Rae Story worked in prostitution for a decade, primarily in the UK but also in other countries such as Australia and New Zealand. She exited prostitution last year and has subsequently written critically on the contemporary, libertarian push for full decriminalization and the concomitant project of sex industry sanitization and legitimization. Find more of her work at In Permanent Opposition. Rae tweets @raycstory.
In this interview, Rae speaks with Francine Sporenda, an independent journalist based in France.
Francine Sporenda: Based on your own experience, would you consider your entry into prostitution a “choice”?
Rae Story: Well, it was a choice but only in as much as entering into an abusive relationship — before you understand the parameters of that relationship — is a choice. Or in the same way starting to take heroin, and subsequently becoming a drug addict, is a “choice.” In fact, those things share commonalities with prostitution: abusive people often “love bomb” a new victim in order to gain their trust, and follow that “love bombing” with a perpetual pulling away (combined with abuse, neglect, and cruelty) and return to the “love bombing” in order to not fully alienate their victim. The same process occurs with addiction and, one could argue, prostitution.
For many, myself included, when you first enter into prostitution, the money you achieve quickly (but not easily) is a high. The sadisms and humiliations involved in prostitution are insidiously introduced to you over the years and are interspersed with that high of making quick money, so you keep forgiving that situation, and returning to it, as though it were an abusive relationship.
The vast majority of women I met (probably all of the them, to be honest) were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, so the lure of that quick money is much greater than it would be for women who are financially comfortable or from more wealthy backgrounds.
It makes sense that being exposed to cold, abusive, or otherwise dysfunctional relationships in your early life might more suitably “prepare” you for prostitution, in the same way that it often prepares people for drug addiction. From what I could tell, all of the women I met in prostitution were from low socioeconomic backgrounds and had some form of abuse, neglect, or dysfunction in their histories.
Added to which, on the surface, prostitution offers high earnings, with low job specifications (no qualifications needed) and flexibility. And yet, in the UK perhaps only 100,000 women do this (out of about 32 million), and many of them are trafficked from other places. Why, relatively speaking, so few?
FS: Feminist challenges to the system of prostitution are often met with a response that claims only “sex workers” should be listened to, with regard to prostitution legislation. You, on the other hand, have written, “be wary of sex workers’ voices.” Why?
RS: The idea that those involved in prostitution should be supported in having their opinions heard is a good one. However, this basic idea has mutated into something more problematic. Having your opinion heard is not the same as saying, “You must agree with me and follow what I say without scrutiny or question.” That is not an academic way of doing things. Having some involvement in the sex industry is often brandished like a weapon in order to silence opposition and replace rigorous discourse. On social media, those involved in the sex industry will say things to abolitionist feminists like, “Stop talking over me. I am a sex worker,” despite the fact that their opinion has been heard and been responded to. Indeed, it is safe to say that prostitutes get far more air time in the media than those working in most other professions to discuss their thoughts and feelings about themselves. Cleaners, domestic workers, factory workers, and such are not considered even remotely as interesting, politically. The idea that prostitutes are silenced is laughable, frankly.
In any case, having an opinion and having the opinion is not the same thing and, in this case, it is hugely problematic because ultimately, prostitution laws are a form of economic and social policy, not just personal policy. In the UK, the way our laws surrounding prostitution have been organized is to maintain it as a private transaction, by decriminalizing the buyer and seller — but not the procurer — and by not allowing it to occur in a public place (solicitation). Now, prostitute mouthpieces for the industry use the language of the personal in much the same fashion as one might argue the case for marriage rights for gay people. They refer to themselves as though being a “sex worker” is an identity akin to sexuality and as though decriminalizing prostitution enables them to enact their own personal sexualities. When, in fact, decriminalization or legalization is about industrializing prostitution, allowing the richest pimps to leverage their capital to create larger brothel businesses and chains.
In a way, it reminds me of the legal situation for businesses in the US. There, corporations are legally termed “persons” and their financial activities are termed “freedom of expression.” Money and business is given the vernacular of the personal, which is key to the neoliberal project. I see this political peddling around the identity of “sex worker” as a part of the same culture.
Just because some prostitutes support this libertarian project does not mean the rest of society has to go down that rabbit hole with them. Remember also that conservative women like Phyllis Schlafly campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and used the idea that this could make women eligible for the military draft — and the subsequent fear for women’s safety in this opposition — in her efforts, when really women like Schlafly wanted to maintain gender roles and male power. Pro-decriminalization prostitutes will not be the first group of women to espouse patriarchal ideals in the dubious name of “women’s safety.” And of course, the idea that usually male-run mega brothels are the safest place for women to be, is suspect at best.
FS: You’ve discussed the way in which the pro-prostitution lobby has strategically presented itself as progressive and the underdog, while defending regressive values and working to silence survivors. Can you tell us more about this behaviour and these strategies?
RS: Well as I described earlier, there is a tone to this debate that reframes those who engage in prostitution as having an “identity,” like an ethnicity or sexuality, so fighting for decriminalization becomes a human cause — an issue of civil rights — rather than being about the rights of commerce. It’s effective because those who disagree with them can then be labeled “bigots” or “SWERFS” (sex worker exclusionary radical feminists). Quite what self-identified “sex workers” imagine they are being excluded from, I don’t know… In fact, prostitution is a material reality that relates to circumstance and to gender and economic inequality not personal politics. The desire for full decriminalization is about the right of businesses to expand without state intervention or consideration for the collective.
The term “sex worker” is a political term, not a mere descriptor. It is used to legitimize the sex industry as a morally-neutral business and is akin to referring to those exploited by the sweatshop industry as “textile workers.” Added to which, it collapses the differences between different kinds of “sex trading.” So, those who run brothels can call themselves “sex workers” and put themselves on the same turf as those who actually have to deal with smelly old men’s dicks for a living. Even pornographers and glamour photographers can lay claim to the title.
The superficial usage of the language of civil rights and the use of the “sex worker” concept is a form of political engineering. Pro-decriminalization activists with even a vague relationship to the industry can be called a “sex worker” and ensure their opinion be considered of higher value on that basis. Someone else who has relationship with the sex industry who disagrees with them must be undermined in some fashion in order to discredit their opposition. This is where I think it gets sinister. Whenever I have been confronted by a pro-industry advocate, the veracity of my testimony has been rather nebulously questioned or I have been called an outright liar. Another tactic is to deploy the “I’m sorry you had a bad experience” method to imply that any negative feelings I have are isolated anomalies. The most insidious was the accusation that any mental health problems I suffer from are a result of personal failings or weakness and are not endemic to the industry.
This is a form of political gaslighting that pathologizes dissenters. The most grievous example of this was the method used to pathologize slaves who attempted to escape — their slavery was considered inherent to their personhood and trying to escape this personhood was considered an illness.
The people who employ theses tactics are not progressives in theory, nor are they, generally, in practice.
FS: In your article, “The middle-classing of prostitution: The social climb of the sex trade,” you discuss the way pro-prostitution discourse has begun to present the prostitute as an empowered and rational businesswoman peddling her wares just like any professional. You say you tried to play this game, advertising yourself as educated, sophisticated, appreciating fine wines and gentlemen, coming from a good family, presenting yourself as having only entered into prostitution in order to “satisfy your ravenous sexual appetites.” What do you think is behind this “middle-classing” of prostitution?
RS: I think it is something that happened organically as a result of technological advancements and the postmodern practice of focusing on individual experiences (rather than on the collective or on broader trends) and on what things look like, rather than what they actually are.
In the early 2000s people like Tracey Quan were writing books about supposed high-class, urban prostitution that often focused less on the sex they had to engage in with johns, and more on the culture surrounding prostitution: the hotels, the designer handbags, the expensive haircuts… Her books, in particular, tended to portray women in prostitution as lovers of expensive dining and “haute couture” culture. It demonstrated women having successfully embodied high-end urbanization. If you look at films and TV shows that preceded this, like Sex and the City and Pretty Woman, success is marked by one’s ability to acquire the trappings of materialism. Prostitution has been heavily affected by these cultural shifts, and the fact that both materialism and prostitution are heavily gendered forms of commodification are no mere coincidence.
So-called “middle class prostitutes” use this trend in order to present themselves as being successful to potential johns and to others, more generally, but prostitution is an incredibly precarious business. Women I knew would spend large amounts of their earnings on holidays, clothes, dinners, etc., as though they had access to an endless supply.
Women in prostitution are sometimes fond of saying, “As long as I have my body I have an income.” But the reality is often not like that: women got sick with mental health problems, became overcome by drug addiction, depression, or PTSD. Women who, at first, had enormous enthusiasm for giving the punters what they wanted (because it gave them a fickle, flimsy sense of being “good” at something) became cynical after bad experiences, were no longer able to be as amenable to buyer’s demands (and, therefore, lost money), or simply couldn’t charge as much as they aged.
The “middle-classing” of prostitution is more about image and conspicuous consumption. The actual structure of “middle-classness” depends on financial security, the ability to buy a house, to progress in your work and earn more money and stability as you age and to possibly have inheritance to leave children. Most women in prostitution are unable to do this.
FS: What do you think of johns’ forums? How do they affect prostituted women?
RS: The culture of johns’ forums is very masculinist and is unmitigated by any fear of reprisal or judgement. If these men hold virulent sexist or misogynistic attitudes that they cannot express to their wives or co-workers, and if they have sociopathic attitudes towards women (and prostitutes in particular), these forums provide a space where johns have free reign to express these thoughts and feelings. It’s sort of like “locker room talk,” only intensified by the fact that, in other male spaces, men will often only theorize on sociopathic chauvinism, whereas in johns’ forums men enact it. They are engaging with each other, encouraging each other and perpetuating and intensifying each other’s sense of self-righteous entitlement. For the first time in their lives, they have other men telling them that it is not unacceptable for them to want to pay some 18-year-girl who has been moved from one country to the next for the purposes of prostitution, to conduct all manner of intemperate physical acts with her despite her lack of pleasure or comfort. Whereas society, as a whole, may judge them for wanting to have sex with someone who does not reciprocate their desire (they may even be turned on by that very fact), they are encouraged and bolstered by their newfound peers.
From their perspective, johns’ forums liberate them from the earlier days of prostitution, when they couldn’t see the woman (and thus scrutinize her) before they booked her and they had to accept her indifference and perfunctory attitude towards them. They have been galvanized by a culture that implores women in prostitution to work harder for the johns, and by the accessibility of other johns online who they can talk to and who will reinforce their entitled, misogynist attitudes. They use phrases such as “power to the [john]” and “the [john] comes first” and they write fairly unremitting and squalid things about women who they perceive to not meet their expectations.
Most of the women I knew in my later years of prostitution were victims of these “reviews” and witch-hunt style judgements. Johns would write that we were fat, ugly, looked older than we were, and other things too horrific to type. Many tried to brave face it, but I am sure it made them depressed and insecure and consider dropping their prices and so forth. These punters knew their forums were read by prostitutes and I imagine, on reflection, this is why they wrote so cruelly and so sadistically. As with any abuser, castigation, humiliation, and verbal violation are keys to their emotional control.
This interview was originally published in French at Révolution Feministe.