About us

About SERP

The Sexual Exploitation Research Programme (SERP) was established in 2017 by Emeritus Associate Professor Ursula Barry in the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice at University College Dublin. SERP is now led by Associate Professor Dr Marie Keenan. In 2020, SERP joined UCD’s Geary Institute for Public Policy.

SERP conducts feminist research on all forms of commercial sexual exploitation that creates useful knowledge for law and policy makers, practitioners, survivors, supporters and activists.

SERP aims to strengthen the evidence base on current and emerging issues of sexual exploitation in Ireland, and beyond. Our work is designed to enhance understanding of the commercial sex trade, its impact on women and girls who are sexually exploited, on communities and on society at large.

In addition to strong links with international partners and allies, SERP also works collaboratively with support services for victims and survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking on the ground, seeking to bridge the gap between academia and frontline practice in generating new knowledge, insights and solutions on these issues.

SERP also provides learning opportunities, training, evaluation and bespoke consultancy services on the theme of commercial sexual exploitation and related issues. We are always seeking new ways to communicate and share our work and its findings and implications.

SERP is led by Associate Professor, Dr Marie Keenan who is Principal Investigator for the programme of research and chairs the Advisory Committee. She has overall responsibility for the management and financial accountability of the research projects, with the support of Dr Maureen Lyons (Research Manager).

The team includes Dr Monica O’Connor, Ruth Breslin and Dr Mary Canning. Between them they have decades of experience researching and publishing on issues of commercial sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls more broadly.

The work of SERP is guided by an Advisory Committee comprising academics, frontline practitioners and other experts in the field. Current members include Emeritus Associate Professor Ursula Barry, UCD, Dr Paul D’Alton, UCD, Salome Mbugwa, AkiDwA, Dr Sarah Morton, UCD, Dr Denise O’Brien, UCD and Dr Nusha Yonkova, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC).

SERP is underpinned by the principles of gender equality, social justice and human rights. The team is committed to rigorous, ethical, collaborative and participatory research practice.

About the team

Dr Marie Keenan is an Associate Professor at the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, University College Dublin (2000-present). She is Chair and Principal Investigator for UCD’s Sexual Exploitation Research Programme; Member of the HEA Advisory Group on Sexual Violence and Harassment in Higher Education Institutions; Member of the Global Advisory Council of Restorative Justice International; Member of the Gender Based Violence Working Group and Institutional Abuse Working Group of the European Forum for Restorative Justice; Member of the Advisory Board of UCD’s Criminology Institute and a Member of UCD’s Geary Institute for Public Policy. Previously Dr Keenan worked as forensic and systemic psychotherapist and social worker in child protection (1976-79), adult and adolescent mental health (1979-1984), for the Irish Probation service (based at the Training Unit, Mountjoy Prison, 1984-1987), the Rutland residential addiction treatment centre (1987-1992) and in independent practice with victim/survivors of sexual crime and their families. She was one of three people instrumental in establishing the Granada Institute in Dublin for the treatment of men who had perpetrated sexual crime against minors, where she was a consultant and Coordinator of the Treatment programme (1995-2000).

Marie is an accredited psychotherapist, restorative justice practitioner and a registered social worker. She has served on several statutory boards and professional bodies in Ireland and internationally in relation to sexual violence and abuse. She is recognised as a leading international scholar on Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church and Sexual Violence and Restorative Justice. She acted as clinical and restorative justice consultant to an award winning full length feature film on sexual violence and restorative justice, based on a true story, The Meeting www.themeetingfilm.com Dr Keenan was a recipient of a Teaching Excellence Award, College Social Science and Law, UCD, 2020. She was also a Runner Up, Research Impact Case Study Competition, UCD, 2020.

Dr Monica O’Connor has worked on gender-based violence for over thirty years, as a practitioner, policy analyst and researcher. She has acted as a principal researcher on key projects that have investigated the nature and impacts of male violence.  She is the author and co-author of numerous publications on violence against women, including a major study of the sex trade in Ireland (Kelleher Associates, O’Connor, and Pillinger, 2009). In 2010, she received a three-year Government of Ireland Scholarship from the Irish Research Council to undertake doctoral research examining the issues of choice, consent, agency and harm in the lives of prostituted and trafficked women in Ireland. Dr O’Connor has worked closely with non-governmental and statutory services in developing ethical guidelines surrounding the participation of service users in research. She has conducted over fifty in-depth interviews and numerous focus groups with women who have been subjected to domestic and sexual violence and with women affected by prostitution and trafficking. She is currently a senior adviser to SERP and a Research Fellow at the WiSE Centre for Economic Justice, Glasgow Caledonian University.  In 2019, Dr O’Connor published her first book on the global commercial sex trade: The Sex Economy.

Ruth Breslin has over twenty years of research experience in both NGO and academic settings.  She has an MSc in Social Research Methods (Social Policy) from the London School of Economics and Political Science.  The focus of Ruth’s work has been efforts to tackle and prevent violence against women and girls, and she has developed particular expertise in research and policy development on the interrelated issues of prostitution and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.  Ruth is regularly called upon to input into the development of evidence-based policy, legislation and practice in this regard.  Ruth was the Research Manager for Eaves on the first ever national study on women exiting prostitution in the UK – Exiting Prostitution: A Study in Female Desistance.  Ruth also designed, led and co-authored the study Capital Exploits: A Study of Prostitution and Trafficking in London, commissioned by the Mayor of London as part of his strategy to end violence against women and girls in the city. 

Ruth joined SERP in 2018 and is the lead author of SERP’s studies on the health impacts of prostitution, the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on Ireland’s sex trade and gender equality and sexual consent in the context of commercial sexual exploitation.  Ruth is co-author (with Dr Monica O’Connor) of SERP’s comprehensive study on the commercial sex trade in Ireland with regard to the application of current prostitution legislation.  Ruth’s work with SERP strives to bridge the gap between academia and frontline practice in generating new knowledge, insights and solutions on issues of commercial sexual exploitation in Ireland and beyond.

Dr Mary Canning has experience of working directly with vulnerable women and communities through her volunteer work with Women’s Aid, Dublin Simon and a housing charity offering sheltered accommodation to older people. In June 2020, Mary obtained First Class Honours in the Higher Diploma in Social Policy, Social Sciences at UCD and from there joined the SERP team as a researcher. In this role, she has acted as lead researcher on a project that explores the sexual exploitation of children and young people in Ireland (forthcoming, 2023). She is also engaged in a collaborative research study that examines the pathways women take to exit prostitution and rebuild their lives. Previously, Mary held positions as Associate Professor in Accounting at Dublin City University and at University College Dublin where she has accumulated over twenty years’ research and teaching experience in the area of ethics and the regulation of the accounting profession. This research has been published in top-ranked international peer-reviewed accounting journals.