Rae Story Interviews Prostitution Survivors
“We must listen to Sex Worker’s Voices”. It is a rallying cry I have heard countless times in the last few years. It is one of the most prolific and popular phrases in current relation to prostitution, so much so that it is approaching the status of the idiomatic. And like all phraseologies fiercely adopted in the service of social agendas, the statement itself becomes the politics. What it is supposed to be referencing is distorted and obliqued. Like, Destroy Power Not People, or Make Love Not War.
The writer, Milan Kundera, may have thought this to be Kitsch, for its earnest sentimentality, its abstraction from the material or the real and for its mass reproducibility. He wrote, “The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”. Imploring us to Listen To Sex Worker’s Voices appeals to this form of emoting; predictable responses can be pursued by understanding common anxieties and contemporary sensibilities. It bends off of the culture, and not necessarily the truth. And what is the culture from where it is fermenting? It is currently believed that feminism’s greatest perceived weakness is its forced implication of other women who do not agree with its agenda. The Sex Worker’s Voices placard ignites a sense of zealous resolve in those who more or less agree with this (often for the sake of convenience), or are otherwise generally inclined to. Men can be easily galvanized, as even if they don’t buy sex themselves, they often interpret the sex industry to be the resultant petrification of male ‘liberty’. Those who consider themselves feminists, but don’t wish to be seen to be politically defined by traditional analyses, are also vulnerable to these sorts of maxims, as are prostitutes who wish to see themselves in a certain light. We might say, as philosopher Dennis Diderot did, “We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.”
On a number of occasions, I have been told quite forthrightly to Shut Up and Listen To Sex Worker’s Voices, and this is despite the fact that I have worked in prostitution for ten years and I have had hundreds upon hundreds of conversations with other prostitutes across my adult life. When I am told this (sometimes by those who have no direct experience of prostitution whatsoever) it always seems as though they were talking over my shoulder, to somebody behind me that only they can see. There is no conversation there. Open, messy, complex dialectic would be an impediment to their cause. Indeed, what they object to of course (and what cannot be confronted) is that, despite having been a prostitute, I query their agenda and I have arrived at the ‘incorrect’ conclusions. And what is so frightening to those who purport to speak for all prostitutes, is that I am not the only one.
It will have been more or less one year since I took an appointment with a punter, although I had been seeing punters only very intermittently by that point in any case, increasingly muzzled, as I was, by extreme anxiety. A friend offered to take me to France for a week and I went thinking I would rest, settle my nerves and return refreshed to work. It never happened. It was like a film had been removed from my eyes, and the idea of prostitution became utterly unfathomable. Instead I fell into full vagrancy, I had to give up my apartment and began relying on the few friends and family I had to help me survive, to evade the worst excesses of homelessness. In the end it really was a choice between prostitution and poverty. A year on, little has changed accept from my acceptance of the situation as is and my letting go of the idea that I can re-embolden myself to cope with prostitution.
Recently I talked with Laura** who had coincidentally curbed prostitution at much the same time as me and in much the same manner. She had attempted to take another in a long line of breaks to come down from the vagaries and stresses of prostitution. They call it burn out and it seems to be a psychological phenomena with its roots in depersonalisation, a state wherein a person loses a literal sense of their self, a hazy distortion of their humanity as some kind of, at least in a daily sense, whole, knowable thing. Her breaks had begun with weeks, began to stretch to months and her last break has, so far, lasted over a year.
Unlike the other women I spoke to, Laura started in prostitution later in life, after having a family and as matured adult. She had grown tired of scrambling around to survive on low paid jobs, and one day a friend suggested to her to try the local brothel, and she decided to give it a go. “You enter thinking your going to make lots of money and as a single mother working a minimum wage job my first wages in a brothel did seem like a lot of money to me. This is how brothels can attract girls who have always lived on the breadline as a whole day’s wages seems so impressive — that’s the only way they can persuade you to shag man after man after man for around 30 quid a pop.”
When I went into prostitution there did seem to be a tendency for us to be convinced that it is the best thing we will ever do, that it will lift us out of poorness, cushion our lives or more insidiously, help us pursue our aspirations. Chelsea knows this well. She currently works in a brothel in Auckland, and coincidentally, it is one that I had spent a brief time in almost ten years ago. Like Laura, she had been convinced that brothel work would emancipate her from her travails, and the legal New Zealand brothel helped massage this idea into her young mind. “I remember my brothel’s advert actually said ‘We prefer to be a stepping stone to bigger and better things…’ It also euphemised being sexually abused for pay by saying you will ‘rub shoulders with friendly gentlemen’. Of course it is not merely ‘rubbing shoulders’ nor are Johns (punters) at all friendly… nor frankly gentlemen. Their target audience is obviously very young women as they advertise ‘no qualifications or experience required’ and make outrageous claims about the actual money that can be made by saying ‘earn up to $2000 a night’ which I suppose they get away with since it says ‘up to’ even though you will probably earn 2 or 3 hundred, sometimes more but also sometimes nothing.”
Prostitution is an incredibly unusual economic format, and therein lies its greasy charm. Whether one sees it as an occupation or oppression , the fact that it offers (or purports to offer, as Chelsea and Laura suggest) very high hourly sums to women without any experience, qualifications or speculations is extremely unusual. So why is it that so few women, comparative to the number of women who work in low paid jobs, choose prostitution as a route out of their weekly struggles to pay the bills? The pro-prostitution proponents would have it that stigma is the sole or main reason why women don’t. But that wasn’t a view that permeated out from the interviews I conducted.
Laura succinctly highlighted another compelling reason.“You have to shag a strange variety of random men you would never dream of touching in real life. Ugly, smelly, all different ages, including very, very old men[…]Also men treat you as a piece of meat and fuck you really, really hard so that it hurts, and push your boundaries; it is a standard daily experience in a brothel.” If the labour was so thoroughly unpleasant, I asked Laura, why is it the case that some women deem it worth coping with and others don’t? She highlighted the fact that prostitution enabled the women she met to work only a small number of days per week. She said, “you can make enough cash in those couple days not to have to work full time. And to be honest I don’t know if many of us could handle full time work, in any job. Probably why prostitution seemed like a good option to us at the time. Almost all of us had some sort of mental health problems or addiction problems. In fact I’d say the only people I couldn’t speak for were the ones I didn’t know well enough to find out. I’m not talking about heroin addicts or psychopaths — mainly ‘party girls’, stoners or functioning alcoholics and girls with depression and anxiety problems or ADHD. 9 to 5 work just was too much for us.” When I asked Laura if she thought this picture was specific to prostitution in her eyes, she said yes. It isn’t, of course, the case that dysfunctional or hurt people are distinct to prostitution, but rather — as can be attributed to my experience and these testimonies — that they seem to overwhelmingly make up the ‘labour force’ in such an intense manner as to be distinct.
Rebecca Mott, who now blogs on her experiences and perspectives of prostitution, was brutally direct about what she thinks, in part, caused her to consider prostitution at the very young age of 14. “ I thought I was street-wise, but I was hugely vulnerable, still stuck as the child who was first sexually abused by my step-dad. He told me not to move, he would only stop if he thought I had cum — so I learnt to fake it. My step-dad made me read porn including Hustler, (The Marquis)de Sade and Lolita, and told me sex was only good if it was with pain. He made me think I was sexual goods, especially as he took me to posh restaurants and got me gifts.” I asked her if she thought sexual abuse was a causal aspect of getting women in to prostitution. She suggested that there are many different routes in, but that sexual violation in childhood can be particularly preparatory. She said, “…childhood sexual abuse can train many girls to numb themselves, to associate sex with pain and being controlled. Often these abused girls are given gifts.” Indeed to develop in childhood an association of sexuality with domination and pain, as well as reparation, would provide a particularly coercive framework for prostitution.
Indeed, of the women I spoke to only Laura did not mention a history of sexual violation. Chelsea described to me an isolated adolescence wherein she was kicked out of her family home, and made do by with living with a local paedophile, whose predilection was mostly for boys but who nonetheless subjected her to sexual abuse and humiliation.
Alisa Bernard, a campaigner who is on the board of directors for The Organisation for Prostitution Survivors in Seattle, also made a very clear connection between violation and prostitution. She told me her story, “Like the majority of women like us I had experienced a great deal of sexual abuse as a child which led to my dropping out of school and running away for quite some time as a teen. I then experienced what we now call survival sex to stay alive, safe, fed, sheltered which kept me away from home until I became pregnant.” Alisa went on to miscarry the pregnancy and found herself again, away from home, and falling into a relationship with an abusive man who soon became her pimp. The story she told me, like Chelsea and Rebecca, was one of a young woman’s disenfranchisement and a toleration for prostitution as a form of survival. Alisa finally left her abusive pimp but found herself in a new ‘relationship’ with a wealthy punter, who tortured her (she suffers permanent nerve damage) and passed her around at punter’s ‘community functions’. “Basically, I got out because I was psychologically and physically in a state of break down. He just kind of dropped me and none of the community buyers would take me cause I was just too much of damaged goods. I moved back home for lack of options ,a privilege I acknowledge most of us don’t have. A few surgeries and some major anti-depressants later I regained some semblance of normality with my family and managed to move on with my life [but]moving on basically meant I ignored all PTSD and major depression symptoms for a very long time until I was diagnosed some years later. So, yeah basically my time in the (prostitution) life was one long slow failed attempt at suicide.”
The belief that the sex industry can enable women to soldier towards their goals and aspirations is not an uncommon one, and it is often used in public discourse to legitimise it. As though the fact that young, female students might turn to the sex industry to pay for fees, somehow detoxifies its essential nature. Chelsea understands this well. “When I turned 18 I was old enough to go work at a strip club. I thought it would be glamorous and that I would be able to make a lot of money and even pay my way through university without a student loan and that this would make up for everything I’d been through and I’d be able to make a success of myself after all.” It is a thought processing I know well, but as Chelsea argues, is seems to so infrequently work out. “I think the idea that stripping or prostitution is a pathway to later success is a common myth, especially in New Zealand, where it is thought of as an activity between consenting adults and the fact that it is violent and degrading is not acknowledged[…]When I was young and new and attractive, and before the recession, I was actually making decent money, but it didn’t occur to me that this would change or that the ‘job’ would become harder to endure so its pissed away on frivolous things, shopping for clothes and partying, things that make you feel good immediately and stop you thinking about how you have suffered.”
Chelsea’s belief in the aspirational quality of prostitution withered and now she feels stuck in a large brothel with no clear veering off road in sight. For the other women I spoke to however, prostitution has become a physical impossibility. Rebecca left many years ago after a punter subjected her to extremely violent anal penetration which required medical attention. She describes what happened after she left the hospital. “I took a taxi back to my flat and went to bed. When I woke, I was paralyzed. It was like my body was on strike, refusing to go on if it got so much punishment. I was paralyzed for three days.”
The idea that the body can just go on revolt and refuse to engage in prostitution is something that I could empathize with; towards the end of my experiences I began to feel physically sick whenever I was with a punter. I willed myself to overcome it so that I didn’t have to leave prostitution, and fall into poverty and uncertainty. Alisa eventually was left by her abuser after she became physically and emotionally drained; ergo he had exhausted his ‘use’ for her. Laura began to hate facing the punters and felt her long term depression exacerbated by extreme anxiety. She fears having to return to prostitution should she lose the social security that currently supports her. Rebecca lived intermittently in homeless shelters for a time before settling down, but she has subsequently never worked. She says, “Trauma is a shadow in my life.”
What do these woman want? Well, not full decriminalisation. Laura explains her animosity to the idea of brothels being allowed to open legally and expand. “I do not agree with full decriminalisation at all. I have worked in around 20 or more brothels over the years, its women lining up in lingerie to be picked. Its degrading and humiliating and should never be legal. Also the tiny amount of money you make per customer, in brothels, once management take their cut (cut taken is at least a third by more generous bosses and half by others) means you have to see lots and lots of men per day, one after the other. The prices are set by the brothels themselves and are usually very cheap to encourage high customer numbers. You only get breaks when there are no customers. And you can’t choose to refuse customers except under very exceptional circumstances (and that’s only with better bosses). If you do you would not be allowed to work there — even if you refuse customers because they are rude or smelly. Most brothels I’ve worked in have trafficked girls in them as brothel bosses struggle to find English girls.”
Laura’s experience of prostitution is in the UK, where brothels are currently illegal. Was it the fact of their illegality that made them such terrible places to work, and would the situation improve if decriminalisation was in place? Chelsea, still working in a decriminalised brothel in New Zealand, certainly does not think so. “My experience at the brothel is of terrorism. It is a constant battle to uphold even the most minimal personal boundaries such as safer sex practices, like condoms and dental dams and no saliva transference (kissing) and not doing the deed more than once for a guy without being paid more than once. I definitely find it extremely difficult to even get bookings because most of the time I attempt to assert these minimal of boundaries.”
I connected with Chelsea after writing about my own experience with the decriminalized sex industry in New Zealand and it is interesting to note that things have not changed. She even tells me that the management charges the women more money per appointment and now also charges them a door fee. So women have paid out to work there before they have even seen a punter. What do her current prostitution contemporaries thinks of full decriminalization? “I’m skeptical that any prostituted women support full decriminalization even exist at all. I’ve never met a single woman with that view in my 15 years in the industry and I’ve met hundreds of other prostituted women.”
Laura suggests to me that what women really want is to be able to work in two or threes for safety. That most prostitutes probably do not wish for the possibility for brothel managers to organize women, to decide on price structures, commissions, and to expand their ‘business’. The ability to operate in this way is at the core of the push for full decriminalization, although those placard wavers often choose to hand swipe away the issue of mega brothels and millionaire pimps and ignore the topic completely when talking to Joanne public.
It is my view that many people, in the UK, are often subtly manipulated into believing that all the change in policy will mean is that current small brothels will be left alone by the police; language like “decriminalization allows women to work together for safety” is willfully used by campaigners in order to obscure the real implications of what they are seeking out. Essentially, it is a political sales pitch with a whole heap of terms and conditions in very small print.
However we are told that most or even all ‘sex workers’ want this. Indeed, similar to my respondents, I only met one woman who actively campaigned for decriminalization; the vast majority did not involve themselves in the political debates surrounding prostitution at all. Chelsea suggested that maybe the ‘pimp lobby’ as it is sometimes known, gaslights women who get involved with them and encourages them normalize their abuse. Laura argued that she thinks that some are ‘well meaning’, but pointed out that they often have worked as ‘independent escorts’ with no experience or involvement in brothel life (let alone in the actual brothels in Germany or New Zealand, such as myself and Chelsea). She also suggested that others may still be in the early stages of prostitution, and as was the case for her, still believe it to be ‘empowering’, or may even imagine a future for themselves as a brothel owner, if it were made legal. Rebecca was particularly scathing, “I tend to believe the sex work lobby is speaking for punters and sex trade profiteers, and have no interest in the mental, physical and sexual welfare of the prostituted. So when they speak about decriminalization it so the sex trade makes more profit, and to make the violence of punters more invisible.”
Towards the end of my interviews, I spoke to Alisa about what it is about full decriminalization that she finds so objectionable and why she felt it must be fought down. She neatly summarized, “Honestly, I think it comes down to a normalization of sex buying as an acceptable practice. When we see something as OK we are more accepting of it and more likely to do it, demand therefore balloons and there are not enough women under-privileged enough to enter the sex trade without coercive forces; it is inevitable that trafficking follows to feed the newly increased demand for women’s bodies. It creates a legitimized market for both buyers and traffickers and turns the pimp into the reputable business man peddling flesh. It’s evident that keeping women on their backs is profitable by just looking at the organisation and people who support it (madams, pimps, pornographers, traffickers). It’s sick that this argument even exists.”
It is not easy to calcify degrees of criticism, concern, nuance and uncertainty and it is hard, despite narrative similarities, to collectivize these women and their lives and stories. What is it about tragedy, anguish and even dissent that doesn’t sit still long enough, in the plural?
You may have noticed, that the pro-prostitution advocates have captivated, easily, the imaginations of the many with the notion of sex workers as a collective. I am told frequently that sex workers want this, sex workers think that, sex workers feel this. The tragic woman, on the other hand, whether in art or in life, is individualized, cast in isolation. Her malaise is not symptomatic of anything other than her general incapacity. At best she is the collateral damage to the otherwise goodly cause, be it heteronormative hegemony, monotheistic morality or urban, libertarian individualism. It is not the system that is at fault, she is at fault for being unable to negotiate it. Even if she is in great numbers, and the successful — such as they are — are few.
It is much easier to collectivize people with affirmation and sentimentality than it is with awareness of the complexities of injustice and adversity. Unless of course we romanticize and stylize the adversity to be a noble part of the human narrative. Our affirmation of our national identity may be more powerful then our awareness of the tragedy of refugees dying at sea. We may all tear at Bambi, but we still wish our meat to come snipped of cartilage, hollowed of viscera and cleaned of blood. We may wish for full decriminalization because it garners in us a simplistic understanding of the intersections between sexuality, inequality and commerce, but in doing so we will dismiss the women who speak fervently against it, as a pesky interference.
Someone once argued that those who criticize prostitution will be sent down in history as bigots not unlike racists and homophobes. I disagree. I think history will be unkind to those who happily snubbed out the narratives of those women who do not and cannot succumb to the proselytizing of the empowerment ideologues. Who are often specifically and willfully targeted, abused, subjected to mind games and silenced. Because those women’s lives have been blighted by prostitution and its concomitant abuses and now, after reflection and consideration, wish for the sex industry to be unable to expand. Indeed, to even be cut off at the oxygen.
With thanks to Alisa, Chelsea, Laura and Rebecca, and to all survivors who are not taking our erasure lying down.
Art by Jessica Evans, you can find more of her work at Jesse-Ev.
You can read more from me at In Permanent Opposition.
**Name changed to protect identity