Residues of the Past

I had to go into town yesterday and, being as it was such a lovely day, I didn’t want to take the car. I got off the dart at Connelly and walked though the station with the rest of the crowd until I was out in the Aungier Street sunshine. Then I walked around by Bus Aras and up to the junction where Gardiner Street meets the back of the Custom House. I was standing there alongside several other people, all of us waiting to cross the road, when I glanced over my shoulder at the buildings behind me. That’s when it arrived – the memory I’d really rather not have.

When I was fifteen and only a short time on the game I was taken back to a hotel room in one of those buildings and used sexually by an Asian man. I remember how insistent he was that he would not use a condom, and how insistent he was about everything else. I remember the bullying nature of the encounter, how his hands seemed to be everywhere at the same time and how he continually shoved his fingers into my vagina and anus although I repeatedly asked him to stop. He was a thirty-something man. I was less than half his age.

I was so innocent and so unused to what I was doing that I’d forgotten to ask him for the money first, and of course after he came he maintained he hadn’t got it. He told me to wait for him in MacDonalds on Grafton Street at two o’clock the next day, where he would pay me.

So there are two memories here, meshed into one, and for me somehow the second is more pitiable than the first. It is the image of my fifteen-year-old self waiting in MacDonalds for a man to show up so that I could buy myself a burger meal. Needless to say, I never got to eat a burger meal that day.

Every time I have turned that corner I have looked up at those buildings, but it was only yesterday that I was able to face the full reality of what caused me to turn and look. Up to now I had always snapped my neck away, pushed away the memory, refused to be submerged beneath the pain and the shame of being used like that, being made into nothing like that; and I had certainly not allowed my mind to wander back to sitting in Macdonalds on Grafton Street, feeling like the world’s emptiest, loneliest fool.

I was able to do that yesterday. I was able to let my mind go there; to remember being a hungry young girl who felt like a fool. I think I could do that because I know now that I was not a fool. I was just a young naive homeless teenager, with nobody to love her, and who it had never dawned on to love herself.

There are residues of the past. In a city as small as Dublin, they are everywhere you go. Yesterday I let the past settle into me in a way I’ve never done before. Maybe it’s because now I know the day would come when that girl would get a book deal, and have something to say about the past.

FreeIrishWoman

I just got signed to Gill and Macmillan!

I’m thrilled to tell my readers my latest news: my memoir has just been signed to Gill and Macmillan and will be published next spring!

It’s funny to think of all that’s happened on the road to securing a book deal. Firstly there’s the writing of the book, and when the text is this personal and painful it’s like climbing a shattered-glass mountain with your shoes off. Then there’s the editing, which is where the real work in a book is, in my opinion. Cutting your precious words is, in ways, more difficult than writing them. Then there is the round of agents and publishers you have to contact, and the inevitably conflicting opinions and feedback they’ll give you.

I knew that my book had found the right home within minutes of sitting down with Fergal Tobin, the publishing director of Gill and Macmillan, and his colleague Nicki Howard, though I should probably tell you first about getting to the publishing house on the day as that was a story in itself!

I printed out the directions to City West (I’d never had to go there before) and I got in my car and started driving. I arrived ten minutes before the meeting and was feeling pleased with myself for making good time when I checked the internet on my mobile phone to find the address. That’s when my ideas about having made good time went out the window. I was supposed to be in Park West – bloody miles away.

I called the publishers; they seemed as amused as I was embarrassed, and I turned the car around and drove back down the motorway like a mad thing. It’s just as well the guards weren’t anywhere around as I’ve clocked up a couple of speeding tickets in recent times. More penalty points – no thank you!

When I got there Fergal Tobin told me “this is one of the most remarkable things that’s ever landed on my desk”. That was far beyond anything I’d imagined him saying to me. I was stunned. I still am. We talked then for about five or ten minutes about what final edits the book might need. It’s over a hundred and fifty thousand words, so it’ll need to be paired back a bit. I still thought we were having a hypothetical conversation when Fergal told me “we want to publish the book”. I just said “oh my God”, in that sort of way that words have of slipping out on their own. Then Nicki said to me “this is about more than just writing a book; this is about trying to do the right thing”.

I spent somewhere around an hour talking to Nicky and Fergal and I felt, walking back to my car, that I couldn’t have imagined meeting two people who were so supportive, so on board with the book, with the message of it and the intention of it. This has just been such a long road, and to have secured the biggest independent publisher in the land to help me is just mind-blowing. I am incredibly pleased and relieved.

I have to go back to the publishing house in a few weeks and give a presentation to the editorial team, explaining who I am, what the book is about, why I wrote it etc etc. It was explained to me how there are many people involved in the publication of any book, there are lots of people behind the scenes involved in design and marketing, that sort of stuff, and it’s these people I’ll be talking to. I’m really looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to the chance to stand over my work, to explain what went on in my past, why it happened, how it happened, and what I’m hoping to achieve with this book. Also I enjoy pubic speaking. I don’t know why; I just feel relaxed and confident when I have to talk to a large crowd.

It’s probably just as well, because I will be going public with my identity when the book comes out. I have always intended to do that, for my own sake, so it’ll be goodbye FreeIrishWoman and hello freedom, in a sense. Also I’m proud that I wrote this book on my own; it was a long hard road, and my name should be on the cover of it.

FreeIrishWoman – (for the time being!)

Former Prostitutes are Finding their Voices

Something that I find just uncanny is the amount of women globally who’ve come forward, all within a very short time-span, to refute the happy-hooker BS that’s been spouted for a long time about prostitution.

I don’t believe in coincidences; I believe there’s always something else going on, something beyond our comprehension, when this many ‘coincidences’ line up alongside and at the same time.

I spent years writing my book and in the final year of its construction the Irish government started talking publicly about new prostitution legislation. In January 2012, the same month my book was sent off to publishers and agents, a young Irish woman started a blog that became wildly popular and well read in no time flat. In the same month ‘Survivors Connect Network’ was formed – an international group-blog where writings from prostitution survivors from all over the globe could be found.

Early this year I met Trisha Baptie, a Canadian prostitution survivor and activist. I also met Cherry Smiley, a friend of hers, who is a member of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network. Both women have spent recent years working tirelessly to spread the truth about how prostitution affects Canadian women’s lives.

There is a real sense of ‘something in the air’ here – a sense that there is something more to the fact that women are rising up together, for the same reason, at the same time, all over the globe.

In February of this year, in the wake of the RTE documentary ‘Profiting from Prostitution’ I was asked to write an article for the Irish Examiner. I provided the following piece:

“The nation is finally beginning to take a look at the intrinsic harm of prostitution. I welcome this because it is a harm I have understood since I was a fifteen-year-old prostitute, being used by up to ten men a day. The one thing that linked those men together, besides their urges to pay for the right to abuse my young body, was that they all knew just how young I was. They all knew because I told them, and I told them because it had the near-universal effect of causing them to become very aroused.

“When a man is very aroused in street prostitution that is a good thing, because it means he’ll climax quickly and the whole ordeal will be over fairly fast. I learned that on my very first day while sitting in the car of an elderly man who, as he abused me, repeated over and over the thing that was causing him such sexual joy: ‘Oh, you’re very young – aren’t you? Aren’t you?’

“That is the true, sleazy and debased face of prostitution – the face that pro-prostitution lobby groups hysterically deny and attempt to conceal. Well, they cannot conceal it from me. I spent too long looking at it, too long being abused by it, and too long trying to recover from the soul-level injury it left behind.

“Many of the girls I worked alongside were not much older than I was and one was only thirteen-years-old – and there was no shortage of grown men paying to abuse her. Most of the older women had been working since they were our age or younger, and many of them had histories of sexual abuse that predated their prostitution lives. When a person looks at a thirty or forty-something prostitute what they forget is that they are looking, in most cases, at a woman who has been inured to bodily invasion since she was a prepubescent child.

“I didn’t just work outdoors. When the sexual offences act of 1993 came into force it drove me and many others like me indoors, where we had even less autonomy over the conditions of our own lives. In the brothels and the ‘escort’ agencies we had to endure the same things we did on the streets, but we had to endure them for longer, and with no screening process as to who would and who would not pay to abuse us.

“You might wonder, ‘if you were a prostitute, what did it matter who it was?’ That is an innocent question, and it is deserving of an answer. It mattered because, far from being unaware of the abusive nature of prostitution, a lot of men were not only aware of it but actively got off on it. The misogyny from a lot of men was so potent and so deliberate it could cause nothing but trauma, as it was designed to do. And we, as the prostituted class that we were, could do nothing to protect ourselves other than try to avoid its most potent manifestations. This had been at least somewhat possible on the streets, where we could do our best to discern whether or not a man had hatred and the desire to hurt us seeping out of every pore. It was not at all possible once we’d gotten run indoors and the immediate effect was a rapid escalation in violence and murder.

“Irish prostitution has been mainly conducted indoors since then, and nothing about this ugliness has abated because it’s been concealed from the public view. In fact the opposite has been true. We were abused more thoroughly, not less, with the only difference being that now there was the secrecy of closed doors to conceal it.

“There is no doubt that a good number of these men had daughters younger than I was, yet the abuse they unleashed on me was devastating, violent, humiliating and degrading. It was paid sexual abuse, just as it was designed to be. It was ritualistic, and I experienced it in every area of prostitution.

“Do not for a moment think that the men paying to abuse here are not ‘ordinary men’. I could not possibly count the number of wedding rings and babies car seats I encountered. The men who pay to debase and degrade women and girls in prostitution are, the vast majority of them, the same men who play out the pretence of being happily married family men.

“I wonder sometimes at the amount of women who would be shocked, not only to know their husbands are visiting prostitutes, but also to know the depth of their own husbands contempt and misogynistic hatred of women.

“Under Irish law, the abusive nature of prostitution has been allowed to flourish unhindered and it is a living hell for the women struggling to survive within it. It is primarily for the sake of these women, but also for all of us who want to live in a gender-equal society, that I am gladdened to see the Irish government finally pledge to tackle this issue.

“I only hope that they go the right way about it, which is to criminalise the purchase of sex, because nothing will change for prostituted women and girls until the commercialisation of female bodies is dealt the hammer-blow it so richly deserves.

“To those who would say legalisation would make prostitution safer: I think the same thing every former prostitute I’ve ever spoken to thinks, which is that you may as well legalise rape and battery to try to make them safer. You cannot legislate away the dehumanising, degrading trauma of prostitution, and if you try to, you are accepting a separate class of women should exist who have no access to the human rights everyone else takes for granted.”

Here is the link to that article: http://www.irishexaminer.com/news/the-harsh-realities-of-being-raped-for-a-living-183894.html

A few months before I wrote this piece I provided a written statement to be read out at a prostitution seminar; I will publish that here at some future time. I am far from alone in this. Many women are involved in different areas of activism, as I am.

The bottom is this: former prostitutes are finding their voices and refuting the lies that have so long been told about what it is to live life as a prostitute. There are no coincidences here. This is not happening for no reason. It is happening for a very clear reason – the reason is that it is time.

FreeIrishWoman

Why Legislation Alone will Never Work

The criminalisation of demand which has been enacted in several countries now and is currently being discussed at political level in Ireland is something that I wholeheartedly support, but I also say and I’ve always said that legislation alone will never eradicate prostitution, unless and until it addresses the constraints of women’s choices that turn women towards prostitution in the first place.

My own involvement in prostitution happened because of circumstances so constrained that choice had no real place within them, and everything I saw in prostitution reflected this back to me in the lives of other women. Whether a woman was coming to prostitution for the first time as a thirty-something mother who’d just found herself the sole provider for her kids, whether she’d been years on the game and just could not see or imagine any way out, whether she, like me, had come to prostitution through homelessness and destitution, in all these scenarios we women needed more than the criminalisation of demand to have a positive impact on our lives.

Yes, those paying to use the bodies of women and teenagers who submit and comply through a lack of any real choice should be guilty of a criminal offence. The criminalisation of the demand for prostitution is an important start; I do not mean to detract from that – but I do not feel and have never felt that any single piece of legislation is capable of eradicating prostitution. For that to happen, supports must be put in place that give women and girls exactly the choices they’ve been missing. It stands to reason that a situation that exists because of the absence of choice can only be successfully eliminated by creating that choice. I am talking about education, training, housing – all of the things that were missing in my life and the lives of the women and girls I worked with.

What needs to be implemented here is a government programme that commits itself to providing real alternatives for women and girls in prostitution. What I want to see is women and girls supported here, not simply affected by legislation with no alternatives and – still – no real choice. It saddens me now, at the span of all these years, to think how the fifteen-year-old me would have jumped at the chance to train as a secretary or a hairdresser. How much would that training have cost? How much would it have cost to assign me a specially trained social worker? And how do you measure the worth of that support, against the price I paid for its absence?

FreeIrishWoman

Violence from Women in Prostitution

The headline of this article will probably cause some people to do a double take, but the truth is violence from women in prostitution is nothing new, especially in street prostitution. It doesn’t compare to the prevalence of violence from men, but it happens, and when it does it comes as a particularly nasty shock, especially to the new prostitute.

When I first arrived on Benburb Street in the summer of ’91 I was fifteen and, at the risk of sounding like Samantha Brick, I was tall, slim and long-haired, with disproportionately large breasts, long legs and a pretty face. No doubt the man who brought me there was well aware of what I’d be worth in monetary terms, of how much of a target I’d be for the clients. I don’t know if he realised (and I know I certainly didn’t realise) what a target I’d be for some of the older women.

The first time I was attacked by a woman in prostitution is something I’ll never forget. The northside red-light zone of Benburb Street was unusual in that it was a 24 hour street. Business operated ‘round the clock because Bunburb Street ran the entire length of Collins Barracks, with high stone walls on either side, and no shops or houses lined along it. There was, in short, nobody to offend by our presence. Because I was afraid to be doing what I was doing in the dark I worked from late morning, around 11am, till late afternoon, around four or five o’clock. Consequently, it was on a beautiful sunny day that I was first attacked by a woman in prostitution.

She would have been around late forties. I don’t remember much more about her except that she was a dark-haired Dubliner, solid and squat in build, and that she seemed to – bizarrely – have it in her head that she was doing me some kind of favour by giving me this beating. I knew something was up the moment I saw her striding purposely towards me with that pissed-off look on her face and she didn’t stop to say a single thing. I guess she felt she was communicating enough with actions when she grabbed me by the hair and slammed me up against the wall. As she belted her hand into my face she kept screaming ‘What are you doing down here? You’re only a child! Have you no respect for yourself?’ When she was done doing what she’d come there to do she threw a ‘That was for your own good, now get out of here and go home’ over her shoulder.

I had never seen that woman before that day, and she had arrived with another older woman who often worked the street at the same time I did. I’d no idea what was going on at the time, but it is obvious to me now that the reason the other woman didn’t attack me and rather got someone else to do her dirty work was because she was afraid that my pimp would target her in retaliation for it.

What is strange to me now, looking back on it, is the conviction of the woman who attacked me that what she was doing served some higher good. That if she beat me hard enough and frightened me badly enough I’d go home and forget all about this prostitution business; that somehow the circumstances that brought me into prostitution would dissolve all the more thoroughly with every slap and shout and handful of hair she dragged out of me. There was such ignorance in that, it just boggled my mind. It still does.

I was back down the next day, needless to say, the only difference being that now I had a few bruises and bald patches.

About nine months or so after I first started on Benburb Street I moved over to Burlington Road on the southside red-light district. I was brought there by a girl I’d met on Benburb Street who worked both sides of street prostitution, north and south. If she needed money quick in the daytime she’d work northside, but usually she worked at night on the southside district, on Burlington Road.

One of the differences between the two districts was that the Southside was a night-time only collection of streets, squares and canal-sides. This was the case because the areas where we worked were scattered throughout residential and business districts. You couldn’t go to work until it was dark, or at least until night was falling, which meant that in the height of summer you couldn’t go to work until ten o’clock and that you often wouldn’t get home until three or four in the morning. In winter you could work from around 6pm onwards, but you were still in the dark. That was frightening for me at first and it took a bit of getting used to.

The threats of violence from the women on Burlington Road were predictable. I was only gone sixteen but I knew what to expect by then. The only difference on Burlington Road was that there was no pretence of it being for our own good. These were just bitter oul cows who didn’t appreciate the business our presence there was costing them and didn’t make any secret of it. One night I got out of a punters car to find my friend slumped against the wall, bruised and in pain, just moments after a beating.

Night after night we were approached with threats and night after night we returned, until one night my friend was told to forfeit her place on the street and get me out of there immediately otherwise we’d both have our faces slashed so that we “wouldn’t be able to work”. We knew the threat was serious and we moved on to the parallel street, Waterloo Road.

Waterloo Road wasn’t a red-street at that time, but it was by the time we were finished with it. The women from Burlington Road followed us around the corner and continued their threats. We’d had enough by that stage and told them to get the fuck off our street, which, thankfully for all concerned, they did. I think they knew they were wasting their time trying to move us.

The point of all this is that violence doesn’t come from one direction in prostitution. It comes from all directions, and it can come at any time. You need to watch out, principally, for the punters, but you also need to watch out for the pimps, the police (who are sometimes punters themselves) and you need to watch out for the other prostitutes – which is particularly fucking tragic.

FreeIrishWoman

Mental and Emotional Torment, Repackaged as a ‘Review’.

Because of the timeline I worked in prostitution (I’m well over a decade out of it now) I was, thankfully, never subjected to the creepy and debasing practice of punters online reviews.* Formerly prostituted women tell me about their experiences of seeing what fat, heaving, physically repulsive strangers have had to say about their bodies and their sexual performance online. Often they complain that a woman ‘didn’t seem into it’ and other such inanities.

I am not a conventionally trained actress, but I doubt if I were I could pull-off the performance in a manner that would satisfy these men’s fantasies. It is beyond my capacity to understand why, if they want to experience a woman who is ‘into it’, they don’t work at fostering genuine relationships with the women in their lives. Or if they want to treat a woman as a piece of sub-human scum, as so many of them do, why they do not go for some form of psychological help.

The same men who sit, keyboard-warrior style, debasing electronically the women they’ve already paid to debase physically, are debasing another party here. They are debasing themselves.

If there is one thing more repulsive than the bully it is the bully who gloats, who sits around with his friends making entertainment out of the damage he’s done, talking about how much fun it was, to his joy, or how much fun it was not, to his intense displeasure and disappointment. In all cases, no matter what a man has had to say about a woman whose body he has paid to use, the act of writing a review in itself casts the woman as subhuman.

‘But nobody says restaurant reviews treat waitresses as subhuman’ I can hear the pro-prostitution lobby bleat. That’s because they don’t. To do that, the restaurant reviewer would need to strip the same waitress of her clothes, lay her spread-eagled on the table, shove his penis and fingers into every orifice of her body and then do a write-up on how good or bad a job she did of pretending to like it.

That is what a ‘review’ is, in this context. It is a secondary, supplementary ‘top up’ to the original degradation that characterises the prostitution experience.

Putting aside the sheer nastiness of reviewing women in this way, the fact of the matter is that a woman in prostitution can never get it right. She can never adhere to one set of rules and expect that all the men she meets will be satisfied by them. Just as we all like our steak cooked to suit our own preferences, the women in prostitution, regarded as living meat themselves, must conform to the preferences of those who consume them. But what are those preferences? And how is she to know what they are?

Some men get off on the thrill of a willing woman, a woman who seems to love every moment of the sex-for-money exchange. Others feel very differently, as expressed by this direct quote – “I’d feel cheated if she enjoyed it”.**

In other words, some men are so inhumane (and I met PLENTY of these) that they need to understand that the woman they are paying is experiencing sexual abuse. They need to feel her shrinking from his touch. They need for her to turn her face away from his kisses. They need for her to shudder with disgust as her nipples are pulled, sucked, twisted and chewed, and they need to feel her deaden herself like a doll as he shoves his penis into her. Why? Because they enjoy it. Because it is necessary for their orgasm.

These men accounted for a disturbingly sizable minority of the men I met in prostitution, and I could always sense them. I always knew when I was dealing with a big-time misogynist, often before he’d even open his mouth. There was something in their eyes that gave them away. When you’ve seen that look enough times, you will recognise it forever. It sucks the air out of your lungs, to know what’s coming; to know that here, now, again, you’re going to experience what it is to be treated as less than nothing.

Lone Lindholt, of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, amongst a plethora of other prostitution-related research, discovered a disproportionately high suicide rate amongst prostitutes. I know why.

There is a way out of being treated as less than nothing. It is to be nothing at all.

How much more compounded, I wonder, is the mental and emotional torment for the women who’ve been subjected to these reviews? How many of them have read reviews of themselves and thought about being nothing at all?

FreeIrishWoman

*For a dissection of how it actually feels to be reviewed, see DCG’s excellent post ‘How it Feels to Get Reviewed’ on her blog ‘secretdiaryofadublincallgirl’.

**from the American research study ‘Comparing sex buyers with men who don’t buy sex’

Why I Still Love Men

I was sitting in the passenger seat of my friend’s parked car recently while she ran into the shop to buy a few things. She was gone a good while and I sat there, watching the moving scene through the windscreen.

A man walked by with his little girl, who looked to be about three. She wanted to walk on a slightly raised area of cement beside some steps and a look of distress crossed his features before he steadied her with one hand and held her with the other one more tightly. He kept a firm grip of her as he carefully navigated her along the area of cement, not breaking his concentration for anything, until she was back down (about one foot lower than she had been) on solid ground beside him. Then he was able to relax again and she said something to him that I could not hear. That caused his face to break into the most beaming and adoring smile, as if he’d heard the most profoundly endearing comment ever uttered. The look on his face made my eyes fill with tears.

I’m not talking about the sort of misty barely-there tears we feel when we’ve just witnessed something moving. I’m talking about the sort of stormy tears that threaten to spill down your face immediately if you don’t choke them back; the sort of tears that signal a full-on emotional onslaught. It was so sudden, it shocked me.

I had to get myself together because, as my much as I love and trust the woman I was with that day (who is one of my closest friends) I just didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of her arriving back at the car with her diet coke and tea cakes and finding me a blubbering emotional mess. I think, more so, I didn’t feel comfortable with how I would explain myself, with how I would communicate what was wrong.

What was wrong had nothing to do with a man loving his little girl; what was wrong was what it, by contrast, called up for me, and that was just too big a conversation for that time and place.

Apart from being embarrassing it makes you feel very vulnerable, to have to explain the enormity of the distinction that is so often and so easily called to your mind; this understanding of the gentle pure love males have for the females close to them, their daughters, sisters, mothers, girlfriends and wives, juxtaposed with the contempt so often expressed for the females not close to them – the woman walking alone in public, or unaccompanied in a bar, or most potently of all, the malignant and abundant contempt for the woman in a brothel.

So when I see an example of male love for women and girls, along with uplifting me and moving me emotionally, and making me think how this is the way it should be, it also calls to mind that contrast, and it hurts me. It hurts me dreadfully.

I’ve had the same emotional response many times. Any time I see a man put his arm protectively around his girlfriend, or hand her a tissue for her snotty nose, or kiss the top of her head without giving a shite who’s looking, I feel the same way. I smile, and feel a warm gush of inner contentment. It provokes a feeling of love, this evidence of male love that exists in the world; but it is quickly and violently followed by a hammer in my heart. It is the brutal thud of its opposite – the understanding of male hatred.

Let me be clear about this: prostitution has to do with killing. It has to do with killing the human spirit, and beyond that, it has to do with getting off on it. It is evil, and when we see evil, when we live evil, I believe it is very important to name it. Evil can obscure itself very easily when we do not assign it its true name.

The evil of prostitution has been so thoroughly obscured that it is even taught in universities as a ‘sex positive’ autonomous choice. What a load of bollocks. I could put a gun in my mouth tomorrow and blow my own brains out; that is surely an autonomous choice – it doesn’t mean there’s anything positive about it. But I will leave the lies and the stupidities of ‘sex positive feminism’ to another day and get back to the subject at hand:

I was invited to attend the conference that launched the Turn Off The Red Light campaign in Buswell’s Hotel in Dublin last year. I had just been told that it was a conference, it hadn’t been mentioned that the press would be there, so I got a very big shock when I arrived to the scene of cameras rolling and flashing lights. It was a shock because something in me told me that I was supposed to speak, but how was I supposed to do that with every newspaper and TV station in the country present?

I was a little late and there was only one seat left in the back row. I sat down and felt a bit bad about grabbing the last seat when people, some much older than me, started filling up the standing room all the way out to the hall, but I was wearing ankle boots with a five inch heel so I decided I’d have to live with my own conscience.

The first thing I noticed about the panel was that they were all men. That kind of knocked the stuffing out of me. I was really surprised and listened very intently to hear what they’d say. As they introduced themselves it became clear that they were all men who were high-profile in one sense or another in Irish life; a poet and prose writer (Theo Dorgan), a playwright and theatre director (Peter Sheridan), the chair of the Board of Directors at the Immigrant Council of Ireland (John Cunningham), chairperson of Ruhama (Diarmaid O’Corrbui), CEO of Bernardos (Fergus Finlay), General Secretary of the largest craft union in Ireland, the TEEU (Eamon Devoy) and General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (David Begg).

Something happened which thoroughly moved me. They spoke, one after another, about why prostitution and trafficking should have no place in this country. Men, seven of them, high-profile men at that, talking one after another about what I’ve always thought, what I’ve always known. Probably because some of them were a good bit older than me I was reminded of the protective presence I used to feel when I was with my Dad, who died not long before I went on the game. More tears to struggle with. Another lump in the throat.

When they’d all done speaking the meeting was opened to questions and discussion and around a dozen people spoke. A woman stood near me with a microphone on a long extendable arm that she held up to anyone who’d talk, and when anyone did, the cameras pointed right at them.

The standing area behind me was filled with people, with politicians among them, all the way out and halfway down the hall and I had noticed that when anyone behind me spoke several people in front of me would turn around to look at them.

When the man chairing the meeting asked if there were any more questions before he wrapped the meeting up my heart gave a violent thump, but there was no way I could walk out of there if I didn’t do what needed to be done, which was to provide the voice of prostituted women, which was about the only relevant voice that was missing from the room.

I stood up and said I had something to say but asked the reporters to not photograph me and to point their cameras away. The first thing I said after that was that I was a former prostitute; it was at that point that every head in front of me, about a hundred of them, turned to look. I don’t know how I didn’t keel-over with the sense of vulnerability and exposure, and I was told afterwards that my voice shook audibly when I first spoke.

I went on to say I was glad that prostitution and trafficking were being dealt with together, and that I felt they should continue to be addressed together, as the routes into prostitution and trafficking are only two different routes that bring women to exactly the same place. I then explained that it had been family dysfunction followed by homelessness that had brought me to prostitution at fifteen years of age, and that there was no difference to be found in two groups of women selling their bodies because of sets of circumstances that were beyond their control, just because those circumstances were different. I felt a very great weight of relief when I sat back down, that I’d done what I had to do and that it was over.

Immediately after I sat down one male politician behind me seemed moved, frustrated, and there was angst in his voice when he said “we need to do something about this situation – now!” I was approached by another politician afterwards, and by the chairperson of the conference, who told me that I had made “the most significant contribution to the meeting”. Both were encouraging, both were respectful, and both were men.

After I left Buswell’s I walked to nearby Stephen’s Green and sat on a bench looking at the flowerbeds and popped the Xanax a friend had offered me the night before “for the sake of your nerves”. I was glad I had it, because my nerves were in shreds, although my anxiety was strangely mixed with a feeling of peace that day. I was anxious because of the deeply traumatic part of my past I had just visited so publicly, and I was at peace in another sense because I had been exposed to something I find wonderfully comforting: the gentle and sincere humanity of men.

When you have spent seven years being exposed to the worst of what men have to offer it will leave you dreadfully traumatised, and consequently hurt, embittered and angry. But we are multifaceted beings, thank God, and no one feeling remains constant and ever-present in our minds. A person might reasonably ask: why do you still love men? Because I can still see their humanity shining out of them, and I still draw comfort from it. That’s why.

FreeIrishWoman

Where were all the Happy-Hookers when I was on The Game?

Something that I would find incredibly baffling – if I didn’t know exactly what’s going on here – is the amount of women I’ve come across online in my post-prostitution life who claim to be happy in prostitution.  I would find it incredibly baffling because I never met a single one of them in all the years I was in prostitution.

In all the innumerable brothels, on all the dingy street-corners, in all the knocking-shops that went – Hyacinth-Bucket-style – by the term ‘Escort Agencies’ there was an absolute dearth of these ‘Happy Hookers’.  So, if I didn’t already know the answer, my question would be: where were you all hiding?

Were you underneath the sofa?  Did you keep on jumping into the wardrobe every time I walked in?  Was there some big conspiracy not to let us miserable ho’s in on the secret of your existence?

If we want to get metaphysical about it, I could be wondering, is there some sort of chink in reality; some sort of crevice in the fabric of the world, with all the happy hookers over on one side and all the broken, shattered ones on the other.

I think it’s safe to assume that vast numbers of happy hookers were not hurling themselves under sofas and I have no evidence to suggest such a split in the fabric of the universe, so we need to take a look at this situation and inject it with a little commonsense.

If any obviously discernable numbers of hookers are actually happy, well then, surely brothels are the places you could reasonably expect to find them?  It’s just common sense, much like you’d find happy children in playgrounds, or happy drunks at parties, or happy gluttons at the all-you-can-eat.

Even if only a small but reasonably-sized minority of prostitutes are happy, well then surely I should have come across one of them somewhere among God-knows-how-many locations and over the span of seven years?

This situation reminds me of the Yeti; that unfathomable creature that supposedly exists somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas – often spoken of but never to be seen.

Sometimes these cyber-world happy hookers tell us that they view prostitution no differently to hairdressing.  All I can say to that is they must be getting their hair cut in the bowels of hell.

Sometimes they’ll tell us that they see prostitution as no different to a man who rents out the use of his body as a labourer.  That’d make sense if labourers routinely suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of their employ.

Sometimes they tell us that it is their body to do with what they will, and the simplicity and apparent reasonableness of that statement conceals that their insistence on being made into merchandise means that they assert it is tolerable for women to be made into merchandise in the first place.  They view humanity as highly individualised, rather than what it really is; a community where each of us affects the other, fused together in that sense, rather like coral on a reef.  The damage of their stance is incalculable.

The internets happy hookers will deny that their insistence has any consequences for anybody but themselves, and will say ‘No, we do not advocate prostitution for all women; only for those who choose to do it’.  In saying so, they first deny the severity of the constraints behind those ‘choices’ for the vast majority of women.  They then go on to ignore their insistence on a class of women who are made merchandise means that they insist all women are potential prostitutes, just as the cars in all of our driveways might one day be bought or sold, depending on fiscal constraints, because of their commodified status.  This is what happens to women when they are reduced to the status of products and goods.

Yet even faced with these bald truths, they tell us over and over that we are talking nonsense; that the opinions that have emerged from our own lived experience are nothing but propaganda sprung from some poisoned fountain of religious fundamentalist ideals.  But it is not so much what these happy hookers tell us that frame’s the bigger part of the picture; that is concealed by what they do not tell us.

They do not tell us – for the reason that they’d like to conceal it – about the same disconnect that academia isn’t telling us – because it is incapable of revealing it.

They do not tell us about the soul-level injury that capitalism and patriarchy have combined to create.  They do not tell us about that precise point at which female sexuality is severed from the self.  They do not tell us about what it means in the mind and the heart and the spirit, when you’ve been paid to say ‘yes’ and behave ‘yes’ and perform ‘yes’, so that you are mute – and rendered mute by the very reality of the transaction that has bought your silence – but everything non-audible that makes up who you are is silently screaming ‘NO’.

They do not tell us about any of this.

Now can anyone who has not experienced this please take a moment to imagine the layers of pain and shame and inner-torment this situation causes, when it has been lived over and over and over again, for months, years, decades in some cases.

The memories that occasion writing these things tire the soul.  Sometimes, turning on my computer, I feel like I am going into battle.  Often, turning it off, I feel like I have just laid down my arms, and there is no great relief in that when you know you have to pick them back up again.  So I am tired, and I will just add this:  If any reasonable percentage of prostitutes are happy then I surely must have met them, and if any of those women were happy, then they certainly missed their calling.  They should have been on New York’s Broadway or London’s West End, because they did a bloody good job of looking miserable.

FreeIrishWoman

What is a Representative Prostitute?

The question of what is a representative prostitute is an important one.  I will answer it based on my own lived experience of prostitution and what I saw to be representative of the women I worked with, both indoors and outdoors and at the upper, middle and lower ends of prostitutions social spectrum.  I do so because there were certain commonalities between the lives and the attitudes of the women in all these areas of prostitution.  They were distinct and unmistakeable.

A representative prostitute is somebody who’s lived experience of prostitution and consequential attitudes towards it are those experienced by and held by the majority.  So of course in discerning what a representative prostitute is we need to look at what are the most commonly held attitudes among prostitutes, what are the most common opinions towards prostitution expressed by those who’ve lived it.  If we are to truly discern what the defining features of a representative prostitute is, then we need to know what are the most common reasons for their entry into prostitution and what are their feelings about those reasons, and about where those reasons led them.

We also need to know (and it is very important to know) what are the majority experiences and opinions of the formerly prostituted, because it has been charted that the opinions of women undertake a significant shift depending on whether they currently are or have ever been prostituted.  This has been noted, for example, in the Swedish Independent Evaluation of 2011.  Its findings make sense to me; in fact I don’t see how it could be any other way.  My own expressed opinions in prostitution were always constructed in the effort to protect myself.  I berated myself over that for quite a long while afterwards, but to the best of my ability, I don’t do that anymore, because it was only natural that I would protect myself anyway I could and I need to be understanding and gentle with myself about that.

A detailed analysis of the interior experiences of the prostituted class has yet, in my awareness, to be undertaken.  There have been many studies done that focus on prostitution, but not of the sort I am imagining: I would like to see a study that shaped the inner experience of prostitution for the publics understanding.  I wonder how possible that would be, given my memories of my own closed-off ‘this-far-and-no-further’ responses to questioning during prostitution.  I not only experienced that myself, but witnessed it constantly among at the attitudes of my peers to questioning by outsiders; so perhaps that is not even possible, or at least would not be possible in the absence of lie detector tests.  I know that’s what it would have taken to have gotten the truth out of me in those times.

So I think it is safe to assume we will be operating in the absence of such a study, and in its absence, cursory glances at other studies, even just here in Ireland, give us the strongest possible hints as to the reality of prostitution as a lived experience.  For example, the findings of the Haughey and Bacik analysis ‘A Study of Prostitution in Dublin’ (conducted with funding from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Trinity College, June 2000) were very telling.  In this study, twenty-nine out of thirty prostituted women stated that they ‘would accept an alternative job with equal pay.’

Now this may not tell us the whole story, but it gives us an unmistakably clear signal that the vast majority of the women polled here, would not, if they could make the same money elsewhere, choose to experience another moment of prostitution ever again.

There are no surprises for me in what this study reveals.  In seven years of prostitution, I never met a woman who wouldn’t have accepted an alternative job with equal pay.  And yes, we did discuss these things, and many other aspects of prostitution besides.  We discussed them with each other, because we felt safe discussing them with each other; it was only under the scrutiny of strangers that our sense of safety evaporated, and our openness evaporated with it.

When we ask the question ‘What is a representative prostitute?’ we are asking (or ought to be asking) what is a representative prostitute globally.  When prostitution is the last resort for women in developed countries – when it is the last resort for women in countries with social welfare systems that are the envy of the rest of the world – then it is reasonable to assume that fiscal coercion is very much more the norm in countries that do not enjoy these supports.  Therefore, whatever we see of coercion in Europe or North America is nothing compared to what is experienced in numerous nations in Africa, Asia and South America.  We know that children in these nations are more liable to be prostituted than the children of western nations by many many times.  Are we to assume that the women and children of under-developed nations have a higher propensity to assert their ‘personal agency’ to prostitute themselves, as the pro-prostitution alliance would have us believe, or are we to assume that their extreme financial constraints – might – just – possibly – have something to do with that?

It is clearly unreasonable to assume that there is even a possibility that a globally representative prostitute could be characterised by the minority of western women earning two hundred pounds/euros/dollars an hour.  These women are not even representative prostitutes in the western world, never mind anywhere else.  Yet there are those who’ve never spent a moment being prostituted who like to play around with statistics so as to present the prostituted as a class who are, or at least may be, represented by the happy hooker mythology – those women who supposedly do nothing they don’t want to do, and what they do want to do, they do for up to, and in excess of, a thousand euros per night.  It is hard not to hate the non-prostituted hypocrites who peddle these myths, especially when they are women.  Where is their experienced-based evidence?  They have none.  Here is mine:

This is a short roll-call of some of the prostituted adolescents (it would not be accurate to call them women) that I have personally known and worked alongside.  I have changed their names out of respect for their privacy.

Lisa was a representative prostitute.  She left home at fifteen and was prostituted at seventeen.  She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t even consider going home, and there was nothing else she could do.

Anna was a representative prostitute.  She left home at fourteen because her stepfather had been sexually molesting her for years.  She was prostituted at seventeen, and found prostitution nothing very new.  The only difference was money changing hands, instead of sweets, clothes and gifts.  Most importantly for her, she could walk away at the end of the encounter, instead of having to sleep with her abuser all night in the same house.

Tori was a representative prostitute.  She left home at eighteen and was working as a stripper within six months – that was the gateway for her, and she was prostituted before she was twenty.  She was gang raped at twenty-one.  She was supposed to see them all one by one.  She would never have the right to say what was done to her, because they paid her before it happened.

Lillianne was a representative prostitute.  She left home at seventeen and was working the streets within the year.  I will remember her vulnerability and her first-night frightened face forever.  “Do you think he’ll be okay?” she asked before she got into the car.  I gave her arm a quick squeeze and offered the useless guidance “Keep your wits about you”.

Marie was a representative prostitute.  She left home at fifteen and was prostituted at seventeen.  Marie, who didn’t even know how to roll a joint when she first started in prostitution, was hopelessly addicted to narcotics for years while we worked together, and was still strung-out the last time I saw her.  I remember her childlike embarrassment at not being able to roll a joint, but she got good at that in no time.  There are so many other things I wish she’d never learned.

I was a representative prostitute.  I left home at fourteen and was prostituted at fifteen.  I am still here, I am still alive, and thankfully I am no longer narcotic addicted.  The voices I echo are not only my own; for my sake and for all our sakes, I will never ever be silenced.

So yes, the question of what is a representative prostitute is an important one; it is just unfortunate that it is sometimes posed by those who go on to answer it dishonestly, in the effort to obscure what a representative prostitute truly is.  A good hint as to the intentions of anyone posing this question is in how they will construct it.  Members of the pro-prostitution alliance will far more likely use the sanitising/normalising language of ‘sex work’; therefore will most likely ask ‘What is a representative sex-worker?’

This is an exercise in misrepresentation and concealment; obscurest language here is such a commonplace theme.  The profile of a representative prostitute needs obscuring for anyone of the pro-prostitution lobby, because the profile of a representative prostitute lays bare the immeasurably ugly profile of prostitution itself.

FreeIrishWoman

The Aftermath

In the wake of every traumatic experience humans are re-traumatised, in new and unfamiliar ways.  These repercussions combine to create the occurrence of an aftermath, and are ripples of the traumatic events which gave them being.

To negotiate the aftermath of prostitution is to traverse a strange and foreign hinterland that is uncomfortable in its very unnaturalness.  It has been remarked by several other exited women that what is normal for others is not normal for us, and it is our very unfamiliarity with social norms that makes the effort, or even the contemplation of that effort, an enormous struggle.

Sometimes a woman will feel drawn back to prostitution because that is the sphere of life into which she has become institutionalised.  That is the sphere of life in which she can, through experience, navigate.  More often a woman will feel drawn back simply because she is now dealing with the same financial problems that drew her into prostitution in the first place.  Poverty is a frightening and deeply vulnerable sphere of life in which to be suddenly thrust, and she knows, through much practice, how to remedy that.

Also there is the strong feeling (and this is the one I personally identify with) that she is not fit for anything else; that she has been morphed and transformed by prostitution in such a manner as to make living in the ‘real world’ simply impracticable.  What this stressor does, and does with great ruthlessness, is to convince us – once we have found ourselves here – that we are unable to operate in this normal non-prostituted reality occupied by the majority of humans, which seemed for so long exactly the Nirvana we were all missing, and seeking.

Of course a woman on the verge of exiting prostitution does not know this, and when she discovers it, it comes as a bitter, unexpected, and most unwelcome shock.  It is a cruelty, and perhaps the greatest essence of this cruelty is the way it strikes with that most potent of weapons: the element of surprise.

To the inhabitants of any oppressive regime, freedom will always seem like the Holy Grail of all experiences.  It will always seem as though all our problems will be over the moment we make the transition from one phase of life to the next.  What we don’t know, and what we are most disappointed to discover, is that the next phase has its own difficulties, directly related to and drawing from the first.

This causes a state of intense disillusionment.  It is only natural then, in the face of this unexpected and unwelcome reality, that some women will feel drawn back to prostitution, where at least they knew the rules, understood the functioning, and could operate without the new and frighteningly unfamiliar social rules they have since had such trouble accustoming themselves to.

Remember also that formerly prostituted women are blocked from their entry into normal society on levels and in ways that are thoroughly alien to those who have not experienced them.  They are, nevertheless, relentless.  Even now, almost fourteen years after my own exit from prostitution, I still find myself confronted by these obstacles.  Most recently, for example, I find myself job-seeking.  After three years with the company my contract at work has run out and, for reasons related to the Irish recession, they cannot keep me on.  So now I must explain, again, to any potential employer why it is that I am in the unusual position of having a university degree but no leaving certificate.  I can hardly say: “I did not progress beyond more than a year of my second-level education because from fourteen onwards I was homeless and from fifteen onwards I was a prostitute, but I got my life together and returned to education as a twenty-four year old adult”.  I can hardly say this – if I want the job.

So many times in the company of others I must erase those seven years and cover them up with omissions, and at other times outright lies.  Each time I must do that, prostitution has revisited my life, and each time it does that, I am forced again to live with the aftermath.

All of this means that the pain of prostitution extends far beyond and long after the physical experience of prostitution itself.  This is not pain with a conclusion; this is pain with a series of phases, and the physical lived reality of prostitution is only the first one.

FreeIrishWoman