Hi, my name is Mia et je pense donc je suis, for I will never deny where heroin and prostitution brought me. But I refuse to let it define who I am today. Because if it defines me, it becomes me, and it is not all I am.
My decision to enter prostitution seemed to me at the time quite a rational one. I had developed a heroin problem at the age of thirty-three, having never taken a drug in my life before. My girlfriend had an even bigger drug problem, my money was gone, crime was not an option. But I knew I had a valuable commodity, for I had a female body which I could sell. It wouldn’t be for long, just until she was sorted, I was sorted. But I had made that decision while addicted to a mind-altering substance, and you don’t make good decisions while trapped in addiction.
And so a paradox begins. People assume many views on the issue of choice but they forget two things: one, they presume that we see the world the same way as everybody else, which we don’t. And, two, your ability to see choices becomes extremely compromised by the effects of trauma and disconnection from society in general – and that’s if you ever had any choices to begin with. For me, as an addict, I was fortunate – an education, a work ethic, a basic sense of right and wrong – but obviously my life was not perfect. In fact, on examination of my life you will find that I had already ticked many of the pre-entry boxes into prostitution, although I would not have made those connections at the time.
And so the paradox begins. At first you believe you can be strong enough to cope. But what I didn’t realise when I walked out on the street that first night was that it would not only own me within a very short space of time but that it would take from me everything I thought I once was. Initially it does what it’s intended to do – it pays for your habit. But other things were happening that you’re not fully aware of at the time. I was now completely cut off from family, the shame was too much for them. I hadn’t a friend in the world that could maybe remind me of who I was. My only human contact became the men who bought me and the women who sold themselves beside me. That isolation is painful but the most dangerous thing for me was I had become comfortably numb and disconnected.
And then the inevitable happens: rape, sexual assault. For me it came in the form of a gang rape that lasted for what seemed like forever, and in many ways it will, for from that night on I no longer lived. I just existed in a world I could no longer comprehend, I could no longer make sense of. And the only reason I coped was through disassociation – a skill the mind can develop to deal with trauma. The young woman who was with me that night did not survive. Her drug use spiraled out of control and she died alone of an overdose about two months later. To many her death would be just another sad statistic but to me her life will always be of value.
My own heroin habit also increased. I went from smoking one bag a day to keep the physical withdrawals away, to two bags a day because I needed one every night I returned home in order to sleep. It wasn’t a case of getting stoned as I had a child to care for; more just a numbing effect. So I let my eyes water up but I’d never cry. I’d get angry but I’d never scream. Heroin is an expert at shutting down your feelings. So, now as stated, heroin becomes the lifeline to cope with being bought, where it began with selling yourself to cope with heroin. Welcome to the paradox that so very few of us escape from. I am one of the lucky few.
How the world looks to us
Most of us are all too aware that we have crossed a line and have become what many consider to be the lowest of the low, including ourselves. For the most part people are assured of their place in this world by the value and messages they receive from those around it.
I will now share with you just a small sample of the messages we receive:
There are occasional nights on the Burlington when young people, girls and boys, drive down to the street not to buy us but to throw eggs at us. This practice disturbed me deeply. On one such night, at first I avoided the eggs, hid behind the trees or turned my back. But then I stopped and naively thought that if I addressed these young people directly and asked them why, I could stop it. So when they did their u-turn and came up alongside me again, I stood still and faced them. I asked, “why do you do this, and what is it about me that repulses you so much?” My answer came loud and clear: they threw three eggs together, two of which hit me on the face. They shrieked with joy for our faces were their bulls-eye. But as they drove off in delight I stood there with the crap running down my face and I realised the answer: for what repulsed them about me was, in fact, everything. My dignity took a blow that night and there was very little of it left to begin with.
And then I was stripped of something I held dear – my sexuality. I had kept it hidden for a reason. But I was picked up one night and I was feeling quite agitated and I’m not sure why. The buyer was a smart-ass and the most annoying kind. He noticed I was wearing a wedding band and jokingly said, “So what does your husband think about your job? Ah he’s a lucky man, well looked after I’d say.” I snapped and said, “don’t be ridiculous I don’t have a husband, I’m gay”. And as soon as I said it I knew I was in trouble. Because prostitution is not about sex or exploring your sexuality, it’s about power and control. And I knew by the smile on his face I was going to pay a high price. I don’t know how many times I have heard in my adult life that all lesbians need is a good you know what. And this buyer now had one, he had full control over of the body a real life lesbian. This was a power trip he was going to make the most of and I knew it. But there was nothing I could do to stop it. After the humiliation was over, my skin crawled so much I thought I would pull it off. But I thought my mind was going to explode for I had lost something I had managed to keep protected, something I had fought to come to terms with, something I had come to accept and eventually was very proud of. My every being and everything I am was now totally owned by prostitution. It left me devastated and confused because I have now made myself completely untouchable and I would never be able to own the pride that was once mine.
I recall a conservation I had one night with one of my closest friends on the street. We had taken a break and were sitting on the steps of the first house on the Burlington Road. A car drove by and slowed down and the driver shouted in at us, “hey, you two, are you working?” My friend shouted back, “no, can’t you see we’re on a break?” He cursed at us and drove off. For a brief moment we both felt a sense of control. They don’t own us. Then my friend turned to me and said “hey, did you ever think that you’d end up here?” I looked up at her and asked if that was a serious question because I think you know the answer, but mores the question, do you think we’ll ever get away from here? She looked at me and said, “but Lucy, if I left here, who would I be?”
I looked at her. I couldn’t give my friend an answer to that question for I didn’t even know who I was now, never mind who we would be if we ever managed to escape this street. So I just said, “I don’t know honey”. She said, “yeah, let’s not depress ourselves thinking about it, do you want some speed? It’ll keep you warm and help your jaw stay open for the next one”, and I said yes. You see, some of us do know, we do question – but we can’t go there. It’s too painful. We have become trapped minds who live in bodies that no longer belong to us. How our trapped minds cope depends on a wide range of things, too complex to explain briefly here. You see, prostitution is like inception and it messes with your mind. I knew women who used their real names and would defend their position. To me this was frightening because it meant they had lost all realistic hope that this could change and had begun to find a sense of value in their own exploitation, contented acceptance, fuelled also by the master manipulation of buyers.
I believe that there is a fundamental difference between ‘choosing to become’ and ‘defending what has become of you’ – and the wise researcher gets and understands this concept. We learn and pick up survival skills. We used laughter as a coping mechanism. We only trust each other for we know what the world thinks of us – those messages come in loud and clear and there are no messages that we are ever welcome back. We have become the worst insult a woman can call a woman or a man can bestow on a woman. We sign a social contract that comes with the highest cost for the small print of this contract; the terms and conditions are harsh, disturbing and unjustifiable. So it would appear to most that we stand free on the street and yet everywhere we are in chains.
The last eighteen months of my time on the street were the saddest and most painful as I stood alongside a trafficked woman. She became my closest friend but the conditions she lived under were so inhumane. When her controller found out about the friendship he barred her from speaking to me, but we met at secret places. I was the only friend she’d had in years. Together we had many chats, we laughed at things many would be shocked at. It was our way of coping but we also had hard times. I challenged him while out on one of his patrols one night. She suffered for it. He beat her and brought her down to me to show me what would happen if I ever approached him again. She gave out to me and defended him; all I could do was apologise to her.
So I challenged the men who bought her instead if I found out they actually knew the conditions she lived in. One of them said to me, “I know it’s terrible, I was thinking about moving her somewhere safe, a nice clean apartment”. I said, “are you mad?” He replied, “it just seems like the right thing to do”. I lost it then and replied, “a man who has continued to buy a trafficked woman is trying to tell me about the right thing to do? Firstly, she is a chronic crack addict. How are you going to fix that? And secondly, she has a twisted sense of loyalty and an unhealthy attachment to her trafficker. I don’t suppose you’ve got a clinical psychologist lined up? You just want to play the hero. This is not a movie, this is her reality and the best thing you can do for her is grab your ego and go home to your wife.” Too many men come to the Burlington Road to not only buy us but to try be our saviours as well. So they feel not only powerful but protective. More like deluded and bewildered. It would almost be funny, only it’s not – for these men messed around with the minds and bodies of some of the most damaged women I’ve ever met and they were my friends and I cared about them and I miss them.
I will end the story of my African friend with one of the saddest things I have ever seen and for me it puts it into perspective. I was at home one night alone, as my daughter had become very ill and needed some in-patient care. My phone rang and it was Mr Hero himself. But he was different this time – extremely anxious and had my friend with him. There had been a row between her, her trafficker and another girl. He said it was bad and could he please bring her over. She had never been to my home. I kept the street and home completely separate but I said yes, as I was on my own.
She arrived crying uncontrollably. I’d never seen her so upset. I told him to go and I’d look after her. I hugged her and checked her wounds as she had blood all over her hands. Thankfully everything was superficial. It doesn’t really matter what the fight was about – control, drugs, disobedience. I made her coffee and we had a cigarette together. I said I would run her a bath as she looked exhausted. I ran the bath, left out a towel and called her in. I left her to relax and went in the other room. I was closing the window when she called me. I turned around and what I saw shocked me to the core, for there in front of me my friend stood naked – but she had the body of a child. Her rips stuck out, there were no breasts, it was covered in old bruises, new bruises, scratches. She looked like someone who’d just been released from a concentration camp. My eyes welled up but I didn’t want her to see me cry, so I brought her into the bathroom again. She had called me to wash her hair for her as her arms were sore. I washed her hair, took her out of the bath, she put the pj’s on and she sat in between my legs on the floor as I brushed and blow-dried her hair. She was humming just like a child. I put her to bed and sat beside her until she fell asleep. And then I cried and cried for the lost child I had just put to bed. I’ll never forget the image I saw. But this wasn’t a concentration camp in Poland in 1945, this was my apartment, Dublin, 2010. There was no war but there is no law to protect either.
The good citizen
Not every buyer I met raped or was violent towards me – but I refuse to feel in some way thankful or grateful to the others just because they didn’t. But many view those men as good citizens who people wish to protect. I will explain that somewhat philosophically:
Protecting the good citizen. I believe this is where some people struggle because for the most part the men who buy human beings for sex are exactly that, they are good citizens – in that they are in gainful employment, so they pay their taxes; they pay their rent or buy homes with their partners; they have 2.4 children; they tick every box the society deems to be correct. So we allow them this little indulgence. How we allow it is again through silence and keeping it legal. For the men who bought me and all the other women, the men that feed this twisted industry, they walk among you everyday. They are fathers, husbands, colleagues. We don’t want to acknowledge that the good citizen can be a bad human being. I understand that fear, for we hate to upset society’s little applecart. But at who’s expense do we do that?!
I, on the other hand, would be viewed as a bad citizen. I didn’t have a job, I was supported by the state, I was a heroin addict and – worst of all – I stood on a public street displaying my wears, luring these good citizens to me as if they had no choice. But I am a good human being. I always have been. This is the balance you must find between the good citizen and the good human being and which one of us comes first in the queue for protection.
I am devoid of sympathy for them but at the same time vengeance is not mine, nor is it something I seek or desire. I have long since let go of the fact that my rapists and abusers will ever be brought to justice. In fact, that is something you must do in order to survive prostitution.
During those six years there were people who did hold out their hands to me and I would like to acknowledge them now. The first group was Ruhama – meaning ‘renewed life’. How aptly named because that is exactly what we seek when we arrive on their door. We may not be sure as to what that new life is or how we can achieve it, but we just know that it is what we seek. For over five years Ruhama had held out their hand to me. My contact with them was through the van that came around at night. I remember their kind words, a hot cup of tea. But I never let them in too far although I knew many women who would speak at length about their struggles and get advice and support from them. But when I spoke to them, I only spoke about my daughter – how she was doing – as most of the volunteers would have known that she was struggling with an illness.
You see, I couldn’t talk about myself, for I stood there as ‘Lucy’. I didn’t know where ‘myself’ was and I would never have risked anyone seeing or risk exposing that fact on the street. And they never pushed me either. Then one night, after speaking to one of the new volunteers, she said to me, “I see something beautiful behind your eyes”. This sentence scared the life out of me because what could she see? And then I had this long debate in my head about how I was not to let people in as it only made me more vulnerable out there, and I must at all costs remain strong on the outside. But inside my heart was broken. I avoided the van for a few weeks after that and yet something about her words kept me warm at night. They made me smile because maybe the person I was wasn’t dead. Maybe she was just lost. And maybe she was only visible to those who see me as human and cast no judgement upon me. Ruhama just let me know they were there and handed out a little card with contact details for if and when I ever needed them.
Another group of people who also held out their hand to me over those years were the gardai. I also remember their kind words, their compassion. They were at times a little curious as to how I came to be there, but they never judged me. We would often have chats about the news, politics, coping with a new baby while on night duty. I loved these brief conversations, for they reminded me I was human. I have many cautions of soliciting but I was only brought to court once – but the garda involved did not show up and it was thrown out. That garda came looking for me that night on the street and asked me how I got on. I smiled and said, sure you know what happened. He said, “ah yeah I know”. For it wasn’t me he wanted charged but the man who had bought me. He also said that he felt I would get away from the street one day and he didn’t want me to have a conviction. I couldn’t see the possibility then but I’m very grateful to him now. In fact it was the words of a young insightful officer which at the time they were said did not reach me, but they were to return to me and play a big role in my mind during rehab. I have so much respect for the gardai, because it was the only thing they ever showed me.
Leaving the Burlington Road
In the end I, myself, did not just make a choice to leave or decide one day that I had had enough. Although my mind was struggling badly and my body was drained completely, I had no idea how or if I could ever escape prostitution. As I’ve stated before, heroin had become my lifeline. It shut out my thoughts and feelings about what had become of me and the cruel events that had happened. Remove it and I didn’t believe my mind could cope and what was left of my sanity could and would not prevail.
In the summer of 2010 my daughter needed some in-patient care. In the first week or so she had met a social worker and for some reason took to her, which was unusual as my daughter is quite guarded about whom she lets in. You see, my daughter and I had lived a very isolated and lonely existence. Apart from a few good friends she had, we never saw anyone and nobody wanted to know us. I was her full-time carer and only ever left her side to go to the Burlington Road. Because of this we had formed a tight bond and an unhealthy attachment to each other, and it was us against the world, so to speak.
After a couple of weeks the social worker asked me to drop into her office, which I did with the usual guarded front. But what I didn’t realise was that I was about to be asked a few questions nobody had ever asked and they were asked away from the street. Her first words to me were, “your daughter’s a lot stronger then you think”. Then she said, “but I want to know, what is life like for you? What is it like to be a mother and watch your daughter struggle and feel helpless? And what’s it like to be out there at night, all alone?” These questions terrified me at the time because they were deep. They were powerful, too powerful for me to answer just yet. I left her office very quickly but I couldn’t stop thinking about them. But what I didn’t realise was that I had just met the person who would change the course of my life forever.
I returned to see her after a few days. I began to talk and she listened. Over the next few weeks we built up a strong relationship. I’d let her in because I knew she understood why and how we had come to be where we were. When my daughter’s treatment was finished and she was home, the social worker asked me one final question: “do you now trust me enough to make a phone call on your behalf?” And I said yes. I walked off the Burlington Road on the 10th October, 2010, and although I didn’t know if I was strong enough to make it, I knew looking down that street for the last time that I’d never be back. For I now had someone who believed in me and who could place me in the safe hands of others who would and did.
And so my re-orientation back to life began with a medical detox, followed by a five week stay at the Rutland Centre. I arrived at the Rutland a broken jigsaw and I had no idea how I was ever going to put the pieces back together. But like all complex puzzles the first thing you must do is build a border that will surround and protect the pieces from falling out. The building of that border was intense and at one point I felt I couldn’t go on. But I never wanted to go back. My only option was to leave this world altogether.
And then for whatever reason the words of the young wise garda came into my head. It had been one of the saddest nights on the street – one of the girls had fallen into the canal and drowned. Her body was cold and lifeless only an hour after she had said ‘Hi’ and passed me on the street. I was in a daze when a young officer asked me a few routine questions and then he looked me in the eye and said, “don’t tell me that that couldn’t have been you, and is that what you want your legacy to be?” His words at the time did not reach me but now as I sat in rehab, contemplating an end, I thought – oh my god he was right. I was about to make it me and this is not what I wanted my legacy to be. I took out a blank piece of paper and wrote on the top. I asked myself two questions: what did I want my legacy to be and how could I achieve it? His wise words had finally reached me.
So I listened well and became aware. But remember, awareness without action changes nothing, And I used my time wisely, because time itself heals nothing – all it will do is pass. It is what you do with your time that will heal you. I remember the kind words of the volunteers on the van at night and thought I need the people who saw me as human out there. I searched through Lucy’s stuff and found the card that said ‘Ruhama’ and picked up the phone. And I haven’t looked back since. I was assigned a case worker but she was never just that. She helped me examine every part of my life – from the practical to the painful. She shared tears of sadness with me and great tears of joy. She will forever hold a piece of my heart.
After a few months I had processed to the education and development faze of my key-work. The staff member said to me, “did you ever think of going to university?” I told her that would be a dream come true but I also told her that I thought she was mad if she believed any university would accept a recovered drug addict and former prostitute. She told me not to be so sure of that and asked me to have a look at what I would like to study. I came back and told her I wanted to study humankind and all its aspects – anthropology and philosophy – because I wanted to know what it meant to be human, and Maynooth is the only university that offers this. She smiled and said, “OK, so now you have a dream and let’s get to work on it”.
But how do you turn a dream into an attainable goal? Well, you do it with a time-frame and a set of steps to be followed, backed up by a lot of hard work and determination and a team of people who just believed in me. I did an access course at DIT and applied to Maynooth. I sat exams, wrote essays – all of which I based on my insights into my life experience. I wanted them to know why I needed to be there and eventually I sat a series of interviews and I waited. Then the call came. It was the admissions office. She said, “Congratulations, Mia. I have good news. Maynooth is prepared to offer you everything you have applied for. And now is the time for you to sit back and decide what you would like to study here, because we not only want you to come but we are honoured to have you.”
I couldn’t believe it. The best university in the country, you will allow me that for Maynooth is my bias, wanted me. That has to be the most empowering day of my life. And I share it with Ruhama, for I have always believed as do they that education is the key to freedom and I now held that key. I tell that story because it proves that exiting and surviving prostitution is possible and that dreams can become real, but that they cannot be achieved on your own. I spend every day now at a special institution with particular strengths, reading and debating the words of the great thinkers, which may seem boring to some but to me it is paradise. I now see further because I am standing on the shoulders of giants and I don’t ever intend to get down. But there is not a day that goes by that I don’t remind myself of how lucky and privileged I am and everyday I think about the friends I left behind and the many others still trapped in that wicked world.
And I know that Ruhama don’t want any thanks but how I intend to repay them is to stand alongside them, my friends in the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, in their unending battle for justice, freedom and equality. For I have a voice now and I hope it will be heard, to help put a halt to the taking and killing of Mockingbirds in our country.
Not for sale
So how do we do that? Well, we follow Sweden’s lead, for it is the only thing that we can and should do. The sex industry is both a cruel and disturbing place, run by criminals and all efforts must be made to bring it to its knees. And the only way to do that is to cut off what makes it exist in the first place: the offenders – men who believe they have a right to buy other human beings. I would like nothing more than for the guards who tried in vain to protect us to be given the green light to do exactly that, to be given the powers and legislation that will fine offenders, jail the real pimps and coercers and send a clear message out to the traffickers to start packing and get the hell off our island because women are no longer for sale. The Justice Sub-committee came to the same conclusion and their recommendations now need to be enacted because there is no anti-trafficking law which is more powerful than getting the use of another man’s slave.
Prostitution is, was and always will be an absolute affront to human dignity and I know that because I have lived and witnessed it. Sweden didn’t do a radical thing or a controversial thing. Sweden just did the right thing in the name of freedom, justice and equality. Norway and Iceland followed and now it is Ireland’s turn and we must not let an opportunity to evoke a social change for the greater good pass us by – for our government does not have the right to continue to let tragic lives become absurd. It is now time that we formally remove the female body from the market and reclaim human dignity.
Mna na Eireann <Women of Ireland>
A major part of who I am today is because of the incredible role models and mentors I have had, some of whom are here today. The role of the mentor must never be underestimated as it can play a pivotal role in making the difference between exiting prostitution and surviving it. So if it is within your power, and I include myself in this, to become one then please do so. And if you are already one then I applaud you.
Mna na Eireann
We must stand alongside the many honourable men and support them as they continue to rise and take a stand against this abuse and begin to fight for the lost daughters of others. I have and will always have a place in my life for good men, men who have held me in their arms, wiped my tears and helped me make sense of the world. In fact, my life would be incomplete without them.
Mna na Eireann
I have two beautiful granddaughters and I want them to grow up in a country whereby the bodies to which they have been born into are respected and at no time will they be up for sale like their beloved grandmothers, as is my wish for every young girl.
Mna na Eireann
It is now time that equality, which must be accompanied by justice, prevails in respect to our bodily integrity.
In essense, Mna na Eireann, it is my firm belief that Vindication must now be ours.
And go raibh mile maith aghat <thank you very much>.