Prostitution: Being Raped for a Living
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges speaks with author and former prostitute Rachel Moran about the violence and disempowerment inherent in prostitution.
CHRIS HEDGES, HOST, DAYS OF REVOLT: Hi. This is Chris Hedges. And welcome to Days of Revolt.
Today we’ll be discussing prostituted women (which of course is an endemic problem; some 40 million people are trafficked, prostituted around the world, girls and women) with the author Rachel Moran, who wrote Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution. Rachel herself for seven years was a prostituted woman in Ireland. The book is not only beautifully written, often lyrically written, but does far more than chronicle the kind of experiences that she had. It reflects on them at a very deep and profoundly disturbing psychological level. It’s a brilliant book.
Thank you, Rachel.
MORAN: Thank you, Chris.
HEDGES: I want to talk a little bit about the myths that those who are outside the industry don’t understand. It has become hip among certain segments to talk about sex workers and the rights of sex workers, all of which by the time you get to the end of this book are just imploded.
You yourself came from a dysfunctional family. Both of your parents had mental health issues. Your mother was an undiagnosed schizophrenic. Your father committed suicide. You grew up in extreme poverty, you and your siblings. And in the book you say that there are two primary routes by which women become prostitutes. What are they?
MORAN: Well, I think from–certainly from what I have seen with my own eyes, and also the research that I’ve seen in the years since I left, sexual abuse features very, very highly, and also–I mean, there’s a whole array, really, of different types of marginalizations. Like, here in United States, race plays a huge role in this. For example, one of the women I work with, an African-American woman from Minnesota, Vednita Carter, she tells me that in the facility she runs, there are about 350 to 400 young girls and young women coming through her doors every year. Now, in a city where you’ve got 10 percent black people, you’ve obviously got 5 percent black females. And yet over 70 percent of the young women and girls presenting in her project are young black females. So you can’t look at that in the context of what’s going on in the United States and not immediately see that racial marginalization is funneling these girls straight into prostitution.
I have never seen anyone come to prostitution out of a circumstance that wasn’t itself in some way, shape, or form a negative influence in their lives. In my case, it was like you say, poverty.
HEDGES: And homelessness. You were homeless.
MORAN: I was homeless at the time I went into prostitution. Yeah. I had left home at 14, and I went into prostitution the following year.
HEDGES: Let’s talk a little bit about the experience of prostitution, which you dissect, I think, brilliantly in the book. You first of all talk about the kind of coping mechanisms. One of the things about sexual abuse survivors you point out in the book is that they’ve already become in essence desensitized or kind of numb to their own experience, which is one of the fundamental coping mechanisms that you say prostitutes need in order to survive.
MORAN: Absolutely. You have to dissociate, you have to split yourself off from the reality of what’s currently happening, so that if you are having your body used by–could be–in my case it was up to ten 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 just–literally what you do is you pretend that it’s not happening. That’s what I always did. I just shut it out like I was, I don’t know, some warped form of an actress.
HEDGES: There’s a passage. I’m going to read it and have you comment.
It is difficult to describe how hollow a woman feels after she has been used sexually by ten different men. 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.
Violence is an endemic part of prostitution, and I think you argue that is part of every single act of prostitution, even if it doesn’t involve that kind of savagery. I mean, you break down–maybe you can do that for us before we begin–I think three different characteristics of men who use prostitutes. What are those three characteristics?
MORAN: Well, you have your men who get off, who actively get off on hurting you and watching you being hurt, right, and inflicting pain.
HEDGES: I think you say that’s about 30 percent, you’re guessing.
MORAN: Roughly, yeah, from my experience. Then you have your men who are aware, of course, that what’s going on is not right, not humane, but 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 having said that, those same men would know that 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.
To get back to the point you were making about violence, people miss the biggest part of the picture, in my opinion, which is that prostitution is violence in and of itself. And people will say, oh, why, and that’s not true, and how can that be so, and all of this. Look, the bald reality is–and I said this in an interview recently–to 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 in exchange between two people. It doesn’t have that kind of power.
HEDGES: You have a passage–I’m just going to read a little bit of this passage, because you talk about the different forms of prostitution, in terms of walking the street, which you’ve done all, working as a dominatrix, working in a brothel, working for an escort agency. And I think oftentimes people who want to legalize prostitution want to pretend that there are differences in this activity. And this is what you write in the book.
People who depict prostitution as glamorous usually view prostitutes against the backdrop of expensive hotel foyers. 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.
MORAN: Well, this is one of the biggest myths is that what’s happening at the high end, as they say, is all perfectly fine and what’s going on on the streets is disgraceful. 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 got to go back into prostitution for one more day, there’s only one place I would go, and that would be the streets.
HEDGES: You should explain why. You do in the book, but why is that?
MORAN: Because 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 someone has, 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, wherever, 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 indoor prostitution is more–that violence occurs more frequently. And that was my experience also.
But I have to say the reason for that is, like I say, because we were able to kind of think on our feet on the streets to an extent. It’s not because the men who were going down the streets are any less violent. It’s because we had that little bit of room for maneuver in that situation.
HEDGES: And why do you think men use prostitutes? What do you think drives?
MORAN: I would call it, in a nutshell, if I was to answer in a matter of a couple of words, I would just say it’s sexual selfishness. It’s sexual selfishness, pure and simple.
And men need to really look at the behavior of their peers, because as we know, the majority of men don’t buy sex. What I really want to see is men schooling each other. Men need to start stepping up here and taking responsibility for this, because, look, we have two social groups on this earth, men and women. Okay? And we know that men are causing about 99.9 percent of this damage. Now, if we could look at any other community on the earth, be it the white community, the black community, the gay community, whoever, and say, you are causing 99.9 percent of this particular harm and damage, we would be on that community in a heartbeat. So what I want men to start doing is saying to themselves and each other, this has got to stop. Not in my name.
HEDGES: One of the things that was disturbing to read was that because you were on the streets at the age of 15, you made it a point of telling your clients you were 15. Why?
MORAN: Because they get off faster and I got out of the car faster. It was a major turn-on for them.
And that really cuts to the heart of the nature of what prostitution is, because the nature of prostitution is one of despoilment. It’s about, as I describe it in the book, as being the sexual equivalent of picking a lovely young bloom and pissing on it.
What I found when I operated the phone lines when I was in indoor prostitution for quite a few years, and for every ten 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.
MORAN: You know?
But people, if they understood what really goes on in prostitution, all this utter nonsense sex workers rights talk would stop.
HEDGES: What about this argument of choice, that we have to protect–I mean, let’s talk about this idea of protecting the, quote-unquote, rights of sex workers, of choice, of self-determination. I know you address it in the book, but perhaps you can speak to it here.
MORAN: Mhm. Well, look, it’s as simple as this for me. When I was in prostitution, if the kind of legislation that I am agitating for today had been on the cards back then, I would have been frightened. I would have been nervous. I would have been anxious about what this was going to mean for me. I would have had a lot of negative feelings. And I probably would have utterly despised a woman like myself who is speaking out to the truth and the realities of what goes on in prostitution. So I have to look at that, because it’s true. And there’s a reason why it’s true. The bald basics of this situation is that when you are in prostitution, you’re not looking any further than your own personal involvement and what this is going to mean for you.
HEDGES: Well, and getting money for the rent.
MORAN: Mhm. You’re not looking at the harm and the damage. I didn’t look at the harm and the damage to me in any great depth. I couldn’t. How could I? ‘Cause I had to go back into a brothel the next day, and I had to feed myself, and like you say, I had to pay the rent. So there were not the options then that we are trying to fight for today.
What I want to see is women in prostitution, and indeed men, boys, everybody, be offered alternatives, real, viable alternatives. And I’m talking about help with housing, with childcare, with education, training, with counseling, with addiction, 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 leave the women [crosstalk]
HEDGES: Although I think you believe we should criminalize the pimps and the johns.
MORAN: Oh, absolutely.
HEDGES: But you’re right. That’s just part of it.
MORAN: It’s part of it, yeah.
HEDGES: One of the things in the book that you talk about is how you prefer to be with people who had, quote-unquote, sexual–what are seen as sexual perversions. You worked as a dominatrix for a while, but you preferred that over straight men. Why? Just people who came in, just wanted to sort of have a sexual experience.
MORAN: Well, because in prostitution there’s–like I said, there’s a culture of despoilment. It’s all about violation. It’s all about men getting off on violation. There’s a huge amount of them who are actively into that, like I said earlier on. And what I found was that men who wanted to dress up as women or as puppy dogs–believe me, that happens. I had a regular–.
HEDGES: Well, you had a case, a real client, and you had to walk around the block, that he would fix a cotton bull–.
MORAN: Well, I used to walk him around the apartment. He wanted to go–.
HEDGES: Walk around the apartment. And then when you took them outside, I think, you put his clothes on, but you knew he had–he wanted to be a poodle, right?
HEDGES: Is that–? Yeah.
MORAN: Yeah. So, I mean, there was a whole array of men with the most bizarre turn-ons out there. And I used to deal with those men. And I found it so much easier than dealing with men who wanted to just use my body like it was something–like a kind of blowup doll that they’d bought out of a sex shop. Those are two–the sense of being violated, the sense of being imposed upon in those two situations is vastly different.
HEDGES: You had a conversation in the book with your sister about sexual abuse, and I think the line was something about rape, right, that as a prostitute, you’re raped every day.
MORAN: She had asked me, had I ever been raped or anything like that. And it was a question I really struggled to answer, because I felt that no matter what way I turned with that answer, I was betraying myself and the issue, because the reality is prostitution is the commercialization of sexual abuse, as I say in the book. So it’s compensated sexual abuse.
HEDGES: Well, you’re a commodity, you’re not a human being,–
HEDGES: –in the eyes of–you’re not a person.
MORAN: Mhm. And this nonsense talk about sexual services, that’s just crazy. First of all, sex is not a service. The nature of sex is one of mutuality. And where you don’t have that mutuality, what you have is sexual abuse.
HEDGES: Well, you know, the other thing, when you talk about sex, you said, okay, if this is sex works, let’s look at the skills of a sex worker. And, like, you listed three of them. Do you remember what they are?
MORAN: Yeah. They were the urge to–the ability to resist your urge to vomit, to cry, and to pretend that your current reality wasn’t happening, because I thought about that, I mean, this notion that prostitution should be considered work like any other. So I’m thinking, well, okay, if it can be considered work like any other, let’s look at what the skills are and let’s imagine prostitution as it would operate and function in a world where it was considered and treated as ordinary work. You would have prostitution stalls, brothels, the pimps [settle (?)]–I’m not sure what the term you use here in the United States is, but it would be like graduation night and all the kids are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. So if you can just imagine. And we’re already seeing it, sadly, shamefully, in some parts of the world, like Germany.
HEDGES: Well, you write about Australia and Germany. And there are a couple of things that surprised me. One is that it is no dent in terms of–there’s legal and illegal. But, I mean, of course, Germany now, it’s industrial prostitution with multistory brothels. I can’t remember the figures, but it was like–
MORAN: Twelve stories high.
HEDGES: –12 stories high. What is it? A million men a year or something are serviced. These women are mostly trafficked in from Eastern Europe and Asia and other places. But that doesn’t put a dent into what is illegal prostitution. And you explained why. Why is that?
MORAN: Well, in Germany you have an estimate–and I believe it’s a very conservative estimate–of 450,000 women and girls prostituting. 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 and all this, because 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, in certain states in Australia, and just all over the place, anywhere that has legalized or decriminalized, which [crosstalk]
HEDGES: Well, it’s sexual tourism. It’s like Thailand.
MORAN: Oh, yeah.
HEDGES: There, you know, at one point, you talk in the book about mothers who had come out before Christmas, poor mothers, or was it–and the other date was [incompr.] first communion or when–.
MORAN: That was really sad.
HEDGES: Yeah, to get enough money to buy their children presents or school uniforms.
MORAN: Yeah. Mhm.
HEDGES: You also talk about drugs. You yourself became addicted eventually to–
HEDGES: –cocaine. You told one really sad story about a woman who was taken off–and you didn’t go into detail, but most probably gang raped by a large number of men and came back just destroyed, a heroin addict, and who disintegrated. What are the long-term ramifications of–I mean, that trauma is always going to be with you.
MORAN: Well, Chris, you’re talking about women who’ve been dreadfully harmed and damaged. So it’s just thrown into my mind the reality that we’re still dealing with. I mean, I lost a woman only last summer who I had known for over 20 years. She had eventually died of a drug overdose. She had a lot of fight in her. She was able to deal with the life that she was living for about 23, 24 years, and eventually died. So those of us who do this work, who’ve lived this life, it doesn’t end.
HEDGES: You talk in the book about trying to write about it. It was often harder emotionally than going through it, because you were desensitized and numb, but then having to resurrect those kind of images–I mean, I think there’s one point that said you’d been spending five hours trying to write one paragraph.
MORAN: Yeah. That was a very, very painful book to write, because it necessitated my having to revisit all of those painful places with no armor, you know, and just really look at what it was that happened to us and why. So it was a hard slog. It was painful.
HEDGES: Well, it’s a courageous book, which you published under–not with a pseudonym. It’s, I think, certainly the most important book I’ve read on prostitution. Beautifully written as well. And thank you very much, Rachel.
MORAN: Thanks very much, Chris.
HEDGES: And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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