I talked to an ex-prostituted woman in Amsterdam and learned an important lesson

July 2015, shop window of an underwear store in Amsterdam.

 

“I don’t really know where I stand as for the legalization of prostitution, because I’ve never talked to someone who’s been in it”.

“Well, you are now”.

 

This was the beginning of one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had, on a windy summer morning in the city of Amsterdam. For hours, this amazing woman and I talked about the myths and truths of the “oldest business of the world”, and by the time we said goodbye the way I saw the world had meaningfully changed.

 

For the past few years I had been noticing an uprising of posts and articles online by feminist women praising the “sex workers” and defending their right to sell sex if they choose to do so. "It’s their body and they can do what they want with it" – and it sure is hard to disagree with such a statement. However, after this conversation, I became very skeptical about what “choosing” really means when speaking of prostitution. After all, no choice is a choice if it’s not a free choice.


Most women who escape prostitution suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, on a similar or higher rate than war veterans, this lady told me. She has been working with them for years, helping them out, and she experiences it herself. And while media and mainstream movies sell us the myth of the shy, lonely, insecure guy who never gets laid and needs the help of an amused prostitute to get some experience, reality is very different: most clients are actually married men who know exactly what they’re doing and seek in prostitution what their wives don’t (or wouldn’t) allow them to do in their bedroom. This, of course, doesn’t imply the type of fun, kind sex that the lonely boy would be seeking, where the lady has control on herself and teaches him what to do – but the objectified use of a woman’s body to fulfil every sexual practice that would embarrass the man outside of that environment, from scatology to violence. Where control lays means everything. And the client, as we know, is always right.

 

So ok, we all know that most prostituted women are forced to take this life, but what about the ones who do it because they want to? Why do they choose it? Or why don’t they leave once they realize what’s behind?

 


"Because they don't know any better" were the exact words she used to answer this question. There is a strong link that connects poverty and child sexual trauma to "chosen" prostitution. When a woman has no resources, or hasn't been able to access an education, or has suffered from sexual abuse as a child, it is not difficult for her to fall into the prostitution net. As this brilliant article points out, many of the women in this business were just little girls when they started. Long story short, abusive sex gets normalized from a young age and ends up being used as a way to earn money. And the longer you've been in, the more difficult it is to leave.


"But prostitution prevents rape!", some say - I might even have found myself saying this at some point of my life. This assumption is not only misleading, but also dangerous. It is misleading because, if a man is as violent as to be likely to rape a woman in the street (plus risking being sent to prison), there is no reason why he wouldn't be likely to be violent towards a prostitute - the issue here is if we care as much for one as for the other. But, most of all, this statement is dangerous because of the way it deals with the problem of rape - if a man feels the desire to force a woman to have sex with him, by offering him a gateway we are basically validating this desire, instead of fighting to eliminate it. Not to mention the cherry on top of the cake - that this "gateway" is an actual human being.


Graffitti on a bathroom door in a squatted building (Brussels). It pretty much sums it up.
Graffitti on a bathroom door in a squatted building (Brussels). It pretty much sums it up.


The truth is that many of the "sex workers" praisers are white, middle-class feminists (just like myself) who, despite their best intentions, haven't interacted directly with the environment of prostitution and take for granted that choice is, in this context, a free concept (just as I used to!), and thus they speak in the name of women they've never met or talked to. And this happens to allies in every social movement. We tend to put words on the victims' mouths and validate our opinion without listening to them. It happens to us all and it is an issue not only in activism, but in worldwide society, that we can only get rid of by being aware of it.

 

What I learned that afternoon was not only that I stand for the abolition of prostitution and the criminalization of its clients - but a broader, deeper lesson: that, no matter our position regarding a specific issue, the process to form an opinion should include listening to the people affected by whatever it is that we are trying to defeat or defend. This basic idea, I found, is essential to have the freedom to change our minds.

 

And traveling, once again, is sometimes the most fulfilling and effective way to do so.

 

Write a comment

Comments: 10
  • #1

    Nina (Monday, 10 August 2015 14:33)

    Just had a discussion with a friend who does sex work about this. So: Different sex workers have different specialities. Some will do kinky and some will not. If a customer wants to "seek in prostitution what their wives don’t (or wouldn’t) allow them to do in their bedroom", he has to find a girl whose speciality that type of stuff is. I am friends with a few women who do sex work. One told me how she learnt how important it is to be aware of your limits, and to be very clear with this with clients. Women who do sex work usually learn this and they have the self-assurance and awareness to handle each session well. I don't do this work myself, and I am by far not an "expert" or something. But really, just one conversation with one person does not actually give you a very big insight into this. The other arguments in your article are all "typical abolitionist", so my friend. She heard them all before, and can refute them. If you want to learn more about sex work, there are a few blogs out there to read.

  • #2

    Ex-prostituted woman (Monday, 10 August 2015 15:29)

    Hi Nina!
    I'm the woman from the article. There is nothing wrong with abolitionism. The few 'happy sex workers' who experience things differently are not more important that us, the 89% who would have wanted out immediately if we could.

    You say that "women who do sex work usually learn this and they have the self-assurance and awareness to handle each session well", this is incorrect. The most sought after girls are very young, often minors, preferably under 25, not everyone at that age is the epitome of selfassured. I was 21 and very insecure, i could not stand up against older men, sometimes more than one who were sexually agressive. Same goes for a lot of others, it's not like there is a Prostitution School or anything.

    How a session works is often a combination of what the client wants and how desperate you are for money, here under legalisation the competition is brutal. So specialising in the different wishes of clients? I wished! That is quite a privileged position. I did whatever it took to survive, to get the money i needed, i had to.

    So before saying most women in prostitution are "sex workers" like the image you have in your mind: maybe consider wether women like me had to be raped and traumatised for the orgasms of our clients or the liberty of some other women to do "sex work"?
    The abolitionist feminists are right, they don't throw women under the bus like the pro-sex industry crowd.

  • #3

    Victor Lee (Tuesday, 22 September 2015 06:01)

    This.. is an excellent article! Well written!

  • #4

    Helen Fong (Tuesday, 22 September 2015 06:02)

    Thanks for sharing this article, I'll look into it, and it's definitely inspired me to do some research. I encountered it as part of the class I am taking in gender studies! Thanks.

  • #5

    Revolution on the Road (Tuesday, 22 September 2015 10:23)

    Thank you, Victor and Helen, for your kind words :) I am so glad to see it has become of some use!!

  • #6

    chelsea (Saturday, 27 February 2016 14:24)

    You say some sex workers do kinky and some will not we are free to choose which camp we will work in, we aren't. The clients force us to do unspeakable things outright and other times we are forced because agreeing is the only way we can get the job and we need the money that's why we're fucking there. There is no choice in prostitution if you have experienced it as though we are free to choose then you have not experienced what the majority in prostitution have and you can stop fucking speaking as though you have.

  • #7

    Lynette (Sunday, 28 February 2016 19:59)

    Nina, I am having a really hard time wrapping my head around your statement: "If a customer wants to "seek in prostitution what their wives don’t (or wouldn’t) allow them to do in their bedroom", he has to find a girl whose speciality that type of stuff is." That is a ridiculous argument - WHY exactly does any man 'have to' find other women to perform/accept specific sex acts that their wives won't? What makes you think men have some kind of inherent "right" to any kind of sex they fantasize about?? Honestly, if you're going to use that kind of logic you may as well also advocate their 'right' to sex with children because their adult wives can't fulfill that fantasy. Is that OK with you? (Of course not.) So if we can agree that children shouldn't ever be used for sex, what makes you think 'certain' women should be?? Women are not masturbatory aids, they are thinking & feeling human beings who no doubt suffer physical & psychological consequences by allowing their bodies to be used for 'certain acts' by 'clients' whose wives wouldn't allow it (no doubt because it's painful, degrading, dangerous, or all of the above!). In other words, why do you think it's OK for some women to risk harms that their clients' wives wouldn't? I think you have a chronic case of cognitive dissonance on this issue, and also suffer from internalized misogyny, both of which are extremely damaging to ALL women AND society-at-large.

  • #8

    Stella Omega (Friday, 11 March 2016 00:30)

    Some sex workers choose to work in sex. They should be allowed their autonomy to do so.
    Some sex workers are prostituted and forced into the work. They should have autonomy restored, and their abusers should pay the price that justice exacts.

    These two statements are in no way oppositional.

    Lynette, let me point out that the things that one person would not want to do in bed can be as innocuous as providing oral gratification-- or receiving oral gratification for that matter -- as well as whatever perverse thing your brain has come up with, and if that thing requires the use of a person or creature who is incapable of consent-- then it's illegal no matter who is doing it.

  • #9

    Liz (Thursday, 07 April 2016 15:16)

    This is such an interesting article! Please translate the article of the Spanish prostitute that you wrote! Google translate did a horrendous job translating. I got the gist, but it would be so much better to read your translation!

  • #10

    Revolution on the Road (Thursday, 07 April 2016 16:02)

    Hi, Liz! The English version is coming soon! I will announce it from my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/revolutionontheroad