WARNING: Prostitution destroys your soul
By Geneviève Gilbert
I was a shy young girl. My gymnastics training helped me beat the boys at sport. I loved drawing and everything creative. Raised Catholic, I was gregarious and a book lover. I didn’t ‘choose’ prostitution: a mixture of the culture I lived in during the 1990s, ‘sex-positive’ feminism, and a longing to be loved by my biological papa who had abandoned my siblings, mother and me, chose it for me.
Poverty chose it for me. Anger chose it for me. Wanting to be loved chose it for me.
I fooled myself into believing that if I was having sex, then I was being loved. With this faulty thinking, my secret transition to prostitution was relatively easy. Before entering prostitution I could go clubbing, pick up any man I wanted and get my sex fix. So I thought if I could have one-night stands and ‘friends with benefits’, why not be paid for it? I was going to make all the men pay for the child support money my father never provided. If I couldn’t sue the Canadian government for failing to track down mon papa, I would make all taxpayers pay for it. Sex became not only a substitute for love but a way of exacting revenge for the faults of my father.
Yet in making men pay to use me while thinking I had the upper hand, I allowed them to destroy me, to degrade my desire for real intimacy and to sacrifice a decade of my life that I could have instead spent as an emerging painter, editor, and video artist.
I had not heard of prostitution until I was 18. A French girl I befriended in the Quartier Gay of Montréal confided that she had done it a few times to pay bills. I clearly remember the moment, sitting with her in the front seat of her beige Lincoln Continental. I felt deeply sad and shocked. She looked fragile and lonely yet I wasn’t able to be of any help to her. Worse, I was to follow her down this destructive path, justifying it as being fearless and daring—aren’t artists supposed to be open to everything?
Over the course of my hidden life in prostitution, I had flashbacks about my father’s behaviour. Once, when I was about seven, I had looked inside some black plastic bags in our basement, hoping they might contain a present for me. Instead, I was confronted with photographs of men and women doing things I didn’t quite understand. I had stumbled on my father’s secret stash of pornography.
My mother once mentioned that my father had, in a drunken rage, threatened to kill us all. Many times. She never used the words ‘alcoholic’, ‘drug addict’ or ‘violent’ in reference to my father even though they all applied to him. Yet somehow this did not quell my desire to please him, nor dampen the pain I felt after he left us.
When I was eleven, my father boasted on a visit with us that he’d had sex with child prostitutes from the Caribbean and South America. He reminded us that there were children in worse situations than us; that we would be doing all right without him and without his money. We had the pension, after all.
His statement about using child prostitutes confused me. I had not yet had sex and didn’t really know what sex was. Similar to many Quebecers who want to avoid the harsh Canadian winters, he lived in Miami, Florida for half of the year. This state and city are the hottest hubs for sex trafficking in the USA. It was much later when I already was in prostitution that I remembered the inappropriate content he shared with his innocent daughter. Maybe I reminded him of a child he had sex with. What a scary thought!
During the completion of my Master’s Degree research project in Interactive Media in Montréal—in debt, disillusioned, and unhappy about the job prospects for women in the competitive world of IT and programming—I called an escort agency. My thoughts were: maybe I didn’t have to have sex? Maybe I could just take part in a staged romantic dinner for lonely men, and fake a girlfriend experience where only conversations took place? I was good at that, talking. I longed to learn English by traveling or studying overseas and I needed money.
I met with the owners of the escort agency at a secluded train station. That first night I was put in a white, spotless van to be driven to men’s houses or hotels. My first client pounded me for two hours without looking me in the eyes. Sans-arrêt. It was at his house in a leafy suburb of Montréal. I was left alone with him until the driver from the agency came to pick me up. It was my experiment as an artist: an in situ performance. It was the start of the performance of my life: my demise, my double-life, and secrecy surrounding illicit sexual transactions.
That summer, I made $CAD 20,000 offering my body as a ‘ripe cherry’— as I wrote in my notes at the time—and then left the gritty, unforgiving, unkind world of visual arts in Montréal to study in Melbourne for a year. My dream of escaping Canada and learning English was coming true. I imagined that Australia was going to transform my life. What I didn’t know was that unhappiness would follow me … until I found new hope in God.
After I finished a multimedia degree in Melbourne I tried to find a job in my field. It was extremely competitive and I felt at a disadvantage as in my whole life I only had part-time jobs as an arts teacher, museum guide and a two-year position as a fundraising coordinator at my university. I finally managed to be selected for a one-week training program, but a mobile phone and a car were required. What was I going to do? I walked to an Internet café and typed into the search engine: ‘escort agency prostitution Melbourne’. Three days later, I started day shifts selling my body for money. Again.
So within a year of arriving in Melbourne, I was back in prostitution. The lure of a high-class lifestyle was strong. Men were ready to pay prostituted women hefty amounts of money and coming from a life of material poverty as I did, that held its own attraction like sweet lollies to a child. It was not so much about financial need; it was how the money made me feel. I was still compensating for being abandoned and rejected by my father and for being bullied at school for my shabby clothes. I thought I was getting revenge on all those who had wronged me. If only they could see me now in my designer clothes!
I got what I had never had by way of material things. But I lost so much of myself.
For the next seven years ‘I put on my face’—the expression we ‘girls’ used when we applied our make-up before our shift— my wig, and my personae. I was Jane, then Paris, Marina, and Trinity. I had acts I would charge extra for, and outfits to help with the fantasy the punters were buying.
We lied to our friends and family about what we did. I ran a real web and graphic design business. As soon as a contract was completed and I had no further work, I was back at The Boardroom. What a hypocritical name to suck all of us in.
If RhED, Scarlett Alliance, Swop, or SIN were representing ‘sex workers’ in Australia and safeguarding our rights, then why didn’t they tell me about the dangers of ‘sex work’ within the five-star brothel in South Melbourne I was sub-contracted to? Did any of these organisations provide me with this information? Did they offer me exit programs between 2001 and 2010? Pas du tout! Melbourne’s first state-funded exit program was launched in 2010 just as I was leaving the industry. I was one of the first to successfully complete it with a wonderful social worker who took care of me. But how ashamed I felt to need a social worker!
The 1994 Victorian Sex Work Act states that assistance should be provided for “organisations involved in helping sex workers to leave the industry” and for “the dissemination of information about the dangers (including dangers to health) inherent in sex work, especially street sex work.” But I never heard of any assistance offered to exit prostitution during my seven years at the legal Melbourne brothel.
I had to sign a lousy three months’ contract requiring us to behave and not take business outside of the brothel. We even had to pay a $5 administration fee for signing this contract. What a joke.
Brothels look like nightclubs where popular music is blasting all day long on repeat. No place for classical tunes in there. Trust me, this does your head in. There is porn on flat screens around the lounges all day long. I felt sorry for every one of us having such an emotionally tough role in this forced theatre of the absurd, being touched by strangers and fulfilling the schoolgirl fantasies of deranged clients. It was so depressing and I had to get out! Yet I could not separate being prostituted from my life anymore. Not on the inside of me, not in my head, not in my heart. The spiritual damage was endemic.
Even when I tried to dissociate during those countless paid rapes, I found it hard to separate what was happening to my body from my real self. During the hour-long-bookings, I could at least play gentle Québec singer Ariane Moffatt. I can’t listen to the album Aquanaute now without it taking me straight back to the brothel’s luxurious stone-walled room with state-of-the-art Jacuzzi, rounded bed, and royal blue satin sheets which, like the designer clothes, were the trappings of luxury which competed with my growing sense of despair.
I also still have recurring flashbacks each time I go to the supermarket at night. There were so many times when after my shift I would dash to a store to fill up on groceries on the way home.
Most of us were warned to never give our phone numbers to clients. It didn’t take long to break that rule. This means you end up on your own, managing men’s every demand. Between 600 and 1,000 men a year and many private bookings later, I wondered, hey, is this really ‘a job like any other’? Am I really appreciated for giving so much of myself? Why am I doing this for men who see me as nothing but the entertainment they buy? I never dreamed of such a ‘job’ when I was little!
In prostitution, people are simply used. The money earned is an illusion of power. Real power is found in mutual respect, compassion, and giving to others. These values do not exist in the world of prostitution.
A quiet mild-mannered Russian client asked me out during the first months when I ‘worked’ at the South Melbourne brothel. He said he wanted to help me get out of prostitution. I believed him. I had never been proposed to before so I thought, wow, this man must be really serious about me! Looking back I didn’t think I had ever been that gullible. We got married three months later and I continued to earn a living from prostitution. I really thought this relationship was serious and only later realised he was marrying his fantasy—and becoming my pimp as well! Less than two years later, I had to seek support from a domestic violence service. Twice, he tried to kill us while behind the wheel. There are photos which still haunt me, of us smiling over a glass of wine at a Tasmanian winery. I had bruises on my arm; it was the day after the car accident we had on Christmas Day 2004. When, like a thief, I left our shared apartment overlooking palm trees on St Kilda beach, I fell into a deep depression and became suicidal. I had always taken pride in keeping fit and healthy, yet now even my health was being taken away by someone who had not only tried to kill me but insisted I continue to service other men.
In 2003 I started attending church. But I could not talk about my life to Pastors as I felt no one could fully understand me and I didn’t want to be judged. I stayed in prostitution but really wanted to get out. I started dating another client who seemed to be a very spiritual and clever single Hong Kong businessman. He began attending my church and booked himself in to get baptised. He also promised a 32 percent return on my investment in his currency exchange scheme. He delivered. I stayed away from prostituting myself for one year in 2007, living on the earnings of his exchange scheme.
However, he too had a violent temper. Our relationship began to be a constant drama: he yelled at me on Toorak Rd in front of gobsmacked passers-by after imagining I was having an affair. He wanted to pay me $10,000 to have a child, which was not a sign of love but of his possessiveness, using power over me just like he had done paying me for sex. He had escaped criminal charges —I learned this from another client, a police officer who did an illegal search on him—for reselling computer equipment from the warehouse of a company he used to work for. A criminal. When a friend of mine who had also invested money in the same scheme blamed me and said I now should give him back the money he had lost, I fell into a state of total depression. For two weeks I drank alcohol every night. I could not sleep as all of this was doing my head in. I was waking up in the mornings in a state of panic. I was imagining I was a mentally unwell patient in a psychiatric ward. I was beginning to be detached from myself. I could sense myself becoming crazy. I wanted to die.
‘The subject’ as I now called him—as even just mentioning his name made me nauseous—ended up disappearing with one hundred thousand dollars cash of my hard-earned money.
I went back into prostitution as I was going to lose the small unit I had purchased. Three years of legal battle, many headaches and long, stressful days making frantic phone calls later, I managed to retrieve 87 per cent of my money. I even got to meet his real wife and kid. It was the shock of my life to learn from his partner in his ambitious IT networking start-up that “it might be good for me to know that his son goes to Scotch College.” I didn’t even know he was married! My psychologist told me his behaviour was similar to those who suffer from bipolar disorder. He was truly nuts!
During my years in prostitution, the violence was sometimes underhand, sometimes direct. I was gagged, choked, gang-raped, pushed, pulled by the legs, shoved, yelled at, threatened, lied to, anally raped, filmed and photographed naked with and without my consent. I had to put up with foul-smelling clients, obese clients with flabs of skins completely hiding their penis (and you have to find it), nervous, dangerous men on hard drugs, men who drugged me without my consent. For example—and this shows how naive I was —one of my regular clients liked to take cocaine in the room and constantly offered me some to get high with him. I always refused. But the shifty ones would put some powder on their tongue just before going down on me. The drug travelled through the skin into my blood vessels and a short time later I was not myself anymore. I lost control: the drug had kicked in. I felt nervous and stressed. I didn’t like the feeling of the derailment of my thoughts that drugs often provoked.
I had sex with guys who were just out of prison or on remand: rapists, drug dealers, with convictions and crimes committed that I had never heard of. I was such a ‘good girl’, ignorant, and impressionable. Some didn’t say why they came to a brothel but they boasted that they missed their missus. Some looked normal and fashionable, some looked as if they’d had a rough life. Hippy or high-on-drugs couples who wanted the lesbian experience were also sent my way from reception. I was taken to swingers’ parties and had young, trendy, private clients. I took anything: what was important to me was that my act, each time, was convincing so I could get the most money from them.
I was abused by old men who took me on so-called ‘sailing holidays’ where I had to have sex all day long on a small boat. The dream beaches and pristine turquoise water I saw could have been imagined in my head. The unsavoury ‘holiday’ memories eclipsed the beauty of the nature I witnessed on the Great Barrier Reef. Big-shot millionaires who own famous Australian businesses ordered me around like a submissive dog in training. One had pancreatic cancer and could not ejaculate, but I still had to get him off. He needed so much arousal that he always asked for two women. I had to fake orgasms, fake love, be ‘the girlfriend experience’ those losers were longing for.
Losing seven years of my life being a hole for men’s pleasure is violence.
I came down with many sexually transmitted diseases, including herpes, which I caught in 2005. It is incurable but thankfully I only have mild recurrences now. I also at some stage got hooked on sleeping pills, very common amongst us anxious prostituted women unable to switch off at night. During my last year in prostitution, I went to the brothel only about once a month. I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be dead rather than going there. And I hated myself for being unable to leave. But I could not find another source of income which made me enough money to keep my home, my unit. I became an Australian citizen in 2007 but refused to go on the pension. I would not be doing what my father did and live at the expense of the state.
Eventually, I found the strength to exit the industry. A large part came from finding God. The peace it brings is priceless. Still, regaining my integrity was a long process after transitioning out. Some people who claim to ‘rescue’ women from the sex industry to this day cannot understand how difficult it was for me upon exiting. And although my Christian friends have been big support after I started sharing my story one on one, not all Christians are able to forgive. I read that many people withhold the truth out of fear; to be killed, to be badly hurt, to lose something important. Remember why you lied the last time. Most people do. In prostitution, it is compulsory to the trade. We do not report when we are conned or violated—it is part of ‘the job’.
I gained great strength when by accident I came across Sheila Jeffreys’ book The Idea of Prostitution in 2009. All of a sudden I understood the deeply dehumanising nature of the sex industry. Everything fell into place; Sheila’s view of feminism was ‘radical’: she analysed the root cause of women’s oppression.
Through secular organizations’ support I found a mainstream job in 2009. Intense, regular prayer, and counselling sustained me. 2010 was the year I became prostitution-free. When I finally managed to turn my back on prostitution for good, I was determined to help other women exit this vicious, life-destroying industry.
I decided to start Pink Cross Foundation Australia, a charity whose volunteers visit brothels and offer to catch up for coffee if the women need to chat. Some brothels do not allow us in, so we at time present ourselves as friends who go back to brothels led by Geneviève’s —who used to ‘work’— counsel.
My healing continues as I support others in their marathon effort to transition out of prostitution. It takes the strength and perseverance of an athlete to succeed. All successful athletes have a team behind them. I want to do that for prostituted people.
I realise my story may shock some and outrage others. But it can’t be any other way. It was hard to write down and reveal that prostitution had become such a big part of me. I would rather you knew about my art which I have kept going. In artspeak, I am conducting relational art and performative projects, reinventing myself as a social worker and executive director of Pink Cross Foundation.
As I volunteer for Pink Cross Foundation, I speak to many former or current prostituted people and addicts as well as those who call themselves ‘sex workers’. Some say they love their job. I caution them that it may look glamorous at first, but that the ongoing abuse of our body without consideration for our mind and soul is extremely destructive for a person’s life. I want every woman leading this life to know that there is support—and other options—available instead of having to sell sex in order to survive. I want everyone to thrive. It’s difficult because we live in a porn-saturated world that is manipulating young boys and girls, robbing them of the understanding of the real meaning of love, sex and intimacy.
I am thankful that my mother continues to love me unconditionally. I owe her my good values, resilience, determination and creativity. I owe her my love for children, for disabled people such as my adorable sister Mélanie who has Down’s syndrome. To my dad, I say that I have forgiven him. This is why I can now thrive; before, hatred held me back. Jesus is my role model as he showed compassion to everyone: prostitutes, punters and pimps.
As for the ‘adult entertainment industry’, what is needed are practical solutions to the inherent violence associated with it. We need to aim at a gender-equal society and this industry is the furthest away from equality for women. All citizens have to take part in this conversation and realise that this violence is happening in our midst, every day. Women and girls are trafficked right next door and we don’t see it.
We need to shift our focus to the buyers and ask: Why do they buy? How can they break free from this entitlement to buy women so they can have orgasms? Without being paid a woman would not have sex with them! We need to create support programs to change their attitudes (John’s Schools like they exist in the USA). We have to expose how men use their financial power over women to get unhealthy, non-consensual sex.
And those who have been prostituted are in urgent need of our support including receiving therapy. This soul-destroying industry claims too many lives. It has to stop.
This piece first appeared in ‘Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade’ (edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist and published in 2016) and is reproduced here with the author’s permission, 13 July 2021.
Geneviève Gilbert is the Founder and Executive Director of the Pink Cross Foundation Australia Inc, which connects with, supports and educates people who have been trafficked for the purpose of sexual slavery, those who are trapped in a cycle of sexual exploitation, and individuals seeking to transition out of the sex industry. The Pink Cross education program aims to empower women and men and assist them in challenging gendered and structural issues, which perpetuate the violation of their human rights.
The vision is to see a world free of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), abuse and addiction. Their programs bring hope and restoration to those who have experienced sexual exploitation, abuse and addiction.
Pink Cross uses a compassionate, non-judgemental, trauma-informed approach that reinforces the principles of human dignity and justice for all, so all may flourish and lead a safe, full and rewarding live.