In 1998 Ruth Jacobs interviewed a woman who worked as a call girl, referred to for anonymity as ‘Q’. She has published the transcript of her interview, in full – stops and hesitations inclusive – as ‘In Her Own Words… Interview with a London Call Girl’.
In Her Own Words is an extremely frank account of the complex psychology involved in selling sex. For Q, it is neither wholly positive or negative – she is conflicted, saying both ‘I buzz off it’, ‘I love it’, ‘it’s fun’ and ‘I hate it’, ‘it’s very hard’, ‘you’re risking your life’, and ‘you feel like you’ve been raped’. Women like Rebecca Mott, who exited prostitution, have also said that their former work amounted to little more than being raped for money. Having heard Rebecca Mott speak, she estimates that (in her experience) it takes approximately five years after exiting prostitution for women to fully process how they feel about their time selling sex. (Those in the sex industry are predominantly women, although there are exceptions.) If we consider this perspective, Q’s inability to consistently pin down how she feels about selling her body makes sense within this prevailing trend that Rebecca Mott refers to – for Q had not exited at the time of the interview.
For me, it is key to view Q’s interview within the context of this confusion and not take everything she says at face value. Indeed, if we were to do this, we would struggle to come to any conclusion as her words are so contradictory! Part of her difficulty condemning her profession could be attributed to her lack of ability to see any other kind of life. She cannot envisage an untroubled relationship with men:
‘I have a completely different outlook on men.I don’t trust men. […] You see some really sick things and it like… it stays in your mind.’
‘I don’t know how I’m going to stop and have a normal relationship. I don’t think I could ever, ever.’
She also sees herself as ‘abnormal’ and feels alienated by those outside of the industry:
‘I find it very hard to mix with normal people […] It’s hard for me to hold a conversation down or… I find them completely different. It’s like they’re in a completely different world than me.’
Taken with the above marginalization from ‘normal’ conversations and interaction, a mistrust of men, it is unsurprising that Q considers her options severely restricted:
‘[…] it’s just like all that I know and I can’t stop it. Even if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t stop it. […] I find it easier with a client than I do with a normal man’
I do not wish to speak for Q, for any women working in prostitution, or indeed any other human being, which is why it is perhaps helpful to contextualise Q’s comments with some studies that have been conducted. In a study of five countries by Melissa Farley, 72% of women involved in prostitution were currently or formerly homeless. I say this because some would argue that Q asserting she does not want to leave prostitution may not be uncommon – and that we should respect this standpoint and not attempt to ‘save’ those who sell sex or assume their feelings. However, we must must must look at the context in which these assertions are made. Q feels alienated from normal society, unable to connect with other people on a basic level, unable to trust men or conduct a relationship with them beyond prostitution and is statistically at higher risk of homelessness than other members of society. Add to this the guilt of abuse that her family receive because of her prostitution and being deemed (as she says) ‘scum of the earth’ by men and women alike, and there is a distinct lack of support in place for Q to make any other choice. And prostitution is a choice which she initially (in her own words) experienced as rape and she eventually normalises into her only choice, one she cannot and will not give up (‘it’s just like all I know’).
Although Q does not express a wish to exit, Farley’s study did in fact find that only 8% of women involved did not want to exit prostitution immediately. As Genderberg states ‘there is no sensible feminist reason to ignore the 92% of prostitutes who do not consider it work but slavery in favor of the 8% minority’. This is my firm belief. True, this figure could be inaccurate, for it comes from only one study, but preventing abuse is more important than a small group’s freedom of expression – which allows the other, larger group’s abuse to continue.
Rebecca Mott, an exited woman, believes that women normalising the experience of selling their body everyday constitutes torture. She puts this very eloquently on her blog:
‘I write to the place where it was no longer rape, no longer battery, no longer bad language – it was just our routine.
That is when rape, battery and mental abuse is made torture – when it done so often by so many men and ignored by the majority of outsiders that it becomes just the role that the prostituted must perform.
Torture is excused by saying this prostituted class are needed to prevent real sexual violence being done to real women and girls.
Torture is made invisible by saying and believing that the prostituted class enjoy and choose their lifestyle.
Torture is not allowed to happened to the prostituted class – for we must not question the male right to buy and sell the prostituted class for the great male orgasm.
Without access to torture the prostituted class, the whole structure of human society would fall apart – or all men would go insane.
I hope most of my readers do not believe such rubbish…’
Mott raises many excuses used to allow prostitution to continue, none of which hold validity when examined closely (‘choice’, men’s ‘uncontrollable’ libido, prevention of sexual violence against the non-prostituted), but what is interesting to me is that she terms all the excuses as contributing to her torture. She shows us how the position of abuse that exited women express is consistently downplayed in favour of a ‘liberal’ standpoint that women should be allowed to express themselves by selling sex. Really? Having read Mott’s blog, I believe the important focus is not about freedom of expression, but that we should avoid abuse and VAWG (violence against women and girls). Women in prostitution are highly likely to experience violence given the power dynamic in sex as a transaction. Women should not have to take work where violence is a likely by-product. As another exited woman states:
‘To those who would say legalisation would make prostitution safer: I think the same thing any 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.’
And so I say, any woman who wants to exit should be able to do so. Currently this is not the case in the UK. Any woman who is wavering, like Q, should at least be given the option.
Q is a young woman in her early twenties, who has been working every day for seven years to service the sexual needs of men. To her, it feels like she’s slept ‘with billions and billions’ of men, although working for seven years her clients are likely to have numbered between 5,000 and 50,000, working on the basis that she saw between two and twenty clients a day (facts she recalls). She was forced into prostitution at fifteen by a pimp. This is the time she says was ‘hardened’ to it. In case that’s not clear, she started selling sex as a child – this makes the men who bought her paedophiles. This is child abuse. See the below from the survivor quoted above:
‘The one thing that linked those men together, besides their urges to pay 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 […] I learned that on my very first day while sitting in the car of an elderly man who repeated over and over the thing that was causing him such sexual joy: ‘Oh, you’re very young — aren’t you? Aren’t you?’’
Entering prostitution at a very young age is a common picture when examining the backgrounds of women who sell sex. Farley found that the average age women enter prostitution is 12 years old. Three published studies of prostitution each independently found it was 14 (Weisberg; Silbert & Pines; Gray). These figures are never easy to pin down – but the key is, when attempts have been made, the findings are shocking. And yet we persist with talk about ‘choice’.
I say this not to suggest that child abuse is worse than abuse of adults, or to draw any level of hierarchy in abuse, but to expose prostitution for what it is. Exploitative and abusive, to women and girls. I say this to dispel the myth of choice. When we consider a child’s ability to make a ‘choice’ about entering the sex industry, it demonstrates the sex industry’s willingness to manipulate vulnerable women and children; those with a lack of real choices available to them. A choice made in a context of unequal choices seems to me a difficult thing to term a ‘choice’. As is a ‘choice’ made by a minor that leads to her normalise abuse. Make no mistake, those who sell sex operate within an industry that profits from making money from selling commercial sex acts, whether a striptease or ‘full sex’. This is not an industry with human rights or self-expression at its heart. To suggest women enter this industry armed with any ability to combat the greater forces at work of an industry with strong links to the two biggest criminal networks in the world – drugs and trafficking – seems to me, incredibly naive. ‘Choice’ in this context becomes an increasingly redundant term.
As Q says, ‘it’s bad to think like what people think of prostitutes because we’re exactly the same as everyone else’. The key thing is, women working in prostitution are just people like any other; they’re not different or immune to harm somehow. We tend to ignore groups with a lack of political power – even if they face extraordinary abuse. Throw sex into the mix and everyone seems to get a little confused about coming down hard on abuse, and starts talking about choice. Choice – some women can exercise this to a certain degree when entering the sex industry (‘is this the best of the limited choices available to me?’) – others, who have been trafficked, cannot. See my post on sex slavery / trafficking here. Getting sidelined into this argument doesn’t ultimately help prevent violence against women. And this is my key aim.
In my own research about prostitution, I have been dismayed, but ultimately unsurprised, by the discovery that some men who buy sex have been found to consider women who work in prostitution ‘unrapeable’, that they believe they are buying the right to do whatever they want to their ‘purchase’.
‘Look, men pay for women because he can have whatever and whoever he wants. Lots of men go to prostitutes so they can do things to them that real women would not put up with.’
This quote is from Julie Bindel’s study ‘Men who buy sex’ – an NGO study which focuses on the people driving demand for sex as a commodity, not the women selling it. 27% of the men in this study believe they could engage in any act they please once they’d paid for sex. A quarter thought the idea that a women involved in prostitution could be raped was ‘ridiculous’. 42% believe that women ‘did not always have certain rights during prostitution’ – so if they say no, they have no right to. Kinnell (2008) also argues, such men believe that ‘buying sex entitles them to do anything they want’ or that paying ‘gave them the right to inflict any kind of assault they chose’. Prostitution seems to me an open door, allowing men to commit violence against women and get away with it – because, what, prostitutes are ‘different to normal women’, ‘sluts’ or ‘whores’?
This attitude positions women involved in prostitution as exactly what Q perceives herself to be in the eyes of ‘normal’ society – different. Unrapeable. Unable to assert her rights, to say no, to refuse to submit to any act being perpetrated on her body. And in seeing these women as different, normal men are perpetrating abuse they would not perpetrate on a woman they respected, saw as a human with their own desires and needs, or would have a relationship with. So Q ends up in the position of a woman who is used, disrespected, abused and raped by men who think this is acceptable because she is a certain kind of woman, an ‘other’ in relation to women they choose to associate with normally. And because of what? The transaction of money passing hands – this changes the process entirely. If a woman were subjected to the abuses Rebecca Mott details on her blog and she had not received money for it, would we not consider it differently? Would we not be calling it abuse, rather than work?
‘I hate to know and say that being raped just by a penis in the vagina was a relief, if that was all a punter wanted. It was almost nothing.
No, the prostituted are drown[ed], are strung from the ceiling, are penetrated in every hole in their body including ones too small, are burnt, are thrown out of moving cars, are sexually tortured for many days and nights.
That is just a tip of the hell we have known.’
I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to detail the abuses that Rebecca Mott went through, but if you’re feeling brave enough, please do read this post – in order to understand what we were excusing by talking about ‘choice’ so flagrantly. In my mind, receiving money for sex does not mean a tacit agreement that abuse should follow – especially given the Home Office figures that 45% of women involved in prostitution were sexually and /or physically abused as children, 70% spent time in care AND most entered prostitution as children – these are not women with the luxury of choosing another life. Some figures state that child abuse endured by women in prostitution (before entering) is as high as 75%. To condemn them as ‘scum’ and ‘slags’ (Q’s words) is to detract from the much greater issues at play behind their choices and to excuse the abuse they suffer on the basis of our privileged position to judge them as such.
Prostitution is not illegal in the UK. What is? Running a brothel, loitering or soliciting sex on the street, kerb-crawling. Who do you think gets pulled up on these and given a criminal record? That’s right – the women involved in prostitution. Not the men with free choice not to buy sex, but women, 95% of whom have a drug habit, women trying to look after children, women who are homeless, women who were trafficked into this country or within this country, women who see no way out, who had so few choices to begin with, women who know nothing else, who cannot report any injustice against them for fear of being jailed themselves, women who are psychologically and / or physically controlled by pimps. I do not believe our system is fair and just. Why are we punishing those without the power to improve their lives? This is why I recommend a group called NorMAs – Nordic Model Advocates – who will be lobbying the government to punish the men who buy sex, those with real choices, those driving demand to keep an industry rife with abuse of women alive. The fines these men receive would then be used to help women involved in prostitution get off drugs, receive housing, counselling, other professional options – give them a better life. This is not legalisation, but it is also not criminalising women in prostitution. The system has been successfully employed in Norway, Iceland and Sweden – hence ‘the Nordic Model’. Ireland, France, Denmark, Northern Ireland and Scotland are looking to follow suit. We now need the UK government to stand up and take notice.
‘[…] when I first started doing it, I cried my eyes out every day and just scrubbed myself in bleach and… I felt like I’d been raped. It was just… It really screwed my mind up. And there’s this feeling when you get…when you’re with a client and it’s like sometimes you feel like… you grab your fists and it’s like, ” Get off me! Get off me!” And it’s like you can’t push them off you, right? Because you know you’re getting paid for it. So basically it’s allowing yourself to be raped, right? […] and you cry while it’s happening […] and you go home and you cry yourself to sleep after all that shit, and it happens to you a lot of times until eventually that feeling goes away […] And you become hardened in your like… your heart and your soul to it, and this is when you get the hatred for men.’
What’s especially touching in In Her Own Words is reading the long, unedited segments of Jacobs’ transcript, as above. This is where Q’s voice comes through so strongly – and my soundbites here do the full publication little justice, so I would urge you to download your own copy. Sadly, Q is no longer with us, but this heartfelt transcript of her conflicted feelings towards her life is powerful indictment of society’s stigmatisation of women involved in prostitution as people to shame and punish, rather people who need more consideration than that damning allows.
I believe the majority of women working in prostitution would like different choices to begin with, the ability to exit if they do sell sex, and our compassion and empathy as vulnerable human beings a situation of abusive control and daily rape. Many thanks to Ruth Jacobs for sharing her research with us. You can download a copy of In Her Own Words… Interview with a London Call Girl here and the money will go to a charity called Beyond The Streets working to end sexual exploitation in many areas, including prostitution.
Ruth Jacobs’ website is here and you can follow NorMAs (Nordic Model Advocates) on Facebook here.
A selection of survivor blogs – there are many more: