How does it feel to see your own book at the top of Irish bestsellers list? We catch up with writer and activist Rachel Moran to talk about her bestselling memoir, Paid For.
Writing a memoir can be liberating and terrifying. Writing a memoir about your former life as a prostitute in Ireland is an act of true courage. Were you surprised with the public’s reaction to your book?
In the run up to publication I was at the point where I didn’t care what the reaction would be, I just knew I had to do the right thing, but for about a year before that I had been very afraid. I had constant worries and fears about the whole thing, but most particularly about the impact on my son. I also worried about how I’d be able to live in the same city after the book came out; I had mental visions of myself walking down O’Connell Street paranoid out of my head. I remember the day the book was published; I just happened to be coming through town and was walking up O’Connell Street, laughing with a friend of mine, and then and several times since then I’ve marvelled at how comfortable I’ve felt walking around the city compared to how frightened I had been about how vulnerable and exposed I might feel. The public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, which has been great, but I don’t think that’s what’s contributed to my sense of ease more than anything; I think that comes from knowing I did the right thing by myself and this issue, by standing over my own words in the public arena.
For over 12 weeks your book, ‘Paid For’, has been at the top of Irish bestsellers lists — how does it feel to see your name on the top spot?
I don’t really see it that way, to be honest, and I suppose the reason for that has been because of the unfolding of events I could never have foreseen for most of the years I was writing it. It took eleven years to write that book and in its ninth year the Turn Off the Red Light campaign was launched. I was invited to the launch of that campaign and spoke from my personal experience in the closing minutes of it. I hadn’t been invited to speak, just to attend, but I felt it necessary that I should say something. I can trace the beginning of my public activism to that moment. It was the spring of 2011, and I began blogging around the same time the following year. Because I’ve been involved in so much abolitionist activism since then, both at home and abroad, I don’t see this as being about my name or even my book being at the ‘top spot’; I see it as being about this form of gender oppression finally getting the recognition and the public attention it deserves. The timing of the publication was very fortunate, and it blended with the efforts of the seventy organisations that make up the Turn Off the Red Light campaign.
A quick look at reviews on Amazon or Goodreads is the best testimony to your writing: ‘powerful’, ‘brave’, ‘excellent writer’, ‘amazing woman’, to recall a few. What did you learn about yourself while writing the book?
That’d be a difficult question to answer because it was written over such a long span of time that I had grown from a mid-twenties woman to a mid-thirties woman, and we all learn a lot about ourselves during that period of our lives. Some of what I learned was related to the book and a lot of it wasn’t. I remember one particular time though, in my earliest days of working on the book, writing about how, as a young teenager, I had felt totally unable to assimilate into society by working in a normal environment, such as hairdressing or as a waitress. I wrote the line: ‘There was a sense of adequacy, of normalcy, of decency inherent to those socially acceptable positions, and I suppose the sad thing is that, deep down, I felt I had no adequacy, I had no normalcy, and I was not decent’, and I just burst into tears. There were many moments like that, when I made painful connections and discoveries and links between my prostitution life and the upbringing that had gone before it. They were revealing, excruciatingly painful, but ultimately healing.
From your appearance on ‘The Late Late Show’ to multiple newspaper and radio interviews, book launches and signings, suddenly you became a spokesperson on the issue of prostitution. But that’s something you’ve been doing for a long time as a campaigner — tell us more about your work for SPACE International.
Our primary purpose is to work towards the implementation of the Nordic Model wherever it has not yet been founded, and to support and uphold it wherever it has. I will be travelling to several locations abroad to this end in the coming months. One thing I would like people to realise about the Nordic Model is that it is a gender neutral law, meaning that, although the huge majority of prostituted people are women and girls, this law protects the sellers of sex regardless of whether they are male, female, transgendered, whatever. It does this by a two-pronged approach, which is by not criminalising them and by offering them viable alternatives to prostitution. If the Nordic Model had been implemented in Ireland during my time in prostitution, believe me, I would have availed of those exiting strategies so fast it would have made my punters’ heads spin.
Most people don’t know that prostitution is legal in Ireland. Soliciting either to buy or sell sex in public places is a crime, and certain activities that surround prostitution, such as brothel-keeping, are illegal, but besides that, indoor prostitution is perfectly legal and above board. This means that we have a situation where women and girls from the age of sexual consent — seventeen and onwards — can be considered legal commodities. All that needs to happen is that the conditions of their lives are harsh enough or constrained enough so that they’ll accept a commodified status. The men who pay to use them are committing no crime, despite the fact that prostitution research worldwide has shown prostitution to have devastating emotional, physical and psychological effects. I was fifteen when I was first prostituted, and many of the women I met had been there since they, like me, were under the age of consent. Also, many of the girls I’d lived with in residential care turned up out on the streets within a year or two of my having started there. If people think dysfunctional backgrounds don’t lead girls directly into prostitution they either don’t know the facts about prostitution or don’t want to know them. What I and the women I’m working with are looking for is the criminalisation of the demand for paid sex, so that the onus for this commercial sexual abuse is placed where it ought to be — in the laps of the men who pay to use marginalised women and girls like blow-up dolls, while they make sure their own wives and daughters are safe at home, oblivious.
We have a long way to go, but I know that we’ll get there, and as I’ve said in the book, I would take it as a personal favour if people would log onto www.turnofftheredlight.ie and fill out the form to request their TDs’ support for the campaign. That really would mean a lot to me.
Paid For. My Journey Through Prostitution by Rachel Moran is available from the Gill & Macmillan Bookshops and good booksellers nationwide. Also available as an ebook on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and iTunes.
Follow Rachel Moran on Twitter (@RachelRMoran) and join the Turn Off the Right Light campaign (www.turnofftheredlight.ie/)