Rachel Moran became homeless at 14 and was prostituted on the streets of Dublin the following year. She left prostitution when she was 22 years old. In 2012 she started the organization SPACE International, a group of sex trade survivors and a partner of Donor Direct Action. She recently talked to Donor Direct Action about her work.
People often ask me: how did you get involved in political activism? It’s a really difficult question to answer in terms of providing a moment where this actually began because it was such an incremental thing. The first phase was writing my book, which was a really long, solitary and sometimes quite lonely process that went on for a decade. And then in 2010 I started to meet people in Ireland who were involved in the abolitionist movement and I started seeing, from a more detached perspective, what prostitution wrought on the lives of other women in Ireland, both Irish women and migrant women from all over the world.
SPACE International grew out of SPACE Ireland that I started in 2011. It came about because I disseminated flyers to women who had been in prostitution in Ireland asking them if they wanted to join me in political activism. This was in some sense a reaction to hearing some of those opposed to the “Turn Off the Red Light” campaign in Ireland, which is a campaign to end sex trafficking and prostitution. There was pushback from a collection of people, some of whom had financial and sexual interest in keeping the sex trade going and others who were frankly ignorant and coming at it from an ideological perspective very different from my own. These people had no sense at all what prostitution was and had all of the confident ignorance on this earth to assert otherwise. While I was listening to all this nonsense, I was also holding in my mind many, many memories – not only my own but also what I had witnessed of other women, many of them young, addicted, teenage girls who had been used and violated in multiple ways before they ever got near prostitution. So I knew that we had people speaking out in public that had no business saying what they were saying and what I wanted to do was to organize women who could actually speak to what prostitution was from their own experience. I knew that there was no way I was the only woman who wanted to throw her hat into the ring on this issue.
The fantasy of prostitution
The first step was to actually convince people of the truth: that the prostituted are generally a marginalized population. We have so much propaganda that asserts the opposite. We all know about the movie “Pretty Woman”, then “The Girlfriend Experience “and a few years ago “The Secret Diary of a Call Girl” that, it was claimed, was based on reality. But we’re dealing with utter fantasy that’s been served up as reality, and this has been so damaging.
I have had many young women contact me over the last few years who tell me that they got into prostitution as a direct result of watching “Secret Diary” when they were around 12 or 14 years old and getting the wrong idea into their heads. They thought prostitution was about fancy hotels and ridiculously expensive handbags and gorgeous cars. There was never a penis featured anywhere in this fantasy. And then they go into prostitution and find out that it is in fact wall-to-wall penises and that there are very few expensive bags or shoes. It’s absolutely nothing like the fantasy that was served up to them and the only people who are getting off here are the men who are using them. These young women are so traumatized, and culpability and shame and regret are big features in that traumatization.
What’s also really dangerous about this is that prostitution is now bleeding out into the lives of women through pop culture on a broader level than it ever did. When I was prostituting in Ireland in the 90s, we were marginalized women. We were destitute women. We were homeless women. We were in fear of those things, homelessness and destitution. Something would have happened to the fabric of a woman’s life to get her to that point. Prostitution was always either a response to destitution or fear of destitution. But now, what we’ve got with pop culture is the peddling of a lie that looks attractive. So, it acts like a magnet. It draws young women in and ensnares them.
Ignorance about Prostitution
We want to raise awareness. We want to educate people as to what prostitution is. This is something that people are just ignorant about on a very basic level. The biggest problem is not the awful malignant ignorance that’s spiteful and venomous and deliberate. It’s actually the very innocent ignorance; the attitudes of well-intentioned people. That’s our challenge. We want to break that down and educate people about what really happens in prostitution and we want to create social awareness and corresponding legislative change. We want to open up exit strategies for women – and for all people for that matter – in prostitution, so that they can build lives that don’t involve submitting to unwanted sex in order to pay your bills and keep a roof over your head.
The voices of survivors
One of the most effective tools that I have found is elevating the voices of survivors in the public arena. When people listen to women who’ve lived the experience of prostitution, liberal feminist women approach me and they always say the same thing: You know, I’m sorry, but I used to believe in the idea of bodily autonomy, that a woman can do what she likes with her own body. Then I started listening to women who actually lived prostitution, and that woke me up.
What I find so personally disappointing is the amount of women who don’t understand that prostitution is a matter of male violence. We cannot imagine getting to know someone who is in a domestic violence situation and cheering her on because she has a right to her autonomy – that it’s women’s right to deal with her own body – and on the back of that belief, not doing anything to prevent the violence from happening to her. That’s because we understand what domestic violence is. There was a time in my own country and in many other countries where we had no clue about domestic violence. As far as we were concerned in Ireland back in the 1950s and 1960s, that was part of a man’s role and his duty – to keep his wife in line. It wasn’t discussed publicly and a woman could get no help. We’ve since had this massive shift – an acknowledgement of what domestic violence is and that it is, in fact, abuse. And if we keep pressing, as we’re pressing in this movement, then we can have the same shift in attitudes about prostitution. We desperately need to.
I can see how the intellectual argument can be framed that this is a matter of women’s autonomy, but only by those who cannot relate to what actually happens in practice. Because that argument falls down at the very first hurdle since it’s men who decide what happens to a woman’s body in prostitution, not women. And when I hear women say I choose my own clients, I choose what to do, I choose what not to do, well I don’t know what Utopia they’re prostituting on but that’s unheard of. And in fact if a woman did try approaching prostitution with that attitude, she would most likely be brutalized physically before the first day was out. You don’t get to make those choices. It’s perfectly possible in prostitution to have some punters who won’t beat you – I know I had plenty of them – but that has nothing to do with the dominance that plays out in every other aspect of the experience. When punters don’t beat you, it’s often because they don’t have to. Money has already bought your acquiesce, so that’s enough to ensure you’re going to do what they want you to do. We need to take the blinkers off and take a good look at what’s happening here. The reason why prostitution is so enormously psychologically damaging – and suicide has been found to be a significant consequence of prostitution – is because of the level of emotional and psychological damage done to a woman when her sexual self is so ritualistically disrespected.
You don’t just check into the brothel at 9 and check out at 11 and leave it behind. People don’t understand the shift and the changes that happen on every level in a woman. They leak out all over her life. They stay there. They don’t go away. You get very immersed in that world very quickly when you’re in an environment where all of your friends are prostituted. Your whole life becomes enmeshed in this. And what I find really bizarre is the number of women out there who are prepared to call themselves ‘sex workers,’ call themselves ‘sex worker activists’ even, on the premise that they do this work on the regular. You never have to dig very far to find out that many of them are lying. We had one woman storm into a public event in the US recently and start screaming and shouting from the audience. She said she was a ‘sex worker’ and that we were infringing on her rights. She also said she hadn’t turned a trick in the better part of two years. If it hadn’t been so outrageous it’d have been utterly laughable.
Promoting sex work
A trend that we’re seeing has been the promotion of prostitution as ‘sex work’ with the idea that it’s therefore legitimate work. You have people under that banner who are everything from pimps to cam girls (a form of live, online pornography) to strippers – all the way across the spectrum – calling themselves ‘sex workers.’ The voices that are now dominating the discourse in the media who claim to be or have been ‘sex workers’ are more often than not women like US prostitution commentator Melissa Gira Grant, who was in fact a highly educated, socially privileged cam girl who never had to deal with a stranger’s penis. The reality is Melissa was never physically in a room alone with a man and wouldn’t know what it is to have to deal with a stranger’s penis, never mind thousands of them, yet she’s putting herself forward as the voice of ‘sex workers.’ She was protected behind that computer screen. I’m not saying that is not harmful and degrading. I know it is. I was used in pornography and stripping so I can relate to that. But it is not to be equated with being used by thousands of men physically. The two experiences are just not comparable. And we have these women stepping forward and saying that they have some kind of authority to promote prostitution as an empowering, legitimate decision and an empowering, legitimate way to earn a living when they quite literally don’t know what they are talking about. And here’s the rub – they wouldn’t want to know either. That’s why they stayed behind that computer screen. They have no right talking for us.
Link with sex trafficking
Quite simply, if there was no prostitution there would be no sex trafficking. They are impossible to separate. There are international or activist groups that say sex trafficking is so harmful and damaging but let’s not mention the “p” word. I think what it is about is that prostitution is just too big for them to take on. Prostitution is much more an institution than it is an industry. I think that some of the larger anti-trafficking groups are just afraid to touch it because they know that it goes all the way down to the roots of patriarchy. It is the very marrow in the bones of misogyny and they are scared to take it on. If that’s the case they should pack up and involve themselves in some other fight. They haven’t got the guts for this one.
Seeking legislative change
We’ve seen massive changes in Europe and North America. SPACE International members have been heavily involved in the legislative shifts in Northern Ireland, France, and Canada, and the one that will soon happen in the Republic of Ireland where I’m from. A big piece of what we do is speak to politicians and policy advisors in all of our respective countries. We’re not just about talking and raising awareness through the media, though we do plenty of that too. We’re on the ground delivering presentations to politicians and having meetings in public and in private, and working as hard as we can to instigate legislative change. We feel that there is a point where you must get beyond talking.
SPACE members were directly involved in pressing for legislative change in Northern Ireland. Most of the work that we do is not done in front of cameras and is designed to be behind the scenes along with organizing the testimony of our own women, which is what I am responsible for. I also organize the testimonies of others who would not be able to publicly speak. Not only women who have lived prostitution, but men too, and women who have been wives and partners of those involved. Many of these people have families and would not be willing to speak publicly for obvious reasons.
All of the women in SPACE International have been selected because they are already activists. We don’t cultivate activists. We work with women who have put in years of their lives on the front lines of policy advocacy. SPACE is truly an activist group and that is really important to us. We know what we are doing. We are very passionate and we are very committed. We have had many politicians say that we were the vital ingredient that helped them achieve legislative change. When you really lay it all out there, what it means to live in prostitution, people understand that it’s destructive. Then they will create the change themselves. A lot of times you just need to change minds and then your job is done.
In terms of what sort of legislative change should be enacted, the only solid agreement that there has ever been amongst ourselves and our political opponents is that people who are prostituted should never be charged. Even then, we say people prostituted should never be criminalized because you don’t criminalize people for their own exploitation. Our opponents say people in prostitution shouldn’t be criminalized and neither should pimps and neither should johns or anyone and there should be a wide-open free-for-all, so it’s hardly a meeting of the minds.
We want the perpetrators charged whether or not it’s a financial or sexual interest that they had. We want the kind of society where buying your way into someone else’s body is perceived as the pathological act that it is.
Partnering with Donor Direct Action
When I started SPACE International, we had a real struggle to decide how we were going to go about our business and what it was that we wanted to do. We worked as completely unpaid volunteers for 4 years and over time we built up a lot of connections. Donor Direct Action became a partner with us in New York. It means an awful lot for us to know that we have friends and allies there. It’s an emotionally comforting thing and also very practically useful. Donor Direct Action has always had our backs and been really helpful in many ways that have helped us do our work.
But like every other organization that covers women’s rights issues, we are financially strapped. Women are always on the front lines when it comes to the economic struggles that happen in our nations. We always take the first hit, and SPACE International is no different.