Laura Lee and Vednita Carter’s stories start the same way, just like many other stories across the world: with young women in need of jobs to finance their studies.
While Lee’s friends worked three or four nights a week in bars and restaurants, she took Saturday shifts at the local massage parlor. “I wanted to leave university debt-free. So that’s what I did, and it worked for me.”
Carter and a friend wanted to save up during the summer before entering college in the autumn. The papers were full of ads saying, ‘Dancers needed, make big money,’ she remembers. “Being freshly 18, we assumed that was what we would be doing: dancing. So we applied for those positions. And we both got hired.”
It didn’t take long before the tone of the dance job changed, however. “We had to become more seductive, to pay more attention to the men. They sent us to places that we couldn’t get out of unless we did things with the men, because we had no money,” Carter explains.
With the help of a former teacher, she managed to escape. Though she was exploited for less than a year, it took her several more years to get on with her life and finally get back to college. Her friend was not so lucky; she was exploited for decades before she got out of prostitution.
These experiences have profoundly shaped the two women’s different views and approaches to prostitution. Vednita Carter is now executive director of Breaking Free, an NGO in Minnesota, USA which helps women and girls to escape prostitution.
Laura Lee, on the other hand, is an escort nowadays. She concentrates especially on disabled and terminally ill men, as well as on her role as a hardcore dominatrix, while she studies to obtain her second degree – in psychology. Lee, who is Irish but lives in Scotland, is an eager sex workers’ activist, calling for complete decriminalization of the trade.
How can Carter and Lee’s stories begin so similarly, yet end so differently?
While talking to them, I really do understand both women. They are both working for a better future for those in the sex trade, despite the fact they basically represent opposite realities. So who is right? Carter, who views prostitution as enslavement and violence against women, or Lee, who argues that people who choose to earn their bread-and-butter by selling sex should be recognized and respected like other workers?
“I am not a victim”
The rift between the two reaches all the way down to the language they use. When Lee says sex worker, Carter says survivor, victim, exploited or prostituted person. Lee says customer or client, while Carter says offender, abuser or predator, and what Lee calls a manager is in Carter’s view a trafficker.
Their disagreements derive from fundamentally different views on prostitution. Whether someone is an exploited victim of trafficking or a sex worker eventually comes down to the question of whether selling sex can ever be an act of free will.
Since she first entered the sex business 15 years ago, Laura Lee has tried to retire three times, but she always comes back. Sex work is financially rewarding, but it can also be hard to have other work on the side, she explains. Lee, the mother of one daughter, lost her job in a bank when it was discovered that she was working as an escort on Saturdays. “They wouldn’t give me a reference to go on and work anywhere else. So it put me in the position I’m in now, where I went back to escorting and back to university. That is the only option available to me, really.”
Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, says that most sex workers sell sex to feed themselves and their children, just like Lee. They are mothers, students, young people, and rejected asylum seekers, who cannot get social benefits. Immigrants are also often very well represented because of their difficulties in getting other jobs, she adds.
“So certain sectors of society are very well represented in prostitution, and what that comes down to is that it’s an economic choice and people are calculating whether prostitution is a better job prospect than the other employment opportunities available to them.
“I do not agree that that counts as force, not unless every journalist, every factory worker, every cleaner, every banker, everybody else taking whatever job they can to survive, selling either their body or their mind or some other part of their being, is also classed as forced. If they’re all forced, we’re forced. If they’re not forced, neither are we,” Adams says.
Laura Lee says she is content with her life as a mother, student and independent escort. That is also why she can’t stand being portrayed as a victim. “I hate that other people are telling me about my life. I’m an expert on my own life and an expert on my industry, so I get very cross.”
“No girl dreams of selling sex”
Max Waltman, a researcher at Stockholm University with a PhD in political science, says he has yet to see any empirical evidence that people would be in prostitution entirely of their own free will. What he has seen, however, are studies showing that 9 out of 10 sex workers want to escape prostitution but are unable to for one reason or another. “Prostitution is an extreme form of abuse and exploitation,” he says.
Vednita Carter also finds it hard to believe that anyone, deep down, would want to sell their body to others. “Little girls do not daydream about becoming prostituted or sex trafficked individuals when they grow up,” she says.
The organization Breaking Free, founded by Carter in 1996, helps about 500 women who have been in prostitution every year. The NGO provides both practical help, such as housing, and psychological help like its Sisters of Survival support groups, in which stories of wretched fates are told.
“75 percent of the women we work with were sexually abused before the age of 18. And I believe that’s a stepping stone into this life, because if someone that loves you sexually abuses you, molests you, or rapes you, you think that’s normal.
“I talked to one of our first clients, who was abused. She said that when she ran away, her neighbor picked her up walking down the street, and he became her first customer. She was 12 years old. She just thought that this was normal for little girls.”
When that woman was 27, she came to Breaking Free. With them, she came to understand that there was an alternative to being exploited by traffickers selling her body to strange men. Carter’s organization helped her to finish high school and continue her education; today, she’s a medical terminologist.
“Once women find out that they have an alternative to being bought and sold, they think ‘I can do better, and I want to do better’,” Carter says.
“Just selling labor”
In Laura Lee’s experience, the media has a tendency to focus on the extremes when portraying sex workers. “You’ve got the high-priced call girl who jets around Europe for weeks here and weeks there. And then at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got the shivering, desperate, drug-addicted street sex worker. The reality is somewhere down the middle,” says Lee, who claims that during her long career as a sex worker she has never met a single trafficked person.
In Scotland it is legal to sell sexual services, as long as no brothels or pimps are involved. For Lee, satisfying men sexually is a job like any other. “I pay my taxes and my national insurance; I have done for years,” she says.
The stigma associated with prostitution makes selling sexual services different from other jobs, but sex work and other types of service work also have many similarities, says Luca Stevenson from the International Committee of Sex Workers in Europe. “When you’re using somebody to clean your house, for example, we don’t say you’re buying their body. You’re buying their time and their labor, and that’s similar to working in the sex industry. You sell your time, your labor and a service.”
Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes adds that, “The fact that we’re the only ones labeled as selling ourselves is really an insult, because we live in a capitalist society. You either sell yourself or you starve.”
“Prostitution is modern slavery”
According to the UN Palermo Protocol, any persons who are recruited, transported and forced into prostitution or other labor are victims of trafficking. The consent of the victim is irrelevant, the protocol states. In other words, “you cannot consent to your trafficking,” Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the international organization Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, notes.
“Very often you hear about situations where a woman says, ‘I lived in Ukraine or Asia, and I knew I was going to dance naked in a massage parlor in Finland or in the Netherlands or Germany.’ But that consent does not hold up in a court of law in defense of the traffickers or the person who is exploiting you.”
Vednita Carter points out that back in the 1970s, her 18-year-old self would probably have claimed that she was okay with being bought and sold. “I had to tell myself it wasn’t that bad, because that’s how you cope with a lot of things.”
When Carter eventually realized that it was only drugs and delusion keeping her afloat, she admitted to herself that she was being abused and managed to break free. Now she is convinced that prostitution can never be a good thing and sees it as an extension of slavery.
“When the slaves were being freed here in the United States, there were some slaves who felt that they were better off being enslaved. Now, those might have been the slaves that worked in the house. They might have had seemingly better jobs than those that worked in the fields,” she notes.
“This war is being fought because slavery isn’t good for anybody. It doesn’t matter if they want to stay in it or not. It’s not okay to take a human being, enslave them, and make them do whatever it is we want them to do. If we want to rape them we can, and they can’t yell.”
Though their views and agendas are opposites, both Carter and Lee say that they are fighting for women’s and human rights. Can they both be right? Can prostitution be slavery for some and “just a job” for others? How do we navigate and decide between these two compelling, polarized positions?
In the end, how we – and societies as a whole – see sex work, will affect millions of people across the world.