Exited Women: Prostitution is Violent and Unfree

The following is my translation of an article published on the Danish website Politiken.dk on March 9, 2013

Selling yourself is disgraceful, violent and unfree

Written by

Tanja Rahm, sexologist and author

Alice Viola, mentor and therapist

Christina Christensen, educator

Lita Malmberg, unemployed social educator

Pia Christensen, cand.mag. (BA in Denmark)

Odile Poulsen, author and psychotherapist

All authors are formerly prostituted women

We are six women who have been in prostitution. In many ways we are similar to the women Politiken described in the series of articles ‘The Brothel – A Workplace in Denmark’. Their words were our words when we were in prostitution.

Five of us told ourselves and the world around us that we were choosing to do it. That we enjoyed sex, earned good money and received lots of recognition. That we were completely in control of what we did.

The media often describes women in prostitution as strong and free and as having a healthy, hungry relation with sex, most recently so in ‘The Brothel’. The story of the sex-loving woman who liberates her sexuality in prostitution is also the story most people want to hear. Especially men who buy sex.

Those like us are the complete opposite. When we take part in the public debate about prostitution and point out the destructive forces and consequences of prostitution, we are told that something else must be wrong with us.

For it cannot be the years in prostitution that have given us insomnia, depression, memory loss, suicidal thoughts, self-hate, pain, arthritis, anxiety, problems with intimacy and so on.

Even though hundreds of women in our situation speak of the same painful consequences of prostitution, this knowledge does not count in the current debate. ‘The Brothel’ conveys the dominant narrative: prostitution is liberating and harmless.

But what is not made clear at the same time is that it can look very different when one has exited the trade. This can contribute to the normalization of prostitution and lure young women into thinking that it is a danger-free way of earning money. It is not.

Many are we who have had to realize that prostitution is not a free or liberating choice, but boundary-crossing, violent, unfree. We lost touch with ourselves. So that we would be able to take it.

‘Satisfied sex workers’ are treated with a rare, uncritical political correctness by the media.

The journalist in ‘The Brothel’ accepted all the contradictions unquestioningly. But women in prostitution aren’t made of glass. So why shouldn’t they answer critical questions? How, for instance, are they going to avoid being exploited by pimps with the help of a telephone operator and a security guard? How are they going to get men to stop buying the foreign women who have no access to the famous ‘rights’—they are cheaper, after all? How does being a member of a union protect you from being assaulted by the buyers? How can you be an unemployed prostitute?

After all, you could just stand out on the street. ‘The Brothel’ gives the impression that the stigma lies in the fact that some people disagree that prostitution is an okay profession. The degrading view of women that sex buyers have is described by the interviewed women as them being sweet men who long for a little closeness and intimacy.

There is much discussion about freedom of choice. But this seems meaningless to us, for prostitution eats your dignity, free choice or not. When society does not want to give up on the notion that some women should be for sale, the stigma remains. And our pain is brushed aside by saying we chose it ourselves.

Below we have each listed our experiences and our views on being in prostitution:

Tanja: “I was superior, strong. But the façade was crumbling. I became addicted to cocaine so that I could go on. Was I too weak, a spineless victim? No. I survived and built a worthy life for myself. But I see how women in my situation constantly have to fight psychological problems, go to the hospital, get operations.” (…) «Women who exit prostitution tell a different story than that of orgasms and sweet men. Our experiences are the most stigmatizing. Because other women don’t want to realize that their men are possibly sex buyers and cheaters. Men don’t want to lose their illusions of constantly horny women who love to have sex for money. And society fears being seen as judgmental and frigid if we don’t embrace all sexual excesses with wide open arms. The cost of saying what no one wants to hear is condemnation.”

Alice: “As a mentor in ‘Swan Groups’ I meet many who find the media’s generally one-sided idealization of prostitution hard to deal with. In a Swan Group, you gain a better perspective of the issue. For who among us wasn’t happy, right up until we discovered something different? Very many of the Swan Women only discovered the painful reality afterward. Almost all of them have problems with closeness, intimacy, trust and sex. This has serious consequences for relationships with partners, children and others. Freedom in prostitution is an illusion, a quick fix of power and a lie that keeps both the sex buyer and the woman going around the ring.”

Christina: “I went talking to the media, praising the joys of prostitution when I was in prostitution. It was a huge self-deception that I used to survive. Many times I have since wondered about the question of rights. Would I have avoided PTSD, memory loss, depression, sleep disorders and general anxiety if I had had the right to be seen by a health professional every other week or been a member in the union and had the right sick pay? No. Sex buyers differ from other men in only one respect: they can justify to themselves that it is okay to buy sex. They were pitiful when they thought they were entitled to use me because they paid for it. They justified their actions by saying, “Wow, it’s so cool that you are so strong; I could never have sex with one of the weak ones.” I could not possibly be one of those who were being hurt. How wrong they were. Pretending that you’re strong is just the way you sell the goods. ”

Lita: “The rights should be the right to get out of prostitution. Help for the treatment of the problems that women in prostitution typically get, help with education or work. People should have the right not to have to sell themselves. And make no mistake: It is selling yourself. It’s not just a performance. You are alone and naked with a stranger who lies on top of you and groans and sweats, who sucks on your breasts and finally empties himself into you. That’s what it is to be a prostitute. Yes, there was always one who said, ‘I’ll be quick so it’s not so bad for you’. But if he thought it was so bad for me, why did he do it? That lack of self-control repelled me. The only thing they were really interested in was the size of our body parts–and what it cost. We were described and sold as if we were sandwiches.”

Pia: “I was violently forced to prostitute myself. That Danish women can also be forced into prostitution is never spoken about, but I am far from alone. My situation resembles that of foreign prostitutes, who also often have pimps—yes, even the ‘willing’ Danish prostitutes sometimes have those. Many women are ashamed, even if they’ve chosen to prostitute themselves, and would very much like to quit. So why are some politicians so busy trying to make the sex industry so that as many as possible can remain in prostitution for as long as possible? A lot more should be done to get women out of prostitution.”

Odile: “It’s not acceptable to talk about the damage we take away from prostitution—that destroys the common notion of prostitution as mutual, free-spirited sex. Women who haven’t been in prostitution and who don’t think that prostitution is good for society, for the prostitutes or the sex buyers, are called frigid, sexually repressed, moralizing spinsters. So how is it possible to discuss?”


French version of this article, translated from English by Martin Dufresne.


9 comments on “Exited Women: Prostitution is Violent and Unfree

  1. this article might be responding directly to another article or piece of literature; but I think it misses the point.

    Yes, sex work is dangerous and harmful to sex workers. I think an important stipulation in talking about ‘harm’ is that sex workers define this harm, and as ex sex workers I trust these authors’ perspective that sex work can be harmful. But what about wage work?

    Is losing 10+ hours of your life to live in poverty less harmful? Is throwing your human potential to the wind less degrading? Is robbing the world of your gifts less oppressive? Does the poverty that wage work subjects you to less dangerous?

    Sex work, wage work… whatever. WORK SUCKS. Capitalism is the danger that we are really identifying here. The danger of lack of opportunities. The danger of desperation. There are no good choices under capitalism.

    I don’t think that fear mongering women out of sex work is productive. Yes, it is important that we talk about the risks, and not glorify it, but going into sex work is a hard decision that I don’t think anyone takes lightly. It’s a heavy decision, and likely a woman has spent many nights up thinking about it. Impressing fear into a woman who has made a courageous decision for herself so she will go back to wage work is oppressive.

    • “Is losing 10+ hours of your life to live in poverty less harmful? Is throwing your human potential to the wind less degrading? Is robbing the world of your gifts less oppressive?”

      — So you are saying that being a regular worker of some sort means throwing human potential to the wind but prostitution doesn’t? That it doesn’t rob the world of your gifts? Because the way this is phrased, it sounds like you’re saying that all these things don’t happen in prostitution.

      Then you ask if the poverty the wage work subjects you to is less dangerous. If you have ever read anything about how many women in prostitution have been raped, how many have been beaten, how many have attempted suicide, how many become sick or disabled, how many are killed…you wouldn’t be asking that question. Yes, clearly women in prostitution are in a much more dangerous everyday situation than wage workers.

      And yes, capitalism is bad and makes us all unfree and workers being forced to sell their labor on the market to produce things they may never have the right to use SUCKS. But it’s not being “alone and naked with a stranger who lies on top of you and groans and sweats, who sucks on your breasts and finally empties himself into you” and many much worse things that haven’t been mentioned here at all. Being raped is not a job. Being tortured is not a job. We may all be subjected to forms of degradation to varying degrees, but equating having to ask “Would you like fries with that?” or cleaning up baby sick on Aisle 3 with having a stranger masturbate into your body and use it to indulge his sadistic fetishes is not comparable to that. It is frightening to me that this needs to be said, but here we are. The average age of entry into prostitution is about 13, by the way. These are not women who have spent a long time thinking and planning their ‘career’ in the sex industry, these are abused children who grow up to be women who see no other options and have been robbed of the feeling that they have human potential and gifts the world might need. Who may never have been given that feeling in the first place.

      And exited women warning other women away from prostitution is oppressive? Please look up this word and educate yourself a bit more before using it again, because it certainly doesn’t mean what you think it means. Exited women are not in a position in society to ‘oppress’ anyone, and them using their experience and insights to help women who are in a similar position to what they once went through is admirable and extremely positive for all of society. If you take anything away from this, make it this: these women know what they are talking about. When they say it was a horrible life that traumatizes you, then you best believe it is. And plenty of statistics back this up. PTSD rates and extent comparable to veterans and torture victims. Think about that for a bit. Wage workers may be unhappy and unfree but they are not all living through a daily hell of violence and dehumanization and constant danger to their lives.

    • I am as anti-capitalist as any other radical, but what you’ve got there is a mansplanation. I don’t know of any job that doesn’t protect you against sexually transmitted diseases or constant assault and rape from customers. I don’t know of any industry nowadays (not fifty years ago) that fights tooth and nail against the establishment of the most basic safety rules for its employees.

  2. Reblogged this on Sifting Through The Pulp and commented:
    The survival tactics used by prostituted women often prevent them from being able to be anti-prostitution until they have exited. From their views of “personal agency” to not wanting to be seen as a victim, prostituted women often have a kind of Stockholm syndrome, not wishing to be freed by those on the outside and convinced that their current situation just needs “improving”. Exited women need to be heard in the debate about prostitution, for they have insight that those still in the sex work maze do not.

  3. Thanks Tanja, Alice, Christina, Lita, Pia, Odile for your testimonies. Most of French men are with you, Most French do NOT support any more this violence against woman. We are with you for your fighting, agree with you..
    All my heart with you and your action

  4. I found this very interesting as the subject fascinating one and I have read many books and love women’s discussion .29.8 million women and children are being sexually trafficked globally and one billion suffer violence daily. We have unreported rape also man On man ! Commercial sex is a multbillion industry and there is total lack of respect for women. We need to make a stand together and educate! Thank you girls for an insight into your life’s ( ps I was married for 28 yrs and he moved on to a younger version with no kids and basically paid me of for services rendered or that’s how it felt. ) 86 percent of girls working in Argentina are mums first prostitution pays the bills and puts food on the table as it does in other countries and I think men forget that !!!!!!!!!!

  5. […] The following is my translation of an article published on the Danish website Politiken.dk on March 9, 2013 Selling yourself is disgraceful, violent and unfree Written by Tanja Rahm, sexologist and…  […]

  6. Thank you for this interesting discussion. I am studying the (possibly violent) language used in the sex industry. At the moment I am doing a broad comparison of certain terms, of differences in the language used by clients, men and women in prostitution, the sex industry (pornography), public and NGO’s. It is very difficult to access the first category especially, the clients. I need to either interview them on their attitudes or record them, in order to analyze their language first hand, but I don’t need to meet them. Written material, such as an internet exchange would be adequate. If anyone has ideas on how this could be done (in an ethical manner) please respond here, and we may correspond by e-mail if needed.

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