Night Shifts Newsletter No. 16

Should the commercialization of sex ever be legal?

Rachel Moran unequivocally answers that question in the negative. A survivor of seven years of prostitution – which she prefers over “sex work” because the experience was more about being abused and raped repeatedly that having sex or working – she became instrumental in bringing the Abolitionist (Nordic) Model to Ireland. Today, Moran serves as the Director of International Policy and Advocacy for the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation, a division of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) in Ireland.

During the 1990s, she grew up on the north side of Dublin, an inner city area she describes as “a typically deprived collection of neighborhoods in a city that’s pretty notorious for its intergenerational deprivation.” She labels her family history as “a very troubled one.” There was poverty. There was mental illness. There was addiction. 

After her father committed suicide and her mother struggled with mental illness, Moran was placed in the care of the state at age 14. Less than a year later, left with an absence of a stable, loving home, education, employable skills – meaning no real choices – she leveraged the one thing she had, her body. A young man she met advised her to prostitute herself because, as “fresh meat,” she was a commodity in high demand.

When we spoke in April, Moran recalled the convergence of circumstances that determined her fate, ironically at a time when an economic boom lifted Ireland, but impoverished inner city neighborhoods like hers were left behind.

“Those things came together to create a situation where the children in the family were just simply thrown into situations of vulnerability,” Moran says. “What I saw everywhere when I worked in the sex trade, which I got into at 15, street-based prostitution, was very much a class issue.”

The girls and women she met during that time were exclusively from destitute homes with additional layers plastered over their financial deficiencies.

“It’s very rare that you will meet in prostitution, in my experience, a woman who’s simply there because she’s broke,” Moran says. “There were additional factors in just about every case I’ve ever come across. You’re talking about multi-layered vulnerabilities, which is exactly why I get so annoyed when I listen to people talking about this issue in terms of sex workers’ rights, as if what was happening to us was a mater of sex work to begin with, which it wasn’t.”

Moran spent about 4 and a half years doing on-the-street prostitution. Because of the country’s economic boom, the sex trade in Ireland then changed rapidly, she told me, from on-street to off-street. In addition to the economic boom, there was also a legislative shift. The Sexual Offenses Act of 1993 stated that street prostitution meant the women were all being molested on the streets and would be arrested. The massage parlor component of prostitution evolved into an escorting scene, which was new in Ireland at the time.

“That hadn’t been the case before,” she says. “So we didn’t go indoors willingly; we went indoors to escape arrest, and that put us at the mercy of the pimps.” 

Moran worked as a prostitute from the time she was 15 until she was 22. In that time, because of her changing experiences as a prostitute, she saw the sex trade from several different perspectives.

“I just don’t buy into the fantasy of prostitution that so many people buy into and regurgitate,” Moran says. “I would never think to call prostitution ‘sex work,’ and even the women that I know or knew back then, it’s fairly laughable to be reading these words in social media posts or articles when we know they are not terms that we would ever have used to describe our experiences.” 

I asked her if prostitution was entirely oppressive for her the whole time she had to do it. 

“Well, if you can imagine having zero say in who gets to use your body, your body being as open to the public as any bus or train station, your family being taken away from you to the point where you were just a vessel for public consumption, that’s what prostitution actually is,” she responds. “Most people who haven’t lived it can’t bring themselves to understand it even at a basic, conceptual level, and that’s exactly why the conversations are so consistently frustrating.”

In the summer of 1998, she had been battling a cocaine addiction for several years, which had reached “fever pitch” levels by the time she was in her late teens. By the time she was 22, she was physically collapsing from the intensity of the addiction; she could no longer tolerate the amount of drugs running through her system. 

“Physically I couldn’t take it anymore, and I knew that I was in a now-or-never situation because of that,” she remembers. “Also because I had a son who was four and a half at the time and was due to start school that September. So I got out of prostitution in early August of 1998, it really was a last chance for me.”

At that time, she did not know of any person or organization who could help her, so she made a difficult decision. “I knew I just had to remove myself physically,” she says. “I had to get away from the people I was surrounded by.” 

She was able to break free from her addiction, regain her life and work while raising her son. She later completed her education and received a degree in Journalism from Dublin City University and a Masters in Creative Writing from University College Dublin.

In 2015, she published her memoir PAID FOR: My Journey Through Prostitution (W.W. Norton & Company). The book has received universal acclaim as one of the most authentic and insightful chronicles of a life of prostitution.

After the book was published, Moran also wrote about the horrific experience that followed her separation from her family in an August 2015 Op-Ed piece, “Buying Sex Should Not Be Legal,” in The New York Times: 

For seven years, I was bought and sold. On the streets, that could be 10 times in a night. It’s hard to describe the full effect of the psychological coercion, and how deeply it eroded my confidence. By my late teens, I was using cocaine to dull the pain.

I cringe when I hear the words “sex work.” Selling my body wasn’t a livelihood. There was no resemblance to ordinary employment in the ritual degradation of strangers’ using my body to satiate their urges. I was doubly exploited — by those who pimped me and those who bought me.

Moran goes on in the article to detail all of the reasons she is against decriminalizing sex work:

I know there are some advocates who argue that women in prostitution sell sex as consenting adults. But those who do are a relatively privileged minority — primarily white, middle-class, Western women in escort agencies — not remotely representative of the global majority. Their right to sell doesn’t trump my right and others’ not to be sold in a trade that preys on women already marginalized by class and race.

The effort to decriminalize the sex trade worldwide is not a progressive movement. Implementing this policy will simply calcify into law men’s entitlement to buy sex, while decriminalizing pimping will protect no one but the pimps.

Of course, another situation she has seen in Ireland because of the economic boom and globalization is the influx of immigrants to her country. So not only do Irish women of little means find themselves vulnerable to prostitution, but also women who have migrated there alone or with their families for work or for survival.

“Often times they won’t have a word of English,” she says. “We are expected to believe that they are sex workers and call themselves sex workers when they wouldn’t even have the language to describe themselves as sex workers, which adds to the absurdity. In many cases, they are trafficked from impoverished regions of the world whether it be Eastern Europe or South America or Africa, etc.”

For Moran, prostitution is almost never a free and easy preference, but one a woman is usually driven to by circumstances like her own. The involvement of a third party, then, is a matter of convenience to facilitate survival.

“When we talk about trafficking, we’re talking about force, fraud or coercion,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, every single transaction in the sex trade is a matter of coercion. The women are there because they don’t have other viable choices in the vast majority of circumstances, and I see prostitution as coercion in and of itself. I see the cash as the coercive force.”