This is an edited transcript of our ‘Trauma and Prostitution’ webinar that was held on 6 June 2021. A recording of the webinar is also available.
Ali: Hello everyone and welcome to this webinar. We have three brilliant speakers with us today, but before I introduce them, I’m going to quickly explain what the Nordic Model is. We will hear very graphically and powerfully today about the profound harms that prostitution causes to the individuals directly involved.
The Nordic Model aims to reduce the size of the prostitution system and to reduce the number of women and girls being drawn into it, while providing those caught up in it with a viable transition out.
The Nordic Model has three key elements: firstly, it decriminalizes those who are prostituted; secondly, it provides services for those involved in prostitution, to give support and help to leave the industry, and rebuild a life outside; and thirdly, prostitution buying becomes a criminal offence, with a key aim of changing men’s behaviour.
Along with all this, there need to be strong laws against pimping and human trafficking; a public information campaign; education in schools and colleges; training for the police, judiciary, CPS, and other frontline staff; investment in real alternatives for women; and measures to address poverty and inequality.
So, that is what we’re campaigning for: a human rights-based approach to prostitution legislation and policy.
Our first speaker is Merly Åsbogård. Merly is a Swedish survivor of prostitution, and a campaigner for women’s rights.
Merly: Hi. I came into prostitution when I was 14 years old. I came into prostitution, I used to say, because of events happening earlier that year – when I suffered my first rape. A person close to me, who I thought was my friend and who was older than me, picked up on my struggle: trying to survive, mental health issues, and trying to fit into school. She started pimping me. She told me I had a debt to her that needed to be paid, or else my life would be hell. For 16 years I remained in prostitution with numerous pimps and in the last years I kept pimping myself out, because I needed money. I was a mom and I needed to fund my school.
I tried for a very long time not to see that I had suffered these mental issues because of prostitution; I blamed it on being adopted. I was adopted but I was also being bullied in school. As a grown-up now I can see that the Complex PTSD, that I’ve now recently been diagnosed with, comes from the life in prostitution.
Today, I’m a political scientist; I’m a lecturer; I’m a soon to be published writer. I have come through because I have a network of people around me, but not all of us are that lucky. I was born in Cali, Colombia and from there I came to Sweden in 1986. Being black in a predominantly white society – how that affected me being prostituted, how racism affected that – these are the issues I’m now diving into, trying to see if we can get to the bottom of it.
I’ve been in prostitution in Sweden almost as long as the [Nordic Model] law has been in place, and it’s done great things, but we have to have a progressive law with a progressive community. After #MeToo, I would say that we have watched a revival of the law, which also activated the other part, it was falling behind, so now we’re working to get more widespread support for women in prostitution, having trauma treatment being more available nationwide, and having a greater understanding that just because we’re talking about PTSD, doesn’t mean you have to be suffer through wars. PTSD can become an issue for you for a number of reasons, and so we are now actually using the law more efficiently than I feel that we did in the past. We can also find that we haven’t really used the Nordic Model as efficiently when it comes to providing services for women, but we are getting there, so I’m very, very happy to be able to come here today and talk to you all – thank you.
Ali: Thank you Merly. Thank you for telling us about your own story, particularly how race impacted on your experience – it’s something that is not usually brought up in women’s experiences of prostitution, so thank you for sharing that with us.
Our next speaker is Rebecca Mott. Rebecca used to do indoor prostitution of various types, all of which allowed punters to be violent. She’s now an abolitionist, and writes to explain the conditions of prostitution and the impact of having trauma as an exited woman. Thank you, Rebecca.
Rebecca: Afternoon everyone. I just thought I’d start with a poem that I wrote a few years ago called ‘Don’t Ask’.
Please don’t ask about them.
You wouldn’t want to know how I ran from school.
Running to men squeezing my head with words that fitted into their beds.
To be screwed everywhere.
To waiting for my mother to say “you OK?”.
Please don’t ask about them.
You wouldn’t want to know how I chose penises ramming into my heart.
Making me forget home where my stepfather gently places his hands inside, reaching for that heart.
Please don’t ask about them.
You wouldn’t want to know how I place knives in lines, collecting pills, only to bounce my head from walls to stop thinking.
So please don’t ask, because I can’t tell, because I can’t see anyway.
That is a description of trauma, in a way. Thank you for inviting me to this meeting. The focus of this meeting is about what trauma means to prostituted women, in particular, to exited women.
I will speak to some of my experiences, while showing the connections to the prostituted as a class. First, we must see that every punter, and every sex trade profiteer, will never see the prostituted as a full human being. Instead, they make the prostituted into sub-human sexual goods, to be consumed and thrown away. This is fundamental to the forming of trauma inside the prostituted. It is a gradual or a sudden stripping of the prostituted woman’s humanity. Therefore, she has no access to basic human rights such as the right to be safe, the right to have a voice, and the right for a dignified life.
Part of the stripping away of the prostitute’s humanity includes claiming that the prostitute does not feel fear or pain. This gives the punter permission to be as sadistic as they desire with no consequences. So the prostituted will be tortured; she will be raped on a regular basis, and she will be placed in a position where she may be murdered at any time, and in any place. This is the building blocks of trauma.
Trauma is formed inside the prostituted by forces outside the sex trade. Many, maybe the majority of prostituted women come from backgrounds of childhood abuse. This can be mental, physical or sexual abuse. This helps build a child – turning into an adult – full of self-hate, often detached from her body, and with a sense that she will not live long. This is ideal fodder for the sex trade profiteers.
The sex trade is founded on a racist system; why else are so many Black, Asian and Indigenous women inside every aspect of the sex trade? Why else do punters perform the most sadistic practices on these women and often pay them less? Why else are so many of the murders of prostituted women of Black, Asian and Indigenous women? We live in multiple cultures that build up the trauma inside the prostituted women. This is not new and this does not come from one particular culture.
To truly understand the depths of our trauma, we must look at art, look at history, and connect with other countries and cultures. Most of the trauma is formed because prostituted women, especially exited women, are not allowed to grieve, to have deep fury, or to seek justice. This comes from our individual journeys, but also from being connected to the prostituted of all times, all countries, all ages, and all backgrounds.
My pain and grief is connected to a Roman slave in a brothel; my pain and grief is connected with the prostituted in India or Australia. There is no time when prostitution was made acceptable and every culture that is invaded by the sex trade destroys the humanity of the prostituted. The silent screaming of our trauma comes from every continent, every part of human history. There can be no safe place for the prostituted when men are entitled to create a class that they name as the prostituted – whose only role is to be raped and tortured.
I am close to finishing. I will say that trauma is not the simple binary of being healed or not. It is more like learning to live, or dance, with trauma as a shadow in our lives. For many exited women, trauma is lifelong. This is not negative, for it shows our deep strength, determination, and courage. Despite living with trauma, we are campaigners to abolish the sex trade, but more importantly, we are building full lives. Our dance with trauma allows it to flow in our minds and bodies. Exited women are made to be resilient, truth-sayers, and to have a backbone of steel.
To end, I would say that the exited women I know are the bravest people I’ve ever met.
Ali: Thank you, Rebecca. That was very interesting to hear you pick up on the themes of race as Merly described in her own experience. I know Rebecca, you feel very strongly about how prostituted women aren’t seen as human, and how they don’t have the same rights as others. That’s a really strong theme that you bring through in your writing. I’ve read quite a lot of your writing, Rebecca, and it’s been interesting to see how you can say so much about your experiences of being in prostitution through that writing. I would recommend that anybody have a look on the internet and see if they can find some of those works that she’s done.
So, our third and final speaker – before we go on to our discussion – is Dr Ingeborg Kraus. Dr Kraus is a clinical psychologist and expert in psychotraumatology. For seven years from 1995, she undertook humanitarian work in Bosnia and Kosovo, working particularly with female victims of sexual violence. After that, she worked for nine years as a psychologist, and also as a therapeutic leader in psychosomatic and addiction clinics in Germany. Since 2012, she has directed a psychotherapeutic counseling center in Germany, where she’s treated many victims of prostitution.
She’s a passionate speaker and activist for the abolition of prostitution in Germany, and has worked extensively with the German political system to advocate for an end to the legalized prostitution system there. In 2014, she extended her advocacy work to medical professions and established a network of scientists and medical experts united in efforts to research, publish, and educate on the harsh realities of prostitution and its impact on individuals and society. This network now has over 200 members and is unique in the world.
Welcome, Dr Kraus.
Dr Kraus: Thank you very much for organising this, and thank you to Merly and Rebecca. I will start immediately with sharing my presentation and I want to apologise for my English. So, we need to understand the close connection between prostitution and trafficking, and trauma as a precondition to enter into prostitution and as a result of prostitution. We need to understand, in both cases, the psychological mechanism that brings women into prostitution, even those who don’t want to, and the mechanism that holds women in prostitution, even if they want to leave.
A policeman who has worked over 25 years in anti-trafficking work in Germany says that “at a low rate, we have a minimum of 100,000 people who are victims of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. 500 times more than recognized by the police, because in 2019 we had only 287 legal proceedings, for the purpose of sexual exploitation.”
Of course, with a law that legalizes prostitution, the demand has exploded, but in a climate where prostitution can be practiced like a job as any other, the institutions such as: the justice system, the police, the counseling officers have not developed a qualification to understand the mechanism of trafficking and forced prostitution, and what prostitution does to a woman.
The police go into the brothels to make their usual controls, and they ask the women if everything is OK; the women say yes, and that is it – even if all of those women who said yes are trafficked. The police have become blind towards the mechanism of trafficking. They have a wrong picture of how a victim looks. They think they have to look for metal chains, or a woman running towards them and screaming. In most of the cases, the victim is silenced and has mental chains that keeps her exploited.
This is so important for the people working in this field to understand.
In Germany, competent criminal officers say that 90% of the women in prostitution are trafficked and forced into prostitution. The brothels are open – they can run away – but they don’t, because many of them have established a traumatic bond to their perpetrators. Some of them are sent by their own families, or a person that promises a better future, by a ‘loverboy’, or they have experienced violence in their childhood and think that they deserve mistreatment.
So, I will give an example of the loverboy method. The traffickers search for vulnerable young women. Women who come from a broken home, or are living in poverty, or some other kind of vulnerability. Also, adolescents rebelling against their parents, who are in a vulnerable phase of life.
The loverboy trafficker connects with her and gives her positive attention. This is something totally new for her, that ‘not everybody is bad’ and the victim will establish a deep emotional relationship to the offender. He will quickly tell her that he loves her, and make her believe in a better future with him.
After that the devaluation, threats, and subtle punishment starts: “you are not good enough”, “you are lucky that I’m with you, I could have many others”. The devaluation becomes “I’m worthless”, “I have to do exactly what he wants from me to keep him” or “I deserve mistreatment because I did something wrong”. The victim internalises the offender’s view; her self-esteem gets destroyed.
Just to clarify, these girls are not naive. Young women are allowed to trust, fall in love, and dream of a better future. This is a perfidious, manipulative strategy based on fraud that specifically misuses the vulnerability of young women. It’s not a private thing, it’s a crime. The victim will be isolated and controlled step by step.
So, the consequences of this first phase are that she completely adapts to the needs of the offender. She no longer even perceives her own feelings and needs; self-protection and self-care gets lost. The victim develops a negative self-image because of the fear of losing the bond. The victim starts to deny the negative aspects of the relationship and blames herself if he is unhappy. She starts to feel responsible for his well-being and her attention is totally focused on his needs. She develops a deep loyalty to him.
Once the victim is conditioned and made emotionally addicted to the offender, the second phase will start. Prostitution will become a topic to help him out of debt – prostitution as a fast solution to help him out of his problems. When she gets in this milieu, the trap closes and she will get deeply traumatised with each sex buyer – I will explain why later.
Then he will start showing the real side of himself. He will become violent and exploit her – and on top of that, she will think that all of what has happened is because of her, because she thinks that she agreed to everything. She will believe that it was her choice to get into this relationship, and into prostitution.
The victim is not aware that she is a victim of a trafficker, and a manipulative strategy. She puts the blame on herself for what happened to her.
On the victim’s side, trauma-related responses are in the foreground. The will of these women has been broken. They are in a psychological position where they cannot defend themselves, and perpetrators can do whatever they want with them. They stay in prostitution, not because of love anymore, but because of fear and trauma. They are too weak to get out on their own; they need help, and psychological help to understand what has been done to them and to process it.
Helping structures must know this, because women are in a very fragile situation and can very easily be triggered and return into prostitution. They need a safe space; that means people who believe in them, people who are themselves stable and a surrounding that has no contact to the milieu.
I’m saying this because it is not given in most counselling centres in Germany. We have a lot of counseling centers in Germany where women who are still in prostitution have an advising position. This doesn’t work, it will just trigger the women to get back into prostitution and, even if they leave prostitution, parts of oneself can stay loyal to the offender or to the milieu. There are words inside of them that say “it’s not his fault”, “he was in trouble”, “he’s on my side”, or “he helped me when I was in need”.
Unfortunately, I often hear, “there were also positive sides in the milieu”, even amongst abolitionist people, and “it was fast and good money”. The survival mechanism to deny the negative things can continue a long time after the exit.
From the perspective of health, prostitution cannot be seen as an option in any way. Buying sex is an act of violence against women, and should not be allowed.
We do not speak about having a right to prostitute oneself. This is not the point – our mission is healthcare by doing therapy, because prostitution is serious psychological and physical harm.
Why? I have quoted Michaela Huber, the director of the German Society for Trauma and Dissociation. Feelings of fear, disgust, shame and pain must be switched off in prostitution. This requires dissociation, which either takes place after the first sex-buyer, and settles deeper and deeper with each sex buyer, or it has already taken place before the start of prostitution.
Dozens of studies have shown that the majority of women in prostitution have experienced violence in their childhood, and I refer this point to several articles that I have written here – especially the article, ‘Trauma as the Pre-condition and Consequence of Prostitution’.
They are already separated from their feelings before they go into prostitution. They have not learned to protect themselves, and have not developed self-esteem. When entering prostitution, many say that it was completely normal for them because they thought they were not worthy of something better.
Prostitution, in this case, is a continuation of the violence in the biography of these women. Traffickers, pimps, and brothel operators use the pre-traumatization for their own purpose – and of course, if the German state gets money offered out of it, it takes the role of a pimp.
If you experience a trauma, your body reacts in such a way as to protect you the best it can. It activates a physical reaction so that you can fight or run away, this is the fight or flight reaction. Your heart will start beating faster, you will start breathing faster, and so on – but if you cannot escape the situation, as is the case in prostitution, you get away with your mind. It’s as if an electric cable is being cut off – you dissociate. Dissociation is the last survival mechanism that helps us, first of all not to feel pain, but also to scare away the predator, because when an animal acts as if it’s dead it has a higher chance to survive. So, dissociation is also connected to a sentence “make yourself dead”, “be dead”.
On the left side is a picture of what a fear reaction looks like in the brain and on the right side is dissociation. In prostitution, women do not dissociate completely only some parts stay highly functional. They can work on high heels and smile. They don’t look as if they were dissociated but other parts are switched off, like concentration.
Many won’t be able to say what the sex buyers looked like, or what they said; the feeling and the smell is dissociated along with many other things.
Here are the parts of the brain that are involved in trauma. I would like to explain this to you because PTSD is very high in prostitution, so to understand it, I will explain how the brain is functioning.
Here you have the prefrontal cortex; that has the capacity to understand and to be in the situation, to make decisions, remember the past, react and to calm down. This is often not really active during dissociation.
The part of the brain in black has the primitive function; it’s our autonomic nervous system that will activate our organs to keep us alive. It will make our heart beat faster, breathing fast and so on.
The amygdala – in red – is our alarm system; it has two functions. It is constantly scanning our surroundings. If we are in danger, it produces hormones that enable us to survive. It’s the fight and flight reaction and it plays a part in our memory, as we need to remember what was dangerous for us.
The hippocampus – in green – is the memory maker, so when information comes in, it will organise and store it. So, if somebody is under heavy distress, the amygdala fires off and sends messages to the glands in our body that produce hormones so that we can fight, flight or freeze.
If it were just the phenomenon of dissociation, the damage from prostitution would be limited to that level, but there are also traumatic memories. During dissociation, the body and the cortex are largely anaesthetised. One will perceive things, but they aren’t all remembered in the cortex because the hippocampus is not working properly during trauma. The information and the contextualization of the incident cannot be stored properly, so victims of trauma are not always able to say “this happened, at that time, at that place”. That can be amnesia – holes in the memory – parts of the experience are recorded in another part of the brain, called traumatic memory.
This memory doesn’t function under the same principle as our cortex. It’s like a black box to which we don’t have conscious access, and we don’t even know that it exists. This memory collects traumatic experiences in a disordered way, without a sense of space and time, and it isn’t semantic – it doesn’t have language.
It can be brought on at any moment by trigger events that revive the trauma. What was not felt at the moment: a smell, a colour, a sound, images, words, phrases, even a photo or nightmare – at that moment it triggers an intense anxiety, as if the person was reliving the trauma that very instant, even if it was twenty, or forty, or fifty years ago. This is a flashback.
A flashback is not only a fear reaction, but also what was said in the situation can be aroused, like “you are nothing”, “you should be dead”, “you are not worth anything better”. Now, suddenly even though you are living a stable life – you are triggered. Suddenly, those words can be aroused.
I will give an example: I have a fifty year old woman in therapy. Her trauma is about 40 years behind her. She’s now newly in love, in a positive relationship and constantly has a voice in her head saying that she should kill herself. Why? Because this new relationship is a trigger, and she’s afraid to be left alone again. The words, now deeply ingrained, that were spoken during the sexual abuse she was victim of in her childhood, are now triggered. Feelings that were switched off during prostitution can come up, like shame, or disgust or other feelings.
I will give another example: during prostitution, women usually don’t feel ashamed. The shame comes up later. I know one woman who went back to prostitution because she couldn’t bear the feeling of shame when she exited, so she went back to dissociate.
Recovering is also very painful because it includes feeling the traumatic experience that was not felt at that moment. These reactions are known as PTSD: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It’s like having a time bomb in the head, and very often it doesn’t work with an on/off function. The alarm system can be constantly over-activated. People sometimes go through life with constant fear. They are under constant distress. They often have dissociative symptoms. I heard from one woman who is in a wheelchair after she was in prostitution – not because she has something broken, but because her legs are dissociated.
The information and experience are not narratives. They cannot talk about what happened to them, very often because the trauma is not integrated. It continues to impact their life but it cannot be spoken. There are no files in the brain of those people to say what happened to them, their memory is very often fragmented.
This is why prostitution very often leaves long-term consequences and why women in prostitution are classified as a high-risk group for PTSD.
Here I have listed five studies that show that women in prostitution have PTSD more than twice as often as soldiers coming back from war, and that the PTSD is more complex – as Merly has said. Thank you very much.
Ali: Thank you, Ingeborg, for such a fascinating presentation. I think for me, on a personal level, was the striking number of similarities to other forms of violence against women, especially domestic violence. I recognize the loverboy method, for example, which is a recognized phase within domestic abuse, along with the trauma bond that was discussed. I think you’ve given a lot food for thought, for those of us that work in the fields of violence against women, of how we can best provide some level of support for anyone in prostitution. Thank you so much for that.
Now, I want to go into a discussion between the three of you. I’d like to start the discussion by asking Merly and Rebecca about the support that you both received when you were in prostitution, and since you’ve left.
Rebecca, could you tell us what support you had. Did you find any services or voluntary organisations, for example, that helped you exit? Obviously, it was some time ago when you were in prostitution so we know things have changed, although we know exiting services are still very few and far between in the UK. Can you say something about what you think would have helped you at that time to exit.
Rebecca: Well, it was a long time ago, but I don’t think that things have changed that much. I don’t think I had any help really. I had to escape without help. I eventually received help from a rape place about two years after I left, but it wasn’t really what I was meant to be talking about. I was meant to be talking about this rape that I’d had, which wasn’t prostitution but it ended up with me talking about everything and having a breakdown.
I think there needs to be much more. People need to be trained in why trauma is so bad with prostituted women, and they need to be trained specifically to work with prostituted women rather than a general trauma place. I think we can connect a lot with victims of torture, and learn a lot from organisations like the Helen Bamber Foundation which works with victims of torture. We can learn a lot from that, but I think it’s very important to separate out as well.
Ali: Thank you.
Merly, could you tell us what professional support was available to you in Sweden, and what you would have liked to have available at the time?
Merly: When I was 15, I talked to them. There is a clinic that specialises in youth and helping them. You go there for testing for STDs and you can talk to a therapist, not a psychologist, a therapist, and that was my first meeting. I could only talk about the rape because I was a minor; there was this overwhelming threat that if I talked about anything else that happened in my life, they would do a social services referral. So I didn’t want to talk about anything else.
Then, I finally ended up in the psychiatric ward for youth; I spent five months there. After that, my parents knew. I was let out, and during those five months I didn’t receive any treatment. I didn’t receive any trauma treatment. I wasn’t perceived as a victim. I was called promiscuous; there was almost a fear of me being this overly sexual teen who was going to come there and destroy the whole unit. I never understood that; I was neither violent nor promiscuous. I was a person who’d been raped, and locked in, and pimped for the last two years.
After that, I came into contact with what we call a Prostitution Unit. We only have three of them in Sweden. We have one in Stockholm, one in Gothenburg and one in Malmö. I think they were called the Prostitution Center back then, and now they’re called the Mika Center. They have a way of talking – you go into therapeutic conversations and you talk about what you experienced, and what you’re experiencing. They’re trying to talk in a more coaching way about your life.
The problem is, if you’re still in trauma, those kinds of talks won’t do you any good. I think that Dr Kraus mentioned it, those kinds of talks are not of value.
For me, it was going there from a hard month, or week, or whatever and talking about bad things that have happened; but nothing’s changed in my life. I didn’t start to feel better going there, and the psychiatric board almost made me worse. It made me more marginalized, because they would say things like “If you talk about this to the world, and tell the world that you’re in prostitution and you’ve been prostituted, then you won’t find work and you won’t find friends. You won’t be able to fund your studies – no school will take you and you will never be in a relationship”. So, that was more counterproductive than anything else.
I actually stopped having therapy when I was 30/31, because it didn’t do me any good. The last time I went there, it was trauma based therapy. That was clearly based on something more like phobias. I was supposed to talk about one trauma, and then they would ask you “pick the worst thing that you experienced” and then I had to go through that experience over and over, and I didn’t feel that helped me at all. I know that some people say that they’ve been helped by that, but I just said stop and I almost felt better not being in therapy.
I would hope that we could gather our resources surrounding prostitution and trauma, because in the last 10 or 15 years we have gathered a lot of useful information from all the different continents; now we just have to sit down and see what actually works for women and people in prostitution. I would love to see that, and I would love to see us get recognition as victims, because as long as we’re not perceived as victims, there’s very few women and people in prostitution that can go into a therapist and talk.
I remember being 15 years old, sitting and talking to a therapist about what I’ve experienced, and she started crying. That has forever made me not want to talk and open up, because I feel like I’m the perpetrator here; I’m hurting you by talking about my experience. So, there’s a number of ways we could work more efficiently and with more benefit for people in prostitution.
Ali: Thank you. So, even in Sweden, there’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.
Ingeborg, would you tell us a bit about what structures and services you would like to see put in place?
Dr Kraus: Well, after 20 years of having a law in Germany that treats prostitution as a job just like any other, we have set up counselling officers for prostituted women that are financed by the state. They are totally useless.
They are offering condoms and coffee, and they are working on keeping the women in prostitution. They have not developed any qualifications to help them to exit prostitution, and they are even offering advice to enter prostitution.
For tourists who want to see Frankfurt, they are offering guidance into brothels in the Red Light District. It’s completely crazy and they get millions of euros every year from our state.
Now, during the COVID-19 crisis, more women are expressing their wish to exit and they are not able to give them any help. My hometown doesn’t have a single shelter. There is one counselling office here; it’s been open for eight years. They opened in 2013, and they haven’t even thought once that it would be good to have a shelter for women. They never had the idea that the women are in danger and that they have to leave the milieu. They put the women who wanted to exit in the brothels. You can imagine what happened, they got a very big bill after that.
The people who introduced this law wanted to strengthen the women, but now after 20 years we can see that they don’t even have access to social security. We don’t exactly know the numbers of how many women are in prostitution in Germany, some say 200,000, others say 1,000,000. I personally think we have 400,000 in prostitution in Germany. Out of – let’s say – 400,000: only 76 have registered as independent entrepreneurs, so they officially have social security. 76 from 400,000 – it’s not much. So, most of the women cannot go to a doctor, even if they have the flu, to get health support.
It’s a disaster. It’s a catastrophe. I’m talking about medical help, I’m not even talking about psychological support.
First of all, we need the Nordic Model and with that, we have to set up a completely new helping structure in Germany.
In my hometown, they collaborate with the brothel operators. In January, they did a contract with the brothel operators to have better conditions for the women, but these are criminals. They haven’t understood the system. They are integrated in the exploitation structure. They keep the women even deeper in this exploitation and put the blame on her. It’s a disaster.
Ali: My next question then is to Merly and Rebecca again: in what ways is the trauma that you experienced in prostitution still affecting you today, in yourself and in your lives? Maybe it would be useful to understand how you managed to exit.
Merly: Wow, it’s a hard question because I was in prostitution for so long. I exited in 2015 – six years ago. First, it was nightmares. It was a constant feeling of being afraid. I lived in fear. I was actually in fear even when I wasn’t with a punter. Then came something that I don’t have as much of now, thank God: time freezing, where I could just sit or stand, and time flew by; 30 or 40 minutes and I just woke up.
Self-hatred. Low self-esteem. No sense of self. Dissociation. Not being able to breastfeed my first child without feeling sexualized; feeling physically ill having this small child by my breasts who didn’t want anything else but to to feed on me, but my breasts had never been used as anything other than pleasure for men – I couldn’t control them – and now I couldn’t control this little one.
I’ve had a couple of half-hearted suicide attempts when I was younger. Nowadays, I’ve chosen to not to make any more suicide attempts, to choose life and just try and stick it out and hope for the best, hope that things will become better.
Flashbacks: smells, hearing. This is a bad day I’m describing but days where my heart is beating and I can’t really breathe the way I want it to, and saliva is coming out of my mouth like my brain is numb – it’s just completely shut off – there’s no words, there’s nothing there, and I try and snap out of it but it’s hard. That’s a really bad day. Going into McDonald’s with my kids and having all the lights, and all the sounds – I start sweating and just want to get out of there. Knowing that I will probably never be OK. It saddened me a lot at first, but knowing that I can find ways of being more OK. For example, I try to make myself go in there, and I try to find the tools to feel better.
A great big positive thing for me has been that I don’t have to be sexual. I don’t put that pressure on myself. I don’t have to be sexual with women or men. I can be happy, and asexual. Not properly asexual, but not feeling that I have to do something with anyone else. That’s what I’ve done to feel better. I’m constantly trying to find tools to feel better. I feel a lot better today than I did a couple of years back.
Ali: Thank you for sharing that. Rebecca, what about you?
Rebecca: Well, it’s very difficult to talk about trauma. I talk about it in a journey; I was abused before I was in prostitution, so it’s all interconnected, but I do think that being detached is is a major thing for me. I find it very easy to be detached from everything really, and I tend to bring that out with sarcastic humour. That’s the way I cope with it.
As I said in my talk, having trauma is like having a shadow in your life. Even when the sun is out, it’s still inside of you. I remember being afraid to be happy, because being happy was really triggering for me. It made me feel like “I don’t deserve this – I should be dead, not be happy”.
Learning to feel has been a big thing for me. Learning to accept that my memory is fragmented, and that I may never remember certain things is a really big barrier for me. I’m quite an analytical person – I like to understand things. I tend to go into depth about a lot of stuff, and to not remember my own life has been very hard for me, but I’ve learnt to accept that.
There’s a saying that your brain only remembers when you believe it yourself, and I think that’s a very important factor for me. Most of my life, I was told that I lied about everything that happened to me, and that it wasn’t true. To know that I am speaking the truth, even if the truth is very fragmented and disorganised, is what matters to me – and to know that it connects with other women, especially with other exited women.
When I was in prostitution I was completely cut off from my body, and now I have lots of physical after effects. I have a lot of illnesses because I had a lot of things that affected my body but I didn’t respond to it at the time. For instance, I have major breathing problems and I choke a lot. I know that’s connected to prostitution, even if I don’t have the words to say why it’s connected to prostitution.
I also find that I would rather be celibate now because I’m afraid of the amount of violence that was put into me. That makes me either want to hurt someone, or makes me want to hurt myself – so I’m afraid of that, even if it never happens.
I used to try and commit suicide on quite a regular basis and now I haven’t done that for over 10 years, but my brother-in-law committed suicide three years ago and I was so proud of myself because I was thinking “well, he died immediately, that would have been so easy for me” but I thought “no there’s too much I want to live for”.
I have people in my life now, and I have nature in my life, and I think that having suicidal feelings is part of the trauma.
You learn to live with it, but it doesn’t just go. Just because you haven’t cut yourself or taken pills, it’s still there, but it’s just something that most exited women don’t talk about because they always have to protect other people when they talk about it. I think that we should be more open about it.
Ali: Thank you for sharing that, Rebecca. We heard some really graphic and profound descriptions both from Merly and Rebecca there.
Ingeborg, what do you think about the long-term consequences that you see in prostitution? Can you tell us a bit about that?
Dr Kraus: There are things that help. For example, processing a trauma and integrating trauma into the life of the victim. If the trauma is recognized by the state and society, for example: in Germany, if a soldier comes back from war, the first thing is “oh, he must be traumatized; it was so bad; he’s a hero” but when a woman exits prostitution, nobody is saying “she must be traumatized” because it’s seen as a job like any other.
It’s a re-traumatization that women experience once they exit prostitution, because they don’t get recognition of what happened to them. This is a big obstacle for processing trauma.
When you exit prostitution, you are alone, because the system of prostitution isolates you.
The time you spent in prostitution, it’s stolen time. I haven’t met somebody who said “I was in prostitution and I did my PhD”. I met women who entered prostitution during university and then they quit everything.
You are alone, and then you go to those counselling centres in Germany. First of all, the probability is very high that the woman advising is still in prostitution. I know cases like this. She will be advised to change the direction of prostitution, or she will be told to change her job. This is not helping, so she stays alone, and all this makes it very difficult to overcome trauma.
Everything depends: how long you were in prostitution; the age you exited prostitution; if you’ve quit your school; if you haven’t learned a job. If you exit prostitution when you are 40 or 50, it will be more difficult to overcome. If you are younger, and you can see a goal that you can work on, the chances are higher to overcome it; after a couple of years, when you have a diploma in your hand, you can set up a life and become independent. This will help, but it’s not always a given.
Ali: Thank you, so you just talked about PTSD and we’ve just had a number of questions from the audience asking very similar questions. Thank you for all the information on PTSD that you’ve already told us; can you share more on the difference between soldiers who’ve been in war zones suffering PTSD and women in prostitution, and any other comparisons? Why is there a difference between soldiers and women in prostitution?
Dr Kraus: It’s not about saying “one is worse than the other”. We have to take every traumatization very seriously and it has to be treated with the same earnestness, so I’m not saying the soldiers are less traumatized, but we have to understand the complexity of the trauma you get in prostitution. It’s different in prostitution. A soldier has a machine gun in his hand – he knows why he’s going into work: to protect democracy, to liberate the people. He has protection. His body is protected.
In prostitution, the women are naked. They have no protection. They’re ashamed 20 times a day, all the time, and it’s the worst type of trauma. You cannot escape – you have to escape with your mind. It makes it very complex. I call it complex because they have to set up a survival mechanism to cope with it, and it is survival. The dissociation, as Rebecca said, you switch yourself off with your mind when you are triggered.
Merly: I’m not a doctor in this but in my experience, when it comes to people in trauma in prostitution, rape is one of the greatest tools that they have. I was in a brothel when I was 19 – you were raped. Coming into Stockholm, locked into an apartment, being sold when I was 15 – you were raped. They used that as a tool to break you down, and to make you more complacent. You’re a greater person in prostitution when you’re in full-on trauma. Looking at soldiers, we can all agree that we don’t want traumatized soldiers, and we look at that soldier to be in need of care, and we you don’t do that in prostitution. For me, I think that’s the biggest difference between how it’s viewed.
Ali: Thank you. We just had another really interesting question put to us by a member of the audience. She says: “I’m from the ‘Save Our Eyes’ campaign in Leeds. I’m interested in Dr Kraus’s comment about women being too weak to get out on their own.
We believe this is true because women spend so long in street prostitution, yet our ‘experts’ claim that the women have to really want to exit in order to access any exiting services. We feel that the service here should involve push and pull; for example, by reducing the punter numbers, reducing the income, and making it easier for women to exit prostitution. The pro sex work charity that advises Leeds City Council is opposed to targeting any punters. What are your thoughts on this?”. Dr Kraus, would you like to say something?
Dr Kraus: I was once in Strasbourg, watching how they work with the women. It’s a long process to motivate them to exit prostitution, but I like the way they’re doing it. They go onto the streets with nothing. They don’t come with condoms or a cup of coffee. The prostituted women don’t believe in positive relationships anymore, so if you come with a gift, it’s not the same level again. They try to set up a relationship with those women, but with nothing. They just come to show them “we are here, but to help you to exit” and this is very clear from the beginning. It’s not like, “We are here to help you to stay in prostitution and to help you to make prostitution a little bit easier”. I like this way because it starts from the beginning, setting up a relationship.
This is so difficult for the women because prostitution has nothing to do with relationships. They have no trust anymore in anything because they are just used as an object for years, so when somebody comes and doesn’t look at them as an object, but as a person, this can help motivate them to exit. I like this, and I would like to see every counselling office working like this.
Merly: Yes, what’s hard is I’ve seen this so much before – that you need to be motivated. I’ve myself said, to a certain extent, you need to be motivated but you can’t tell a person to exit when there’s nothing to exit to. Then we have the problem with just having therapeutic talks.
If my financial situation is keeping me in prostitution, my mental health will be secondary because I need a roof over my head; we need food; we need to be able to pay our bills. So, I’m not going to be able to take that help from you, even though you’re a very good therapist. We can sit there and talk for a week, for months, for years, but if my financial situation isn’t getting any better, that’s not going to give me anything.
When we’re looking at working with people in prostitution, the problem is that often we’re almost comparing it to a lighter version of substance abuse. The person in substance abuse might have a job and everything else stable in their lives. That’s not what’s happening in prostitution.
Generally, something that comes with prostitution is debt. You’re supposed to live as your fellow 25/30 year olds, and so you maybe have a car debt; you maybe have bad credit. So we must look at debt. I don’t know what you call it in England, in Sweden we collect the debt, and give you a reasonable amount to pay each month.
It’s not about having economic excess, but you need to have that economical safety net of not ending up on the streets. The nature of being in prostitution is that. The last hope I had in my prostitution was “well, at least I can pay my bills”, “well, at least I can feed my my child”, so I will continue as long as I can’t see another option.
We’re talking about helping them to get into schools, and all that stuff. So many things need to be touched when working on getting people out of prostitution. As a society, we can offer that help, but not as long as we have that tunnel vision on how to receive help in the form of exiting.
Ali: Thank you. Rebecca, would you like to say anything?
Rebecca: I feel that to understand exiting, we need to understand that the sex trade has broken these people as much as they possibly can. Often, a lot of people who enter the sex trade have been broken by other stuff, so to say that they should be motivated is almost like that’s not the most important thing. I don’t think you can be motivated when you’re broken.
It’s very hard if you’ve come from a background where you’re taught to hate yourself. You’re taught that you are nothing. The sex trade teaches you that you’re not even human, so it’s hard to think about the future if you don’t believe that you exist as a human being. The idea that they can only exit if they’re motivated is kind of sick, in my opinion. It’s a very judgmental way of viewing prostitution.
It’s not talking about the men that are buying these women. We can say to them “you are choosing to do something that is so wrong, and is destroying people’s lives, and in the long run is destroying the society that you live in”. We need to give you full consequences for your actions, because I think if I had seen the men being punished, that would have given me the idea that people on the outside of the sex trade actually do care, actually do think that we matter.
If men that buy sex went to jail, or were fined a lot of money – not a token amount but a lot of money, say one tenth say of their wages – I think it would give prostituted women the idea that there are people that actually want to hear us, and want to see us.
I think as long as punters and sex trade profiteers are getting away with it scot-free, we can’t talk about saying to prostituted women “oh you should be motivated to get out”. We can’t talk that way, because it’s hypocritical.
I hope the Leeds campaigners can take away some information from what the three of us have just said.
Ali: Thank you. As I said in the introduction, we’re campaigning for the Nordic Model approach here in the UK, and it’s painful for us to hear that even in Sweden, the services to provide it for women in prostitution actually fall so far short of what is still really needed. We know, Merly, that you and lots of other women are campaigning for improvements, but could you talk a bit about the other aspects of the Nordic Model over in Sweden?
In the UK, we hear claims that the policing of the Nordic Model is brutal, and actually puts the women at risk. That women are routinely evicted from their homes for selling sex, and that children are routinely taken into care because their mothers are selling sex.
Is any of that true? Can you talk about those claims?
So, the first one: the policing of the Nordic Model in Sweden is brutal and puts the women at risk. Is that true?
Merly: No, that’s not true. The thing is, the Nordic Model… It’s a model. It was written by wonderful experts, and we had a trial run with it for 10 years, I think, before they made the first evaluation, or five years maybe. It’s not bad. It’s not endangering people in prostitution. It’s supposed to help us, but as I’ve said, the problem was that we made one side – the policing side – work as well as it could.
For most of the time since the law came into effect in 1999, punters have been fined. But recently there have been some changes, an evolution of the law. In the last few years some punters have been convicted of rape and sentenced to prison when they haven’t been able to prove that the woman consented – for example, because she was a victim of coercion or trafficking. In addition, punters now always get a jail sentence if the victim is a child.
Of course we need to make it work better. We’re not a perfect society, neither is any society, but we have the model. We have something really strong to work with.
You can’t just campaign for the Nordic Model, you also have to campaign for facilities: for trauma therapy, housing for people in prostitution, other securities for women at risk or women who have been injured. It’s not just one thing. I know that you all know this, I’m preaching to the choir, but don’t think that I’m criticising that we have a Nordic Model. It’s just that it needs improvements.
Ali: The second part that we hear all the time, is that women are routinely evicted from their homes for selling sex. Is there any truth in that?
Merly: No, they’re not. There’s no truth in that. What people have probably found is one of the housing laws when you rent a house. One of them states that if you’re involved in prostitution, you might get evicted. From my knowledge, no prostitute has ever been evicted for being a prostitute in their own home. They’ve gone in and broken up home brothels, and then they’ve taken away the contract from the person that has rented out to these traffickers. They have used that crossover, but it’s widely known that it’s never been used like that.
Ali: The last part of the question is that children are routinely taken into care because their mothers are selling sex.
Merly: No, that’s not true, but we have strong child protective laws. I’m proud of that, but I have never heard of a single case where the prostitution has been the one single thing that’s resulted in the child been taking to care. First of all, it’s really hard – in my opinion, sometimes too hard – to take a child into care in Sweden, but we’re really for parental rights. If we were to have had one of those cases and if – let’s say – I was that mother and I was in prostitution, I was in drug abuse – is it my right to care for my child when I can’t care for myself? When we start spreading all these rumours, we have to also protect the children.
I’d want you to take my children away from me if I could not care for them. One of the biggest things for me right now is that, with PTSD and with trauma, you’re exhausted all the time. I feel like I’m exhausted and I’ve tried to search for help a couple of times. One time, a lady told me “maybe we should take your kids”. She wouldn’t have any right to do that whatsoever, even if she tried. So, no.
Ali: Thank you, well that’s really encouraging.
We’re running out of time now, so I think that it’s really important that we end on a note of hope. I know from my own personal experiences of trauma that it changes you. You will never be the person that you would have been if that hadn’t happened to you. Recovery is possible and you can go on to have a good life. It’s a different life than what you would have had without the trauma, and all the battles, but it can actually be richer than you ever could have imagined.
I would just like to ask the panellists one final question each. What advice would you give to those listening whose lives have been seriously impacted by trauma, who may be struggling right now? Dr Krauss, would you like to go first?
Dr Kraus: Look at people who changed big things in the world – they had trauma behind them.
Rebecca: To me, one of the things is about getting back the things that you care about a lot. For me, I went back to loving music, and loving the arts, and loving nature. If you have a good family then connect to them. I connected back with my sister and became an aunt, and now a great aunt.
I also think it’s about accepting trauma, accepting it as a shadow and not being afraid of it. The worst thing about trauma is that you’re fighting it all the time. We fight it a lot, and we tell it to go away. It’s not going to go away just because we shout at it, or because we don’t like it. Learn to live with it. I would say I learned to be friends with my trauma, and not to be afraid of it. Say “you might actually be teaching me something”, “you might actually be giving me a message that I need to hear”, or “you might be saying something that is very painful and very confusing, but I just have to let it flow over me like a wave”.
I used to do body surfing – I didn’t do proper surfing because I was a wimp. I was afraid of water, but I still did it even though I was afraid of water. Facing up to your trauma is often the best way of dealing with it – face it. I faced it.
Actually, I did something that I don’t recommend – but I faced my trauma head-on because it was killing me and I was thinking “this is going to kill me if I just keep ignoring it the way I am, and keep running away from it”. In the end, I went “right, I’m going to stare you straight in the eye. I’m going to look at you”. I did that for a few years and it nearly did destroy me, but it was worth it because I came out a person that I wasn’t before: a person who had the idea of empathy and feelings, and was not afraid to ask for help. Trauma makes you think “I can just do this by myself”, “I don’t need help”, “I can pull myself out of this”, or “other people have it a lot worse, so why am I complaining”. It’s very hard to know that trauma is going to be part of you, but don’t be afraid of it. In a funny way, it’s actually on your side.
Ali: Thank you, Rebecca. Merly, would you like to say anything to finish?
Merly: Yes, I would like to say thank you for having me, but also that a lot of us dealing with trauma have suffered from survivors’ guilt. We will dedicate our lives to the cause to help others. I’ve done that too. Even though I live in Sweden, wherever you live there is a shortage of helping women with trauma. Allow yourself to take care of yourself, and to take a break.
If you can’t look at yourself with that love in your eyes, then find someone who will – not necessarily a boyfriend or a partner. Look at yourself through their eyes. If you’re like me and you can’t stand the touch of a man, but you still want to be a parent – there are ways out there to become a parent nowadays without doing that. I went to coparents.com with my youngest one and got inseminated and I’m a mum now. I rely on no man for that. I just wanted to put that out there.
We’ve lived our lives, but we’re here, and we should be allowed to keep living our lives – not a half-life. Having trauma, it’s not living a half-life. If you keep working on yourself, and try listening to tips, and try to keep that love in there.
Ali: Thank you so much. I want to thank our incredible panellists for giving their time, and sharing their knowledge and experience so brilliantly. Thank you so much to all of you.
Before we close, I just want to mention some suggestions for practical actions that you can take away with you. The most important thing is raise awareness about the Nordic Model and the harms of prostitution. We have loads of information on our website. Please read it, and obviously share any information. You can watch our YouTube videos and listen to our podcasts, and please follow us on social media and like us and share our stuff.
Thank you everyone for coming today and have a really good rest of the day.