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20 / 09 / 2013
The following is an excerpt from chapter 7 of Rachel Moran’s Paid For, a memoir of the author’s harrowing years as a young teenage prostitute in Ireland, recently published by Australia’s Spinifex Press. Rachel Moran grew up in severe poverty. Taken into state care at fourteen, she became homeless and was in prostitution by the age of fifteen. Rachel Moran’s experience was one of violence, loneliness, and relentless exploitation and abuse. At the age of 22 she managed, with remarkable strength, to take steps to liberate herself from that life. To purchase the book, visit the Spinifex Press website.
“Almost anything is easier to get into than to get out of”
– Agnes Allen
However much you try to adapt to your new life (or new ‘skin’ as it feels to you), some incident will occur to shock you into realising how very much things have changed. I was standing on Benburb Street just weeks after I’d started working as a prostitute when a group of about five or six girls walked by wearing the green uniform of my old secondary school. It was the same school I had attended before having been expelled nearly a year before and is situated less than ten minutes’ walk from Benburb Street.
It was September and the new school term had just begun; so I hadn’t seen that sight before, at least not from this vantage point. I stared at them walking by, with a sense of wonderment mixed with a melancholy that had no power of expression I am aware of in the English language, and I felt like those months had been aeons and those girls like ghosts I was seeing from another time.
Was it me that had changed? Or had the whole world changed around me? At fifteen, I felt like it had. Of course today I know that it was I who had changed and because of that my perceptions had altered also.
A year later I would stand on a corner of Waterloo Road, which was heavily lined with trees, and be reminded of the North Circular Road, which was densely tree lined also and which I had walked twice a day on my way to and from primary school. I would kick those leaves and wonder why they didn’t make the same sound as the ones I had kicked on my way to school. And why, when it had been raining, they didn’t smell the same, and though of course they did, there was something altered in the essence of that smell: it had lost its innocence.
The truth is the leaves on the ground of a prostitute’s patch are not the same as the leaves on the path she walked to school because she perceives them differently, and there is a very acute sense of their being changed. They don’t look the same. They don’t smell the same. They don’t sound the same when you step on them.
For me, their magic was gone and they were just musky-smelling leaves, sodden and rotting on the ground. I often felt like everything around me had altered but in small flashes of lucidity I would realize that the world was still the same, it was just me who was different; contaminated. I realised then that the leaves weren’t beautiful any more, because I was looking at them through different eyes.
When those moments of clarity came I would feel that all of nature and literature and everything I had loved before I’d become a prostitute was still there and still the same, but not open to me any more because I was different now, and those thoughts were even more hurtful, even more devastating than the notion that all about me was changed and gone. These feelings were omnipresent, but they operated like a tide, sometimes forcefully roaring and sometimes receding to the point where they were but a gentle whispering reminder that something was wrong.
I would walk home from the red-light district along the canal-side in the early hours of the morning and the water was like black ink shot through with little flashes of light. The street lamps were not harsh; they burned a soft, warm amber, and the trees that lined the canal were silhouetted against deep-navy night skies. I wanted to love that walk, and some part of me did, but it was in a very sad way, because the scene emitted a peace that I was excluded from. I felt estranged, lost . . . utterly forgotten.
Some days I still sought refuge in the literature I loved and in long walks in parkland and then something would change with a soundless click and I would be cut off again from any sense of belonging to the world. In my earlier years in prostitution, I could connect best to who I was and what I enjoyed when I was alone.
I did rail against the oppressive nature of prostitution; I think we all did to some degree. You’d carry your secret around with you, day in, day out, when in ‘respectable’ society and you would try to integrate yourself into it just for the day, or perhaps the afternoon. But though nobody else would know about it you always would. Sometimes the veneer would crack. This would happen, for instance, when you came eye to eye with another prostitute in public. If you didn’t know her personally and she was in company, you would just look away, an unwritten but much understood rule of etiquette among prostituted women. If she was alone and you didn’t know her personally, you would recognise one another with nods that would be barely discernible to an observer and continue on your way. If you did know her and you both got on well, the likeliest outcome would be a day spent laughing and drinking away yesterday’s earnings.
The thing that filled me with such panic, whenever I allowed myself to think about it, was that I could see no way out. I could see no end to this, but equally, I knew there’d have to either be an end to it or an end to me, because I could not live this way forever. I had begun smoking cannabis at fourteen in my first hostel and I used that and other substances to hide from the reality I could find no way to escape from; and so I numbed myself, as I submerged in prostitution.
I say ‘submerged’ in prostitution because you are wholly immersed in it to the point where you feel that it is the only avenue of life open to you. I know in my heart, though I haven’t experienced them all, that this is true of all obviously illicit ways of earning a living. How likely is it that the bank-robber will wake up one morning and suddenly decide to strive for a life of social normalcy? And how alien a concept would this surely feel to him? The society he would be attempting to integrate himself into does, after all, include banks! Illicit ways of making money will always set those involved in opposition to both acceptable society and those who inhabit it. There are two different and distinct spheres of life in this world; they are the socially acceptable and the socially unacceptable, and you need to have occupied the latter before you can fully appreciate the depth of the distinction between the two. They are so vastly far apart, these two different worlds that occupy the same space.
Another of the features of submerging in prostitution is to experience a lack of self-worth, because of your position in the world. None of us are built or equipped to feel cheerful whilst we accept banishment and shunning from the rest of society.
The standards of life which we all desire, that of being happy, fulfilled and content, begin to slip away from the woman in prostitution because she does not experience these for herself or see them evidenced in the lives of the women around her. When something is less attainable it is less often reached for. I got to the point early on in prostitution where I saw being happy as simply unrealistic, and I was right. I didn’t know any women who were happy in prostitution and I didn’t meet any in later years either. There are no ‘happy hookers’ in my experience.
Submerging in prostitution, for me, involved having my life narrowed down so that everything came back to prostitution, which was by then the central point. It seemed to invade and pervade everything. It dictated my sleeping habits, the clothes I bought, the conversations I had, the things I did not do as much as the things I did.
I measured out time not in hours or minutes of the day, but counting down the hours until work: five hours until work, four hours, three— and I would feel the same sickening shudder, intensifying the closer it got to the time to sell myself. When I was on Waterloo Road, the time I’d go down to the street would depend on the time of year, because the punters came out as soon as it got dark. That meant that in summer I could still be working at four o’clock in the morning and I would have my body used by between around six and twelve men. Sometimes I thought, ‘What if this is all there is, forever?’ When that thought surfaced my heart hammered against my ribs. It felt like a bird against the walls of a room it’s flown into by mistake; demented in equal measure by the fear of what enclosed it and the desperation to escape.
I first heard the term ‘child prostitute’ long after I had begun working as one myself, and it is not a way that would ever have occurred to me to describe myself in my early teens. I had no problem identifying with the ‘prostitute’ part of the term; I knew what I was doing and what it made me, but I never felt like a child at that time. I had always felt older than my years and by the time I was fifteen, I was a young woman in my own mind. It is only now, as the mother of a child older than I was then, that I can see how young I really was.
I told all of the men I met my age at that time. I did this for a reason: because it had the almost universal effect of causing them to become very aroused and to climax easily, which was good news for me because it meant that the experience was over with quickly. There was one man though, who didn’t take the bait. Paradoxically, he drove a large white van; the vehicle recognised amongst street prostitutes as the transport of choice of violent perverts. Nonetheless, when I told him I was fifteen, he turned his van around pronto and brought me back where he’d found me, arguing all the way that he didn’t want to leave me there, I should be at home or in school, and was there nowhere else he could drop me? Thousands of men’s faces have merged into a featureless nothingness, but I have never forgotten his. I wonder could he ever know what it meant, what it cost, when he picked me up the following year.
Rachel Moran grew up in North Dublin city. From a troubled family background, she was fourteen when she was taken into state care. She became homeless and got involved in prostitution at aged fifteen, working in Dublin and other Irish cities for the following seven years.
At 24, she got on the path to further education, gaining a degree in journalism from Dublin City University, where she won the Hybrid Award for excellence in journalism.
She speaks internationally on prostitution and sex-trafficking and volunteers to talk to young girls in residential care about the harms and dangers in prostitution. She lives in North Dublin.