According to the news the number of unemployed women is at its highest level for 25 years. The budget has hit women hard. At times like this, the misinformation women are being constantly sold about ‘sex work’ makes it seem like a tempting option, an easy way to quick money.
Women in Debt (www.womenindebt.co.uk) puts it like this:
‘How far would you go to avoid debt, or to pay off debts you’re struggling to cope with? Shockingly, the answer from some women is ‘all the way’. In summer last year, an American website hit the headlines for offering college students the opportunity to pay off their university debts by dating ‘sugar daddies’ – wealthy older men willing to pay large sums to ‘spend time’ with young ladies. And sadly, the practice now seems to have spread to the UK.
With rising living and rental costs and the introduction of university tuition fees, many female students have resorted to literally selling their bodies to solve their financial problems. From pole dancing and stripping in nightclubs to full-on prostitution, 10% of students now say they know someone who’s funding their time at university through the sex industry.’
Depressingly but rather predictably, the website then went on to say that ‘at least these women have a choice’. A choice? Is it a choice to be driven to sell your body by economic necessity? If there were other options available, would women really be ‘choosing’ this?
Ten years ago, 74% of women cited poverty as the primary motivator for entering prostitution (Melrose, 2002). And ten years ago, it was estimated that around 80,000 women were in prostitution in the UK (Kinnell 1999), both figures likely to have risen and to continue to rise given the economic climate. This should be of real concern, given the common ‘side effects’ of prostitution. 68% of women in prostitution meet the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same range as torture victims and combat veterans undergoing treatment (Ramsey et al 1993). More than half of UK women in prostitution have been raped and/or seriously sexually assaulted. At least three quarters have been physically assaulted (Home Office 2004b). The mortality rate for women in prostitution in London is 12 times the national average (Home Office 2004a).*
The answer is not to ‘make prostitution safer’ or ‘make it legal’ as some would mistakenly argue. There is nothing safe about prostitution, indoors or outdoors. Put it in a pretty room with a nice bedspread and you still have a woman being fucked by stranger after stranger. Making it legal serves only to protect pimps and re-label them as ‘businessmen’. The physical and psychological damage experienced by women in prostitution doesn’t just go away because it’s indoors, or socially acceptable, or deemed to be ‘just another job’. Re-labelling instead makes the harms done to women in prostitution invisible: it takes away the language of reality. We replace the language of economic desperation with the language of choice, replace degradation and abuse with 'work'.
There is no other 'job' like prostitution, and I include in that bracket stripping, lapdancing and pornography as well as escorting, massage parlours and street corners. I know of no other ‘job’ where you are bought (or sold) and treated as a human slave, to be called names and penetrated for the sexual gratification of man after man, told to look like you enjoy it and say it turns you on, having to dissociate from your body simply to get through.
Problem is, for women who have watched ‘Diary of A Call Girl’ and read endless women’s magazines where ‘sex work’ is painted as being not just easy money but empowering and a bit of a thrill, there is a lack of information on which to base a well-informed decision (even supposing a woman is free to choose). As a society, we are grooming girls and women for 'sex work'. The media portrayal of ‘sex work’ has nothing to do with its realities. Every chat show graced by a smiling ‘porn star’, every magazine article or book promoting sex work as liberating and fun (often using the voices of women in sex work) is an advert, a money maker – we are being sold the idea of being sold! Why? Because the porn profiteers, the sex industry profiteers, the guys at the top (not the women used in it) want us to keep on buying it, to keep lining their pockets. The fact that they use the voices of women trapped in it is nothing more than a PR stunt. Since when were you free to bad mouth your employer, particularly when that employer has untold power at his disposal, and you were financially (if not physically or psychologically) dependent? Their voices, yes, but speaking the words given them, not their own, mouthpieces giving credence to an industry which will use them in every possible way - and then throw them away in favour of ‘fresh pussy’.
I have been exited for 5 years and I still struggle everyday with PTSD, with trust, with sleeping and eating and living a normal life. And I am not an aberration as the statistics show. Other exited women I have met tell the same story – the details vary but the ‘side effects’ don’t. Women get in the prostitution trap and accrue damage which serves to keep them there. Poverty is compounded by substance abuse and up to 95% of women in prostitution are problematic drug users, including around 78% heroin users and rising numbers of crack cocaine addicts (Home Office 2004a).* Not something you hear talked about a lot in all the pro-sex industry hot air being constantly churned out, but a reality. Prostitution hurts and drink and drugs help make it bearable, help numb you out, but keep you trapped there, strapped for cash.
No one is as much the object of myth, of fear of ridicule and of hatred as the prostitute. People talk about the ‘oldest profession’ (as if that excused woman hating!), ‘choice’, ‘liberation of sexuality’ but it’s just so much talk. Ask a woman in the industry if she enjoys it and she’ll tell you she does, because she has to. It is unsafe for her to do otherwise, the people who surround her (but out of sight) – her ‘manager’, her ‘madam’, her ‘pimp’ – will not let her say different. And to survive what happens to you, you live in denial anyway. You can’t acknowledge the damage, can’t acknowledge the danger until you’re out and safe, and even then it’s hard to face something so incredibly painful.
If you’re lucky enough to exit prostitution, and not become another statistic, someone else who died there, you have to face an unpalatable truth:
I was bought
Men, ugly men, fat men, smelly men, sadistic men, old men, young men, angry men, sleazy men touched me, whispered sick little fantasies in my ear and leered at me and fucked me and stared at me, had one over me
And it hurt
And I had to smile and say I loved it and please do all those sordid things you just said because, ah, baby, you make me cum
And that body was me
And that body is me
And that voice was mine but the words weren’t, they were lines given me, that I had to say in an attempt to stay safe, another dignity taken from me
And it doesn’t matter if I was using a working name because he was looking at me when he said it and touching me when he said it
And when he went away and laughed about it with his friends and looked at the pictures on his mobile it was me
Not too easy to come to terms with. You’re in for a lot of self-hatred and body issues and PTSD if not addiction problems. Being prostituted changes everything: the effects are long term and some irreversible. You can never look at the world quite the same way, look at people quite the same way because you know what they’re capable of. You know what men are capable of and you know there’s a whole army of people out there willing to defend to the hilt the ‘right’ of women to be treated just as you were because they do not understand, or will not understand, what it means for a woman to be bought and sold, an object to be wanked over and then walked away from.
The statistics remain for the most part hidden, the realities for the most part hidden, drowned out by the omnipresent background hum of the sex-industry. But I've found my voice. I had to say I liked it then but now I’m free to tell the truth. I am one of a growing number of voices of women who have been used and discarded by the sex industry who are joining forces and putting the truth out there because it’s vital that women know the realities of prostitution. And given the economic climate and its effect on women, it’s a matter of urgency. The doorway to quick and easy cash? More like the doorway to hell.
* for statistics see www.object.org.uk/the-prostitution-facts