English

Danish survivors: “Selling yourself is degrading, violent and unfree”

Translated from Danish
Original published at Politiken.dk on March 9, 2013

fr French version

Selling yourself is degrading, violent and unfree

Written by

Tanja Rahm, sexologist and author

Alice Viola, mentor and therapist

Christina Christensen, educator

Lita Malmberg, social education worker

Pia Christensen, cand.mag. (BA in Denmark)

Odile Poulsen, author and psychotherapist

All authors are formerly prostituted women.
We are six women who have been in prostitution. In many ways we are similar to the women Politiken described in the series of articles ‘The Brothel – A Workplace in Denmark’. Their words were our words when we were in prostitution.

Five of us told ourselves and the world around us that we were choosing to do it. That we enjoyed sex, earned good money and received lots of recognition. That we were completely in control of what we did.

The media often describes women in prostitution as strong and free and as having a healthy appetite for sex, most recently so in ‘The Brothel’. The story of the sex-loving woman who liberates her sexuality in prostitution is also the story most people want to hear. Especially men who buy sex.

Women like us are the complete opposite. When we take part in the public debate about prostitution and point out the destructive forces and consequences of prostitution, we are told that something else must be wrong with us.

For it cannot be the years in prostitution that have given us insomnia, depression, memory loss, suicidal thoughts, self-hate, pain, arthritis, anxiety, problems with intimacy and so on.

Even though hundreds of women in our situation speak of the same painful consequences of prostitution, this knowledge does not count in the current debate. ‘The Brothel’ conveys the dominant narrative: prostitution is liberating and harmless.

But what is not made clear at the same time is that it can look very different when one has exited the trade. This can contribute to the normalization of prostitution and lure young women into thinking that it is a danger-free way of earning money. It is not.

Many are those of us who have had to realize that prostitution is not a free or liberating choice, but boundary-crossing, violent, unfree. We lost touch with ourselves. So that we would be able to take it.

‘Satisfied sex workers’ are treated with a rare, uncritical political correctness by the media.

The journalist in ‘The Brothel’ accepted all the contradictions unquestioningly. But women in prostitution aren’t made of glass. So why shouldn’t they answer critical questions? How, for instance, are they going to avoid being exploited by pimps with the help of a telephone operator and a security guard? How are they going to get men to stop buying the foreign women who have no access to the famous ‘rights’—they are cheaper, after all? How does being a member of a union protect you from being assaulted by the buyers? How can you be an unemployed prostitute?

After all, you could just stand out on the street. ‘The Brothel’ gives the impression that the stigma lies in the fact that some people disagree that prostitution is an okay profession. The degrading view of women that sex buyers have is described by the interviewed women as them being sweet men who long for a little closeness and intimacy.

There is much discussion about freedom of choice. But this seems meaningless to us, for prostitution eats your dignity, free choice or not. When society does not want to give up on the notion that some women should be for sale, the stigma remains. And our pain is brushed aside by saying we chose it ourselves.

Below we have each listed our experiences and our views on being in prostitution:

Tanja: “I was superior, strong. But the facade was crumbling. I became addicted to cocaine so that I could go on. Was I too weak, a spineless victim? No. I survived and built a worthy life for myself. But I see how women in my situation constantly have to fight psychological problems, go to the hospital, get operations.” (…) “Women who exit prostitution tell a different story than that of orgasms and sweet men. Our experiences are the most stigmatizing. Because other women don’t want to realize that their men might be sex buyers and cheaters. Men don’t want to lose their illusions of constantly horny women who love to have sex for money. And society fears being seen as judgmental and frigid if we don’t embrace all sexual excesses with wide open arms. The cost of saying what no one wants to hear is condemnation.”

Alice: “As a mentor in ‘Swan Groups’ I meet many who find the media’s generally one-sided idealization of prostitution hard to deal with. In a Swan Group, you gain a better perspective of the issue. For who among us wasn’t happy, right up until we discovered something different? Very many of the Swan Women only discovered the painful reality afterward. Almost all of them have problems with closeness, intimacy, trust and sex. This has serious consequences for relationships with partners, children and others. Freedom in prostitution is an illusion, a quick fix of power and a lie that keeps both the sex buyer and the woman going around the ring.”

Christina: “I went talking to the media, praising the joys of prostitution when I was in prostitution. It was a huge self-deception that I used in order to survive. Many times I have since wondered about the question of rights. Would I have avoided PTSD, memory loss, depression, sleep disorders and general anxiety if I had had the right to be seen by a health professional every other week or been a member in the union and had the right to sick pay? No. Sex buyers differ from other men in only one respect: they can justify to themselves that it is okay to buy sex. They were pitiful when they thought they were entitled to use me because they paid for it. They justified their actions by saying, “Wow, it’s so cool that you are so strong; I could never have sex with one of the weak ones.” I could not possibly be one of those who were being hurt. How wrong they were. Pretending that you’re strong is just the way you sell the goods. “

Lita: “The rights should be the right to get out of prostitution. Help for the treatment of the problems that women in prostitution typically get, help with education or work. People should have the right not to have to sell themselves. And make no mistake: It is selling yourself. It’s not just a performance. You are alone and naked with a stranger who lies on top of you and groans and sweats, who sucks on your breasts and finally empties himself into you. That’s what it is to be a prostitute. Yes, there was always one who said, ‘I’ll be quick so it’s not so bad for you’. But if he thought it was so bad for me, why did he do it? That lack of self-control repelled me. The only thing they were really interested in was the size of our body parts–and what it cost. We were described and sold as if we were sandwiches.”

Pia: “I was violently forced to prostitute myself. That Danish women can also be forced into prostitution is never spoken about, but I am far from alone. My situation resembles that of foreign prostitutes, who also often have pimps—yes, even the ‘willing’ Danish prostitutes sometimes have those. Many women are ashamed, even if they’ve chosen to prostitute themselves, and would very much like to quit. So why are some politicians so busy trying to make the sex industry so that as many as possible can remain in prostitution for as long as possible? A lot more should be done to get women out of prostitution.”

Odile: “It’s not acceptable to talk about the damage we take away from prostitution—that destroys the common notion of prostitution as mutual, free-spirited sex. Women who haven’t been in prostitution and who don’t think that prostitution is good for society, for the prostitutes or the sex buyers, are called frigid, sexually repressed, moralizing spinsters. So how is it possible to discuss?”

 

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The Left’s Love of Prostitution – An Open Letter from Exited Women

Open letter to Left Youth Solid, an official youth organization of the German party The Left, regarding the position paper “Solidarity with Sex Workers – No to the new prostitute protection act – No to paternalism and other-directedness in the sexual service industry” (“Solidarität mit Sexarbeiter*innen – Nein zum neuen Prostituiertenschutzgesetz – Nein zu Bevormundung und Fremdbestimmung im sexuellen Dienstleistungsgewerbe”).

By Huschke Mau and eight other women exited from prostitution
Originally published in German under the title “Die Linke Freude an der Prostitution – Huschke Mau an die Bremer Linksjugend” at sisters-ev.de, 21 April 2016

Dear People of Left Youth Solid,

I want to make it clear that I am addressing those of you who voted for the proposal “Solidarity with Sex Workers – No to the new prostitute protection act – No to paternalism and other-directedness in the sexual service industry” at Left Youth Solid’s federal meeting on April 8/9, 2016. I am assuming that this doesn’t mean all of you, so there is hope yet.

I am a former—as you call it—“sex worker”, I have read your proposal, and I would like to tell you just what I think of the “solidarity” you offer in this document.

First of all, it’s great that you signed it as the Left Youth. Because when I read the phrase “sexual service industry”, I was sure for a second that the [German economic liberalist party] FDP had risen from the dead.

But I did truly appreciate that you’re against “other-directedness.” Unfortunately, while reading the proposal, I had to discover that you haven’t understood that the “other” that is “directing” those in prostitution is the john, meaning that this quality is INHERENT TO THE SYSTEM—he wants sex, I don’t actually want it, I just need the money, and thus I consent to this other-directedness under coercion. Simple as that.

You write:

“Even though sex work has long been established as a commercial service in our society and has been considered legal in the Federal Republic of Germany since 2002, sex workers are still severely stigmatized in their private and professional lives.”

I’m simply baffled that you describe the act of prostitution as a “profession” and a “service.” Sexuality is the most intimate sphere of human life. Do we get to keep that at least, pretty please, or do we have to let every single part of ourselves be completely commodified and capitalized upon? Since when has the Left been the champion of the sale of all human desire? You call sex a service, as if it were possible to separate it from the Self, the Body, the Person; as if you could simply peel it away, place it in a nice little box on the shop counter, and then some fellow shows up, hands me 50 euros and walks out with the sex. Is that how you picture it, yeah? You even speak of “poor working conditions”—do you actually believe that the abuse we have suffered and so many of us still suffer is somehow ameliorated if we’re given a nice “workplace”, as you call it? “Working conditions”? What are you even talking about? Under which conditions is the abuse that johns inflict on us acceptable to you, pray tell? Or do you simply not see it as abuse, ignoring what exited persons and trauma researchers are telling you? Sixty-eight percent of all prostituted people have post-traumatic stress disorder, and that’s not counting depression, addiction, borderline disorders and psychoses. Do you think these things are a result of “poor working conditions”? Every exited woman I know describes what she experienced in prostitution as sexual abuse. Our having tolerated sexual abuse or having been forced to do so does not turn it into a profession!

And then you keep going on about the stigma, saying we mustn’t be stigmatized. I agree with you on this, but I have to stress that it’s not the stigma that’s raping, abusing, and killing us. It’s the johns. Sadly you draw the wrong conclusions from the demand that prostituted persons mustn’t be stigmatized.

You write:

“This [stigma] is expressed in a lack of recognition of their profession.”

To be clear, what you demand is basically for the abuse of prostituted women to become normal. You want it to become a job. You want the abuse to become ACCEPTABLE. In short, you’re fighting for women’s right to call the suffering of sexual abuse a job. Or better: You’re fighting for men’s right to abuse women and minimize that abuse by calling it “work.”

Another thing I don’t get is all your talk about “self-determined sex work.” All prostituted women I know “chose” prostitution because they didn’t see any other option. How do you interpret that as self-determination? Is it because I can choose WITHIN PROSTITUTION, between only doing blowjobs with a condom and losing my income because of all the “self-determined” women from Southern Europe, and just putting every dick into my mouth without any barrier whatsoever, ‘cause that’s the standard? Some self-determination!

Our problem isn’t “lack of recognition of the profession”, our problem IS the “profession”! Nine out of ten prostitutes would exit immediately if they could. Why on earth are you blathering about recognition of the profession?!

Your whole pamphlet sounds as if it were written by the pro-prostitution lobby, and this actually appears to be the case. You refer to BesD [Berufsverband erotische und sexuelle Dienstleistungen e.V.; “Professional association for erotic and sexual services”] as “organized sex workers”—you do realize that they only represent 0.01% of the prostituted in Germany? What kind of organization for the prostituted is this if it includes brothel owners? The exploiters start a “union” to represent the workers? That’s the strangest union I’ve ever heard of. Who did you in fact consult? Apart from brothel owners like Fricke and escort agency owners like Klee? Based on whose information do you actually take your decisions? If you do something on racism next, will you consult neo-Nazis?

The next paragraph makes me doubt that you possess any ability to reflect on this or any other issue. You write:

“In addition to these legal setbacks, there is a great deal of victimization and paternalism towards sex workers even within the social left.”

I wonder who’s victimizing prostituted women—the johns abusing us or those who name it as abuse? If you want to prevent us from becoming victims, abolish john-dom! Or do you perhaps merely want people to stop SAYING that harm is being done to us within and through prostitution? If this is the case, please just say that and stop pretending that people who recognize prostitution as inhumane are somehow victimizing us—THEY are not the ones doing that.

Then you write:

“Thus parts of the left have repeatedly pushed for a ‘full ban on prostitution’ or the supposedly progressive ‘Swedish Model’, claiming that sex work/prostitution is the ultimate expression of patriarchy.”

Let me get this straight: This sounds like you don’t think prostitution is an expression of patriarchy. If it’s not that, what is it, then? Why are 98% of all individuals in prostitution female and johns almost 100% male? Now don’t say it’s because we live in patriarchy.

Then:

“Yes, sex work currently takes place under the circumstances of patriarchy, meaning that the question of voluntariness is unfortunately always difficult to answer.”

So prostitution takes place outside of patriarchy too? Seriously? And which conclusions do you draw from it being difficult to answer the “question of voluntariness”?

Then:

“It is predominantly women who work in this profession, while it is mainly men who buy the services of sex workers.”

It’s just great how you take the perpetrators’ side and trivialize sexual violence.

Then:

“However, the feminist response cannot be to take a paternalistic approach and try to tell sex workers what a decent life should look like.”

I’m dying to find out where you get this from. People who see prostitution as destructive and inhumane aren’t being paternalistic, they’re expressing solidarity with us. And that’s exactly where you could do with a little practice. You need to stop flogging that stupid notion that every person who recognizes prostitution as harmful is some kind of conservative moralist trying to lecture “fallen women”. Acknowledging the suffering and misery of prostitution and stating that it is violent doesn’t constitute lecturing; it means SEEING the real conditions that prostituted people live in and thus showing respect and care to those who suffer within and because of prostitution.

Then:

“Both the Swedish Model and a full ban would endanger the agency and protection of sex workers even more dramatically than existing laws. These stricter laws would change nothing about the existence of patriarchy with its specific roles and its social power differential between women and men.”

Why would this not change anything? Prostitution is one of patriarchy’s main pillars, just like all sexual violence is. Why wouldn’t it change anything to ban it? Why is prostitution the only sphere of life where laws suddenly have no impact whatsoever? Does prostitution take place in outer space or something? You could just as well say that rape should not be prohibited by law because it doesn’t do anything to change patriarchal roles and the social power differential! Are you saying you just want to leave everything as is? Sexual violence, patriarchal structures—this is what you’re going with? Does the Left not have a vision anymore? Or is it only out of visions when it comes to prostituted women?

Yes, I accuse you of meaning well. But if you advocate for decriminalization of prostitution on the john’s side (I believe we all agree that it should not be criminalized on the prostituted person’s side), then this is equivalent to saying: “Women affected by partner violence are stigmatized. In order to get rid of this stigma, we will decriminalize domestic violence on the perpetrator’s side. This way, the woman will no longer have anything to be ashamed of.” Is any of this getting through to you?

What your pamphlet doesn’t mention at all is the john—as usual.
Just do me a favor and read a few random posts on johns’ message boards, and then tell me how on earth you can support the legalization of something like that. How you can support men doing such things to women. I cannot wait to hear your arguments.

Then:

“Those who want to illegalize self-determined sex workers criminalize the entire industry and force it underground, where no protection whatsoever may be provided. In order to be better protected, sex workers require more self-determination and the social and legal recognition of their profession. Only in this way and recognized as workers can they publicly organize as part of the working class and advocate for their own interests, better working conditions and social security. A ban on sex work or the criminalization of johns (as in Sweden) would only cause sex work to become invisible and less safe.”

And then there’s the fairy tale of the underground. Please read some texts explaining the Swedish Model, which criminalizes the john and decriminalizes the prostituted. And read evaluations of this law where it has been applied, e.g. Norway. No, prostitution is not a clearly defined entity. Yes, it can be reduced. No, the Swedish Model does not shift it underground. Yes, it changes a society’s views on women when one sex can no longer buy the other. No, we do not need “recognition as a profession”, we need for prostitution to be recognized as ABUSE. And NO, we are not part of the working class, we are first and foremost people harmed by sexual abuse through prostitution! We do NOT organize as part of the working class, but in victims’ associations (e.g. sisters e.V., SPACE International—which you refuse to listen to, though. We don’t need you to organize us or talk about us; we organize ourselves, thank you very much.

Then:

“Those who truly advocate for an emancipated society must also advocate for physical and sexual self-determination.”

Prostitution is the exact opposite of sexual self-determination. One party wants sex, the other doesn’t. Money is supposed to bridge that gap. Prostitution has NOTHING to do with physical and sexual self-determination because everything I do, the john decides—thus it is other-directed. I am so incredibly fed up of all your talk of sexual liberation when you mention prostitution as a path to that liberation in the same breath. Don’t drag us into it; we will not be instrumentalized in this way! Do your own sexual liberation, but you will not be permitted to use and gloss over our abuse to get there.

Furthermore I would like you to do a little bit of research; you will quickly discover that forced prostitution and prostitution cannot be seen separately, as you prefer. For one, the lines between the two are blurred, and secondly there will never be enough women who do this “voluntarily”; a large percentage will always have to be forced to meet the demand. This means that you cannot want prostitution without agreeing with forced prostitution; one does not exist without the other. And by the way, if you support the full decriminalization and legalization of prostitution, you support the market being the sole regulating force, which means: the demand grows, the supply grows, the demand grows more because men see it as perfectly normal to be a john, the supply keeps growing, and so on. It’s an upward spiral. Have you ever actually read anything about the basic mechanisms of capitalism, seeing as you’re so eager to see capitalist value extracted from women as goods?

Then:

“Asylum law must also be reformed so that migrant forced prostitutes no longer face the threat of deportation but instead receive residence and work permits. However, our intention behind this decision is to place the focus on those sex workers who are currently restricted in their physical self-determination, their health and their rights in their professional life as sex workers—on those who made the conscious and self-determined choice to provide sexual and erotic services.”

Oh, and how many is that? One in ten at the very most. And that’s who you want to go by when determining things that affect the situation of ALL prostituted women in Germany? Do you not care about the rest or what? Who at BesD, that organization of brothel owners, did you listen to? You certainly didn’t listen to the 90 percent in this country who are migrant women, because they’re not part of that organization. And you’re actually happy to collude with this racist bullshit! The majority out there are NOT the brothel owners, high-class escorts, dominatrixes—the majority doesn’t even speak German! How ignorant can you get? Prostitution is classist and racist, or why do you think there are so many indigenous women in prostitution in other countries, and so many Romani women in Germany? How do you explain that?

And then you go and post stuff about anti-racist demonstrations on Facebook? You really make me laugh.

Then:

“Thus it is our view that feminism that is serious about its concern for women’s self-determination and sexual self-determination must also fight for the rights and demands of sex workers’ associations. The Bremen regional association of Left Youth Solid stands for such a feminism and will advocate for the legal empowerment of sex workers and show solidarity in their struggles.”

You are most certainly not showing solidarity to us in our struggles by labeling sexual violence a profession, ignoring the majority of us, and calling prostitution sexual and physical self-determination!

What the hell are you even talking about? You need to find your way back to reality. And if you can’t show us solidarity because you’re too busy listening to brothel owners, at least leave us in peace and don’t presume to speak for us! You have never had to bend over; you aren’t in prostitution—a privilege, as I’d like to remind you—and then you sit there in your Bremen regional association and at the federal meeting and blather about recognition as a profession? Get a grip.

At least once a week here at Sisters e.V., we are visited by a woman who is already exited (not to mention those who contact us because they still want out!) and who tells us she’s taken this long to break her silence because society only ever tells her it’s a PROFESSION and it’s WORK and it’s a JOB; it’s all happy, joyful sex work—and so all the injuries she suffered in prostitution indicate that there must be something wrong with HER. And this is precisely the political climate people like YOU create. All your talk is causing exited women to remain silent. I too was speechless for years because of texts like yours—because as a prostitute reading something like that, you don’t even know where to START.

Prostitution is sexist, racist and classist, and then you come along, having listened to owners of brothels and escort agencies, and want to tell us about sexual liberation? And you call that leftist? You can’t be serious. Never, ever can it be about getting as comfortable as possible within a sexist, classist and racist system such as prostitution. Who is it you expect to put up with this? Such a system must be ABOLISHED. You need to understand that supporting women in prostitution is NOT the same as supporting the system of prostitution! This system must be overcome and not further established and “recognized as a profession!” The only praiseworthy thing about your document is how exceedingly well you’ve copied and pasted from the pimp lobby—well done, indeed.

Seriously, is this what your solidarity looks like? Shame on you, and no thanks!

Huschke Mau (@huschkemau)

Signed also on behalf of the exited women of Sisters e.V.

Annalena, exited woman
Sonja, exited woman
Sandra, exited woman
Sunna, exited woman
NaDia, exited woman
Andra, exited woman
Esther Martina, exited woman
Eva, exited woman

Translator’s note: All personal nouns in Left Youth Solid’s German-language document—‘sex worker’, ‘john’, ‘woman’—had both the female and male form, to indicate gender-neutrality (as German is a highly gendered language). The asterisk that accompanied the ‘male*female’ form of the gender-neutral nouns was also placed after the noun ‘women’ despite there being no male form of the word and no known suffix. The only noun where the asterisk was absent was ‘men.’