‘Any Girl’, Mia Döring’s memoir of sexual exploitation and recovery is a massive contribution to the understanding of the reality of the sex industry. It is not a simple misery memoir that lists all the many ways in which she was hurt. It is something much more ambitious and demanding. It isn’t sympathy she wants from us – but rather for us to see the truth in all its cruelty and to resolve to take action to bring about change.
She starts with an intimate portrait of her final prostitution encounter. “His penis tastes like sour milk and smells like it hasn’t been washed in days.” “You experience the feeling that comes from total objectification, your humanity erased.”
It’s hard to imagine how it could get worse. But it does. He suddenly slaps her across her face, so hard that she goes flying.
“To punters, that is what women in the sex trade are for: to do with what they want you to do, for a price. To have power over a woman. To have sex when and where and how they want. That is the point. That is the kick of it. By resisting, you are going against this agreement. […] You are alone in an apartment with a much stronger, much bigger person. It is easier, psychologically, to get through it quietly and persuade yourself that what is happening is fine, rather than to put yourself in more danger.”
She doesn’t tell her story linearly. She tells it once and then circles back and explains the why of it. And then she circles round again to the inner meaning and to the cultural and social implications. This is very accomplished writing.
It’s only later in the book that she tells us how a boy raped her when she was 16. How that made her feel. And suddenly we understand everything she’s told us in a whole new way. If she’d told us about the rape at the beginning, that knowledge might have dominated everything and I think we’d have missed other more subtle truths. Like how much of her sex life as a teenaged girl and young woman was practically rape anyway. She calls it “pseudo-rape”:
“You fall asleep in a friend’s house and wake up to find someone pushing themselves against you. You say, ‘No, thanks,’ but he keeps nagging and nagging until you give in.”
She describes how she lacked the resources to resist those endless boundary violations. How numbing they were. How her lack of resistance implicated her in her own violation and the “dense kind of shame” this brought. She experienced men’s disrespect not as THEIR failing but as her own. And so she learned that pleasing men, giving them what they wanted, no matter the cost to her, was what was important and what would make her feel better about herself. And from there, it was only the slightest shift to becoming an “escort”.
This is what we hear over and over from young women who manage to find their way out of prostitution – that so much in their lives prior to their entry had primed them – so the actual entry hardly seemed like anything significant at the time. It was simply the next logical step. It certainly wasn’t a conscious or informed choice in any meaningful sense.
This terrifying reality is taking place on a colossal scale. We MUST wake up and let ourselves see what is happening to our young people and to figure out what we can do to bring about change. This is why this is such an important book.
There’s a chapter that looks at those internet sites where punters can leave reviews of the women they buy sexual access to. She notes how they discuss who is “good at oral in Kildare”, who is “best at anal”. How they complain when the woman can’t speak English or is obviously not the girl in the photo – as if these aren’t clear signs that she’s a victim of human trafficking, a serious human rights violation.
Döring describes these review sites luminously as “support groups” for “the sick at heart, everyone validating each other’s sickness.”
She explains how at the time these reviews made her feel that what these men did to her was normal. The constant messaging made her believe that her value lay only in her sex appeal to men. Thus, she was seduced and betrayed. With no one and nothing looking out for her.
Much later when she was living in Berlin, she found a video online of a former porn performer talking honestly about her experiences in the industry. It was Döring’s first exposure to a feminist critique of the sex industry.
“As I watched, entranced, I felt a heave in my chest, a burning knot in my throat and angry, hot tears in my eyes. My body felt as if it was trying to eject something. I felt so angry that I had the urge to break something.”
Finally, she had the tools to see that what had happened to her was not OK.
“What happened to me? What did I do? Look at how one thing bled into another. All those men hurt you, and you were hurting yourself, and you could have been any girl.”
This is another thing that we hear over and over from young women. Their shock when they finally encounter a feminist analysis of the sex trade. How suddenly they can see the truth.
But why are girls and young women not taught this in schools and universities? And boys and young men too? The feminist analysis of the sex trade is well developed. Josephine Butler pioneered it 150 years ago. Why is it not on the curriculum of every school and university?
But we must be thankful that Döring found that video and was slowly able to make sense of her life. To see the punter reviews differently:
“Sexuality is an instinct, an expression, not a skill. Being reviewed on sex is like being reviewed on how you respond to art or music. […]
“They want the woman to be a sexual machine and do everything asked of her without refusal or complaint, but they also want her to fake that she’s not a sexual machine. She must look happy doing it. She can express feelings but only the male-pleasing ones.”
She asks why are we so forgiving of the men who pay for prostitution while being so judgemental of the women involved. She notes that there must be at least 100,000 male prostitution users in the Republic of Ireland. Why aren’t we talking about them? Why is all the focus on the much smaller group of women – who may number as few as 1,000?
Without those 100,000 or so men, the industry, with all its horrors for young women, could not exist.
Döring wrestles with the reality and ubiquity of male violence against women and girls. The causes of it. She struggles through her rage. She calls to men to face their fears and inadequacies, their sense of worthlessness, and to heal themselves and to work for change. She calls on men to refuse to condone the male culture of violence against women and girls.
Men are responsible for this violence, not women and girls. It is men who have the power to stop it. It’s beyond time they did so.
In a book packed with insight and strangely, considering the subject matter, riches, perhaps the most powerful chapter for me was the one on trauma. She explains how it is only relatively recently that she’s begun to understand the true impact of what those countless men did to her that at the time she considered to be of no consequence.
She spells out the trauma reactions, including fawning, people pleasing and dissociation – which begs the question of whether it’s actually possible to exist as a woman in the sex trade for long if you aren’t already deeply traumatised.
She talks of how such trauma isolates you and the struggle to reconnect authentically. Because she didn’t collude in it, it was easier to recover from the rape than from the prostitution. She talks of the unconscious process that drives us to re-enact our trauma.
She is clear that we can’t hope to bring about real change until or unless we transform ourselves. She convinces us that personal transformation is possible.
“Trauma is not a life sentence. We are not ruined. Sometimes the depth of our own beauty, others’ beauty and the world’s beauty are revealed only because we are compassionately present to our traumatised parts, because we are facing into our distress.”
In the next chapter, “Love and Men”, she tells of one of the punters she had in her last summer in the industry. He asked her why she did it. She joked that she loved sex. There was something about him, however, that made him different from the other punters and she stayed in touch with him via email.
A couple of years later he took part in a student radio documentary she was making. He talked of how he started “punting” and what eventually made him stop. She came to identify what was different about him: he was “more connected with himself”. She told him about how she’d become involved in the sex trade and how at the time she couldn’t acknowledge to herself how abusive and traumatic it was.
“Seán was taken aback by what I told him. My persona as a sex-loving escort had been very persuasive. He said he wouldn’t have guessed that I’d had such a past. I suppose if you tell a lie that others want to believe, it is very easy for them to believe it.”
And there you have it. The essence of what this book is about. Ending the centuries of bullshit and lies about women and men and prostitution. Telling the truth in the determination that that is the only possible route a community has out of the toxic miasma and into a healthier kind of world.
The final chapters are like a mountain stream seeking a route through the pain, seeking, searching always for a different kind of touch, a different way of relating, of being. A moving, inspiring testament to hope.
On page 226, she says:
“I’m going to make what happened to me matter. I’m going to make it matter beyond me and my life because what happened to me is so much bigger than me. […] I am a person trying to conduct an act of service with this book.”
Thank you, Mia Döring, from the bottom of my heart.
ANY GIRL by Mia Döring
Hachette, 320 pages, paperback £14.99