Abolitionism is dangerous, yes. And yes, I stand for sex workers rights. But although I agree that most of the time there’s no chance to start a conversation with abolitionists, I also think it is important to hear and study, cool-headed, all forms of opposition. Not everything is always black or white. In fact, more often than we know we move towards similar conclusions, come from similar backgrounds and have shared worries. It is not a coincidence that in 1975 abolitionists supported the French Prostitutes assemblages.
I’m still sure that (at the moment) I want to keep doing what I do, but as time passes it is starting to become obvious the void growing inside me, my lack of emotions, the sexual dissociation, poor sensitivity, the way romantic love disgusts me, and that it’s been a hell lot of time since I truly enjoyed sex -while still longing so much for it.
I am also tired of the guilt some of us feel when romanticizing sex work because we know it is not always empowering, it is not always fun, it also alienates you, and working for money sometimes sucks, no matter what you do for a living. It hurts to know we have to keep this mixed feelings to ourselves and learn in secret how to find strength again because sometimes, talking to our community means you’re betraying the battle for decriminalization. So when I ran into this article some days ago I bursted into tears: I was reading a close description of what I feel right now about prostitution.
This is an excerpt from “Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution” by Rachel Moran, a former prostitute and abolitionist that promotes the criminalization for purchasing prostitution known as the Nordic model.
The sex was never, ever fun: My lessons in prostitution
By Rachel Moran
Testimony of an erotic dancer: “Nobody—not myself, not the other women—enjoys being pawed, poked, prodded and fucked by men we wouldn’t give the time of day if we met them elsewhere.”
--Peggy Morgan, "Living on the Edge”
I remember one evening, in the clinic where I used to drink coffee and collect condoms, a particular humorous remark made to a young prostitute by one of the older women. They were discussing an unexpected surge in trade the previous night and the younger woman mentioned how she’d gone home exhausted after it. ‘Ah sure,’ said the older woman, ‘you probably enjoyed it!’ The entire company, myself included, burst out laughing. The humor—for those it is lost on—was in the absurdity.
The truth of the matter is that the nature of prostitution flavours the sexual act as far too distasteful and too sleazy and too bound up with degradation to allow any kind of wholesale enjoyment. Of course this will fly in the face of the fantasists, but the reality of prostitution usually does. A woman’s feelings here range between mild distaste and outright disgust and only in unique or very exceptional circumstances will her experience be any different. That is not to say these unique and exceptional experiences do not, once in a blue moon, occur. For some women, they do, and when they do, no-one is more surprised than the woman herself. I would know, because on two occasions those experiences happened to me.
When I was sixteen I was released from a court order, the purpose of which had been to keep me detained for my own protection. It did not have the required effect. The reason for this was clear, and I still wonder how the children’s court could have been so foolish as to imagine that a few months of detention would have turned my life around when I was released back onto the streets with no viable alternative to prostitution. If they’d had any real dedication to helping me change my life, they would have detained me for a couple of years and made it a condition of my future parole that I complete some form of training, be it secretarial, hairdressing, etc., and I would have been assigned a parole officer and social worker who’d have ensured I was placed with an apprenticeship or in an entry-level office position. It wouldn’t have been rocket science, it could have been done and I know I would have been capable of applying myself to it. Anyway, this did not happen; I was released after a few months and it was at this point I went to live in the brothel on Leeson Street.
The first car that pulled up on my first night back on the streets was driven by a young man in his early to mid-twenties. He was attractive, not disrespectful in his manner and he was shy, quiet, not speaking to me much on the way to the laneway I used. When we arrived there I realised that I was aroused. I hadn’t seen my then boyfriend for months and hadn’t had any intimacy. I suddenly realised that I missed it; I missed being held and touched. I told him that I’d changed my mind, that I would do intercourse, so he slipped on a condom and it was all over in minutes. He pulled out his wallet and asked how much he owed me. It was the first time I’d ever done anything sexual without being paid first and I knew why: this was not a job.
Nothing would have felt more unnatural than taking money for something sexual that I’d wanted to happen. Also I had never had intercourse for money at that point, I had never sold myself in that way, and I didn’t want to be able to say that I had. I told him not to worry about it. No doubt he knew something strange had happened but it was easy not to see his expression in the dark. He dropped me back down to the street and then I went to work for real.
What happened that night is not something that could be seen as prostitution. An act of prostitution had been intended on both sides but none had taken place. What happened actually transcended the prostitution experience: wilful intercourse with zero mental reservations is not prostitution, and could not, to my mind, be framed as such. My co-workers did not share my views. They roundly agreed that in not taking the money I was: ‘A fuckin’ eejit!’
The second of these experiences happened about three years after that. I was working in escort prostitution at the time. I called to the house of a man who had a beautiful face with a gentle relaxed smile and eyes as brown and shining as polished chestnuts. He welcomed me with a lovely soft English accent and poured me a glass of chilled white wine. I almost never drank on the job and certainly not with a new customer, but for a combination of reasons I broke the rules that night with that man.
Everything in his home was warm; the colors, the smells, the textures. It was all amber and mahogany and the scent of cinnamon. The vibe was very gentle, very neutral. I was relaxed and at my ease. That in itself was highly unusual. I have already described how a woman in prostitution knows when she needs to be alert: she also knows when she doesn’t, but because the former situation is by far the most common, in a converse way, situations like this contain more surprise.
He had hired me for two hours and was obviously not rushed. Sitting on his sofa, I realized there was so little tension in me there was almost none; I was not worried about where this was going. I was not mentally bracing myself the way I always did. I was not constructing the wall, not fully. I wasn’t given to suspect that I was going to need it. The bald truth was that there was something about this man and this environment that was soothing, relaxing, and seductive.
When we went to bed I found that I didn’t mind his hands on me. The first indicator was that I didn’t feel repulsed, as I always did. His hands were smooth but firm and slow in their movements. They were not invasive, not intrusive, and when he stroked me it was from the base of my neck to the curve of my calf; he seemed to adore my whole body with his hands. He did nothing to me physically to signify his domination, which was as unfamiliar as to frame the experience as unique in itself. When he gently parted my legs and entered me, I inadvertently let out a little gasp. Then he muttered in my ear: ‘You don’t have to pretend you like it’. That was when the nature of the experience changed.
This was a very well-mannered man. Apparently decent, he seemed thoughtful. Besides the obvious point of his purchasing me, he was not overtly disrespectful (it would not have been possible to feel arousal for him if he was) but as for the way he viewed me and my part in this experience: he thought I wouldn’t like it. He thought he knew I wouldn’t like it, and, like so many others before him, his arousal was dependent on the fact that I would not.
Immediately I understood this and felt my response shut down. The wall had sprung up. I felt very disconnected from my own body, as usual, but not for the usual reasons. This time I hadn’t stepped out of my body; I had stayed inside it, and found that I wasn’t welcome there.
It was very surreal, the rest of that sex. I was as far away from myself as I have ever been, and it was such a strange and deeply disconcerting feeling, lying there feeling all the sensations that would have been arousing had I been welcome to inhabit my own body. For those who talk of prostitution as work, know this: the core skill of a prostitute’s ‘work’ is learning to stay outside of herself for her own sake.
So as for these two experiences: the first was not a sexually pleasurable experience within prostitution; it was a sexually pleasurable experience which had been taken out of the realms of prostitution, because sexual pleasure was not congruent with it. And as for the second: it could have been a sexually pleasurable experience had I not been reminded how surplus to requirements a woman in prostitution is. Her body is useful—the rest of her is irrelevant, and unwelcome. Only if a woman were a masochist, deeply aroused by her own degradation, would it be possible for her to frame this reality as arousing.
As for the overall dearth of a prostitute’s sexual pleasure, I have not needed to wonder about that and even if I had I would have been reminded by the bouts of sexual dysfunction I have experienced while writing this book, particularly during periods when I was writing a lot and processing larger quantities of unwelcome memories every day.
The myth of prostitutes’ sexual pleasure exists as one of several tactics which are used to sanitize and normalize the prostitution experience. The reasoning behind this is simple: if it is seen to be pleasurable for some women, then it couldn’t be all that bad for women generally, could it? This is nonsense, and like most nonsense, it exists for a reason: framing prostitution as acceptable is that reason. It is not the only tactic used to this end, there are several.
The two unusual and isolated experiences I’ve recounted do not point to the existence of prostitutes’ sexual pleasure. They attest to the opposite, because the first of the times I experienced pleasure from a man I met in this way, the experience had to be wholly contorted into its opposite before it was acceptable to me; and the second time I experienced pleasure it had to, necessarily, be rejected. In both cases, my pleasurable responses were incongruent with prostitution. Female pleasure does not belong in prostitution, and both male and female participants intuitively understand it has no place there.
Perhaps my two experiences will be malformed and misrepresented so as to serve as evidence for those who would prefer to see prostitution filtered through the prism of erotica, but a person who draws conclusions from logic will deduce that such a very tiny sampling does not color any experience as a whole. The simple reality is that if you are heterosexual and you meet thousands of members of the opposite sex over a span of several years, you are likely to find at least a very tiny number of them sexually appealing. The fact that I felt this way towards two men out of thousands does not attest to any type of enjoyment in the prostitution experience; it attests to the opposite, because there were surely many more men among them who would have presented as appealing had I met them in any other way. It was the context in which I met them that negated their appeal. This is just more evidence of the way prostitution pollutes human interpersonal relations. The vast majority of men are immediately discounted as unappealing to prostituted women, because of the manner in which they are presented to them. It is only in exceptional and very unusual circumstances that something may happen to cause a woman to feel differently.
Women’s actual responses to prostitution are sometimes recognized, inadvertently, by the proponents of prostitution:
‘Descriptions of the psychological harm of prostitution sometimes come from its advocates. For example, the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective wrote in an unpublished flyer that people in prostitution know they should take a break from prostitution: “when every client makes your skin crawl, when your jaw aches from clenching your teeth to prevent yourself spitting in the bastard’s face . . .[or] when you can’t stand what you see when you look in the mirror.”’ (NZPC flyer by Michelle, circa 1994)
Melissa Farley, Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart
Women who need to be administered such advice are clearly not living a lifestyle liable to cause sexual arousal.
The myth of prostitutes’ sexual pleasure is somewhat related to another social myth that goes something along the lines of ‘women in prostitution desire to be rescued by a man’. Where this myth is entertained in prostitution, it is by men and not women. We are keenly aware that if we are to be rescued, the ones doing the rescuing can only be ourselves. This myth was exemplified by the film Pretty Woman, which sees the lead character rescued from prostitution by the love of a man. I do not find this film hugely offensive, although it caused a great deal of offense in prostitution circles. I feel the way I do because the film does not seek to color the prostitution experience as generally enjoyable. Julia Roberts’ character is clearly unhappy in prostitution and relates the fact in a tearful scene. I did think, though, that if the filmmakers wanted to depict the reality of prostitution, we should have seen Julia’s character with more than one john. As for the fact that the prostitute here is depicted as falling in love with one of her clients: I do not contend the scenario is impossible, only that it is highly unlikely. It is possible to fall in love anywhere in life, but there are some areas where you will find an extreme dearth of love in the human experience. Prostitution is one of them.
I remember when I was fifteen and had been in prostitution just a couple of months, yet another forty-something man picked me up; this one in an ugly dark-green car. I remember that he looked at me with his eyes bugging out of his head and was practically salivating at the sight of me. We drove to a spot of his choosing (this was in the days before I learned better than to allow a man choose where we would go) and when he stopped the car he turned to me and poured out what was on his mind that had him so excited. He said that he had seen me on Blessington Street a year or so before and that he’d ‘got a hard-on’ looking at me. (The bed-and-breakfast accommodation I’d been housed in a year before had been on Blessington Street. I had been fourteen years old at the time.) He said, ‘I couldn’t believe my luck’ at having found me on Benburb Street a year later. I sat in that car as he groped my breasts, pulled his prick and shoved his fingers into my vagina, and I willed myself to become numb as I tried to blank out what he was doing, along with memories of the year before, and thoughts of how naïve I’d been then, and of what a dirty fucking bastard he was to be behaving like this now and to have been thinking like that then.
I cannot number the experiences I’ve had, but I can very clearly put a shape on my responses to them. The bottom line is this: when a man, who has paid you twenty or two hundred euro for the pleasure of watching you squirm, twists your clitoris with the fingertips of one hand while simultaneously shoving his fingers up your vagina and biting and licking your nipples with his tongue and teeth, you will experience many things. You will struggle to block out many internal responses. Arousal will not be among them.