The myth of the happy hooker

Rachel Moran started selling sex when she was 15. Don’t fall for the ‘Pretty Woman’ redemption story, she says in her new book about life on the street. Now she wants men who use prostitutes to be named and shamed

 Author, journalist and former prostitute Rachel Moran.  Photograph: Bryan O'Brien

Author, journalist and former prostitute Rachel Moran. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien

Sat, Apr 13, 2013, 06:00

The first man to take Rachel Moran into his car for £10 hand relief in 1987 didn’t care that the 15-year- old was homeless after being thrown out by her mother, who had schizophrenia and was addicted to prescription medication. He didn’t care that her mentally ill, gambling-addicted father had taken his own life. He didn’t care that the social care system had failed her.

He didn’t ask why a child was selling sex on Benburb Street in Dublin 7, or why she had been so utterly abandoned that the homeless 21-year-old pimping her was all she had to hang on to, her only friend in the world, even though she’d known him only a few days. “Take it easy on her, it’s her first time,” the pimp said – rather hypocritically, considering he knew her age was an asset.

All that first punter cared about, and the thousands after him wearing wedding rings and with baby seats in the backs of their cars, was that Moran was 15. Underage sex was, and is, a turn-on for many of the thousands of men – one in 15 – who prostitute 1,000 women and girls every day in Ireland.

“I know of girls of 13 being prostituted today,” says Moran, who is now 37 and whose book, Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution , will be published next week, with rights already sold in Australia and negotiations under way in the UK and US.

In a week when Real Men Don’t Buy Girls , a social-media campaign by the Immigrant Council of Ireland, was launched in response to the trafficking and prostitution of young girls, Moran’s experience shows that such exploitation is not new to Ireland but that it has grown with the opening of European borders.

Men who prostitute women want to express their hatred of them by hurting them in ways no other woman would endure, Moran says. She recalls a middle-class man, who could be anyone’s husband, calling her to his home and then imposing violent sex on her on his marital bed, in a room whose walls were covered with photographs of his wife and children, as he aroused himself by spewing “disgusting and demeaning” insults about his wife. (In retaliation, and as a message to his wife, Moran rolled her own lipstick under the bed.)

Paid For is no titillating call-girl memoir perpetuating the popular myth of The Happy Hooker , the Pretty Woman redemption, the sexy student enriching her future by being prostituted to pay for her education.

“How glamorous is it, I wonder, to think of a huge heaving fat sweaty man shoving his penis into the most intimate part of your body? The truth is that prostitution is always an affront to human dignity. It is psychosexual bullying. Women in prostitution are not seen as equal humans,” Moran says.

She decided not to hide behind a pseudonym because to do so would be disempowering, and she has her mother’s blessing. “I do think I got strength from my parents. A lot of people won’t understand that. But my mother was locked in a very great struggle not of her own making,” she says.

As children, she and her four siblings were rarely allowed out of the house because of their mother’s paranoia. When they were, other children called them “knackers”. Moran felt outside society with no hope of ever fitting in, so she immersed herself in books – Dickens and CS Lewis were favourites – in a house where children competed against each other to avoid their mother’s wrath.

At 14, Moran asked a social worker for a safe place to live. A hostel for girls became her home, and she was devastated when she was thrown out after it was discovered that she had been hoarding medication, not to take recreationally or to sell but – unconsciously, she now realises – as a means of killing herself, if it came to that.

She lived on the streets and slept in B&Bs, sometimes a different one every night, until she ended up on the streets, where, in the doorway of a nightclub, she met the man who was to be her pimp. If only, she thinks in retrospect, the State had shown more compassion, given her a school in which to live and learn a skill.

“I was utterly exhausted – at 15 – so when the suggestion was made that [prostitution] was a way to put order or control on one’s life, I imagined myself as being like Madonna in the Like a Virgin video. I was thinking, I can be the bad girl I need to be,” she says.

She set herself a goal of making £100 a night, which meant at least 10 men a night, and for two years she managed to limit her services to hand relief, then oral sex, because, she believes, the turn-on factor of her age made the men climax very fast, though it didn’t stop men ramming their fingers in to hurt her.

“I knew about half the girls who were on the street with me from the institutional care system and all were in their teens, under the age of consent. Prostitution is populated by people who have no other choice, girls so inured to sexual abuse that prostitution is the next logical step,” she says.

She moved on to a brothel on Leeson Street that specialised in sex with underage girls, and the photographing of them for pornography. As she grew older, and the call-girl trend started, where appointments in hotels, apartments and men’s homes were made by phone, she began to specialise in the perversions of men who wanted to be dominated and abused, in order to avoid sexual penetration whenever she could.

Legislation in 1993 that targeted soliciting, and so drove prostitution indoors, made it more dangerous, because women were then trapped with their clients.

“If I had to go back for one night because my life depended on it, it would be the street and no place else. You can sense, hear, smell things about a man you can’t do on a phone line. If you don’t like the look in his eye, you can turn him away.”

Men treat the women they pay for sex with contempt because, if they could get away with it, it’s how they would treat all women, Moran now believes. Tolerating prostitution is part of the “pornification” of society, where all women are seen as objects to some degree, whether through the soft porn of MTV or in advertising images, she believes.

By the age of 22, Moran had spent a third of her life selling her body. To cope with the psychological distress, she had used cocaine and become addicted. With a young son to care for, Moran faced the fact that she would die, like many of her friends, if she didn’t stop. So, in an extraordinary effort of will, she quit cocaine cold turkey, left prostitution and moved to the country, where severe depression set in as she recovered without rehab and tried to figure out what normal life was.

Her mother had been adopted, and when a biological aunt traced the family and came into Moran’s own life, she was encouraged, at 24, to go to university as a mature student; she earned a degree in journalism from Dublin City University, winning the Hybrid Award for excellence in journalism.

Eleven years ago she started her book in an attempt to get “the ugliest side of masculinity” out of her system and to reintegrate her body with her mind and soul. She worked in various jobs, had positive relationships with men, discovered love and learned how “wonderful” good men are. She also underwent three years of psychotherapy, developing an understanding of why her life had happened as it did.

“What I want this book to be is a wrecking ball that takes down that reputation of the ‘happy hooker’. There’s no glamour in prostitution. These are men getting off on hurting women,” she says. “People who think that prostitution is anything else are lying to themselves.”

This has been Moran’s message as, over the past couple of months, she has spoken at Harvard University, in Boston, at Harlem Hospital Centre, in New York, at the European women’s committee at the UN, and to an Oireachtas committee on justice, defence and equality that has examined proposals for new legislation on prostitution.

Selling sex is not illegal in Ireland, although brothel-running and soliciting are. But prostitution is now internet-based, with women seeing men in apartments and hotels, and punters even giving women reviews, TripAdvisor style, on escort websites. So far this year, Operation Quest, which aims to identify potential victims of human trafficking, has made three arrests.

At the Oireachtas committee, Moran argued the case for the “Nordic model” of legislation, used in Sweden, Norway and Iceland, in which the men who use prostitutes are criminalised, named and shamed, while the women prostituted are decriminalised and offered exit strategies. This empowers the women, because when men are violent they can report them to police without fear of arrest, she says.

“The rate of violence has gone through the floor, and the rate of women co-operating with police has soared.”

Those who support the legalisation of prostitution sometimes paint it as a form of sex therapy. Moran retorts: “We hear a lot about these lonely men or disabled men who ought to have their sexual needs catered for. If prostitution isn’t harmful, why don’t we introduce a lottery system where the women of Ireland take their turns to do their civic duty?”

Moran has been instrumental in founding Space International – Survivors of Prostitution Abuse Calling for Enlightenment – a campaign launched this week to promote the “Nordic model” worldwide, via the website spaceinternational.ie.

Revealing her past life has been the right choice, she says. “I’ve had an overwhelming response. It’s such a wonderful experience to be approached by people from all over the globe telling me that what I’m saying is resonating with them,” she says.

“The prostitution experience is so thoroughly disempowering; to come through it and have a book like this is a very empowering experience, which is the antithesis to what I experienced before.”


Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution is published by Gill & Macmillan

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