I applied to ‘work’ in the brothel while I was living in a homeless hostel after my relationship broke down due to my then boyfriend’s drug use. I had previously given up both college and my job as a beauty therapist to try and help him get clean, only to walk away with nothing. I was told that my benefit claim would take weeks, and that my housing application would be months. I never had any plans to end up in prostitution.
Then I asked another girl at the hostel where she was getting her money from, and she told me. She told me that it was a massage parlour, and I would only have to go further if I wanted to. She lied.
On my first week, I was assaulted by a punter when I refused to have sex without a condom, and threatened by the ‘madam’ when I tried to turn down another punter I found repulsive.
The brothel itself was a pretty tacky looking place, and probably exactly what people imagine when they think of one. It was in a backstreet, signposted as a ‘gentleman’s spa,’ and was fooling no-one. I later found out the reason it didn’t get raided or shut down was because some of the local police force were regular punters.
The main room functioned as a lounge and (non-alcoholic) bar. Underneath this was a sauna and communal hot tub, which we were not allowed to use as these were for punters only. Off to one side was a small room with a large screen which continually had hardcore porn playing. Upstairs were a string of small rooms which all contained a massage couch and a mirror that covered most of one wall. On the storey above that there were two ‘VIP’ suites which held double beds, private hot tubs and a selection of sex toys. Getting a punter to pay to take you into the VIP suite was the only way to make any decent money, as house fees were so high.
Competition was also high among the women and this was something I was never good at engaging in. There was one woman there who seemed particularly natural at ‘hustling’ and she always got the most punters even though she was not the most attractive.
When I asked her about this, she told me quite matter-of-factly that her ‘natural ability’ was a result of being abused by paedophiles during her childhood followed by an early entry into prostitution. Sex had always been the only thing she had to trade. She laughed at my shock and told me to get used to it as I would hear much worse if I stuck around. As I was then still largely doing my best to numb out my own experiences of abuse, I made no attempt to look at any potential similarities between my story and hers. I just felt desperately sorry for her.
Not one woman I met at the brothel was particularly happy to be there. Not the girl who was pregnant to a boyfriend who had left her and who cried nearly every shift, nor the woman who was addicted to plastic surgery because she was convinced she was ugly, nor the one who was being exploited by a much older abusive boyfriend who was continually offering us all ‘adult modelling’ work. He would hang around outside the brothel and target us as we came off shift until eventually the ‘madam’ told our security guard to threaten him.
I never met the actual owner. I was informed only that he was a ‘mean bastard’ and that if he visited while I was there, to keep out of his way. That immediately filled me with panic, but thankfully I never met him.
The ‘madam’ who oversaw us was intimidating enough. A former sex worker herself, she seemed permanently miserable and acted as though she hated us all, but especially the clients.
The only thing that was pleasant was the occasional solidarity between the women. On quiet shifts we would often get into deep and intimate conversations, quickly revealing personal stories, hopes and fears. The intense situation we were in promoted a kind of bonding that sometimes erupted in catfights.
One woman in particular took me under her wing and would repeatedly tell me to ‘get out before it’s too late.’ When I told her this was only a temporary measure, she shook her head. ‘We all said that, love,’ she told me.
I didn’t look to the future much. Losing everything had devastated me and I felt like a failure. My dreams of owning my own salon were long since buried and examining the path I was currently on with a view to where it was taking me was too painful.
I started drinking heavily. Subjecting myself to the pawing, groping and often physical violence of some of the punters that frequented the brothel would have been impossible to bear sober.
I left after six months, and never went back. I now have a lovely partner, a child, and co-own that salon, but the scars from that time have never left. I’ve had a lot of therapy.
This is why I feel sick when people campaign to decriminalise or legalise brothels.
Stories of abuse in large legalised brothels such as in Germany and Nevada are rife, as are reports of actual trafficking. The reports of ‘all-inclusives’ and ‘flat-rates’ which means sex workers have little choice in who or what they do – clearly crossing the line into rape– make me shudder. How is this any different to the conditions I was in? How can this blatant assault be legal?
Nevada sex workers are often discouraged from leaving the brothels and will both live and work there. This legal framework gives the power to bosses, not workers. Brothels in decriminalised New Zealand often operate in the same way, as survivors have attested to. Decriminalisation is not providing the protection its advocates claim.
If I had known the truth about what awaited me in that brothel, I would never have been there.
If I had been properly supported by the benefits and housing system, I would never have been there.
And if men weren’t so happy to buy sex, the brothel would never have been there.
When I first started telling people about the time I spent in a brothel, being paid to submit to what I can only describe as sexual abuse, I was made to feel ashamed when people would ask ‘Why did you go back then?’
I was assaulted on my first night. So why did I go back?
Well, I was homeless and couldn’t afford to feed myself, so there’s obviously that.
But it was also because of the very same shame that rises up in me when I’m asked that question. Shame that comes from the stories people tell about ‘prostitutes.’
Like ‘once a prostitute always a prostitute.’ Or ‘some women are made for it.’
Or ‘you can’t rape a prostitute.’
To put it simply, once it had happened, I thought that I would never be good for anything else ever again. That no-one would ever want me ever again.
When it came out in my local community a few years later, I was hounded and harassed so badly that I had to move. One man, who I had thought of as a friend, turned up to my house and sexually assaulted me. When I cried, he offered to pay.
Because once a prostitute, always a prostitute.
I wish I could say this stigma and shaming only comes from men, but it comes from women too, from all walks of life. Some of the most painful shaming though has come from those who advocate for ‘sex work.’
I have heard the phrase from both punters and ‘sex work activists’ that ‘sex work is not for the weak’. This implies not just that those who suffer abuse within the sex trade are somehow ‘weaker’ than those who do not, but also that there exists a special class of women who are strong enough to endure that abuse, which plays into both racial and class stereotypes.
I have also been told that women in the sex trade need to ‘learn to say no’ to particular types of ‘work’. Not only does this have obvious parallels with the victim blaming often employed against rape victims, but it ignores the fact that many women may not have said yes in the first place.
By positing prostitution as a choice rather than coercion, it is not a huge step to see how women in prostitution could be accused of choosing to take risks, just as women are so often blamed for what they wear, where they go or who they talk to.
The stigma experienced here is that of being ‘a victim.’ It is a much-documented phenomenon that while the fact of having been a victim of abuse should be a statement of an event that has occurred rather than a slur on one’s character, there are few more reviled words.
Victim blaming, particularly of women who have experienced sexual violence, assault or exploitation, is widespread in our society across all classes and sectors. By seeking to reject the fact that prostitution is violence, lobbyists often employ a particularly acute form of victim-blaming that goes unchallenged in a way it would not in any other context.
When pro-sex trade campaigners seek to shame and silence sex trade survivors speaking up about often horrific exploitation, this is victim shaming and gas-lighting at its finest.
Trying to erase abuse for one’s own agenda, however well-meaning, ultimately means siding with the perpetrator. As any former victim of abuse knows too well, being silenced or disbelieved can be as emotionally traumatic as the abuse itself.
As prostitution survivors, we know this only too well.
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If you’ve been in the sex trade, or have been affected by it in other less direct ways, and would like to share your story anonymously, please see our Share Your Story page.