“We have the Pretty Woman image of prostitution,” remarked Gloria Steinem, the feminist leader and author, at a media event organized by Donor Direct Action on 30 June. “There may be 12 women someplace who have that much power and run into Richard Gere – I don’t know. But it’s not the reality.”
As a survivor of the sex trade, Rachel Moran knows the reality of prostitution from her own experience and from that of the other survivors who are part of her organization, SPACE International. “We are from all around the globe,” she explained to the journalists at the event. “We know from the experience of having been prostituted across thousands of encounters exactly what the nature of prostitution is.” And it’s not like the experience depicted in film and popular culture. To Rachel, the “myth” that prostitution is sex work is “insulting, offensive nonsense.” “What was happening to us in the brothels wasn’t work or anything remotely resembling work. It was compensated sexual violation. That’s how we experienced it. That’s how we lived it. That’s what we suffered from.”
“I have no time for that terminology,” she explained, “because it obscures and hides the damage that was done to us all.” In fact, she pointed out, “prostitution is damaging for the entirety of society as well as for the individual involved.” It’s damaging to the man who is the buyer, she said, citing an example of such a man who came up to her at an event, “who is a ghost in his own home. His wife has no idea who she is married to. His daughters have no idea who their father is. And that man is an absolute psychological mess.”
“We have to recognize that this is damaging in all directions,” she continued. “Never mentioned are the wives and girlfriends who haven’t done a thing. There is no element that isn’t damaging and hurtful. It harms everybody. I believe that the recognition of that damage to the social fabric was hugely important in Sweden.”
Rachel Moran was referring to the adoption in Sweden in 1999 of a progressive feminist law to address commercial sexual exploitation and the sex trade. The law has become a model in other countries, such as Norway and Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada and France. The law makes the purchase or attempted purchase of sex a criminal offense while the seller is not punished.
“The reason for this,” explained Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, speaking at the same event, “is that in the majority of cases, the seller is the weaker party, exploited by the sex buyer and it is not reasonable to punish the seller.”
This power differential makes buying and selling 2 different acts that are not the same type of act and therefore should not be equally criminalized or equally legalized, according to Jessica Neuwirth, Director of Donor Direct Action. “To have this third way of approaching it has given us an opening” to address commercial sexual exploitation in a different way.
According to the Swedish Foreign Minister, an evaluation of the impact of the Swedish legislation has shown that street prostitution has been halved. “We believe it has been very effective and good legislation.”
And it has affected Swedish norms. “If you can shop for another person, if you have the right to buy access to another person’s body, to invade another person’s body”, it affects how you think about other aspects of women’s rights, she explained, since 99% of cases are of women being prostituted. “And that is seen as work? How can we fight for our rights in other aspects of society if that is such a basic attitude? That would destroy all other attempts to work for equality between men and women.”
“I spent 7 years in prostitution. I got out when I was 22,” said Rachel Moran. “I do feel, looking back in hindsight, that the strongest, the most robust protective legislation” that might have helped me “at that time would have been the Swedish model, which is exactly why I am pressing for it now.”