Prostitution harms prostitutes. The magnitude of the harm is vividly depicted in an autobiographical book by Sarah Priesley called The Prostitution Trap.*
Sarah came to Australia from England in 1989, at age nineteen. She was soon enticed into prostitution by a newspaper advertisement: “As I scanned the columns of local jobs I noticed more ads for masseuses. One said ‘No experience necessary’, then it had dollar signs written after it” (p.21). Sarah answered the ad and began to sell her body the same night. For the next six years she worked as a prostitute in numerous brothels in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. She also sometimes worked solo from her own apartments, attracting clients through newspaper advertisements.
Sarah abandoned prostitution in 1995, not for any moral reasons, but because she perceived that she was being damaged by her “profession”. She wrote The Prostitution Trap to tell “the real unglamorised version of sex for money” (p.186). She notes that “books and articles I’d read on prostitution made it sound glamorous and exciting, when really it was nothing like that at all” (p.164). Sarah’s book (which I do not recommend due to its explicit nature) certainly strips prostitution of the Julia-Roberts/Pretty-Woman allurement that is often associated with it.
As I read Sarah’s story, I was struck by the enormous damage she (and the women with whom she worked) had sustained from prostitution—damage of which she herself often seems unaware. This damage can be loosely grouped under four categories: self-esteem; health; relationships; and values.
Damage to self-esteem
Prostitution harms a prostitute’s emotional balance and self-esteem.
Sarah was often humiliated by the things clients demanded of her, and by the comments they made about her. Yet, ironically, her self-esteem was also injured when clients failed to choose her, as she then felt that she was not attractive. To cope with her emotions, Sarah had to try to divorce herself from them. Furthermore, by age twenty-two, when most women are feeling themselves at the height of their beauty, she was made to feel that she was well past her prime.
“The only way to stop yourself from getting hurt [emotionally], I was told [by the more experienced prostitutes], was to distance yourself during the booking. I was beginning to learn it was not a good idea to take anything too personally either” (p.27).
“I tried to switch off [from a drunk client who ridiculed the size of her breasts and then bit them] so it wouldn’t feel so bad. Every move he made on my body hurt and every smart comment rang in my ears and hurt as well. I didn’t really know how to distance myself from the bad clients. How could you? You were in the room with them” (p.37).
“At first, when we went to do our introductions, I was nervous, standing in front of a man, or a group of men, wondering who’d be picked. Each girl would intro-duce herself and then we’d wait in line while the client made his choice. I did about four introductions before I was chosen” (p.46).
“I looked innocent, naive and young. The clients usually went for it, but there were other girls working there who looked better than I did. As I was learning, if a girl was stunning or stood out amongst the rest, you might as well kiss your shift goodbye. … I could feel very insecure by the end of the night if I hadn’t been chosen often” (p.54).
“I felt embarrassed being naked in front of the other girls [during ‘my first orgy booking’] … My client was very eager [but he couldn’t perform] … Then he started. He told me it was my fault he couldn’t get [aroused]. He wanted a real woman, he said, and he reached over to touch the other voluptuous girl lying beside her client. … I felt so degraded; I was naked and vulnerable and here I had some drunk telling me I wasn’t good enough to [satisfy him]” (p.59).
“I was now twenty-two and too old for this place” (p.87).
“[T]his time I was a little bit more tired, and a little bit older. I was only twenty-three but there were at least ten other girls there that were younger-looking than me. I didn’t look as good as before” (pp.111-112).
“I stayed working at James’s place for a few months until most of the clients had seen me, and then I started getting less bookings. … once you weren’t new that was it. The next new girl came along for them all to try” (p.147).
“I’d tried a few of the up-market places and I’d been back to Lilies, but I was no longer nineteen years old [she was now twenty-four], and I didn’t look as fresh and cute as I used to. The nights I did work I’d get no bookings, or just a few. It was really depressing” (p.148).
“Most of the time you feel like dirt, after a bad client, or sometimes even a good one” (p.30).
Damage to health
Prostitution harms not only a prostitute’s emotional health, but also her physical health.
The Prostitution Trap depicts women plagued by physical abuse, soreness, tiredness, injury, disease and drug addiction.
“Then a bad client would come along, usually with problems and a bad attitude towards women, and really take it out on me. He’d order me around and grab my body too hard and [have sex with] me for half an hour so hard I could hardly walk” (p.28).
“I had a condom break with such a client … I panicked. I got up [and began to clean myself up] and asked whether he was okay, meaning whether he had AIDS. He said, ‘Yeah, everything’s fine’. I went to the shower and desperately soaped myself down … I told myself that everything would be fine, although I was terrified that I’d contracted something and would have to wait three months or more to find out” (pp.28-29).
“Some of them [ie, the other prostitutes] had worked for so long they’d lost control of their bladders, and they’d [wet] themselves on the couches [while they waited for clients] without even knowing” (p.92).
“[M]ost of the girls who had worked [at the Meeting Place] back then [ten years earlier] were either dead or burnt out from smack” (p.93).
“The late nights were once again very tiring. Most girls kept awake with drugs” (p.95).
“Mimi was the Chinese girl, and she was the youngest. She’d worked for six months and saved fifty thousand dollars. For that she’d worked seven days a week for nearly six months, and she said sometimes she would see sixteen clients in a day and night. … Now she only did part service because she was bleeding all the time from a period that wouldn’t stop” (p.146).
“I wasn’t the only one who got the rough clients, who took great pleasure in pulling your body around the bed as if it was made of rubber” (p.146).
“I ended up seeing about thirteen clients [in the one shift] until I was so tired I could hardly stand” (p.148).
“In the changing room I saw Rene, a frail version of her former self. … It had been about a year since I had seen her last, and since then, she told me, she’d had a baby. A condom had broken with a client and she’d got pregnant. She didn’t have an abortion because she needed all the money for her heroin, and she was still an addict right the way through the birth” (p.154).
“Even though I was making enough money [privately as a prostitute] at my place, I couldn’t stop myself from going in [to the Meeting Place on weekends]. I knew my hair was falling out as a result of being there, and it was at the front this time, where it was hard to cover. But still I kept going in” (p.157).
“I think sometimes I could smell the rotting flesh of the [Meeting Place]. You could almost sense the neglect and sickness in the air. It was as if this place had become the last stop off from life itself. More girls than ever were using drugs now, and those who had spent years wasting their bodies on smack began to show the emotional strain. I wondered what they would do next. What I was going to do next?” (p.155).
Damage to relationships
Prostitution also harms a prostitute’s relationships with other people.
Sarah could not form relationships with men, because all she wanted from them was money, while all they wanted from her was sex. She could not form relationships with normal people because she was always conscious of her abnormal life. And while she did form relationships of a sort with other prostitutes, these relationships were marred by jealousy and distrust.
“Some of them [the prostitutes at the brothel where Sarah worked] were my friends, but I wasn’t close to any of them; there was a certain amount of bitchiness amongst them and there was jealousy in how many booking you got or what you got up to in the rooms” (p.77).
“One of the girls told me a story of a gorgeous young girl who had come to work there and got all the bookings. All of the other girls had become jealous of her looks and the clients she got, so one girl tricked her into doing a submissive booking with her and a client who was into heavy bondage. Once she was tied up an gagged in the room, they both whipped her badly and burnt her with cigarette butts. Apparently she was scarred for life and no-one could blame the client, since she’d agreed to do the booking, and that is what he wanted to do. She went out screaming and never came back” (pp.92-93).
“I found it difficult relating to clients when all I really wanted was their money” (p.58).
“Outside the brothel I felt I was different from everyone else because I was a prostitute” (p.77).
“The reality of it is it’s a hard and lonely road, and you can’t lead a normal life while you’re doing it. First there’s the secrecy. You can’t tell anyone what you’re doing, so you isolate yourself, or lie. I’d done both and neither had worked out. You feel you’re not real. You can’t have decent boyfriends because there are not many men who will respect you for what you do. I knew some girls who’d got lucky with husbands and boyfriends who didn’t mind, but they were usually the ones who were pimping from them” (p.165).
Damage to values
In addition to harming her relationships, prostitution damages a prostitute’s values.
Every page of Sarah’s book is an illustration of how prostitution ruins a woman’s sense of modesty and morality. Even though she has escaped prostitution, Sarah’s crude expressions and shameless descriptions all point to a lasting moral damage of which she herself seems ignorant.
Sarah apparently did not mind the fact that many of her clients were married men: it meant nothing to her to commit adultery with them and thereby betray their wives and possibly destroy their families.
She apparently did not spare a thought for the danger she might create for women in the community, including young girls, by fostering her clients’ fantasies: “I liked doing fantasies and dressing up—usually most guys would choose a schoolgirl” (p.93).
She apparently did not feel shame or remorse about robbing teenage boys of their virginity: “the young kids would sometimes come in for a dare. … They looked around sixteen or seventeen. It was Ted’s job to ask for I.D., but he never did unless they looked younger than his under-age girls. Some of the boys were virgins, who’d come to lose their virginity here. … Their bodies looked so boyish; I never really found it much of a turn-on, although some of the girls in other brothels I knew craved these young virgins” (pp.79-80).
Prostitution destroyed Sarah’s sense of decency and humanity. And it did this because it utterly destroyed all her values in relation to money. It awakened in her an insatiable love of money. If the lure of prostitution for men is lust, its lure for women is greed. Prostitution addicted Sarah to money and made her ready to do anything to get it.
“The money was the only reason I was doing it. … most [girls] just like the steady flow of quick cash” (p.28).
“When I was having sex with the clients in the room, I always used to think about how much money I was making. It was like having a giant calculator in my head” (p.38).
“Each night I was working, I was clearing five hundred dollars … I would go home and count the piles of money on the bed. … Now I knew why girls put up with Lilies; it was the addiction to money” (p.48).
“You could agonise about why you were doing it, but the real reason had an awful lot to do with money” (p.49).
“He [the brothel owner] said he would guarantee me five hundred in four hours. … He was right; I could make five hundred dollars quickly” (p.71).
“Some had worked [at the Meeting Place] for as long as ten years, and others longer. They all had one thing in common, and that was they all liked the money there” (p.91).
“Sometimes girls would specialise in something … just about everyone would do something for extra money” (p.91).
“I did anal sex a few times because I could get so much more money for it” (pp.94-95).
“Mike was a regular who liked me to act like a young girl. He was about sixty … He made me sick and I hated him, but the booking only went for about twenty minutes, and he paid me one hundred and seventy dollars for that” (p.166).
Prostitutes are victims of prostitution. Contrary to the muddled sentiments of those who press for legalisation and speak of “compassion”, prostitutes are not victims in the sense that they are noble women who have been forced by desperate circum-stances to sell themselves. They are victims by their own choice. But they are victims nonetheless. They have made a bad choice, and they are damaged by it.
For the sake of prostitutes, then—and for the sake of women who might otherwise become prostitutes—a civilised society ought to do all in its power to stamp out prostitution. To legalise prostitution is to abandon prostitutes to the damage of their “profession”. Nothing could be more un-enlightened and uncompassionate than that.
Excerpts from The Prostitution Trap (Smithfield, NSW: Gary Allen, 1997)