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‘The sex trade teaches you that you’re not even human’

LYNNE WALSH reports from a recent webinar organised by Nordic Model Now! where contributors explored the best ways to support the vulnerable and traumatised women coerced into prostitution

THERE are some discussions which run the risk of polarisation, when even the most thoughtful altruist picks a side, digs in and repels all other views.

Prostitution. How many books have been written, academic papers published and public debates held? 

When did our solutions to this complex problem get reduced to two basic strategies: decriminalise the whole damn show, or criminalise the punters and profiteers?

The latter is advocated by supporters of the Nordic model (sometimes called the sex buyer law or the Swedish, abolitionist, or equality model). 

It picks a side, that of the vulnerable, in decriminalising those who are prostituted and demanding support services to help them exit. In short, it makes buying people for sex a criminal offence. 

It’s a model adopted first in Sweden in 1999, then Norway a decade later, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, Ireland, and most recently, Israel. 

In terms of legislative approaches to an age-old social ill, it’s in its relative infancy.

In a recent discussion on social media, based on a legitimate question as to why the likes of Amnesty International are in favour of decriminalisation, the exchange was thoughtful — for about five minutes. 

Those who’d already decided to back that horse continued to flog it. Several men posted studies they’d read, and point-scoring seemed the objective.

A few themes emerged from the anti-Nordic model claque: it was not the perfect solution; some women chose “sex work”; we should all listen to sex workers in finding the best way forward, and women had to really “want” to exit. That final phrase is so glib that it’s painful to write.

A webinar in the same week brought the opportunity to consider all of these. Run by campaigning group Nordic Model Now!, the session included two survivors, Merly Asbogard and Rebecca Mott, alongside Dr Ingeborg Kraus, clinical psychologist and expert in psychotraumatology.

Asbogard, now a women’s rights campaigner, lecturer and soon to be a published author, was lured into prostitution at the age of 14, after being raped. 

“Someone I thought was a friend saw that I was struggling with my mental health. She started pimping me. She said I had a debt, which had to be paid, or my life would be hell.”

The subsequent 16 years, before she exited from prostitution, have left her with complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). 

Having lived in Sweden since 1986, she said: “The law has done great things. But we need progressive laws. We’ve watched a sort of revival of the law [after the ‘me too’ movement]. 

“We need more nationwide support, more trauma treatment available, and a greater understanding that you can have PTSD not only from war, but for a number of reasons. So we are using the law more efficiently than we did in the past. We are getting there.

“But of course we need to make it work better. We are not a perfect society — nor is any society. But we have the model; we have something really strong to work with.”

Mott, also vulnerable after sexual abuse, is now an abolitionist. 

She said: “To understand exiting, we need to understand that the sex trade has broken these people as much as [it] possibly can. 

“Often, people who enter the sex trade have been broken by other stuff as well. So to say that they should be motivated — that’s very sick, in my opinion, a very judgemental way of viewing prostitution … it’s very hard to be motivated when you’re broken. 

“When you come from a background where you’re taught to hate yourself, and you’re taught that you are nothing — the sex trade teaches you that you’re not even human. 

“It’s hard to think about the future if you don’t believe that you exist, as a human being.”

Targeting punters was the way forward, she said. “We can say to these men: ‘You are choosing to do something so wrong, and that is destroying people, and in the long run, destroying the society that you live in.’

“If [when I was a prostitute] I had seen the men being punished, that would have given me hope. That would have given me the idea that people on the outside of the sex trade actually do care, actually do think that we matter.”

In listening to these women, articulate and measured, in spite of the constant trauma they still suffer, it’s important to remember that most survivors are not public speakers. Giving voice to these experiences is brave beyond measure. 

Listening to the breadth of voices needed in these discussions is not easy. Most therapists, social researchers and even some journalists know that this can take a long time, and specific skills.

Dr Kraus, with a formidable record in this area having worked with women victims of sexual violence in Bosnia and Kosovo, now runs a psychotherapeutic counselling service in Germany, treating many victims of prostitution.

She explained the traumatic bonding at play: “Some of them are sent by their own families, or a person that promises a better future, by a ‘loverboy’ — or they have experienced violence in their childhood and think that they deserve mistreatment…

“Traffickers are searching especially for vulnerable young women … who come from a broken home or live in poverty, or some other kind of vulnerability. 

“Then the loverboy-trafficker connects with her and gives her positive attention. 

“The victim will establish a deep emotional relationship to the offender. He will tell her very fast that he loves her and makes her believe in a better future with him. 

“After that, the devaluation, threats, punishment and also violence will start.”

Victims become “emotionally dependent” to perpetrators, who then pose prostitution as a way to help them.

“[Then] the trap closes and she will get deeply traumatised by the sex buyers … [but] she will believe that it was her choice to get into this relationship and into prostitution.”

That “choice” is not choice at all, but coercion — and for the victim’s health [physical and psychological], it’s devastating. Who would ‘choose’ sexual violence?

Explaining the dissociation required, she said: “Feelings of fear, disgust, shame and pain must be ‘switched off.’ 

“Dozens of studies have shown that the majority of women in prostitution have experienced violence in their childhood. 

“They are already separated from their feelings before they go into prostitution and have not learned to protect themselves and have also developed no self-esteem. 

“When entering prostitution, many say that it was completely ‘normal’ for them because they thought [they were] not worthy of something better. 

“Prostitution in this case is a continuation of the violence in the biography of these women. 

“The pimps and brothel operators use the pre-traumatisation for their own purposes. 

“…traumatic memory [is] a kind of black box to which we don’t have conscious access … it can be brought on at any moment by ‘trigger’ events that revive the trauma what was not felt at the moment: a smell, a colour, a sound, images, words, phrases, a nightmare, etc. 

“At that moment, it triggers an intense anxiety, as if the person was reliving the trauma at that very instant. It’s a ‘flashback.’

“…it doesn’t work with an on-off function; the alarm system can be constantly overactivated. 

“People sometimes go through life with constant fear; they are under constant distress. 

“Women in prostitution are classified as a high-risk group for PTSD. Many studies have shown that they suffer more than twice as often from PTSD as soldiers coming back from war.”

It’s not helpful to approach this immense problem as some sort of benign philomath. 

Women are being trafficked, coerced and kidnapped. They are being deliberately traumatised — because when it comes to luring a vulnerable woman into prostitution, trauma works; it’s the pimp’s best friend.

The webinar will be available to watch at nordicmodelnow.org.

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