Paid For – My Journey Through Prostitution by Rachel Moran
Gill & Macmillan , Dublin, 2013
Book review by Robert Schenck
Like all excellent books, Paid For can be read from many points of view. The book is a personal, political and feminist manifesto and, at the same time, a stylistic account of a stupendous personal journey.
Rachel Moran left home at 14 years of age and before long left her life as a homeless teenager for the streets of Dublin’s Red Light District. After eight years of street prostitution, strip clubs, brothels and escorting, Moran miraculously pulled herself out of the inevitable shame, violence, depravity, drug addiction, depression, disgust and abuse that prostitution entails. A few years later, she began writing her story, memoirs that one decade later resulted in the publication of Paid For in 2013. Needless to say, her arduous and dynamic journey of integrating herself back into society has not yet ended, thereby providing the reader not only with a firsthand, horrifying depiction of the life of a prostituted woman, but also with the opportunity to follow her ongoing odyssey from utmost degradation to acceptance and self-worth.
Moran’s decade of post-prostitution authorship commences with strong determination, and concludes with deep self-insight gained through therapy, research and hard work. It also ends in a political commitment to expose the truths, violence and horrors of prostitution world-wide. Moran alternates between an embellished, descriptive style full of telling metaphors, and a more narrative, often self-focused manner of writing. She occasionally describes her own authorship as part of her healing process, thereby adding a fascinating meta-perspective to the book.
In chapter after chapter, Moran systematically dismisses numerous common myths and misconceptions concerning prostitution. For instance, the threesome of poverty, addiction and a family history of mental illness is what drove her and countless other women into homelessness and prostitution. Forget any question of “free choice” for her or any other prostitute the author has ever met, and those are many. In addition, the differences between trafficked women forced into prostitution and women “who are supposedly ‘free’” have been exaggerated as one of the tactics of those wishing to normalize prostitution. Neither of these categories of prostitutes is there by free choice, and both become victims of the trauma of commercialized sexual abuse. As an additional burden, the “shame that rests on the charge of her perceived culpability” gives the coerced, non-trafficked woman “a far greater weight of inwardly directed shame to deal with”. This is a point Moran makes without downplaying the plight of any prostituted woman, regardless of what led her there.
Moran’s journalistic and literary talents, coupled with her credibility owing to first-hand experience, and her thorough research, are what makes this manifesto a vital source of arguments in support of criminalizing the purchase of sexual favors and what provides the true picture of what prostitution actually is – commercialized sexual abuse.
Moran never reverts to sensationalism, but does keep straight to the point when she describes a number of specific experiences as a prostituted woman. These suffice to dismiss any tendency to romanticize the life of a prostitute or to belittle its dangers. All of the above make Paid For an extremely important book and a tremendous learning experience, not only about prostitution specifically, but about women’s rights, masculine identity, fair sex, and above all, about an individual’s power to pull out of an enormous trauma, if circumstances allow.
“If anyone supposes that leaving prostitution ought to be met with some sort of jubilant mental fanfare, I cannot say they are mistaken in all cases, but they are certainly mistaken in mine. On leaving prostitution, I swapped the daily living of it for the daily reeling from it. I swapped enduring it for examining it. Both were uniquely painful, and the latter had its own flavours of fragmentation, new ones to contend with. For example, I could make no link that seemed worth making between my present-day self and the fourteen-year-old girl who’d walked out of her mother’s house eight years before. Who was she any more? And who was I? And how in God’s name could we be in any way related when the one thing that spanned the distance between us was a rotten foetid experience that had morphed her out of all existence? That wasn’t growing up. That was growing out, out of myself. It took a very long time to accept that what was good about me had survived prostitution; that the more basic elements of my fourteen-year-old self still existed and that they still existed inside me.” (p. 237)