What makes exiting prostitution so hard?

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translation: Inge Kleine


Occasionally I am asked what makes it so hard to exit prostitution. It took me years to leave prostitution, I kept returning to it – and this is not only true of myself. What makes it so hard is the complexity of the situation. When I went to a counselling service for prostitutes in order to ask for help in exiting, I was told: “If you don’t want to do this any longer, just don’t go back to the brothel!” But it just isn’t that simple.

Most prostitutes have had very bad experiences with any kind of authorities or official institutions. In fact, these institutions may very well be the reason the women are in prostitution in the first place. Those who like me have learned how easy it is to slip through the gaps in Germany’s “social net”, in our social security system, know where not to go in need of help. In my case, youth services alleged I had run away from home not because of the violence, but simply because I hadn’t gotten “enough pocket money”. The help I only received due to the efforts of committed social workers at a girls’ refuge centre ended far too early: Come 18 years of age this help is over. Nobody took into account that this is a serious situation for a very traumatised adult who has no contact to her parents, no support at all and who is penniless. At the girls’ centre there was a girl who joined us because her father repeatedly raped her. Youth services got them to sit down together in a joined discussion, a “joined confrontation” to “talk it out”. The father admitted everything, apologised and Youth Services decided: “There you are, he apologised, he won’t do it again, you can go back home now.” I am fairly sure that this girl will never again turn to an official institution when she needs help. All these various offices, social security, students’ loan offices (1), job centre/unemployment offices, housing offices – same story. “Not within the scope of our responsibilities”, endless protraction in dealing with applications, stupid remarks.  Students’ office: “If your parents do not want to sign the application form (2), you must have done something wrong. It’s usually the children’s fault. Have you ever thought of apologising to the authorities?” Housing office: “We have been processing your application for almost a year now, we’ll let you know. What’s this, you cannot pay your rent anymore? Well, if you don’t have an apartment anymore you aren’t entitled to rent support, so we can stop processing your application.” I know prostitutes who want to exit, but the unemployment office refuses to grant financial support and threatens them with a three months’ ban on any payment, if they terminate their “contracts” with the brothel, as they aren’t jobless, after all. Others try to exit but aren’t provided with the full payments they are due because the office presumes them to be secretly further engaged in prostitution and thus to have an income – a completely imaginary sum based on fantasy alone, which is then being calculated into the payments to reduce them. Those who end up in prostitution or remain there because of such things are not there due to “free choice”, but due to a choice between two unwanted alternatives (starve / become homeless or prostitution), and thus a dilemma.

Advocacy and counselling centres that offer exit support in Germany are usually not on the side of the prostituted. Mimikry in Munich celebrate their anniversary with the owner of an escort agency, Stephanie Klee, so they are supportive of the operators in this trade. The head of the public health office in Dresden that also runs the advocacy centre there appears as a speaker at pro-prostitution events and glorifies prostitution as a great offer for punters with or without disabilities. Kassandra in Nuremberg maintain that violence in prostitution is rare and prostitutes may not be called an “at risk group” as this is stigmatising prostitutes and exposing them to violence. This, although in Germany alone more than 70 prostitutes have been murdered since the Prostitution Act in 2002. Most advocacy centres speak of Sexwork, engage in entry instead of exit help (like Hydra in Berlin) and claim that the greatest problem prostitutes face is “stigma”, not the “work”. I know of women who have turned to such counselling centres and who were told that the problem wasn’t the job, but they were, and why didn’t they just re-orientate themselves within prostitution? Could “escort” be an alternative or SM? Turn to such centres and you’re not only denied help, you are even shamed.

Another problem is the lack of alternatives. The job situation in Germany is not all that rosy. Things are difficult for those with a criminal record due to offences in the context of prostitution (like e.g. disregarding zoning regulations while “working”, or drugs ….) or gaps in the CV that cannot be camouflaged by the best of fabulation. In addition, women who spent years in prostitution cannot show any or only very little job experience, and sometimes never had any professional training. Jobs on offer then: those with a maximum of hours and minimal pay. Someone who has barely left prostitution usually has to contend with the disorders following trauma, that is: permanent stress. And that means they may not be able to endure these jobs for long. And if money is so short again and again and again, you do what you know to do and can do, and go back to “working”. No single prostitute I know has the self-confidence left to apply for appropriate or reasonable jobs.

And then: trauma. Most prostitutes suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder of the type shown by victims of torture. They suffer from anxiety disorders, lack of self-confidence, from obsessive behaviour – e.g. compulsive washing or a compulsive repetition of pointless rituals that supposedly convey safety. (I have to knock on wood when I have fearful thoughts. And I often have those. When I can’t do that, a panic attack follows. I know how crazy this looks to bystanders and that it is pointless in the end, but I can’t help it.) When I switched from brothel to escort, I wasn’t used /anymore to leaving the house during the day. I couldn’t abide daylight. Nor the many people. Someone whose boundaries are being violated daily and hourly may not be able to stay among others, because their inner alarm system will keep on going on alert: “This is a man, danger!” I do not even want to begin to talk here about what it means to be outside and being triggered, having flashbacks.  Nightmares and sleep disorders are exhausting. It is almost impossible to keep up appearances and to move over into a “normal life”. And you feel “different” from the others, inferior, more hurt. Broken. People seem creepy, the “normal ones” more than anybody, because they make you see what you yourself aren’t any longer: without cares, without injuries, without fears. Whole. Nice. In a good mood. – In order to endure prostitution, you have to split your awareness away from your body, to dissociate. The problem is that you cannot just slip back into it later. The body remains without contact to your soul, your psyche. You just do not feel yourself any more. It took me several years to learn that that which I sometimes feel is hunger. And that this means you should eat something. Or that that which I experience means that I am cold. And that you then put on something warm. It is exhausting to learn or to relearn that one’s body has its needs, to feel it, and it is even more exhausting to practice “selfcare”. Not to treat yourself like shit any longer. To sleep, when you are tired – because you’re not sitting in a 24-hour brothel and have to take the next punter. That you don’t have to feel cold any longer because you’re in street prostitution when it’s below freezing. That you can change situations that cause pain instead of eliminating the pain – through dissociation, drugs or alcohol. – But trauma won’t let go of you so easily: You get used to it. This phenomenon is called “trauma bonding”, and it is the reason why women who are battered by their husbands keep going back. Traumatic situations can be addictive because they cause a massive release of adrenaline – and that is addictive. Additionally, a violent situation is something well-known to people who have experienced as much violence as that in prostitution. I learned from early childhood on: The place where I am afraid, where I am hurt, where I am degraded, is the place where I belong. That is home. This is why even today I still have to struggle in situations that endanger me and to decide against the danger and to walk away. The situations are shite, but familiar; I know them. Situations in which people are nice to me, do not shout, do not batter, do not abuse me, feel creepy. I promptly feel inferior. My soul signals: “Something is wrong here. This is alien.” Prostitution is like self-harm. No, prostitution IS self-harm.

Addictions are another barrier to exiting. Many prostitutes numb themselves, with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, because that is the only way they can function. This develops its own dynamics and you promptly have an additional problem to deal with.

It is difficult to find therapy for former prostitutes. It takes a lot of time and nerves to secure a place in therapy, moreover, many therapists, both male and female, will not accept that prostitution is violence. (I will write a separate text about therapy one day.)

Like therapists, the entire society has a problem with recognising prostitution as something damaging, not only to society, but to the individual prostitute. Exiting prostitution when the dominant view “out there” is that prostitution is something entirely normal, something that can be advertised on huge billboards along the main streets, whose advertising can be plastered all over taxis, when articles repeatedly make you read terms like “sex worker”, “people who offer sex services”, when you keep being confronted with texts that minimise or even hype prostitution; that does something to you. Not even to speak of the people who feel the need to take it upon themselves to designate former prostitutes who dare speak up in public as “filthy whores”, “gold diggers”, “greedy for money” or “low life” – right below the articles these women have written or right below the interviews in which they have spoken. Exiting and then being told that this is your “own fault”, that you have “made poor choices” or that you are lying means you can just stay in prostitution, because being degraded happens there, too.

Disordered self-perception and extremely low self-esteem isolate most prostitutes from their non-prostituted surroundings. After years spent in this environment, most women simply only know others from this life. It is like a parallel world. And sometimes, it just feels like “the true world” to you. Because you don’t feel any trust in your fellow human beings, and above all none in men. You now know and have experienced what they are capable of on your own body, and therefore you know what to think of the bourgeois façade “out there”. For punters do not only parade around in the “underworld”, but also “out there”, in the “normal world”. Only there what happens is that you are being shamed as the (former) prostitute not merely by them, but by others, while the punters are indeed not shamed or held accountable. So you can just as well remain in prostitution: by comparison this place appears sort of honest at least, violence against money, everybody knows what you’re doing, does the same, the rules are known, as are the mechanisms.

No prostitute, German women included, would NOT be put under pressure at any attempt to change her “club” or to leave the brothel. The usual custom is having to buy yourself out, some transfer money to be paid. A German colleague who wanted to disappear from a brothel had the brothel keeper who had repeatedly raped her stuck to her heels for an entire year. He slashed her tires, appeared inside her apartment, threatened her boyfriend, enlightened her parents on how she had made her money. He only left her in peace after he had gotten the pay-off of € 3,000. (This sum is often euphemised as “debts incurred by the prostitute”. What is meant is: Punishment for being late, for not tidying the room, for turning down punters, “non-attendance” fees; rent for the room she had rented and that she had to pay for although she hadn’t had any punters or was sick etc.) I’m not even going to begin now on the prostituted women’s “partners” who also profit from their “working”.

And in all of this I still haven’t taken the foreign prostitutes into consideration, who do not speak German, who only know a corrupted police force in their home countries (and here in my own country I do not entirely acquit the police force from this… ), who are not even theoretically entitled to welfare or social security payments here, who have no health insurance, or who are being transferred to a different city or a different brothel by the week and who do not even know where they are.

And even if they did know: Who are they supposed to turn to?

The German state does not provide any help. It leaves the complete financing of the (new) “Prostitutes’ Protection Law” entirely to the municipalities and thus ensures that these municipalities will ensure the punters’ ongoing opportunities of smoothly engaging in their more or less droll endeavours. The state takes its taxes from these droll endeavours, and gorges on the revenue.

And this does in fact give rise to the question whether the state has any interest even in preventing women and young girls from ending up in prostitution or in helping prostitutes exit. It CANNOT even aim for this!

(1) In Germany, destitute students or students from very low income households are entitled to a state sponsored students’ loan in order to cover their costs of living. The loan has to be paid back once the students start their professional careers, but it is at a reduced interest rate and there are some provisions if the student remains destitute, or has children or close relatives to look after or care for. At the same time, bureaucracy puts up barriers, and delays also put students at risk.

(2)Parents need to sign the application as a statement of income for the students to receive this loan. Parents can be compelled to do so by the authorities, but students need to know which authorities to apply to and authorities or staff at authorities need to be willing to pursue this.