Is Sex Work Really Empowering?

The first time you have sex for money, it’s like losing your virginity. Something inside of you breaks. It’s not physical, you can’t feel it, touch it or explain it, but a part of you is no longer there. After that, you just grow numb to it.”

Justine Reilly is a former prostitute (I was scolded for referring to her as a ‘sex worker’; “it’s too normalising,” they said). She is warm and friendly, speaks with a thick Dubliner accent and has long, bleach blonde dreadlocks and immaculate make-up. Her youthful mannerism belied the horrors that she experienced as a prostitute for fourteen years, which started only so she could raise money for her girlfriend’s education.

“I had come from the country, you see, from a nice, normal family and had a normal life. I got into prostitution because my girlfriend wanted to go to college and I knew no better. I had such low self-esteem that I thought my life was lesser than hers, so I wanted to help her live her dream. I was so naive that I thought being an escort was going out for dinner with men, accompanying them to parties.  That night, I realised that I was being used as a human toy, and men would pay to empty themselves inside me from there on in.

“When I came home to my girlfriend and told her what happened, she just said:

No one has ever loved me as much as you.’

“We never really spoke about my job ever again. It just became the elephant in the room.”

Sat beside her is Rachel Moran, who was also a prostitute in Dublin for seven years when she was homeless and destitute. She seemed slightly cold towards me at first, holding herself with the gravitas of a woman that has seen the darkest side of humanity, yet managed to pull herself out and write about it all. She spoke, matter-of-factly:

“You can never erase the damage of being a prostitute. It will always stay with you. People always say to us ‘you could have walked away,’ but my choices were so constrained, between sleeping on a park bench or selling my body, that they weren’t really choices. A lot of girls who get into it were abused when they were younger, so they genuinely see it as a step up for themselves. They feel empowered by it. One girl said to me: ‘my stepfather used to take it for free; at least this way I’m getting paid for it.'”

Justine nodded her head, saying: “I’ve been sexually abused. Most of us have. You DO have a sense of empowerment relating to that, because you are no longer being abused for free. You call the shots. You can say ‘pay me, and you can abuse me in this manner and that manner.’ But no woman should ever be abused in any manner. That’s what we’re saying.”

Rachel and Justine are speakers for the Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment (SPACE) charity based in Ireland. To raise awareness during the sixteen day ‘End Violence Against Women’ campaign, they are working with the Women’s Support Project in Scotland to train public sector staff to better help sex workers. They both have a shared 25 years of experience in the sex industry during the thriving “Celtic Tiger” economy of Dublin in the Nineties. As the city began building huge apartment complexes and attracting people to the City, the sex industry exploded – with girls and women from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia drawn to the city’s wealth. But when the Sexual Offences Act was introduced in 1993, they were all driven into brothels – a cut-throat environment where jealousy grew and bitter lies and accusations were thrown around as some girls got more clients than others. Justine laughed as she told us about the delusions of grandeur she had working in the brothel.

“They were just normal apartments, but when us girls sat and talked in there, we felt so sophisticated. We saw ourselves as ‘escorts’. The women that worked on the streets were just ‘whores.’ There was an actual division! We would be like, ‘Oh my God, there is no way we would end up on the street.’” She turned around. “So you would have been a whore, Rachel!” We all laughed for a brief moment, revelling in it before we were to discuss the horrors of the sex work industry in further depth.

Having spent years believing verbal abuse and sexual violence were merely an occupational hazard of being a sex worker, the women would like to see the trade abolished altogether – but not without an exit strategy for the women involved in it. The Women’s Support Project offer a Routes Out scheme for sex workers to develop their skills, find new jobs and lead a normal life. In Justine’s case, she left her girlfriend after fourteen years, living in a van in the park until she got help from Irish support network Ruhama. She began taking courses in pottery and jewellery-making before becoming an actress, realising that her talents lay in creativity. But Rachel didn’t have any support when she decided to leave prostitution behind in 1998, as she had no idea that there were people or organisations that could help her out of it.

“By the time I realised I had to leave, I was heavily addicted to cocaine. I was accidentally overdosing on it a lot, having convulsions, falling around. Certain things converged at the same time in my life.  I had a son who was 4 and a half, and about to start school. I knew that I had to get off cocaine, because I would just end up in hospital, in jail or dead. I definitely would have lost my son, because I wouldn’t be able to keep to the necessary routine for a school-going child. You can just about hold it together with a toddler, but not when it’s at that stage in their life.

“So I packed myself and my child up and I moved to the next county. I had to cut ties with everyone in my life- at that point everyone I knew was a prostitute, pimp, drug dealer or some combination. I had to get away from that completely. I was very alone at that point, and it took me a long while to rebuild my life.”

As she spoke, I couldn’t help but notice that she was so eloquent and well-versed as she described her life to me. So I wasn’t surprised when she said that she went to study Creative Writing at college, and has now written a book called Paid For.  She stared at her cup of tea, looking vulnerable for a moment, as she thought about how different her life would have been if she stayed.

“When you sell your body for sex for a living, you forget about what life used to be like. You forget about the things you enjoyed doing, your talents and passions as a human being. I had loved writing since I was a child. I used to write verse poems and song lyrics in my spare time, when I wasn’t working. One time, I was stopped on the street by a Vanguard [a female police officer] who was searching my bag for drugs. She had a fistful of receipts, crumpled bits of paper with my writing on them. I was mortified, waiting for her to laugh at all these poems and lyrics, my thoughts. She read them, looked at me and asked me if I had written them. I said yes.

“Then she just looked me dead in the eye and said:  ‘What the hell are you doing on these streets?'”

She smiled, continuing: “I felt incredibly sad because I thought about how I’d thrown my life away.. But I’m here now.”

Despite that they have escaped their former lives and want to help other women do the same, their efforts have aggravated the pro-sex work camp, who strive for employment rights so they can work safely in the industry, not so they can escape it altogether. Justine said they met some campaigners as they were walking into a conference, who all began shouting at them.

“There was one girl who was around 24. She said:  ‘fuck off and mind your own business. At least we still have fresh skin!’ It just saddened me because these women define themselves only by their youth and their looks. They fully acknowledge that prostitutes have a shelf-life.”

Justine cut in – “It is true though. You are more popular with clients when you are fifteen. Even by the time I got to nineteen I was already losing clients. But when you are older, men expect you to do more and more and more with your body.”

As Edinburgh is possibly closing its saunas after decades of tolerance to the city’s thriving sex trade, the topic has been a particular bone of contention in the media. It is hoped that the potential introduction of the ‘Swedish Model’ into the sex trade –  where clients are criminalised rather than the sex workers – will reduce exploitation and make it safer for sex workers, particularly those who are fighting for a Trade Union and employment rights for those in the profession. However, Rachel and Justine hope that it will help abolish the industry altogether. Rachel said:

“I’ve never seen the sex trade as an inevitable part of society. People think that if it’s legalised and regulated, that it is safer – but you can’t truly regulate prostitution. It just expands, like in Switzerland, Amsterdam and Thailand. Human trafficking has risen in these parts. Whether it is tolerated in the law or not, prostitution is a monstrous human rights violation. One day, when people can see it for what it is, I think these countries will be held accountable.”

Justine slowly shook her head. “What’s worse is the way the world sweeps prostitution under the carpet. People see the sex industry as a way of “containing rape” in our society – as though these vulnerable women are a human shield for sexual violence. Prostitution is a training ground for misogynists – rapists hone their skills in this trade.”

Treading carefully, I asked Justine and Rachel what their worst experiences were as sex workers. They sat in silence for a moment, looking at each other, as only they could truly know what it was like to sell your body for sex, each and every day. As I began to regret triggering their deepest, most painful memories, Justine spoke.

“It would be very hard to choose. I think after exiting prostitution and looking back at everything, the worst thing I remember are the assholes that told you it was empowering to sell your body. They would sit there and tell you that ‘sex work’ is a normal job. But how many secretaries do you know that are extreme alcoholics and drug addicts? How many secretaries do you know that self-abuse?

“To look back at the degradation of my past is my worst experience. My sisters are still caught up on it all. They are deluded and lying to me about how good they’ve got it. Just look at what you’re saying is your job. My sister went to a client’s hotel room once. Fifteen men tied her down and raped her, taking turns on her. Do you go to work every day and think ‘I hope I don’t get raped and beaten up today?’ You don’t. In the sex work industry, rape just means that you didn’t get paid.”

As Rachel got up to go to another interview, Justine sat with me for a while longer. We spoke about how things could change for the better, starting with mainstream culture. Though prostitution and human trafficking are in the dark underbelly of society, we both agreed that rape culture and misogyny, normalised objectification in the media such as ‘Page Three’ add fuel to the fire. With her legs tucked up on the chair, Justine spoke at length about the importance of moral values, declaring that the state should take some responsibility in instilling them.

“The government should do more in promoting equality and stopping women from being treated as pieces of meat. I know wanting to stop prostitution isn’t cool or radical. We will never be the cool ones. We don’t believe that women are empowered when they sell themselves to men. So when I speak to people who think it’s acceptable, I tell them to ‘take it home with them’. Would you want your sister or mother to sell her body for sex? Would you happily tell people what she did for a living? If something doesn’t feel right like that, that’s because it isn’t right. We need people to wake up and look at prostitution for what it is.”



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