As a group campaigning for the Nordic Model approach to prostitution, we find people often berate us for not “listening to sex workers.” If we did, they say, we’d know they all want full decriminalisation of the sex trade and oppose the Nordic Model.
Even when we explain that the group actually includes survivors of prostitution and that their experience and insights are central to everything we do, people still complain and sometimes even offer to put us in touch with “sex workers” on Twitter, like this guy here:
Social media is many things, including a marketing tool, and many who call themselves sex workers use it to tout for punters. Of course they’re not going to say they support the Nordic Model (which criminalises punters) in such a public medium. Do Texas gun merchants call for gun control from their Twitter business accounts?
Women sometimes get in touch with us privately to tell us they are (or have been) in prostitution and fully support the Nordic Model and vehemently oppose full decriminalisation, particularly of pimps and brothel keepers. For example, here’s a private message someone sent us on social media:
“I have experience within the sex industry – both ‘choice’ and forced. There are many of us. I have friends I used to ‘work’ with on the streets and in brothels who are still stuck and none of them want full decriminalisation. It would mean the end of exit opportunities.”
There are reasons why many women cannot speak publicly about their histories in prostitution. They are afraid that their children will be bullied and their life chances decimated if people knew. Similarly they worry it would put a stop to their own career. One woman told us an old punter recognised her and contacted her employer. Only by immediate legal intervention did she manage to keep her job. Others need to keep a low profile because they’re in real danger from their old pimps. And yet more are trying to get on with their lives and need some distance from their harrowing past.
As feminists we know that if it weren’t for the double standard that means society punishes women for the sins of men, these women’s public silence would not be necessary. But the reality is they are doing their best to survive in a hostile world.
So we salute those women who can and are public about their experiences in prostitution. Some of them work in NGOs that help women exit and rebuild their lives, others are writers, and some have set everything aside to campaign on this issue and often live precariously as a result.
We realised there was a need to get more women’s voices out there. Then someone had a brainwave: we should add a form to our website where women can enter their stories anonymously. So we created a Share Your Story page.
We had no idea whether anyone would respond and if they did, what those responses would be like. Interestingly, the very first contribution reiterated the tropes so loved by many men on Twitter, that women have the right to choose prostitution and if you question that, by definition, you’re an ugly old hag:
“Some women (me) love their job and should have the right to sell their body if they want. As women should have the right to have an abortion and get a tattoo. It’s their body. Maybe you’re feeling bitter because your husband uses prostitutes (he probably does) and you somehow want to take down the sex industry. The sex industry is liberating for many and enjoyable.” – Naomi (0)
This was familiar – and frustrating – because we are challenging men’s so-called right to buy women and girls for sex, not women’s choices. We understand that for most women and girls, their choices are seldom truly free and this is never more so than at entry into prostitution.
But since then, the contributions that have poured in have confirmed everything we knew, and then some. They have been overwhelming and heart-breaking.
We have published a selection and will continue to do so. But here we distill some of the themes that have emerged so far, illustrated with short extracts, some edited slightly for length. Each contributor has a unique ID, which is shown in brackets.
Women told us that no one warned them of the consequences of prostitution, the culture itself grooming them to see their role as pleasing men, and prostitution as empowering.
“The subculture I was involved in taught me that the more sex you were willing to have, the better a woman you were. Internet culture at the time taught me that it was easy money to make videos or pictures for men, and that it was something that could be fun. It also taught me there were no real life consequences for any of that.” – Anon (20)
“I was recruited by a woman who told me it would be a good way of ‘reclaiming’ my sexuality by ‘exploiting men’ and that a pretty girl like me would make a bucket load of money. Because my sense of self worth was so low I made the mistake of accepting her proposition.” – Anon (19)
“I got roped in by woke Tumblr happy hooker culture, first into the sugar daddy thing then flat out prostitution. Painful, degrading and scary but I blocked it all out since I would use the money to further turn against my body with unnecessary surgery.” – Anon (11)
There are no questions on the Share Your Story page – just an optional box for your name and a free-format text box for your story. However, about three quarters of those who had been in prostitution say they were sexually abused as children and almost three quarters of those who mention their age when they started were under 18.
“Childhood sexual abuse makes you feel that your body is both worthless and, paradoxically, the only object through which you can gain worth and approval. It has been shown to have occurred in exponentially disproportionate rates in women working in the sex industry, women from all backgrounds, at all levels of this industry. In my opinion the statistics on women in the ‘sex industry’ who have survived childhood sexual abuse are enough to build policy upon.” – Rebecca (16)
Several contributions mention poverty or imminent homelessness as the trigger for entry.
“I had no option but to sell sex in order to make some money to get some rent paid so I wouldn’t be kicked out of the women’s hostel.” – Harriet (7)
Other triggers were addictions and pressure from male partners, who pimped them. Several women entered prostitution after webcamming, lap dancing, or time in BDSM clubs or peep shows.
The descriptions of the violence and abuse are harrowing.
“When men have given you money for sexual acts, they feel like they own you and they can do what they want. One night I had a man pull a knife on me and rob me of all the cash I had made that night. It was a fortnight’s worth of rent.” – Anon (19)
“He used paddles, belts, shoes and batons to beat me. I was covered in bruises so much that I couldn’t sit down for days. He even drew blood. But I was scared at this point to tell him to stop. I was in his house. What was stopping him from killing me and dumping my body, or taking the money back? The pain and humiliation was a price to pay to keep a roof over my head.” – Harriet (7)
“I don’t remember the rapes aside from the first one; something in me died then. I never had an orgasm or enjoyed it. I didn’t feel sexual at all. I felt dirty and ashamed and like I wanted to die. I couldn’t tell my parents or anyone and one day I took pills to end it. They found that I had had sexual trauma at the hospital but I refused to discuss it with anyone, so it went on.” – No name please (13)
Almost as disturbing are the descriptions of punters getting off on sexualising the girls in their lives.
“One of my former high school teachers would come in regularly and buy dances from the girls that used to attend the school he taught at.” – Kat (9)
“The john was an older man who asked me to do a strip tease for him. As I was stripping he told me I reminded him of his daughter, he seemed pleased by this.” – Elizabeth (18)
A common coping mechanism the women used was to tell themselves it was a choice and hide the truth about what it was really like from everyone.
“You lie to yourself to ease the pain, keeping a smile on your face while wishing he’d just hurry up and finish. I was a sales woman… why would I ever be honest about hating my job? You just wouldn’t cos it’s bad for business and you’d have to face reality then wouldn’t you?” – Anon (22)
“Most of us are brainwashed into thinking we chose it. It helps my self esteem to know that if it weren’t for poverty and mental illness… Hell no! I wouldn’t have chosen that life.” – Anon (17)
“At the time I was working I probably would have said that I saw prostitution as my ‘informed choice’. I was not aware of the slow, insidious, accumulative effects it was having on me.” – Rebecca (16)
“I have many friends that still strip. They claim they love the work. I know they don’t. They love the money. They tell themselves sweet lies to cover up the truth. I hope with all my heart my friends find their way out, find their own validation, find their own freedom.” – Elle Elizabeth (8)
Nearly all spoke of the long-term effects.
“15 years later I still get flash backs, nightmares, panic attacks and have a deep mistrust of men.” – Anon (22)
“You simply cannot forget years and years of swallowing down your consent, of swallowing down what is, at best, disgust, irritation and boredom during sex and, at worst, anger, humiliation and terror. After you have lived through that, it is fundamentally impossible to have anything near a happy, healthy and ‘normal’ life. By this I mean, a life where you can, at a very basic level, trust and connect to others, men in particular, and, alongside this, feel OK about your own body, humanity and worth.” – Rebecca (16)
“The feeling of emptiness and hollowness of my body and my mind will stick with me forever. It took me YEARS to be able to have normal consensual sex with someone I loved and for it to feel like something.” – Taylor (6)
“In a terrible and brutal way, I learned to be a sex toy for men and listen to their wills. Yet today I have difficulty saying no. Do not want people disappointed. Even though I am on my way now, the shame is still in me and the fear of those men who showed me the worst sides of humanity.” – Tess (5)
The contributors make it clear they see the sex industry as exploitative and destructive, not only for those directly involved, but for all women and girls. Some explicitly state that they are against the full decriminalisation of the sex trade and express their dismay at those who promote it.
“I do not believe that by decriminalising this violent and horrific patriarchal institution that we make women safer.” – Rebecca (16)
“The women who charge several thousand dollars as ‘escorts’ or ‘courtesans’ or have sex with their boyfriends on webcam and repeat the mantra ‘sex work is work’ are liars and do not represent the majority of us who end up in the flesh trade. They are a sheltered and well-funded minority who are the covers for pimps and men who feel entitled to sexual access to women’s bodies and lives.” – Anon (19)
A disturbing trend is how the “sex work as choice” narrative has infected the healthcare and therapeutic professions. We have heard too many times that when a woman mentions to a healthcare professional or therapist she’s been in prostitution, empathy and offers of support dry up. Sometimes there’s an unspoken but palpable assumption that “sex work” is a choice that must not be examined, meaning that mentioning the harms except in terms of atypical “clients” becomes taboo. In this we can see that the choice narrative is in fact a sophisticated form of victim blaming. It absolves everyone apart from the victims of responsibility and removes the need for society to look its dark side firmly in the face.
“There is so much suffering which people don’t want to see because it suits their narrative that women ‘choose’ their situation and it takes the spotlight off those who drive demand. The women have almost always had significant trauma, and are being controlled or forced into prostitution by pimps or poverty. And even if they didn’t get forced into it, it becomes almost impossible to get out due to so many barriers, including immigration, debt, substance use, homelessness, fear, low self esteem, mental health issues, the list could go on and on.” – Anon (15)
“I found that most female therapists judge me and so I spend my day to day life feeling trapped by my past, not knowing if I will ever truly heal.” – Anon (22)
Without a feminist analysis, it is hard for women to navigate this world that puts them and girls in such mortal danger. Women expressed gratitude for our work and asked us to keep going.
“Your site is the only site that I can relate to or makes sense to me. It has made me examine things and understand feelings a lot better. It really has.” – Anon (17)
Want to share your story too?
If you are as sick of the ‘happy hooker’ myths as we are and your life has been impacted by the sex trade in any way, we would love to hear your story. You can find out more on our Share Your Story page.