target sex workers,” Ms. Smith said. This lack of recourse on the workers behalf has led to exploitation and “Most people probably don’t realise the gravity of human rights abuse going on here.”

On this point, she quoted Sean Gillane, the prosecutor in the Lehane case, He said to be a sex worker “doesn’t mean you become trash [or be] treated like trash at the will of someone who wants to visit that on you. This is not the law in this country.” “However”, Smith added, “it is the law of this country to force sex workers to work alone in order to work legally, thus making them vulnerable to crime.”

Continuing at length, she said,

“Instead of addressing the obvious need for safe working conditions for sex workers, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 will further criminalise sex work. It will criminalise the purchasers of sexual services and, despite claims it will decriminalise sex workers, it actually only increases penalties for both outdoor and indoor sex workers. Frances Fitzgerald has doubled the fines and doubled the prison sentence for sex workers caught working together in an apartment or house. To ignore the welfare of people selling sex is to treat them like they are a disposable class of people.”

As a highly vulnerable, stigmatised and marginalised community, Ms. Smith is now committed to having these issues classified as hate crimes, which she detailed in a paper entitled ‘Hate Crime Legislation and Violence Against Sex Workers in Ireland: Lesson in Policy and Practice’, co-written with Graham Ellison of Queens University Belfast.

Breaking down the total of 7,200 reports submitted to UglyMugs.ie between 2009 and 2015, classified as crimes (those in breach of Irish legislation) and non-crimes (anti-social acts and nuisances), the following accounts for 2,945 of those sent in.

Crimes Reported to UglyMugs.ie, 2009-2015
Abusive/Threatening (Communication) 1346
Abusive/threatening (In Person) 916
Robbery/Fraud 533
Sexual Assault 415
Assault 361
Exploitation 171
Harassment/Stalking 171
Impersonating Police 91
Illegal Requests or Offers 60
Vandalism 51


Of those submissions, only 3.3% of the respondents either reported, or expressed an intention to report the incident to Gardai, while the number of sexual assaults, at 415 shows that less than one-fortieth of these crimes have been taken to court.


The study found that by July 2013, 16.1% of respondents felt the abuse arose as a result of their status in Irish society. Such incidents Ellison and Smith state to be indicative of ‘Whorephobia’, a prejudice which reduces the sex worker to a disposable or an immoral class of person in society.

According to Smith and Ellison, the concept of ‘Whorephobia’ is being perpetuated in Ireland by the “neo-abolitionist” ideology of Turn Off The Red Light, a populist campaign of 70 organisations, which favours Part Four of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015. TORL’s argument is in line with the Swedish government, which conceived the legislation that partially decriminalises the trade, emphasising that prostitution is a form of violence committed against women.

Assessing the impact of this campaign in Ireland, Smith and Ellison wrote, the “perspective espoused by TORL has dominated cultural representations of sex work in Ireland through a range of prominent campaigns that also speak to wider norms of gendered citizenship.”

The paper continues,

“However, some Irish sex workers have argued that these campaigns only intensify stigma and whorephobia against sex workers.”

Turn Off The Red Light’s line, it should be noted, is not that these are bad or immoral women. They are instead the victims of gendered violence. Hence, it is necessary to criminalise the buyer, but not the worker. However, those in favour of decriminalisation argue this is merely an emphatic way of still saying the workers lack a certain acceptable set of morals, or an ability to perceive right from wrong. The buyer, on the other hand, ought to possess a firmer grasp on societal norms and acceptable behaviour.

In order to protect the sex worker, the trade must be stomped out by creating a deterrent, a legal penalty to quash demand and then, reduce supply. Yet, and as speculated by Smith earlier, the Bill may only serve to heighten risks, forcing the trade underground and into areas where the worker is at even greater a risk.

Featured image source