If you imagine a situation to be inescapable you do whatever you can to make that situation agreeable. Coming to accommodate misery, in this way, is an insidious process. With specific regards to prostitution, if those who enter it have for years previous been emotionally or socially neglected, treated with ambivalence or indifference, and/or outright abuse (particularly) the psychological groundwork of ‘low personal expectations’ has been well and thoroughly set. …
Before I entered prostitution, my limited experience of sexual activity was pretty woeful. When I was 17, one year before entering the sex trade, I was date raped. Drugged and used fairly casually by a man more than twice my age. The following morning, when I awoke on his floor – he in his bed – he laughed at me as I hazily tried to pull my underwear and clothes back into shape, and then rolled over and went back to sleep.
Entering prostitution was, “This is male/female relations. This is sex.” Humiliating as it is to admit now, when my first ‘clients’ gave me money, compliments and shallow good manners, I felt sexually respected and appreciated. But I was comparing it to being raped and subsequently mocked, for my distress, by my assailant. The bar was set low.
Of course those who defend the industry, will often do so by defending the ‘clients’, as ‘nice, good, decent guys’. However their definition of ‘good’ is based on superficial, passing characteristics, not on more fundamental behaviours, attitudes and attributes. A man, often married with children, can rent out a woman, have no concern or interest in why she is having to have sex for money or where she comes from, be capable of obtaining sexual gratification knowing the extremely high likelihood that she is only ‘getting through it’ or even ‘suffering through it’, and then go home and pretend as though it never happened. These more fundamental behaviours are obscured by his easy to use pleasantries.
When prostitutes defend ‘clients’ they are defending these superficialities, in much the same way as a spouse who is regularly psychologically tormented, controlled or beaten, will mitigate for these wrongdoings by telling themselves, and others, about the time they were bought flowers, or cuddled or ‘helped with the housework’. I hear these exonerations whenever I encounter a prostitute detailing all the bottles of wine she has been bought or vindications on her attractiveness she has received. Or when a prostitute gives a description of her experiences using the idiosyncrasies of her ‘easiest’ and best paying ‘client; “Oh I have this one guy who pays me a thousand pounds just to talk!”
In the PR they give to themselves and, increasingly, others, they will prefer to use the uncommon, exceptional and least detrimental and most glamorous as accounts of the life in the trade. On one of the recent BBC short documentaries, detailing life in the Leeds ‘managed zone’ (where a Polish prostitute was recently murdered) a young woman, addicted to class A drugs and having to walk the streets to fund her habit, gave such an account of her best paying punter. It struck me that even in straits that were evidently beyond dire (and any amount of life threatening) that even here, a young prostitute would still give the ‘isn’t sex work great!’ spiel.
It cuts across all areas of the industry. I worked in indoor prostitution, at a time when the internet was making it easier to advertise, and former brothel women re-made their images to become ‘Courtesans’ and ‘Femme Dommes’ and ‘High Class Escorts’. But these now ‘career women’, still had to work in shabby apartments, still needed drugs to wake them up, and put them back to sleep, and still saw the same punters who would also frequent brothels and outdoor prostitutes. The same punters who would push to be permitted dangerous, painful or uncomfortable ‘services’ and feel especially hard done by if they were refused. “You’re the most expensive prostitute in town, you should provide XYZ! You’re a rip off!”
These women I knew were from lower socio-economic backgrounds, grew up in care or on housing estates, and they saw being ‘Escorts’ and earning – what would only be to middle class people – comfortable but unremarkable earnings, made them a personal success. When I made a brief foray into the ‘Sex Work is Work’ movement, I found many of the women involved not simply insistent that they were not victims, but desperate not to be seen as such. They often had degrees and had attempted to create businesses or become media ‘personalities’. The movement that wished to reject the Nordic Model, seemed to me, to be building its infrastructure out of the understandable anxieties of women who had gotten trapped in the prostitutional cul-de-sac.
‘Verisimilitude’ is an oft used term in theatre analysis. It is when a play or a film or performance is able to induce in the audience the feeling that they are experiencing something for real, despite the obvious artifice of the curtains or the screen. The fact that we can, so easily, become enraptured with fake things, delusions and self imposed ignorances, should not be overlooked.
It took me a while to stand objectively back from the industry, to see it more clearly. But like an in-denial addict, things had to get really bad first. Eventually I became forced to see, that whilst involved in prostitution I had begun to reject life outside of it…friends, hobbies, values and opinions. I saw how I had become anxious, depressed, self-hating, panicky. I saw how my life became nothing more than me oscillating between being drunk to cope with working, and working to afford being drunk. I saw that I no longer cared about myself at all.
I saw friends who had previously been reasonably stable have mental breakdowns, and run in to rages at the smallest perceived slight or discomfort. Increasing deficits in social coping, it seemed to me, were the result of years of having little boundary between them and the ‘outside’ world. Of having almost no ability to discriminate in who could touch them, who could use them. One friend poured bleach into her vagina, thought daggers were coming out of the pupils in her ‘client’s’ eyes and eventually just disappeared. Confronting these distresses meant confronting my own. The distresses of the industry, covered in its supposed ‘glamour’, ‘sexual liberty’ and ‘freedom’.
After slipping closer to thoughts of suicide I decided to try and escape. It was my ‘back against the wall’ moment. However I had an apartment I had to pay for, debts mounting up, anxiety so severe I could not even get on a bus or go in a shop. Out of desperation I rang a charity that aimed to support women in getting off the streets, but to their own frustration, they did not have the funding or the facilities to do anything more than listen to me cry down the phone.
It was at this time that I realized that my prior belief in the idiomatic ‘Rights Not Rescue’ politics of the anti-Nordic Model movement, had been hugely ill considered. I had actively opposed the Nordic Model – which provides exit services and support to those who want it – because I psychologically needed to protect the sex industry’s image. I did not want to be a victim. I believed, quite erroneously, that if I confessed to myself that I was a victim of the industry, that made me meek and ridiculous and stupid in all senses. Rather than someone who was raped and lost sense of her own personal autonomy, someone who was lied to by the sex industry’s multifarious propagandas, someone who, in the end, was just trying to survive.
In the 19th century, the social reformer and proto-feminist Josephine Butler, tried to abolish child prostitution (effectively, industrialised child rape) and upturn the Contagious Diseases Act, which permitted arrests of women who were believed to be prostitutes, so that they could be forced to undergo intimate examinations. She was opposed by something approaching the ‘sex industry movement’ of its day, partly made up of a small number of prostitutes who believed the Act legitimised the industry and thus, their ‘profession’. All other prostitutes, and indeed women not involved at all (the police did not have to prove their suspicions) were acceptable collateral for that end, legitimising the trade and obfuscating away its damages. Thankfully, is was Josephine, not the small number of misguided prostitutes who opposed her, that won.
When I was in the industry I did not make my political affiliations based upon thought or consideration, but on a need to protect what I saw as my decisions, what I understood to be my identity. When I talk to current prostitutes who reject the Model, I encounter the same anxieties and fears, the same inculcated defences. I even hear women say it is their sexuality, their orientation, to have to be utterly indiscriminating, to be a tool for some else’s use, to barely, if ever, be able to say ‘no’. They say ‘I am an Adult!’ as though being so dissolves our social responsibility for one another. The man lolling on precipice of the Bristol Bridge, just about to jump, is an adult, but we would rush to pull him back, all the same.
It used to be the case in the UK that if a police officer was called out to a situation of domestic violence, they could not make an arrest if the, usually female, victim decided to not press charges. But we understand DV better these days; we understand the tendency for victims to process their abuse in a neutral fashion, out of a need to survive, out of a fear of escape, out of a foolhardy devotion to their abuser. So, with that and the high rates of mortality and murder of the women involved, the law was changed and the police now can take it out of the victim’s hands.
For a French version of this article, see POURQUOI J’AI DEFENDU L’INDUSTRIE DU SEXE.