Prostitution: A Choice When There is No Choice

When you’ve been sexually assaulted by your own father and sold off by your own mother, it’s tough to say that prostitution is a choice. It’s just a continuation.

By Martine Letarte

According to the Council on the Status of Women, no less than 80% of prostitutes were sexually exploited as teenagers.

When I was a child, there was a lot of abuse. We were left to ourselves. My mother arranged for me to be raped several times. When I turned 13, she went out looking for customers for me. We were a really poor family. That made us a bit of money. At 16, I got fed up and went to dance in bars. I worked as a prostitute too, but that was a way for me to flee the house, and at least I kept the money for myself.

That’s the story of Johanne, 58. You can find many similar life stories at La Maison de Marthe in Quebec City. There, they help women get out of prostitution. Violence; abuse; social and emotional poverty; economic insecurity; lack of education; addiction and dependence: the same factors come up again and again among sex workers.

This reality was documented by La Maison de Marthe’s founder, anthropologist Rose Dufour in her 2005 book Je vous salue… Le point zero de la prostitution. The same factors that lead women to prostitute themselves also serve as obstacles to getting out. “For example, she may consume and become addicted, and she needs money to satisfy her addiction,” says Corrine Vézeau, project and intervention coordinator at La Maison de Marthe.  

As well, family poverty growing up means these women often have no education. “If it’s been years after you’ve ever seen the inside a classroom it’s tough to find a job,” Vézeau observes. “Basic welfare isn’t enough to survive on. That’s why the road out of prostitution often contains a lot of u-turns.”

To facilitate the process, La Maison de Marthe will soon offer shelter for their clientele. They’ve received a sizeable from the federal Department of Women and Gender Equality to make 6 rooms available by the fall.

“The women we help are in survival mode,” says Vézeau. “Their living conditions are so bad that we spend a lot of time fulfilling their basic needs. We often don’t get to work on their life projects. Having a safe place where they can put their belongings will make our reconstruction project a lot easier.”

It was the death of her daughter’s father than provoked Johanne to get out of her vicious cycle of addiction and prostitution. She was 40; her daughter, 9. After a period of 10 years’ abstinence from substance abuse, she relapsed. She arrived on the doorstep of La Maison de Marthe at age 53.

“It was a big adventure, but I was ready,” Johanne says. “I’d shed my false beliefs. I`d unearthed all my buried emotions. I’d punched a punching bag, I’d raged, I’d cursed, I’d made new friends. It was like a new GPS was inside of me.”

To help the women work on themselves La Maison de Marthe holds a series of seminars. One important step is recorporalisation, having the women get back in touch with their own bodies. “With all the trauma they’ve experienced, they feel extremely disassociated from their own bodies,” explains Vézeau. “In these workshops we give them a lot to sense and feel, and all sorts of things come to the surface. We give them simple tools, like breathing and drawing, for managing emotions.”

For Jeanette, 63, emotions and sexuality are still complicated: “I didn’t think prostitution was wrong. It was like going to work in a shop. I had a job to do and the faster I did it, the faster I was out of there. I didn’t put any of my emotions into it. Now I’m trying to reconnect, but I can’t. Nice to say I’m going to find pleasure with my partner, but it doesn’t work that way.”

Jeanette’s come a long way from her days of trading sex for drugs: “I became a dancer at 21… I always thought I was dirty. My father touched me inappropriately when I was 11. I remembered that, and other stuff that happened when I was even younger, in therapy. I never wanted to be alone with him.”

She never worked again after her years of prostitution: “All I have is a grade 10 education. And besides, drugged up, sometimes I could stay on my feet for three days straight. It’s exhausting.” Now that she’s sober, she hopes to write a book about her experiences to help other prostitutes.

Johanne considers herself healed: “I’m a prostitution survivor. I’ve been out of the game for 4 years. I’ve taken back control of my life. I have a loft, and I work in health care. But I don’t work much. My priority is to take care of myself.”   

First published in Reflet de Société magazine, vol. 29, no. 4, May 2021, pages 18-19

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