Having survived prostitution in her late teens, Diane has spent the last 18 years supporting women to exit prostitution. In 2013 Diane was awarded a CBE for services to vulnerable women in prostitution.
How did you become involved in prostitution?
My experiences of prostitution began over 30 years ago, and included the supposed ‘high end’ of prostitution in London and being trafficked from this country to a prostitution ring in another. For the past 18 years I’ve been supporting women to exit street based prostitution.
I arrived in London in my late teens to find myself greatly misled about the circumstances I was coming to. Soon the money ran out and the pressure began; my new ‘friends’ were now less friendly. I soon learned that the women around me hadn’t acquired their Chelsea flats through modelling. I ended up way out of my depth and surrounded by older people who realised they could make a lot of money out of me; not just Madam’s taking a cut, but people pretending to be my friends who recognised my vulnerability and chose instead to cultivate controlling relationships with me.
It’s sad that someone saw a need in me, and it was an expressed need; I had said that I had always wanted a big sister, one woman went about meeting that need and using that as a way to exert control. I was always trying to make it ok. I thought if I can just ‘make it even’ then I can get a normal job and not have to do this anymore. It was never going to be even, it was never going to be ok. In the end I was financially supporting her, her boyfriend and their cocaine and heroin use. Control doesn’t happen overnight, grooming is a process.
I went from being a happy trusting girl to finding myself standing in a penthouse being looked over by a Madam. It was like watching it happen in slow motion to someone else. It was difficult, both then and after, to understand how I could be confident, with a strong sense of self, and yet be so passive in this situation. I believe being sexually abused in hospital by a doctor when I was 12 years old was relevant. In that hospital, despite feeling furious, I didn’t have the physical strength to move or the ability to get out the screaming ‘NO’ inside my head. Those same emotions – feeling confused, overwhelmed and out of my depth – were present again and I responded in the same passive, silenced way. I believe that experience primed me; an added vulnerability to the circumstances of age and coercion that I didn’t have the ability to manage
Suddenly, I’m in a designer evening gown at 5.00pm in the middle of Mayfair asking a Policeman for directions to the address I’d been given; willing him to see my predicament, to ask if I needed help. I had only ever had one boyfriend and I didn’t want to be there. It was like being out of my body, watching someone else. Unfortunately what was to come was not going to be an out of body experience.
What was the daily experience of being in prostitution like?
I remember the constant stress, anxiety and feelings of dread whilst being in prostitution. I used to unplug the phone just enough so that it wouldn’t ring but that it would appear connected. I’d feel so relieved that a job couldn’t come through but highly anxious that those around me would figure out what I’d done and would make me pay.
For over a year after exiting I’d still jump out of my skin when the phone rang. That one sound setting off a trajectory of events: being given an address, a time, a black cab, going to a stranger’s house or a hotel and not knowing what was going to happen. The feelings of stress walking through a door and wondering what state I’d be coming out in. Waiting to be picked, like something off a shelf. The observing, the dissecting, being the commodity everyone in the room knew you to be. For the men, prostitution is like renting a film with the power to write the entire script. They’re the director, they’re the star, you are the prop.
The pretending and feeling constantly on guard was exhausting. Everyone wanted something from me and I was isolated so that if I did manage to make a friend outside of this and they phoned, they were told I didn’t live there anymore, so I gave up trying.
I ended up being sent overseas as part of an organised prostitution ring that was sanctioned by authorities. One night the head of security at a hotel shows me his gun, tells me he used to be a mercenary and that he liked it and asks me if my mum knows where I am. She doesn’t and I’m very far from home, from her. He says he’s going to have a ‘freebie’. This is his terminology for rape. I don’t struggle, I even smile and pretend not to care. This event took me years to get over; I understood in my head that I was surviving but I felt such a sense of self betrayal I because I wanted to fight back.
When the people paying you for sex are famous, in government, civil servants, members of other countries’ governments or have diplomatic immunity, you don’t have any confidence that you would be believed or protected if you reported violence or rape. Unfortunately, the best education and opportunities didn’t preclude them from degrading and violent behaviour. The sense of entitlement some men believe they have around what paying affords them crosses every section of society. The better wallpaper and a mini-bar doesn’t dilute what it feels like when someone has a gun and asks if you want to see your mum again. Being in a penthouse suite doesn’t soften the blow of rape or of having someone leave bite marks all over your face.
If prostitution is so empowering and a job like any other why does everybody have a fake name. I initially thought it was about hiding from the police, but it’s the beginning of protecting your real identity, a way to try and separate yourself from the abuse of prostitution, psychological safe guarding. It’s no coincidence that everyone seems to know to do this. You then need to find a way to cope by mentally switching off from what you are experiencing in the moment. The narrative in your head is worlds apart from the fantasy the man has constructed for his own benefit. I’m a qualified counsellor but I knew what dissociation and splitting was before I ever read about them in a book. This says to me that prostitution is inherently harmful.
However, this coping strategy has limited success because the evidence of what is happening to you is overwhelming. It’s a sticking plaster on an open wound and damaging in the long term. It is not psychologically helpful to split off from parts of yourself; to be whole is to have an integrated self, an authentic self. Prostitution provides the opposite experience. Why is it that prostituted women all over the world employ the same psychological coping strategies of victims of sexual abuse and torture. Because sexual abuse is what is happening; but we’re supposed to believe that because money has changed hands or a place to stay or food, what is happening is now magically something else.
How and why did you decide to exit the prostitution trade?
I never wanted to be involved in the first place and was always looking for a way out. I was always scanning people faces hoping they might see behind the facade of what was presented, but nobody wanted to see, nobody wanted to know that I didn’t want to be there because what would that say about them? They would have to then be confronted with the reality of what they were involved in, instead of the fantasy that everyone is determined to uphold because there’s just too much money being made by the prostitution industry.
After a month in the country I’d been sent to I managed to get away and get myself to the airport where I was hidden and helped to get out of the country by airport security with knowledge of what was going on. I stayed at the London house of a woman still out there, with her boyfriend and young child. I said I couldn’t do this anymore and they said I could look after the child. They then left the country, leaving me with a 7 year old and no money and in desperation I had to accept the calls from punters that would ring for her. In the end I started having panic attacks and then lost the ability to speak, I had to write notes to communicate. I remember feeling like I didn’t want anyone to have my words, like it was a part of myself I could retain. I also think I was having a nervous breakdown.
It was in that state that I had an epiphany; a moment of such clarity about the lifeless existence I was existing in, that I felt able to ask my mum for the bus fare back to Scotland. I didn’t see anyone for months and wrote down everything that had happened and then destroyed it. That was the beginning of a way back.
How does the experience of the prostitution trade affect your life now?
In terms of how prostitution affects my life now, I probably won’t ever know all the answers to that. Every now and again something catches me out and it can be something quite abstract that taps in to a feeling or a memory. I carry an awareness of the physical strength of men that I can sometimes find frightening. It’s hard to explain; I’ve not encountered triggers literally, in terms of actual men, it’s usually been something abstract; a sentence in a novel, an art installation, a scene in a film that has tapped into a mind or body memory, a fear of being pinned down and knowing I can’t do anything about it.
What my experience does do is provide the fuel to keep going because it still exists and is still harming people. I can take those experiences and transform them into a response that reaches out to other women as well as challenging an industry that exploits. I had a childhood of being loved, encouraged and looked after. I knew what life could be like and I could imagine myself there again. The vast majority of women I’ve supported have not had that start. With no horizon, no frame of reference for the possibility of a different future they were basically fast tracked into prostitution by people who capitalized on beginnings that provided little sense of self-worth, confidence or hope that there was a place for them in the world. That affects me greatly and I want them to know there are people who have not forgotten them, that understand what they are going through and who want to come alongside and support them in the areas they identify wanting help with.
I don’t mean this in a martyrish way, I mean it in a transformative way for my own healing, for that girl I was; looking for someone to notice what was happening, for the women and girls still there and as a response to the many lies of prostitution by telling the truth. Some will say, well that’s only your truth and they are absolutely right; but why do so many aspects of it also seem to be the same truth for thousands of others, even on a global level?
I talk about my experience to challenge the hierarchy of the worthy victim or the prevailing narrative that says location, location, location makes all the difference. We need to dismantle the mythical barriers raised in an attempt to separate different areas of prostitution as a way to classify some of them as safe and empowering.
It’s a lie that it’s dangerous over there, but safe and empowering over here.
We know the power of language, of words and of calling things what they are. Sometimes it can be really hard to do. Until I was in my 30’s I used to say – ‘that thing that happened with the doctor’. Then one day in counselling, I’d had to keep a diary and I looked at my words and said ‘That was sexual abuse wasn’t it.’ I was finally able to use the right words and with the sex industry we need to do the same. If we pull back the curtain, there is no wonderful wizard, just a well-oiled machine chewing people up and spitting them out. If we don’t name things properly, they get distorted and we say ‘sex work’, ‘client’ and ‘manager’ and we allow a platform for abusers to discuss their mindset and their rights.
Prostitution as an exploitative industry continues to affect my life in that my work is specifically focussed on improving support services for women involved, challenging the existence of the industry and seeking to create spaces where those of us who have exited can have a voice that speaks into policy and practice. The stories and experiences of the women I work with affect me very much, I would be horrified if they didn’t. It is my choice and privilege to be involved in the way that I am.
Why do you want to see the Sex Buyer Law introduced in the UK?
I want to see the Sex Buyer Law introduced in the UK because it is the demand that fuels the exploitation that is the sex industry. I want to be part of a society that rejects the idea that people are for sale, commodities to be bought and sold, handed around, moved across cities and borders, branded even – by men who believe that this is their right and entitlement.
I want it to be near impossible for organised crime, pimps and punters to operate here and if they do, to face the consequences. And I want the UK to be part of a bigger picture that sees this model adopted globally. The opponents of the sex buyers law wrongly attribute violence and murder to the Nordic model, even using the language of equality and human rights to try and make the case. Or it’s stigma that’s the real villain. We’re told the model makes women less safe with no time to assess men. I never got to assess anybody, I was the one assessed.
You could be a combination of Mystic Meg and DCI Jane Tennyson and still not screen out the danger. On the street your gut instinct might have a chance of picking up on something, but you might also need a fix, have someone waiting for the money, or your guard might be down because he’s a regular, a nice guy. Some of the nice guys have gone on to rape and murder.
In terms of empowerment, the real stories of empowerment that I hear in relation to prostitution are from the women who have exited; working in organisations supporting other women, becoming drug and alcohol workers, housing workers, managing a residential home for troubled young people, starting their own project for women involved in prostitution, becoming artists, being poets, experiencing physical and emotional healing, re-connecting with their families, having families, just navigating a journey to wholeness, the bravery that takes.
These are all women who had very limited educations and lengthy criminal records. We have the knowledge and expertise to support women to exit prostitution and the projects that are doing this in a non judgemental, gender specific and holistic way need the continued resources to do this. Implementation will require a common sense understanding that that people will not be able to just exit and turn things around as soon as there is a law change, but with continued and ongoing support women will be able to build the lives they want for themselves and their families.
What’s your view of current public attitudes towards prostitution?
Of course there is a range of opinions and a range of myths about prostitution. We need to ask ourselves – what are the sources of our information and do they have a vested interest in the sex industry? There is such a push from the industry to say that prostitution is a job like any other and all we have to do is improve conditions. It’s rubbish. You can’t make it safe.
I think sometimes the general public are often well meaning when they say we should legalise prostitution because they have been told that it will make women safer, but what they have been told is a lie. The more the public understand the realities of prostitution for all women involved, on street, trafficked, in a brothel or a five star hotel then they will also see the reality of the abuse of power, exploitation, control, gender inequality and harm that prostitution is for all of us.
There can also be the accusation that we are coming from a ‘moral’ position, well I hope so. But if we are taking a moral position; it’s not a morality about sex, it’s a morality about power; and why would we not want to say that sexual exploitation, abuse of power and gender inequality is wrong.
I suppose the myth I find most horrifying is the statement that ‘it will always be with us’ – that apathetic inevitability of sexual exploitation and the commodification of women’s bodies for all time. Imagine if we applied that to slavery or child sexual abuse…well it will always be with us so let’s just make sure we have good medical care available to patch them up. No, we can’t and won’t accept this.
People are rightly horrified by the stories coming out of Rotherham. Well, hundred’s of my clients were just like those girls and nothing magically happened while they slept on the night of their 17th birthday. They didn’t wake up to empowerment and a job like any other, they woke up to the same abuse and psychological distress, they woke up to Ground-hog Day and we have a duty of care. But more than that, we have a mandate as human beings not to leave our sisters out there. These same women are of course part of that public of which we speak and they overwhelmingly describe prostitution as violent and exploitative; everyone I have ever met wanted to get out and it has been a privilege to see many truly empowered to exit and rebuild their lives.
Thankfully, the public is also made up of all of the front-line workers across primary care, mental health and the criminal justice system who see these realities on a daily basis and are under no illusion of the very real harm prostitution brings, including a risk of death 18 times higher than the national average.
We hear an awful lot about choice in terms of this issue. With this campaign we have the choice to be on the side of the exploited or the exploiters. We need the people who are willing to stand up and call out the prostitution industry for what is. We have the benefit of being on the right side.