On any given day in 2016 there were an estimated 40.3 million people in modern slavery across the world, with women and girls accounting for 71% of victims. People looking for work and a better standard of living are often deceived, forced and coerced in to such forms of modern slavery as forced labour, debt bondage, domestic servitude and commercial sexual exploitation. Women and girls made up more than 99% of victims of forced sexual exploitation. Moreover more than 1 million of these victims (21%) were children under the age of 18. Child victims are often difficult to detect by both law enforcement and child protection agents, as such the true figure of children in commercial sexual exploitation is likely to be much higher than the current estimate.
Blu was 13 years old when she began seeing an older boy that lived near her school. This boy began forcing Blu to have sex with other men, subjecting her to physical violence when she refused. Though other people in her life – including her mother – knew about her prostitution, no one believed that she was being forced. It was only when she left school at 16 and moved away that she could escape.
I spent three years working as a prostitute, from the age of 13 ‘til I left school at 16. Not that I wanted to work – I’d gotten involved with a guy in his late teens who lived near my school, and it all went from there.
People seem to be under the impression that we ‘choose’ to work as prostitutes. It’s an argument that falls with its first assumption, because, hey, define ‘choice’. Selling your body being the last option you have to survive, or because it’s all you’ve been brought up to know, isn’t in any way ‘choice’ at all, especially not when you add on extra pressures like a family to feed. Yet it’s exactly these reasons why the vast majority of women work in prostitution.
An aside – I’m going to talk about women here, because I am primarily identified as one, and because I don’t know enough about male experiences of prostitution to ever claim that I could speak for them too. I knew a few guys who worked also, and it seemed as though we shared some experiences but maybe not others. I don’t think male survivors of prostitution get anywhere near the help and support they need (if indeed they get any at all). This needs to change. In a society where men are taught to view sex as always desirable, I should imagine it’s even more difficult for male survivor of prostitution to speak out.
Anyway, back to choice. I didn’t choose prostitution, and I don’t think my case is an isolated one either. I’d seen this guy a few times. We flirted. As a kid that had already been sexually abused for years and who was very unpopular, withdrawn and unhappy in school, attention from an attractive older teenage boy felt great. Our relationship quickly became sexual, which I had no problem with.
And then he brought along a friend. No, I didn’t want to have sex with his friend too, certainly not with him watching. I felt he was taking advantage of me. So I did what any female would do in that situation, and said no.
He then punched me in the face.
I think it was shock more than anything. I was used to being creeped around and manipulated into sex, but out-and-out violence was an utter shock, as was the fact that both of them laughed about it and didn’t seem to see any problem with what they were doing. My so-called boyfriend then grabbed me, and, well, held me down and raped me in front of his friend. Then invited his friend to do the same.
And so it went on from there. He lived very close to my school, so he always knew where to find me. He’d wait for me at break times, or after school. After it being one of his friends it was then two – with “come on, you were okay the last time” as an excuse. There was never any choice, it just built up, layer upon layer of abuse until very quickly he was collecting me from school and taking me to flats, every school day, where groups of men would be waiting – having already agreed with him what they’d do. Some would have sex with me, some had paid just to watch, but it was always done in a group setting.
The sex bothered me less than the violence and humiliation. A group of guys together very quickly turned terrifying, and there were often men there whom I knew had wives and kids and who were ostensibly the ‘quiet’ type who’d never do anything ‘like that’…until they got in a group of their friends and everyone else was doing it too. I won’t detail things, because I’m also aware that there are sick f*cks out there in the world who’d get off on even that, but I was regularly slapped, beaten, kicked, spat on, mocked, laughed at, and of course raped. I didn’t want any of the sex, but they always told me that I did. They’d goad each other into doing more and more things, some sexual, some violent – it became like some sort of competition for them to see how far they could go. The shame kills me now, still, more than the bleeding, torn skin, burns and broken bones ever did. The shame and self-hate is the real poison. Of course, you’re told it’s all your fault, that there’s just something about you that makes them act that way, or that you like it really. It’s always your fault.
Everyone knew about it, too. My pimp (no way I was calling him my boyfriend by this time) seemed to really enjoy making sure the kids in my school knew what was going on. He’d use as many methods as possible to humiliate and frighten me, and making sure everyone knew what a slag I was, was a brilliant way of doing that – it ensured I got bullied, so had no friends on my side. He was obvious in collecting me from school. He invited boys from the years above me in school to watch his ‘sessions’. He’d wipe cum on my clothes then take me back to school in them. One weekend (I only worked on schoolnights) I bumped into him in town when I was with my mother, and he walked right up to her and smiled in her face. Of course, she wanted to know who he was and I had absolutely no way of telling her…
I got no money. So no, it wasn’t magically all better because I was paid for it. Yes, adults in positions of authority knew – including my mother. But the questions they asked were all framed in disbelief – “this apparent involvement in prostitution” and the like – and their only reasoning was to get me to stop skipping school. To them, I was being an annoying teenager deliberately causing trouble. I was more frightened of my pimp and what he could do to me than I was of their threats of vague legal action, so I said nothing when they asked about me working. I had no choice anyway. If I was in school, my pimp would find me. I didn’t want to piss off the powers that be, of course, but it wasn’t like I had an option.
I didn’t use drugs as I had no access to them, but I used to sniff glue and butane gas when I could. My biggest fear, apart from being killed, was getting pregnant – as I was under 16, I wasn’t allowed to be prescribed the pill, despite me sneaking into the local clinic to ask for it. I didn’t know where to get condoms from (I had no idea they would ever be given away free and no-one at the clinic mentioned it), so condom use was entirely dependent on my pimp and punters. I got into the routine of washing myself out with a mix of hot water and disinfectant, as it was the only way I could think of to prevent infection and pregnancy. Despite a few scares, I never got pregnant but I did have endless infections, thrush, and by the time I was 19 I’d developed cervical cancer.
I left prostitution when I left school – I moved away. It was the only way out that I could think of. I had to go back to the city where I grew up around seven years later and actually saw my ex-pimp walking down the street not long after. He recognised me. I hid in a shop, and it took all my strength not to throw up in fear. Thankfully he was gone when I finally emerged.
I’d like to say that I’m over it, but I’m not. Even now, I’m scared of people – men in particular, especially groups of men. I tried to get over this for years, thinking I was being big and brave by going to pubs and football games alone, but I’d recognise faces from the crowd…regulars. And despite the fact that they didn’t recognise me, it guts me even now that they’re happily walking around as if they’re perfectly normal, and I’m constantly terrified. I moved away again five years ago and although I feel a little safer where I live now, there is still the absolute nauseous panic when guys start with the sexist jokes, or look at a woman in a certain way, or worse still, joke about how cool it is to go to strip clubs or pay for sex. It’s also amazing how many people will use your history as a reason to discount your opinions: “well, that’s just *your* experience”, or “you’re just overemotional because you were abused – no-one *normal* has a problem with these things”.
The current so-called liberal trend to decriminalising prostitution is an open invitation for the abuse of women. Sorry, but the entire basis of prostitution rests on inequality, and decriminalising the demand says such inequality is fine – sexualised, even. Time after time academic research shows that the vast majority of women in prostitution want to leave, yet the tiny minority who are lucky enough to have the ‘choice’ to work and have their boundaries and wishes respected are given far more publicity – after all, it pleases the male majority to hear this, and there’s nothing quite like male approval, is there? (I’m being sarcastic). I’m told over and over that ‘some women like it’ and that means it should be legal and fine for men to demand sex via pay. I’ve been lectured by women working by choice on how illiberal I am for wanting to see demand for prostitution criminalised. Evidently these women either don’t, or don’t want to, see their privilege – most women in prostitution do NOT have free choice, they don’t have their wishes respected, and no is frequently ignored. How could it not be? The whole point of prostitution is that a man pays for someone who won’t say no, who will do whatever it is that he wants. The woman’s boundaries are seen as non-existent or negotiable. Your ‘no’ will be ignored. Why should the demand for that be in any way decriminalised?
Originally published on Ruth Jacobs, Soul Destruction