This column includes material from Chris Hedges’ interview of Rachel Moran on teleSUR’s “Days of Revolt,” presented via therealnews.com. Prostitution abolition activist Moran is a former prostitute and a writer, blogger and founding member of SPACE International, an organization for survivors of prostitution. To see a video of the interview and to read a text of the exchange, click here.
BALTIMORE—The reduction of another human being to an object and the glorification of male violence, whether in war or prostitution, are romanticized by popular culture. It is difficult to challenge the lies disseminated about “sex work” and “military virtues.” Those who counter the dominant narrative, even if they speak from long personal experience, are drowned out. Speaking the truth about war or the truth about prostitution is lonely and often futile.
Rachel Moran, who was a prostituted woman in Ireland for seven years, has done in her book “Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution” what I attempted to do in my book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” about the reality of war. And she has endured very similar responses. Women and girls who are being prostituted—like war correspondents and soldiers addicted to the rush of battle, the hypermasculinity and the adrenaline highs that come with war—have often dismissed her, unable to examine the darkness and tragedy of their own lives. Mass culture has largely shut out her and others who speak the truth about prostitution, just as it shuts out those who speak the truth about war. The manufactured illusion of heroes or glamorous call girls plays to a culture that celebrates the commodification of human beings. Those who have escaped the clutches of prostitution or war, often struggling to cope with trauma, guilt and shame, are reticent to resurrect in public the nightmare that will hound them for the rest of their lives.
“People who depict prostitution as glamorous usually view prostitutes against the backdrop of expensive hotel foyers,” Moran wrote in her book. “They imagine prostitutes as entering or leaving five-star hotels, wearing sharp designer suits and high heels, and the look set off with vivid red lipstick. I’ve walked into more hotels more times than I could count, wearing sharp suits, high heels, and every shade of lipstick. None of that changed what was going on in my heart or in my mind, and none of it made any difference to the bodily experience involved here. None of it was of any practical benefit to my mouth, breasts, or vagina. What was going on was the very same thing that was going on when I was lifting my skirt in the backstreet alley. The nature of prostitution does not change with its surrounds. It does not morph into something else because your ass is rubbing against white linen as opposed to roughed concrete.”
When we spoke in Baltimore she told me, “The reality is, if I had a gun to my head right now and the life of someone I really loved was hanging in the balance and I had … to go back into prostitution for one more day, there’s only one place I would go, and that would be the streets. In street-based prostitution, you have some level of control—not much, but some. You can gauge by the look in a person’s eye, which is actually the best place you can look if you want to know whether somebody has the intention to hurt you, whether you’re getting any kind of, as we say in Ireland, bogie vibes. If a man has it in them to want to cause you extreme harm, you can gauge all that by the physical nature of being close to them and looking them in the face. You can’t use your faculties in that same way down a phone line. You can’t assess a man in indoor prostitution, regardless whether it’s in a brothel or massage parlor or a hotel room. You can’t do that until you’re alone with them in the room. And what people don’t understand is that that places you in a much—obviously, I would have thought—more dangerous situation. And studies have shown that [in] indoor prostitution … violence occurs more frequently. And that was my experience.”
She blasts the notion that prostitution is in any way a form of sex. “The nature of sex is mutuality,” she said. “And where you don’t have mutuality, you have sexual abuse.”
Moran preferred catering to those with fetishes and “sexual perversions” to escape “being raped for a living” by heterosexual men.
Some men “wanted to dress up as women or as puppy dogs—believe me, that happens,” she said. “I had a regular client [who wanted to be a poodle, and I] used to walk him around the apartment. There was a whole array of men with the most bizarre turn-ons. And I used to deal with those men. I found it so much easier than dealing with men who wanted to just use my body like it was … a kind of blowup doll that they’d bought out of a sex shop.”
The war industry, like the prostitution industry, feeds off the despair, poverty and hopelessness that afflict the lives of many of the young, especially young men and women of color. In a world of closed doors and few opportunities, the military, like prostitution, appears to offer a way out. Military recruiters are little more than uniformed human traffickers, targeting the vulnerable, making promises that are usually never kept and handing out cash payments to the desperate. Once they have their prey trapped, like all pimps and traffickers, they force them into a life that bears no resemblance to the fantasy they peddled.
“That was a very, very painful book to write,” Moran said of “Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution,” “because it necessitated my having to revisit all of those painful places with no armor and look at what it was that happened to us and why.”
Moran, like many other girls and women forced into prostitution, was desperate and homeless. Her home life, dominated by mentally unstable parents who raised her and her siblings in crippling poverty, had been a disaster. And the state, preoccupied with imposing austerity and budget cuts, had abandoned her. She started working the streets when she was a child of 15. And she soon discovered that announcing her age to her clients was useful because “they get off faster and I got out of the car faster.”
“I was in indoor prostitution for quite a few years, and for every 10 times that phone rang, eight or nine times you would be asked, ‘How old is the youngest girl on today?’ It was always that, the youngest girl, the youngest girl, the youngest girl. Never stopped. And it was a particularly creepy question to have to listen to, because I usually was the youngest girl. So it was me they were talking about,” she said.
“I have never seen anyone come to prostitution out of a circumstance that wasn’t in some way, shape, or form negative,” she told me.
She scoffs at the idea that prostitution offers girls and women a “choice,” since as she wrote “it is others who use the bodies of prostituted women as they so choose. That is the intention and the purpose and the function of prostitution.” Prostituted women have no real freedom of choice, and even less control over their bodies than do Marine Corps recruits on Parris Island. Once you sign on for war or prostitution you become someone else’s property. Fear becomes your dominant emotion. “If anything is more pervasive than violence itself it is the threat of it,” Moran writes of being prostituted. To endure war or prostitution it is better not to think or feel. Spend long enough in war or prostitution and you will, as Moran and I eventually did, become numb, dominated by paranoia and deeply distrustful. You lash out, sometimes physically, at whatever or whomever you perceive to be a threat. You become a hunted animal. You divide the world between predators and prey.
“You have to dissociate,” Moran said. “You have to split yourself off from the reality of what’s currently happening. If you are having your body used by— … it was up to 10 men a day when I was on the streets—you’ve got to be able to shut off from that. You just couldn’t keep on doing it unless you could … pretend that it’s not happening. That’s what I always did. I just shut it out.”
There, however, is an important distinction between prostitution and war. In prostitution, your body is physically violated by men who revolt and disgust you. These men, as they penetrate your body, frequently insult and beat you. And this makes the traumas of prostitution, like rape, horrifyingly unique.
“It is difficult to describe how hollow a woman feels after she has been used sexually by ten different men,” Moran wrote. “Of course, the experience rarely stopped at the agreed-upon hand relief or oral sex. Even when a man has accepted that he will not be putting his penis in you, he often has no compunction about shoving his fingers or other objects in you and mauling you and biting you and trying to shove his tongue down your throat and everywhere else. I know by the rabid, doglike behavior of one particular client that he’d have liked nothing better than if he’d bit and sucked my nipples till they gushed blood.”
In the interview, Moran said that there are men “who actively get off on hurting you and watching you being hurt”—about 30 percent of her clients. “Then you have your men who are aware, of course, that what’s going on is not right, not humane. They choose willfully to ignore that. And you have your other men who just don’t seem to have that in their minds at all. They don’t seem to understand that what’s happening is not something that should be going on. But even [so], … those same men know they wouldn’t want to walk into a brothel and find their sister sitting on the bed. So I do believe that there’s a good deal of denial going on there.”
“Prostitution is violence in and of itself,” she said. “… [T]o put your hands on another person when you know they don’t want your hands there and to put your penis into the orifices of somebody’s body when you know that they don’t want your penis inside them or near them, that is pathological behavior. And money doesn’t erase that. Money does not have some kind of magical quality that can take away the essence of a person’s behavior or an exchange between two people.”
Moran rejects the concept of “sex work”—which, she says, has as its primary qualifications “the ability to resist your urge to vomit, to cry, and to pretend that your current reality wasn’t happening.”
She points to Germany and Australia, where prostitution is legal, to illustrate that legalization only fuels the trafficking of poor women (in those two countries most of the prostituted women are from Asia or Eastern Europe) and the industrialization of prostitution. And legalizing prostitution does not offer women more protection.
“In Germany you have an estimate—and I believe it’s a very conservative estimate—of 450,000 women and girls prostituting,” she said. “Forty-four of them have stepped forward to sign as registered. So here we have a situation where the whole world believes that prostitution ought to be regulated, legislated, and all of this, but the reality of what’s happening in Germany is only a pitiful handful of women were prepared to register and get the benefits that go along with that, the social security and health benefits. The bald reality is we don’t want to be labeled prostitutes. Women don’t want that ‘whore’ stamp, as I call it, on us forever. And the illegal trade absolutely booms anywhere where you legalize, because what happens immediately is that demand massively increases. We’ve seen it in New Zealand [and] … Australia.”
She calls for prostitution to be outlawed, with the johns, pimps, brothel owners and illicit massage parlor operators prosecuted, publicly shamed and jailed. She believes the women who are being prostituted should be exempt from criminal charges and offered a variety of state-run programs to enable them to survive outside of prostitution.
“What I want to see is women in prostitution, and indeed men, boys, everybody, be offered alternatives, real, viable alternatives,” she said. “And I’m talking about help with housing, with child care, with education, training, with counseling, with addiction [therapy], all of the things that women need help with in order to get them out of that situation. I’m not advocating for let’s just criminalize the pimps and the johns and [abandon] the women.”
In war, where there is a cavernous space between the all-powerful and the utterly powerless, the prostitution and rape of girls, women and boys is an epidemic. Armed combatants, who surrender their individuality and usually their capacity for moral choice, become part of a herd of killers. Sex in the culture of war is reduced to its basest animalistic function. It is referred to in marching cadences and ribald small talk in the same way people speak about defecation. Pornography in wartime is ubiquitous. In war, as in prostitution, empathy, compassion and love are ruthlessly banished.
War is an assault on all systems—social, political, economic, cultural, familial, religious and environmental—that sustain and nurture life. Human beings in wartime become objects to destroy or to be used for gratification, or both. The hypermasculine barbarity of war, which dehumanizes the other, is mirrored in the hypermasculine barbarity of prostitution. America’s glorification of male violence and cultural acceptance of sexual gratification at the expense of another, along with the lust to dominate, humiliate and destroy those who are different from us, have made us callous and cruel. It has rendered us incapable of compassion. It has created a soulless society where the exploitation of the weak and the vulnerable, along with the persecution of the “stranger,” defines our national character.