Warning- this blog post discusses some serious stuff- might be triggering if you have an abuse history. It’s not pretty.
“I am not a pretty girl.
That is not what I do;
I ain’t no damsel in distress
and I don’t need to be rescued.
So put me down, punk.
Wouldn’t you prefer a maiden fair-
Isn’t there a kitten, stuck in a tree somewhere…”
I got my Hookers For Jesus shirt today, along with a letter from the woman who left her life as a sex worker and gave her all to Jesus. Now, I can respect leaving the corporate working world and putting your faith in a higher power, or following your heart instead of your bills. When I investigated the website, I was pleased to see that while they’re pretty Christian focused, they do try to be open to all religious affiliations (at least in theory) and aren’t looking to “convert hookers”. They support women who want to or need to stay on the streets while offering shelter and help to those trying to get out of the business or away from pimps.
However, when I got the letter and read it, I saw phrases that didn’t reflect this attitude- things like “rescue these women and give their lives divine purpose”. I’ve seen that sort of thing before, when I researched Magdalene asylums/laundries.
Never heard of these institutions? I’m not that surprised- it’s very hard to find information about them and even harder to find scholarly works on the subject. It was mostly the Catholic Church that turned these places into their horrific final stage, seen in movies like “The Magdalene Sisters” or the documentary “Sex in a Cold Climate”– and they keep it pretty quiet, even denying the existence of these places at times. They were places where “fallen women” were sent, basically to work and die- “fallen women” covering women who were pregnant out of wedlock, survivors of incest or rape, and women whose main crime was being too pretty or flirtatious for the restrictiveness of the (overwhelmingly Catholic) society. Some have only recently been brave enough to speak out.
The last Magdalene laundries finally shut their doors in 1996 in Ireland, though many of the girls were sent then to “mental asylums” that were just as bad (read “Kathy’s Story” for some harrowing personal experiences in these institutional systems). Don’t think this was just an Irish boonies thing, either- these Magdalene hellhouses thrived there and survived there the longest, for sure, but also popped up in Scotland, England, and even in San Francisco.
When they began, they meant well. They weren’t even particularly religious. They started in the 1700s but really came into their own in the 1800s with the rescue movement, trying to give prostitutes work training in other jobs, medical assistance, food and shelter. In a society a woman’s income derived from being married, worked to the bone in a sweatshop, or whoring, this sort of support was flooded with women needing help. But slowly, the government was less and less able to keep these places afloat- they turned to the one place that had good, stable income- the Church.
This was really the time of the rescue industry. Women do-gooders flocked to these institutions as workers and recruiters. Women ran these places for other women.
However, soon it wasn’t just prostitutes in these places… women who were otherwise disadvantaged, like women with developmental disabilities, or women with mental health issues, women that were otherwise left in family attics and never spoken of. Families realized they could unload these women on these newly named Magdalene Asylums, and they did. And, of course, soon more Magdalene Asylums were appointed to cover the demand. Especially as the Church got involved, these went from drop in clinic style places to makeshift convents, with restricted speech, early wake up times and work throughout the day. Problem was, these places cost a lot of money to run.
Then, the women running these places came up with an idea. Why not take in laundry for the community? It would give the penitents (as the women were called) work to do, and help the villages nearby, along with making money for the Church. Soon, the churches were making money doing laundry for these communities, while the women toiled for free.
As the political and religious climate changed, so did the asylums. No longer needing to leaflet for their rescue cause, and now wanting to keep this free labour as long as possible, the nuns and priests running these institutions made the communities aware that they were now taking in women who were “fallen” in some way, or soiled. These women were no longer allowed to come and go as they pleased, because they were looked at as being unable to make their own decisions. Once you had “tempted a man into” rape, or unwed pregnancy, you no longer were seen as being able to handle agency.
Men would send their daughters, wives, or sisters into these institutions, and only a male member of the family could remove them again. Often, brothers or friends of these girls were never informed where they were going, and so the women waited for release. Many of them died in these places, in unmarked graves, after being worked for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week.
These women and girls were sexually, physically, and emotionally abused on a regular basis. And other women were the ones who brought their household laundry to these places- other women were the nuns who abused them- other women stayed silent as their husbands and fathers drove their mothers and sisters away, perhaps to be gone, forever.
And it only ended in 1996. Only in Ireland, as well- new Magdalene style homes are popping up now in Asia and Africa, run by the same orders that ran the ones in the UK.
Even now, the women for whom this was a reality deal with being questioned, blamed, and ignored. “Kathy’s Story”, that I mention above, has had another book written about it, called “Kathy’s Real Story” where the author claims to prove it was all made up. An ITV debate on the story didn’t provide satisfactory answers one way or the other. One of the main reasons the journalist writing against Kathy says it couldn’t be true because it’s too horrific. Cause if it’s too gory, it must be made up… right?
Read more, if you’d like, in “Do Penance or Perish”.
In the beginning, the women wanted to rescue prostitutes. In the end, they were keeping women imprisoned for their perceived sexuality. Is Hookers For Jesus one of many groups following in
these historic footsteps…?
“I am not an angry girl
but it seems like I’ve got everyone fooled;
every time I say something they find hard to hear
they chalk it up to my anger, and never to their own fear.
Imagine you’re a girl just trying to finally complain,
knowing full well they’d prefer you were dirty
and I am sorry
but I am not a maiden fair-
I am not a kitten, stuck up a tree somewhere.”
It’s what drives me crazy, really- anti-prostitution feminists and Christian groups saying that what sex workers really want, nay, what they NEED is rescuing. They site women on the streets, or trafficked women, as examples of all sex workers, and as examples of women in bondage, in terrible situations they can’t escape. Cause, you know, all whores are depressed, on drugs, struggling with poverty and abused, or with a history of abuse. And, of course, all whores are the same. Met one you’ve met ’em all, yeah? Just like every other stigmatized or minority group.
Well, no, actually. I’m a hooker too, and I’m not high class or low rent. I advertise on Craigslist or other internet sites like a lot of sex workers. I don’t have a fancy website, but I do have a site outside of the advertising ones. I make probably middling for my age, and on the slightly higher end of my body type. I don’t always like my job. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing sex work. Sometimes I resent that the most financially viable thing a girl without a degree can do other than sell drugs is sell sex. Sometimes I resent that almost exclusively men are seen or see themselves as customers of prostitutes and other sex workers. Usually, I see it was a job like any other job, except I set my own price and I set the boundaries. I didn’t get that luxury working retail.
“and generally my generation
wouldn’t be caught dead working for the man-
and generally I agree with them…
trouble is you gotta have yourself an alternate plan
and I have earned my disillusionment.
I have been working all of my life-
and I am a patriot…
I have been fighting the good fight…
and what if there are no damsels in distress;
what if I knew that and I called your bluff?
Don’t you think every kitten figures out how to get down
whether or not you ever show up?”
I’m white, and was brought up middle class, sure- and I lived most of my teens in residential living homes, came out in poverty, so don’t tell me that I was brought up privilaged. I scrabbled my way into school and retail on my own. I’m not a sex worker because of poverty- I worked two retail jobs and was fine with that, but discovered the world of sex work meant shorter hours and more enjoyable work, so I quit. I didn’t get brought up with sexual moralities that suggested I should save my body for someone special, or that I would be a horrible person if I had sex. I was brought up to be safe and aware of sexual risks, and to make informed decisions based on the consequences of my actions.
And right now? I’m not working for the man. I’m working on my terms, my hours, my rules. A john doesn’t like it? He can go elsewhere. And I accept that if I want to do something fancy or have something nice I’m going to have to drum up someone to pay for it. It’s not convoluded the way the 9-5 gig is. I know what I’m renting myself out for, and I get to say stop or go.
So what I’m saying is- I have agency. I have as much agency as anyone living in a capitalistic world can have. It’s not surprising that in “Selling Olga” many of the trafficked women aren’t bothered about doing sex work, but rather that they end up brutalized and used by pimps. Don’t get me wrong. I’m just as angry about the trafficking of women as anyone else. I think that type exploitation is unacceptable. And I’m also not blind to the fact that we’re exploited every single fucking day.
Maybe if women made loads of money doing sport (which they don’t, in comparison to men) they’d give that a go instead- but we make big money on sex and suggestions of sex, whether sex work is legal or illegal. If I feel exploited, it’s not by the little things- the johns or the work. It’s the big shit, the important shit that I get angry with- capitalism, sexism, racism, classism, big business, and religions that make sexual desire out to be the scariest most dreadful thing a person can have. But that’s a lot harder to tackle and take on than shooing streetwalkers inside or kicking them outside. You wanna rescue me? Save me from patronizing attitudes and give me a goddamn voice. I’m tired of being exploited by women who say their feminists and then tell me to pipe down because my experiences aren’t valid.
What if there’s no damsels in distress, huh? Maybe we’re not all fallen women. Maybe we’re making choices like everyone else does- with what we’ve got. Kittens have claws. Hookers have blacklists.
And maybe, just maybe, the way to help the women in sex work who want it is to ASK THEM HOW THEY CAN BE HELPED. We’ve got perfectly good mouths, and we exercise them plenty. We can speak for ourselves.
Are you ready to listen?
(lyrics quoted, “not a pretty girl” by ani difranco, which inspired this rant)