Prostitution and Depravity

Yesterday’s online feed of The New Republic featured an article by Sarah Marshall entitled “Modern Magdalenes,” in which she uncritically swallows the Irish abolitionist Rachel Moran’s account of her life in prostitution and the lessons we should learn from it. Here is a different take.


Rachel Moran, Paid For

In April 2013 Kate Holmquist published an article in the Irish Times, “The Myth of the Happy Hooker,” about Rachel Moran. Moran had just published Paid For: My Journey Though Prostitution, in which she recounts her early beginning and anguishing career as a prostitute. The article elicited several negative responses from sex workers and others who dissented from Moran’s characterizations of prostitution, and who oppose the TORL (Turn Off the Red Light) campaign that Moran supports. (The campaign aims to get Ireland to criminalize the purchase of sex but not its sale.)

In reaction Holmquist wrote a second article, “The Sex Trade-Safe or Sordid?” In it she presented the views of two sex workers, “Rachel” and “Denise” who described prostitution very differently than Moran – yet Holmquist closed by giving the “last word” to Rachel Moran:

“Academics who argue that prostitution should be considered ordinary work are very far removed from the reality of what prostitution is. You don’t learn about prostitution in a university; you learn about it in a brothel,” [Moran] says.

“You learn what prostitution is when you’re having penises, tongues and fingers shoved into the most private parts of your body, day after day after day, by man after man after man. That’s when you learn what prostitution is and whether governments should sanction it as acceptable.”

Why does Moran get the last word? Is it because Holmquist dismisses the testimony of “Rachel” and “Denise”? Is it because she takes Rachel Moran’s description of prostitution as authoritative? Why?

Rachel Moran is an eloquent and fluent writer. Paid For as a description of her life in prostitution is a very moving book. However, Moran is not content to offer her particular life-story for the reader to digest and fit into his/her own understanding. She also sets herself up as the Universal Prostitute, a woman whose experiences define prostitution and trump the “experiences” of anyone else — sex worker, academic, or otherwise — who views prostitution differently than she does. She is not content to let her story speak for itself but instructs the reader on the proper conclusions to draw, and engages in arguments based on her experiences and “research.” Had her book consisted only of her story, a reader would be churlish not to give it a sympathetic hearing. However, because she makes her experience “universal” and the pivot of a public policy argument with real consequences, the reader needs to examine her story with a critical eye.

Let’s start, then, with a central theme. Moran writes: prostitutes are “coerced” into prostitution (pp. 49, 227); they have no “choice” (p. 161); they have no “free will” (p. 201); they act out of “desperation” and “destitution” (pp. 43, 96). And “if only the State had showed more compassion . . . .” This last passage deserves to be quoted in full:

When I was sixteen I was released from a court order, the purpose of which had been to keep me detained for my own protection. It did not have the required effect. The reason for this is clear, and I still wonder how the children’s court could have been so foolish as to imagine that a few months of detention would have turned my life around when I was released onto the streets with no viable alternatives to prostitution. ¶ If they’d had any real dedication to helping me change my life, they would have detained me for a couple of years and made it a condition of my future parole that I complete some form of training . . . it could have been done and I know I would have been capable of applying myself to it. (p. 163).

Ill-starred Rachel, turned out onto the streets with “no viable alternatives to prostitution.” If any opportunity had been offered, she knows she would have “applied” herself to seizing it.

Unfortunately, Moran has forgotten at this point in her book that she’s already provided an account of this moment in her life ninety pages earlier, one which doesn’t quite square with her lament on p. 163. I’ll quote again at length:

I was sixteen when I first arrived at a Leeson-Street brothel after having been returned from spending five months between a juvenile detention centre and a foster home where the courts had placed me for a probationary period . . . ¶ A weight of sadness settles on me when I think of the way I reacted when my foster parents invited me to stay after those court-appointed few months. They invited me to live there, to make a home there. To go to the local school. To have a life. I just knew, somewhere inside myself, that I couldn’t do it. ¶ The family had a hobby farm and I’d spent that summer collecting eggs from the henhouse and feeding milk at dawn to an orphaned black baby lamb. These things felt too pure for me. I felt I couldn’t stay, because I didn’t belong there. . . . I made arrangements in private to stay at the brothel in Leeson Street . . . . ¶ When I arrived [there] I felt . . . a sense of belonging. I was used to being out at three and four in the morning. I was used to nobody telling me what time to come in and how much alcohol or drugs to take or not to take; I was used to being unrestrained . . . . (pp. 70-71)

This is quite a different picture than the one offered on p. 163. It turns out Rachel was given a viable — nay, attractive—alternative to prostitution, but she walked away from it. She walked away because she didn’t feel “worthy”? Perhaps, but most certainly she walked away because she was unwilling to put up with “restraints” on what she did. And she’s already prepared us for this side of her character, describing in earlier pages how she got kicked out of several youth shelters because she wouldn’t go by the rules and because she had a considerable mouth on her. So, why, at p. 163, should we take seriously Moran’s claim that she would have applied herself had she only been given an opportunity? She was given an opportunity and didn’t apply herself.

There’s a great deal more that needs to be said about Moran’s notions of choice, free will, and coercion.

Claim: She didn’t consent to prostitution because “it is not possible to consent to a lifestyle you don’t comprehend” (p. 50). Yes it is. People do it all the time. “I didn’t know marriage was going to be like this!” “I didn’t know how stressful being a parent would be!” “I didn’t know military life would be this tough!”

Claim: She didn’t consent to prostitution because she wasn’t an adult and children can’t consent (pp. 50-51). Yes they can. Society frames laws that say people below certain ages can’t “consent” – to contracts, to mortgages, to sexual relations, and the like – but the “no consent” here is a legal fiction. It is a desirable legal fiction, for the most part, because we think younger persons are too gullible, or too inexperienced, to make good decisions, so we protect them against themselves and others who would do them harm. Still, a sixteen year-old girl who finds prostitution utterly repulsive, revolting, and disgusting, and who is “desperate to escape,” yet who passes up on an opportunity to get out of the trade because she’s unwilling to be bound by any rules, is a person who’s made a choice— a bad choice, to be sure, but a real choice. She has every reason to look back on her decision with sadness.

Consider Moran’s initial foray into prostitution. On p. 49, she speaks of allowing herself to be coerced (an odd locution) into prostitution by her boyfriend. What did her boyfriend do? Did he beat her? Did he threaten her? No, he “suggested” that she turn tricks; he “encouraged” her (pp. 47, 186).

One more: Moran seems to think you haven’t acted freely unless you are as happy as a lark with what you’ve chosen (p. 227); that you are not self-determining unless you are “controlling the totality of your life” (p. 175). These are just fundamentally unserious engagements with the notions of freedom and self-determination. We always act under constraints, we never control the totality of our lives, and we are often unhappy with what we’ve chosen, just less unhappy than with the alternatives.

To see how careless she is with these concepts, note how on p. 227 it turns out that “life” is what really coerced Moran. Her life filled her with feelings and wants and aversions that led her to enter and stay in prostitution. However, all her clients had “lives” too, lives that filled them with sexual urges and wants, perhaps malignant and hateful ones, urges and wants that prompted them to seek out Moran. But she clearly thinks her clients could have resisted the urges and feelings that “life” supplied them, that they could and ought to have refused to use prostitutes. “Life made me do it” is pretty lame. Moran wants us to take her seriously as a thinker but she fumbles very badly with even simple ideas.

Let me turn to another matter, one which obliquely goes back to constraint and choice. Moran supports the “Nordic model” which criminalizes the purchase of sex while decriminalizing its sale. She wants to see it imposed in Ireland. Working prostitutes oppose it. They see the criminalization of their customers as making their already tough business even tougher. How does Moran answer this?

If The Nordic model had been imposed while she was working, Moran writes, she would have been happy to see the men who bought her body made into criminals, but she would have worried about her livelihood (p. 215) “How would I be able to earn a living?” Remember: she has told us that women enter prostitution to avoid destitution; remember: by this point we know she has a child to support. So, we would expect an on-point answer here. “Ok, I’m willing to forgo food for my child in order to criminalize my clients”—is that her answer? “My child may be taken away from me and I may have to beg on the streets, but that’s OK”—is that her answer? [Or: “Actually, I could get along without the income from prostitution because I’ve been on public relief since I had my child.” See p. 239.] Here is what she actually says: “. . . my understanding of the basic decency inherent to legislation like this would have prevailed over my worries and fears. When I was ‘on the game’ I would have known it was the right thing for the government to do.” Well, how does the “right thing” feed her child? Either there are “viable options” to prostitution, and the government’s doing the “right thing” works no great hardship; or there aren’t options and the government’s doing the “right thing” further immiserates working prostitutes. Moran just steps around the question about the effect on livelihood.

Incidentally, Moran’s defense of the Swedish policy leaves something missing. The criminalization of the purchase of sex is supposed to “eradicate” prostitution (p. 210), and Moran points to a report that says “street prostitution has been halved” in Sweden. Then she offers this rebuttal to those who say Swedish law just drives prostitution indoors: “the rises [in Sweden] in online advertising for prostitution services since 1999 are in line with other countries and are attributable to the same technological advances seen everywhere else” (p. 216). Well, online advertising of prostitutes has mushroomed elsewhere in the last decade, so if we are seeing the same rise in Sweden, eradication hardly seems in the offing.

While I’m dwelling on the Nordic model, here’s a question Moran needs to answer clearly. If there is a single idea that trails through Paid For, page after page, it is shame. Shame, social stigma, ostracism; the need to live in secrecy because of the humiliation society heaps on the head of the prostitute. Here, then, is the question: how does the Nordic model whisk away this stigma? How does it erase the shame?

In Sweden, prostitutes are still working. In Ireland, if the TORL campaign succeeds, does Moran think most prostitutes there will retire from the game? No they won’t, and those who persist will labor under a double-load of shame: the standard shaming that emanates from a Catholic, moralistic culture (a shaming Moran does so well to delineate), and additionally the shaming heaped on them by their “abolitionist” sisters, who tag them as victims. Under the Nordic model they will not only be whoring but degrading womankind as well, colluding with men in their own debasement. The 2010 Swedish government report “evaluating” the success of its sex purchase ban observed that increased stigmatization of prostitutes was a positive side-effect of the law.

Let me turn to some other points. First, Moran is dismissive, contemptuous, even “nauseated” (p. 158) by arguments and claims that run counter to her own. Her experience is normative; her “researches” definitive. Contrapose her attitude to this advice by another supporter of the Nordic model:

For now, I would urge people to read far and wide about prostitution, always with a questioning mind. Do not accept arguments without finding out the counter argument. Do not only read from one source. Then you can make up your own mind.

In the Booth with Ruth – Nicole Rowe, Feminist, Anti Sex-Trade Activist and Co-Founder of Nordic Model Advocates (NorMAs)

Moran’s diatribe fails every one of these recommendations. Look at the “research” sources from which she draws: Julie Bindel (p. 81), Sheila Jeffreys (pp. 101, 208, 274), Kathleen Barry (pp. 114, 208), Melissa Farley (pp. 123, 167, 169), Ruhama (pp. 131, 138, 151, 224, 252), Andrea Dworkin (p. 192), Janice Raymond (pp. 193, 214, 223), Vednita Carter (p. 227). This is like writing an essay on the iniquities of capitalism and citing only well-known Leninists as your authorities. It’s like writing a brief against feminism and quoting only Phyllis Schlafly, Midge Decter, Christina Hoff Summers, and Camile Paglia. It’s like writing an essay on the benefits of pornography and citing only Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and Bob Guccione. Nicole Rowe’s injunction, “Do not read from only one source,” is utterly essential. And there is a vast library out there – not only of academic studies but of memoirs and self-reports of sex workers. Moran has read some of the self-reports; if they are not negative like her own report, they are evidence to her that the writer is in denial (p. 152). Otherwise she is ignorant of the literature that points away from her views or is not interested in it.

A further point. In Holmquist’s second article she lets loose a self-serving fancy deployed by abolitionists, namely that prostitutes who don’t quit are self-deceived. Here is Holmquist paraphrasing an abolitionist:

This ‘false consciousness’ is a state in which a woman being prostituted denies and disassociates from the psychological reality of her situation in order to survive. Sarah Benson, of Ruhama [an Irish Catholic NGO dedicated to saving prostitutes], says that it is only after these women have left prostitution that their consciousness changes [and they can see the truth of their lives].

Rachel Moran buys into Ruhama’s line; she devotes an entire chapter to it, “Dissociation and the Separation of Self.” There really is something called “dissociative identity disorder.” Its symptoms, identification, and causes are spelled out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DMS), published by the American Psychiatric Association, which Irish clinicians use. What Moran and Ruhama describe as “dissociation,” though, is a far cry from the actual medical disorder. What they offer up is a lot of garden-variety arm-chair psychologizing (prostitutes are in denial, they numb themselves, they mentally remove themselves from the sex they are having, etc.). But I am most interested in focusing on how intellectually slippery this way of thinking can be.

There are certain kinds of schemas (“mental maps”) that are called “entrapping.” Schemas of this sort have this feature: they turn everything into evidence “for.” An example is “witch.” Let’s suppose in 16th century New England a woman is accused of being a witch. Now, if she admits to being a witch, that’s evidence she is one. If she denies being a witch, that too is evidence she is one! After all, that’s just what a witch would do.

Or take another example from more recent American history. After Pearl Harbor, Americans were concerned that Japanese living on the West Coast might engage in devious, subversive activity. No subversive activity actually took place. That was a cause for worry! Earl Warren, who was then governor of California, testified before Congress about whether Japanese-Americans constituted a threat to the government: “I take the view that this [lack of subversive activity] is the most ominous sign in our whole situation. It convinces me more than perhaps any other factor that the sabotage we are to get . . . [will be] timed just like Pearl Harbor was timed . . . .” In other words, the Japanese actually blowing up things in California would show they were sneaky saboteurs. And if they didn’t blow up stuff? That too would show they were sneaky saboteurs. As a result of this kind of reasoning, Americans interned all the Japanese on the West Coast.

“Prostitution is soul-killing.” Evidence? Some ex-prostitutes say so. What if working prostitutes say differently? Ruhama: They are in denial, so what they say simply confirms how soul-killing prostitution is.

In applying an entrapping schema like “sneaky,” “liar,” “self-deceived,” “in denial,” you can make your position impregnable: everything will count as evidence for it. Nothing will falsify it. I oversimplify here, of course, but do so to point up the peril in the kind of arm-chair psychology favored by Ruhama and Moran. There’s an especially poignant moment in Paid For when Moran’s sister agrees with Moran’s brief against legalizing prostitution. “I was so relieved to hear her say that,” Moran writes. “There was the sense of being heard, of being seen, of being suddenly listened to in that moment.” The joy of being listened to. Neither Moran nor Ruhama have ears for actual working prostitutes. Moran explicitly warns: “there is a problem with that”—with listening to what prostitutes have to say. The problem? They disagree with us ex-prostitutes (pp. 214-215). The solution: dismiss them as dissociated personalities. Don’t give them the joy of being listened to.

Moran is as artful at leaving out things as she is in weaving a story of her experiences. For example, her very first act of prostitution involved masturbating a man, something “so disgusting as to be scarcely bearable” (p. 48) This is a pretty extreme reaction to a hand job on an old man. We are told nothing directly about Moran’s sexual relationship with her boyfriend, whether she masturbated him a lot or never, what the sexual tone of their relationship was. This is a considerable omission. Nevertheless, there are clues dropped here and there throughout Paid For that paint of picture of Moran’s deep particularity, not her universality.

Item one. On pp. 103-104, Moran tells a story of her childhood. When she was nine years old, a drunken man on the footpath leaned toward her and said “I’d love to take you to bed.” Her reaction: “I felt violated and repulsed . . . what stays with me to this moment with thought-defining clarity is the overwhelming sense of the wrongness to what he was suggesting.” Moran goes on to use her “immediate instinctual understanding” in that moment to buttress her musings on the “unnaturalness” and “perversion” and “thrill of violation” that marks so many men. I can imagine other nine-year old girls, though, having quite different responses. For example, one might give the middle finger to the drunk, move on, and think little more about it. Another pair of girls might run off giggling about their encounter with the “dirty old man”—they’d heard of dirty old men and now they’d actually seen one! Something to tell their girlfriends! I can imagine a whole range of responses from transitory disgust to annoyance to fright to laughter to many other reactive states. I do not think every nine-year old girl would feel violated or feel a soul-freezing sense of wrongness that stayed in her memory for twenty years.

Item two. On p. 118- Moran refers to her physical privacy and “natural modesty” being “obliterated” by her prostitution.

Item three. On p. 49, in describing her first act of prostitution, Moran expresses a “loss of something pure.”

Item four. Apart from the encounter with the drunken man, Moran tells us nothing about her sex life before she got into that car on her first night on Benburb Street, tells us nothing, that is, until p. 272:

I was, in my pre-prostitution life, always the girl who pushed the boy’s hand away. Refused to go up the laneway, or when cajoled into it, kissed tentatively and shook with shock when he moved his hand to my breast; to let him go lower than that was unthinkable.

This is another clue about Moran’s sexual nature (her “natural modesty”), though a sparse one. What age was she when she shook with shock at the hand on her breast? Twelve? Thirteen? Fourteen? Again, the absence of any real account of her relationship with the boyfriend she called her lover really stands out. Did he never touch her breast? Did his hand never go lower? Did they have any sex at all? (The answer evidently is yes: on p. 163, she remarks that she hadn’t seen him for a while and missed the intimacy. But the nature of their sexual relationship remains obscure; and on p. 28, she refers to herself as sexually inexperienced when she began prostitution.)

The little clues point to someone very uptight about sex. That’s not a criticism, it’s an observation. Maybe every girl at fourteen/fifteen ought to feel shock at a boy’s hand on her breast and determine never to let the hand go lower. The point is, not every fourteen/fifteen year old girl does respond this way. Sexual experience and taste vary enormously in adolescent girls. What I do not find credible is this: that Rachel Moran’s sexual nature and sexual experiences were not those of a particular girl in a particular time and place with particular consequences but rather the universal experience of Everywoman and thus the indisputable window into the experience of the Universal Prostitute.


Sarah Marshall  is glad that Moran addresses prostitution in moral terms. By all means, let’s have a conversation about prostitution and morality. Such a conversation, however, needs to include moral arguments, not just moral assertions. Marshall is less demanding. She seems content to let the force and intensity of Moran’s convictions carry the day. Moran’s sense of depravity is so powerful that it must reflect reality.

Marshall writes:

She [Moran] speaks only for herself, and in allowing the reader the astonishing gift of seeing the unvarnished truth of her experience, she lets them inhabit her story completely.

On the contrary, Moran does not speak only for herself. She claims over and over to speak as the authentic voice of the prostitution experience. Nor does Moran let the reader simply “inhabit” her story; in chapter after didactic chapter she guides and prods and pushes; the proper conclusions are explicitly laid out.

[All the page citations are to Rachel Moran, Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2013)]

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