It is now illegal to purchase sex in Northern Ireland – and as a survivor of prostitution it is a measure I would like to see extended to the rest of the UK. Sweden was the first country to implement this law in 1999, and in March I visited Stockholm to meet those responsible for developing this approach, often referred to as the Nordic Model. It decriminalizes the selling of sex and makes paying for sex a criminal offence. It is designed to end the demand from a minority of men who pay for sex - the demand that drives the prostitution trade and the trafficking of women into it - and to promote specialist exiting services. It is a model I have supported for a very long time and my visit only strengthened those views.
What I was unprepared for, however, was the personal impact of being in a country where access to my, or anyone else's, body could not be legally purchased. Another woman on the trip, like me, was a survivor of prostitution and we shared how wonderful it felt to be somewhere where we could not legally be for sale.
For nearly 20 years I have worked to support women exploited through prostitution and to improve and develop the services needed for them to exit and rebuild their lives. My experience of prostitution began over 30 years ago, situated at the supposed ‘high end’ of prostitution in London, and being trafficked from this country to a prostitution ring in another.
I arrived in London in my late teens to find myself 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 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.
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.
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. It was like being out of my body, watching someone else. Unfortunately what was to come was not an out of body experience. I remember the constant stress, anxiety and feelings of dread whilst being in prostitution; 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.
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.
Why is it that prostituted women all over the world employ the same psychological coping strategies as victims of sexual abuse? 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. I talk about my experience to challenge the hierarchy of the worthy victim and the prevailing narrative that says location makes all the difference. I want it to be near impossible for organised crime, pimps and punters to operate here and I want to be part of a society that rejects the idea that people are for sale.
At midnight, Northern Ireland communicated to its people and the world that women are no longer for sale. For the rest of the UK it’s business as usual. And what a lucrative business it is for the exploiters, the pimps and the traffickers - and what a costly one for the girls and women on the receiving end of the male demand on their bodies. We have to decide as a society whether we are going to stand up to a powerful sex industry and be on the side of the exploited rather than the exploiters.
I wonder how long the rest of the UK will have to wait until we are able to put up the NOT FOR SALE sign.