Rachel Moran’s extraordinary book lays bare the seven years she spent as a prostitute. It took her more than a decade to write, looking back with clear eyes into the hell from which she had escaped. A blend of political analysis and memoir, this is at once an indictment of Ireland’s tolerance of violent sexual enslavement and a remarkable woman’s celebration of the survival of body, soul and passionate sexuality. It is a book about brutality by a writer of great sensitivity.
Like other exceptional individuals before her, Moran has bravely forfeited her anonymity to describe a life almost ruined by sexual violence, the better to insist that such violence must be stopped. She candidly admits that if she had been able to foresee her future when she was 14, she might well have killed herself. That was the age she was when she first stepped into a car on Benburb Street in Dublin, her then boyfriend urging the driver, a bespectacled and balding man in his 40s, “Take it easy: it’s her first time.”
The man paid her more than the going rate to “pull his prick with one hand, while leathering the arse off him with a thin, flexible branch”. She found that men who liked to be dominated were likely to be less dangerous than those who took their pleasure in overtly inflicting pain.
Whether the prostitute is required to be a dominatrix or a submissive, however, the man is in control. Moran's graphic descriptions of what men demand from prostitutes are harrowing reading. She comments that a prostitute needs a "strong stomach", and the book is replete with extremely disturbing material. There is semen, there is shit, there is blood. She quotes Andrea Dworkin, that most maligned of feminists: "Prostitution is not an idea. It is the mouth, the vagina, the rectum, penetrated usually by a penis, sometimes hands, sometimes objects, by one man and then another and then another and then another and then another."
Moran tells chilling stories of women destroyed. One of them is so badly beaten that she takes to heroin and changes rapidly from a slim girl to a walking skeleton, chain-smoking, with “a vacant empty stare in her eyes”. Another agrees to perform a strip show and then service individually a group of men celebrating a sports event at a hotel – except they don’t stick to the terms agreed. “I never met the girl who left that night again, though I spent several years in touch with the one who arrived back the next morning.”
There is no solidarity with the clients, nothing to remind the prostitute of their shared humanity. Moran comments bleakly that the closest a prostitute will get "to understanding anything of a client's family life is by noticing a baby seat in the back of his car or feeling the cold metal of his wedding ring pressed against the inner walls of her vagina". Moran notes that men from Ireland are among those who travel to countries such as Thailand to rape children even younger than those they can find at home.
Her own childhood primed her for prostitution. Her parents both had serious mental illnesses that, in the Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s, they had to treat themselves, with drugs they became addicted to. The family was acutely poor. In the working-class Dublin housing estate where they lived, they were called knackers. “Our lives as children set us utterly apart from mainstream society and we were raised both painfully aware of it and numbly accepting of it,” she writes.
It was always obvious, Moran writes, that adversity lay in store for children reared in such wretchedness. She grows up feeling disconnected from the world, inadequate, not normal, not decent. By the time she is a teenager she has become homeless, not so much invisible to other people as not considered worth looking at. When self-respect is not instilled, or is removed, it does not leave a void, she writes, “it clears a space which is filled with shame”.
Moran demolishes all the myths about prostitution. You cannot say women choose it, she says, when many begin as she did, too young even to consent to sex. Women enter prostitution because they are destitute, desperate or deluded as to what it will actually do to them. You cannot call it a profession that can be regulated like any other – how, for example, would you begin to apply guidelines on sexual harassment? You cannot pretend that women enjoy it when so many of them resort to drugs “to numb the simple awfulness of having sexual intercourse with reams of sexually repulsive strangers, all of whom are abusive on some level . . . many of whom are deliberately so”.
Moran notes that she and other prostitutes recognised as former clients certain convicted rapists when their photos appeared in newspapers. Prostitution does not cause widespread revolt among women, Moran argues, because commodification of the female is widely accepted. People prefer to shun prostitutes than to recognise that the demand for what they are forced to do is indicative of a widespread hatred and contempt for all women.
She urges support for the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, and commends Sweden for leading the way in criminalising the men she calls “prostitutors”. She is generous towards her parents, who, she accepts, loved her and did their best. She forgives many who harmed her out of ignorance or their own damage. She writes with eloquent joy about her experience of the healing power of sexual love. This is book about violence and depravity, but it shines with compassion and humanity.
Rachel Moran will be in conversation with Susan McKay about her life and her book on Friday, May 17th, at 7.30pm in the Reading Room bookshop in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, as part of a week of events about social inclusion run by Leitrim County Council. The event is free, and everyone is welcome
Susan McKay is an author and journalist who has written extensively about violence against women and was one of the founders of the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre. Her books include Sophia's Story , Northern Protestants : An Unsettled People and Bear in Mind These Dead .