Rachel Moran has a picture on her phone of herself with Pope Francis. He is smiling and holding her book with its title, PAID FOR: My Journey Through Prostitution, spelled out in oversized white letters. Moran ran away from home at age 14 and spent seven years as a prostitute working the streets and brothels in Dublin. With the help of an aunt who saw value in her, and with a child she was raising alone and who needed to start school, Moran did what many find impossible: She escaped the self-destructive lifestyle she had fallen into and returned to school, earning degrees in journalism and writing.
Now in her late thirties, Moran is a founding member of SPACE—Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment—and an activist for what’s known as the “Nordic Model.” First adopted in Sweden, it puts the legal burden on the mostly male buyers and exploiters in the sex trade, punishing them instead of arresting and harassing the women, which is customary in other countries. The approach pits her against Amnesty International, which adopted a resolution in August at their international meeting in Dublin calling for the decriminalization of all consensual sex work around the world.
“They’re recognized as the best human-rights organization,” Moran says of Amnesty. “What the hell are they thinking?”
Moran was in Washington recently to promote the U.S. release of her book, which has blurbs from former President Jimmy Carter, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, and actress Jane Fonda, who says the eye-opening look at prostitution is “irrefutable proof of why it should NEVER be legalized.”
Over coffee at Starbucks, Moran made her case that a massive increase in the sex trade inevitably accompanies legalization, “and with the increase, more sex trafficking, violence and abuse.” She calls the red-light district in Amsterdam “a human zoo.” In Germany, where prostitution is legal, she says there are 500 brothels in Berlin alone, some 12 stories high to accommodate a thousand men a day. Signs advertise lunchtime package deals: “A woman, a beer and a blood sausage.”
They get the women—really just girls, she says—mostly from marginalized groups, or the impoverished former Soviet republics. Or like Moran they’re taken from the streets, runaways from dysfunctional families. “If women had a full array of viable choices, the sex trade would collapse tomorrow,” she says.
The debate over legalization has divided the feminist community. Decriminalization and/or legalization of the sex trade appeals to those who imagine prostitution could then be regulated and women’s health protected, and those schooled in the Hollywood version of what Moran calls “the happy hooker.” She will have none of that, and in her book, she lays out quite graphically the indignities she endured just to survive.
“If there is one thing for people to take away [from her book], it’s that prostitution is abusive in and of itself,” she says, “You don’t need to have been chained to a radiator or kidnapped or dragged by the hair of your head.”
Moran says she has never known a woman prostituting herself who was happy, which is why alcohol and drug abuse is so prevalent—and why she can’t understand women who haven’t experienced prostitution, yet think it should be endorsed as a form of labor.
“It’s perceived to be a legal argument, but I don’t see the legitimacy of calling yourself a feminist while condoning the commodification of women,” Moran says. “That’s like a civil rights activist maintaining that slavery is right in certain circumstances. It makes no sense.”
Playing devil’s advocate, I ask if the problem is the commodification of women, what about women who model and walk the runway? “They’re not being penetrated by penises 10 or 15 times a day,” Moran shot back, bluntly defining the difference.
Moran has coal black hair, pale skin and startling blue-green eyes. Her gaze conveys her rage about an industry that is romanticized at the expense of the human beings who get caught up in it. She turned her life around when her son reached school age, taking refuge in a rural community and listening to her father’s sister, who had come back into her life after a 20-year absence. “She encouraged me to go back to education. She was very practical. She said, ‘You want to go, you ought to go, so go.’
“I was also very bad with cocaine at the time,” Moran says. She knew that if she didn’t shape up, she would lose her son. “Making lunches and being on time and having a routine, if you’re a coke-sniffing woman living on prostitution you can’t do.”
It took her 10 years to write her book, which is part memoir, part social science, and part advocacy, and she initially intended to do it anonymously. Her son urged her to write under her own name, and while she reveals nothing about him in her book, that suggests a level of understanding and acceptance. The Aunt Margaret who set her on the road to recovery, and to whom the book is dedicated, died three months before the book’s publication.
“She was a working-class woman like the rest of them, but she was not mentally unwell,” Moran explains.
Moran grew up in grinding poverty. Her father committed suicide, her mother struggled with serious mental illness. Moran describes the humiliation she felt having to borrow a pencil in school or share someone else’s book, or “look in” as the teacher would say. She and her siblings were taunted daily, and those experiences helped make her a keen observer of the social strata in society.
Any good memoir is bound to be painful for those involved because secrets are told that were suppressed or glossed over for a lifetime in some cases. Given the grudges she could have carried, Moran is not unkind. “I acknowledge they weren’t bad people,” she says of her parents. “Being unwell didn’t make them bad people. They gave as much as they could.”