This article is about connections between child abuse and prostitution – about how the sex industry eats (mostly) women and children who have been damaged by child abuse and how prostitution conditions men to abuse children. I draw on personal stories that you may find upsetting. You should find them upsetting. This stuff affects real people. It is happening all around us. Today. This minute. As Rebecca Mott said in her moving speech at Feminism in London 2015, shutting your eyes doesn’t make the bad stuff disappear.
This is how Willow* told me her story.
“When I was nine, I was sexually abused by an adolescent neighbour. Let’s call him Jake. It wasn’t the first time I’d been abused. Three adults had been there before him. But what was different with Jake was that it went on for nearly two years and sometimes I initiated it. Looking back, I can see that I went to him because I was so deprived of love and healthy attention that that shameful contact seemed better than no contact, better than never being touched, never being treated with affection. From the outside, it would have looked like consent. But what does that mean? I wanted love and affection. I wanted to be held by safe arms. I had no wish for genital contact. It was several years before I even began puberty.
“I learnt to move as he wanted me to move. I learnt to respond to his invasive poking and probing. I had already learnt that I did not have any rights to my own boundaries, that I was unlovable, that I had to buy attention by doing what I was told, what was wanted. And sometimes I was motionless. It was done to me. By Jake. Jake was the actor. And when I did move, I was moved by his will. Because I had already learnt what he wanted and that only his will counted; that pleasing him was all that mattered.
“I had been anally raped when I was four years old. I learnt then to disassociate. I left my body and rose to the ceiling. I looked down and saw what was being done to that tiny body. It was quite separate from me looking down from above. And then my mother burst in and all hell broke loose. I lost her then. Because how could she, a 1950s housewife, integrate this new reality of her good upstanding lawyer husband raping his youngest child? She had to see me as the source of this evil. And she had a model for this – the whore.
“So when Jake started to abuse me five years later, how could I, who had internalised my own whoredom and was so deprived of love and affection, resist his touch?
“What has consent got to do with that reality?
“Is it any surprise then that in my teenage years the idea of prostitution was appealing to me? After all, I had been in prostitution school since my infancy.”
When Willow finished telling me this, I asked her, “What do you mean by inner whoredom?”
She replied, “I mean that I had internalised the message that females are either madonnas (good) or whores (bad) and I was the latter. Those terrible things that were done to me proved that I was a whore, that I was bad, that I deserved them.”
What are the pimps looking for?
Rebecca Mott talked of her first night in prostitution at the age of 14:
“To know that time, you must know what it is to live in a body that does not belong to you. Even before being prostituted, you had been mentally and sexually abused in your own home. You had learnt that your body belonged to others – others who treated your body as their personal sex-toy. Know that having feelings was a luxury that you could not imagine. All that was before you were prostituted. Then you have become the type of girl that the sex trade wants. For then, you will be easy to brainwash and manipulate.”
In a personal conversation, Rebecca told me about that club where she was first prostituted. She told me how there were many underage girls there but the pimps were looking for a particular type of girl. The type of girl who hated herself.
A girl who has an intact sense of self, enthusiasm for life and a family of people who love her and have the resources to look out for her isn’t going to suit the pimp’s purpose. (Unless of course he first grooms her or traffics her and breaks her). The pimps in that club were looking for girls who had already been broken.
This is why it is no surprise that many of those in prostitution were sexually and/or physically abused as children and/or grew up in abusive circumstances, such as extreme poverty and/or social exclusion.
Madonnas and whores
One of the reasons rolled out to justify prostitution is the idea that it is the oldest profession. However, as I have written elsewhere, that is simply not true. For millennia human communities were egalitarian and prostitution was unknown. Prostitution was invented when men seized control and started the system of male supremacy known as patriarchy.
You have to admire the ingenuity of those men. They came up with a system, the system of prostitution, which not only divides women into two groups – respectable women (madonnas) and dirty whores – so women are divided against each other, making them easier to control, but also, and this was a stroke of evil genius, it blames women for men’s violence.
The whore is a whore because she’s a whore. She deserves everything she gets and she loves it.
She makes men do it. So men can’t help it. And men are exonerated en masse.
This poisonous philosophy lives on wherever the system of prostitution holds sway. We can see it in the “happy hooker” myth – the myth that women love being “sex workers” and so any restrictions on men buying sex is a violation of her “agency”.
We see it when women are blamed for being raped by some aspect of their behaviour – what she was wearing, what she’d had to drink, where she was or who she was with.
We see it when the police publicly warn women and not men to stay indoors after a spate of rapes in a public place.
We see it in our collective refusal to see and name male violence for what it is.
We see it in the furious reactions that so many men have when we suggest that buying another human being for sex should be outlawed. We see it in the duplicity and doublethink of those, like Amnesty International, who lobby for pimps and punters to be decriminalised.
Punters in their own words
To help understand prostitution better, I provide below some punters’ stories in their own words. These come from punternet.com, where men can write reviews of women in prostitution in the UK. Each review includes basic details of the visit, like how much it cost, how long it was, and whether they would recommend it. They can also enter a free-format “story” of the visit.
I provide three stories: one for each of the possible answers to the “Recommend?” question (Yes, No, Neutral). I include the stories verbatim, edited only for length.
The stories I have chosen are not the most shocking – there’s no anal sex or accounts of him fisting her. Those stories exist (and you can find some of them on The Invisible Men Project), but I wanted to look at an “unremarkable” story, to see what that tells us about ordinary, everyday prostitution.
Don Giovanni’s story
In this review, Don Giovanni answers “Yes” to the Recommend? question; he paid £50 for 15 minutes and the encounter took place in the summer of 2014. He doesn’t explicitly specify her age but there is the suggestion that she is 21.
Here he describes choosing the girl he wants to prostitute:
“I was led directly into a bedroom to the left of the main door with about six girls in underwear. I say about six because there seemed to be so many of them. This was the cattle market described by Volvic! The first one to my left was very attractive and sultry, I think she knew she was the best looking both in face and body, and was very hot, but she pursed her lips into a sulk and refused to make eye-contact with me, so I thought to myself, “Fuck you bitch, I will choose someone else”. The others were more polite and friendly, extending a hand shake towards me and giving me their names although I missed what they said. One girl did stand out for me and that was because she was so modest and shy. She stood slightly away from the main group towards the back and very quiet. The maid asked: ‘Which one’?
“‘This one’ I said, pointing to the shy girl at the back.”
The girl was called Sarah, although he knew this was not her real name. He had a conversation with the maid (who he refers to as the “Boss Lady”) in which it became clear that Sarah was Romanian and didn’t speak English or Italian and in which he agreed to pay £20 for oral sex without a condom (OWO) on top of the standard £30 fee. When he attempted to give the money to the girl, the Boss Lady reached out and took it.
This is how he describes the encounter itself:
“I stood in front of her naked and I embraced her, she let me kiss her, and I started to take apart her bra. Her bra was difficult and she turned around for me to unclasp it revealing some slightly sagging breasts which have obviously breastfed children recently. So she has kids in Romania to look after. I was sensitive to this and understood her situation. Her breasts were not in a good shape but the rest of her was excellent. Nice bum and sensitive pussy. I turned her around and started to rub my cock on her pussy from behind, she seemed to like this.
“We did this for about five minutes and then I led her onto the bed. She turned towards me and started kissing me deeply, I loved this and it made me very hard.
“‘Che bella fica!’ [What a beautiful pussy] I said to her as she lay back on the bed and spread her legs, the temptation was too much so I went down on her and she grasped the back of my head gently, urging me on to do more and more to her delicate parts… she was silent but at the same time moaning her encouragement of my efforts.
“After a few minutes I removed myself from this delicious fruit and noticed a circle of dampness on the bedding. This was not my saliva but definitely her secretions as a result of my reactions to my efforts. It has been a very long time since a working girl has reacted in this way to me, mostly they just put it on, but this time she was really turned on, and so was I. She looked at me as if to say ‘what next’ so I made a gesture with my hand to indicate oral sex. She turned around to pick up the condom and I gestured to her to make her understand that I did not want the condom so she put it to one side and then started OWO.
“Now, after having read my account so far you are going to think that the OWO was out of this world? WRONG. She just sucked to the same rhythm and style without varying the pressure or using the tip of the tongue, holding my cock without any movement by her hand, pumping away with her mouth in a repetitive fashion – a massive disappointment after such a promising start. So I stopped her and said, ‘Sex?’
“‘Si’ She seemed to understand this word at least! Maybe she was taught this when she arrived.
“It is amazing how some words are universal and then she climbed on top of me and started rubbing her pussy on my cock… I said STOP… went to the sideboard and put the condom on me. She was going to do bareback because she believed my request for OWO meant no condom at all! So the maid had not explained properly my request to her. I could have saved myself twenty quid by not saying anything and I believe Sarah would have obliged with OWO anyway.”
Before he left, the maid told him that Sarah had arrived the day before and he was her first customer. As he was leaving a rat ran through the undergrowth at his feet just outside the front door.
What Don Giovanni really tells us
First he describes the six girls lined up like commodities in a shop – to be judged on their appearance and willingness to please. He even calls this the “cattle market”. When one of the girls doesn’t look him in the eye and make it clear she wants him, he mentally calls her a bitch. The possibility that she may find him unattractive escapes him entirely. So does the possibility that she may be trapped there against her will. That she may be trafficked. All he thinks is that she is a bitch.
There is no sense that he has any awareness of the humanity of these young women – that they are human beings with the same needs and hopes and dreams as he has. He doesn’t question his right to expect and demand that they should be ready to satisfy his every whim regardless of their own feelings.
This is narcissism: “extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.”
For those who insist against all the evidence that prostitution is work not unlike being a waitress, tell me, in which legitimate occupation is one required to line up in one’s underwear to be chosen like this?
Now let’s look at his description of the encounter itself. When she removes her bra, his immediate impression is that she has recently breastfed one or more of her own babies. She is young, about 21, which indicates the babies are still infants. He already knows that she is in a foreign country and doesn’t speak the language, that she is in a seedy flat that is controlled by a “Boss Lady” who took the money. And yet it does not occur to him that she might be there against her will. That she might have been forced or tricked by traffickers or coerced by poverty or circumstances in her country. It doesn’t occur to him that in proceeding he might be breaking the English law that makes it an offence to buy sex with someone who has been subject to coercion. It doesn’t cross his mind. Instead he congratulates himself on his sensitivity and enthusiastically recommends her to other punters. This is another indication of his narcissism. That punternet.com has had this review up for more than a year suggests that it also has no care or concern for this young woman or the law and is run by ruthless people. It also makes it clear that the law is not enforced.
I braced myself before I started my research on punternet.com. I knew there would be tales of anal sex and deep throat – accounts of man after man forcing his entire erect penis into a woman’s rectum or down her throat – practices that are easy to identify as dangerous and brutal, practices that are clearly about his pleasure and not hers. And there were plenty of these. What I didn’t expect was reports of RO (“reverse” oral – he goes down on her). And I certainly didn’t expect RO to be part of the norm. But from punternet.com, it is clear that RO is standard in indoor prostitution. This disturbed and unsettled me in a profound way. Receiving oral sex as a woman is such a vulnerable thing. I caught a life-threatening kidney infection that way. His teeth are in dangerous proximity to her intimate parts. In not one of the many stories I read on punternet.com did any of the punters say they used any form of physical barrier during RO. So her biologically more vulnerable urethra and genitals were unprotected from his bacteria and micro-organism laden saliva.
But what disturbed me most of all was how it reveals that it isn’t enough for the punter to use her body to reach a climax himself, he also wants to make her, force her, to participate, to have a sexual response to him. Then he can pretend that it is a consensual arrangement and that he is a stud for turning her on.
To me, this gives the lie to the idea that indoor prostitution is safer than on-street prostitution. That it is just work, no different in essence from waitressing. He doesn’t just want quick relief. He wants her soul too.
Rachel Moran has written at length about how the normal reaction to an unwanted man’s hands groping your naked skin and intimate parts is revulsion, disgust, horror. The punter demands that she not only hides this normal, involuntary, reaction but he also insists that she enjoys it, is even turned on by it.
And if her body does respond against her will, as bodies sometimes do, he takes it as proof, as Don Giovanni does here, that he is a great lover, a great stud. Not for one moment does he doubt that all her reactions are expressions of encouragement.
Next up, she gives him OWO. But he doesn’t like her technique so they go on to penis in vagina sex. Her extreme vulnerability is painfully clear when without protest she assumes this must be done without a condom because the oral sex had been.
He stops and puts on a condom and expresses regret for paying the extra £20 for OWO because he realises he could have had it anyway. There is not a word of concern for her wellbeing, her risks of STIs or pregnancy. Not a word of concern for her extreme vulnerability, her lack of English, for the imbalance in their positions. He has been writing reviews on punternet.com since 2005, from which we can deduce that he is considerably older than her. 10 years at least, or perhaps two or three times that. Perhaps he is older than her father. But not for one moment does he consider the ethics of what he has done. Not for one moment does he express compassion for a fellow human being. Not for one moment does he express any awareness of their common humanity.
In spite of the poor condition of her breasts and her inadequate OWO technique he wholeheartedly recommends her to his fellow punters. Not once did her reality intrude on his 15 minutes of sucking her life to feed his narcissism. So he could feel a champion.
In this review, Godot answers “Neutral” to the Recommend? question; he paid £60 for 30 minutes. Here is his “story”:
“She [‘Tina’] has a lot of good reviews but to be honest, I didn’t quite have the same experience. While she does her job perfectly well, I thought it was all a bit ‘does what it says on the tin.’ Not a great deal of interaction or communication; she definitely tried to deliver a good service itself and I can’t complain about that but it was all a little too detached and impersonal for my own taste: Blow job – check, reverse oral – check, sex – check. Very professional. Obviously, there wasn’t a lot of chemistry between us for whatever reason so this isn’t an attempt to criticise – just present my own view. Others have clearly found her to their liking so she is doing something right but personally, I will not re-visit. Not a negative by any means; just a neutral.”
What Godot tells us
Godot continues the story that Don Giovanni told – that what he wants isn’t merely sexual relief. He also wants her soul. It was not enough that she performed the acts efficiently and without disgust. She didn’t show him that she was enjoying it, that she was turned on by him. She didn’t show him that he was a champion, a stud, a great person and not an ordinary smelly guy. Because that is what prostitution is about. If it was about simple relief, he could provide it himself.
And Godot’s story gives the lie to the myth that prostitution is simply a service like waitressing. A waitress who performs her work efficiently and professionally is a good waitress. She doesn’t have to pretend that she is your lover, that she finds you attractive. She does not have to tolerate your hands on her naked flesh, your penis in her orifices, your mouth against her mouth and vulva. A waitress does not have to give up her soul.
In this review, Littleman_2008 answers “No” to the Recommend? question; he paid £120 for 45 minutes. Here is his “story”:
“After I paid her [‘Claudia’], my nightmare began and she turned a real face to me. Argued with me about the starting time. Told me the time started when I came but not the moment I paid, which I wasted some time (about 10 mins) about asking the service she provided because she could hardly communicate. Forced me to take a shower (To be honest, I did take a shower before I went there, plus having aftershave with me and I wasn’t sweating). Fair play. I didn’t want argue with her and straight to toilet to get myself clean. Then at that time, I started thinking she was being cheeky.
“When I came out from the bathroom, she asked me to lie down on her bed. No French kissing, said sorry to me I was stranger to her and she didn’t feel comfy to kiss a stranger. FREAKING HELL, of course, I was so stranger to her and that was the first time I saw her (GUYS, I am a clean person, I have no lumps or spots on my face, lips and my cock.). Rubbish BJ, sucked few seconds and then put a condom on my cock and then sucked me briefly, plus sneezed on my cock. No sucking tits and more touching her tits because of her boob jobs which made her feel pain if I even gently touch her. I got so mad afterwards, everything was rubbish. I couldn’t get up for second round because her freaking serving attitude. Asked me to get changed 5 minutes before my time ran out. Totally a scam. Guys, watch out.”
What Littleman_2008 tells us
Again I am struck by the punter’s narcissism: he is outraged that in this arrangement in which he is buying this woman by the minute she should include the time he spent arguing in those minutes. And he is outraged that she requires him to have a shower before he uses her body for sex. Her rudimentary English and painful surgically enhanced breasts don’t make him see her vulnerability, the imbalance in the power of their respective social, practical, and economic positions.
Her “services” led to him having an orgasm but he warns other punters that this is “totally a scam”. Again, this gives the lie to the myth that prostitution is about sexual relief. He had his sexual relief but he didn’t get what he wanted, what he believes he is entitled to and so he flies into a narcissistic rage (a terrifying rage that makes me worry for that poor woman).
This surely confirms that prostitution is not about men getting sexual relief but about men building up their egos at someone else’s expense. Prostitution is a narcissistic activity. It comes from narcissism and it feeds narcissism. Ultimately it makes real connection between human beings harder to achieve. How is real connection possible when you don’t recognise the other person as a human being?
“Nothing happening to nothing”
In her powerful speech at Feminism in London 2015, prostitution survivor Rebecca Mott said, “Punters [think] all violence that they do not to be real violence – for they view the prostituted as sub-human sexual goods. It is nothing that is happening to nothing.”
The punters’ stories tell us the same thing. In their minds, they are doing nothing to nothing. And it is striking how similar this is to Willow’s account of her sexual encounters with Jake. Jake’s shameful abuse of her vulnerability is another example of someone believing he is doing nothing to nothing.
And I am struck how the women in the punters’ stories must have had to dissociate from their bodies in a similar way to how Willow did. Because how else could they survive? And we know that dissociating in this way is damaging to a human being’s long term psychological well being.
In none of the stories is the relationship one of equally situated adult human beings engaging in a fully consensual sexual encounter. In each case the dynamic is of a man or an older boy calling the shots and the woman or girl submitting to his will. In each case it is a grotesque parody of mutual consensual sex. In each case the man or boy is violating the integrity of the woman or girl and is treating her as a second class human being, as a human being with lesser rights than he has. She is nothing so what he does to her doesn’t count. He has rights to sexual integrity but she doesn’t.
Neurological science has shown that repeated experiences change the organisation of the brain. The more we do something, the stronger the effect on the brain. This means that the more a man prostitutes, the more his narcissism is reinforced, the more his sense of entitlement is reinforced, the more his empathy for women in general is eroded, the more his contempt for women in general is reinforced. So that eventually these attitudes will come to colour all his interactions with women – with his wife, his girlfriends, his female colleagues, women drivers, women co-passengers on the bus or train.
Inevitably the women around him will feel his contempt. His contempt will damage all his relationships, both at home and at work. I once read an article by a relationship counselor who said that when she detected contempt in the voice of one partner for the other, it was almost inevitable that the relationship would end.
If the punter is a police officer or a journalist or a judge or a doctor or on a jury and has to deal with women who have been raped, the chances are high that he won’t recognise it as rape. He will see it as nothing done to nothing. If anyone is at fault, it is her – because men can’t help themselves and she made him do it.
And once you believe that one group of human beings are nothing, it’s possible to think of other groups as nothing too.
And if an opportunity presents itself where he won’t be caught, he’ll take it, won’t he?
Janey* was 14 and exceptionally beautiful. You wouldn’t have known that she had a serious learning disability because she was blossoming in the girls’ boarding school her parents had found for her two years previously. The years of being left alone, silent, isolated, lost, in the corner of the classroom were behind her now.
What a thrill it was when her best friend Emily invited her to spend the summer holidays in Egypt.
‘Please, Mum, let me go,’ Janey asked on the phone, holding her breath, crossing her fingers.
‘How much will it cost?’ her mum asked.
‘Nothing at all! She says her dad will pay my fare.’
‘That’s good because we can’t afford to even go camping this year, what with your school fees and everything.’
‘So I can go?’
Emily’s dad worked for a multinational company on a contract to upgrade Egypt’s telecoms infrastructure. Like most of his European colleagues he was on a one-year contract. Those who had wives and children left them at home and flew back for a long weekend once a month. Emily’s mother had died though. That was why Emily spent her school holidays in Egypt and why she wanted Janey to go with her.
Emily’s dad hired Fatima, an educated Egyptian woman, to look after them in the day. It was so much fun. She took them to the pyramids, to the museum to see Tutankhamun’s golden mask, swimming in hotel pools. Janey had never been abroad before. The light, the heat, the smells, the crowded streets, it was all so exciting.
After Janey had been there for a couple of weeks, Fatima had a day off. Janey and Emily stayed in the apartment all day. They played Monopoly. They lay on their beds and chatted. They made omelettes for lunch. They missed Fatima.
When Emily’s dad came home, he said, ‘Come on. You’ve been cooped up all day. We’re going out to eat with the guys from work.’
When they got downstairs, Emily’s dad said, ‘Janey, you go with Geoff,’ pointing at the open-topped car behind. Janey had never been in an open-topped car before. She squeezed into the back seat between Rich and Dave. At the restaurant, the guys told Emily and Janey about their children back in England. When they came out onto the hot street after the meal, Geoff suggested a drive in the dessert. Emily and Janey said, ‘Yes. Please,’ in unison.
Emily’s dad told Janey to go with Geoff again. She would have much preferred to be with Emily, but she was a guest, she had to do as she was told. She squeezed into the back again, between Rich and Dave. Driving through the crowded streets was exciting. The guys all started whooping when they went down one particular street. Janey didn’t know why they were whooping. It looked like the other streets but she whooped too. She was part of the gang. It was so much fun.
After a while they were out in the desert. The stars were so close, she felt like she could reach up and touch them. Her shoulder length blonde hair was whipping round her face. She reached up and tried to hold it in a pony tail. Then Dave put his hands up and held her hair for her so she could let go. That was nice. She could see the pyramids in the distance. She couldn’t wait to tell her sisters about this.
Dave took his right hand away and held her hair with his left hand. She could feel him fiddling with something on his lap. Then he was pushing on her head. Something was wrong. Dave was pushing harder now. His hand was so strong. Her head was pushed down onto his lap and there was his enormous penis. Dave bent down and said, ‘Suck it.’ She froze. No. It was disgusting. It smelt fishy. ‘Suck it,’ he said again in her ear. He pushed on her head. And then she started sucking it. He kept pushing on her head. And then he squirted disgusting slimy stuff in her mouth and he released the pressure on her head.
She sat up and he passed her a tissue. She wiped her mouth. She felt disgusting. She could see Geoff watching in the rear view mirror. He winked. And then Rich was pulling her hair back and he was pushing her head down on his lap.
When we do anything to legitimise prostitution, we send out a powerful message that prostituting others is an acceptable way to be, that men’s learnt narcissism is acceptable, that treating women and children as other, as less than human, is acceptable. Ultimately we send out a message that men are human but women and children are not and therefore it is acceptable, inevitable even, to expect them to tolerate unwanted hands on their bodies, unwanted dicks in their orifices and unwanted mouths sucking on their mouths and vulvas. Simply to feed men’s narcissism.
Legitimising prostitution says men’s narcissism is inevitable, cruelty is inevitable.
These are the messages sent out by Amnesty International and others who argue for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade.
But we are arguing that men must be held accountable. That men must recognise the humanity of women and children. We rescind men’s Get Out of Jail Free card. We say buying sex is not a human right.
We call for the Nordic Model, which decriminalises those in prostitution and provides services to help them exit, and makes buying sex a criminal offence, to send out the message that prostitution is abuse, is violence, and is against our conception of what it is to be human.
* Willow, Janey, and all the names in Janey’s story are pseudonyms.