Translated from German
Original by Per Hinrichs published on www.welt.de on 19 January 2014
[Translator’s comment: original was published under a inconspicuous site header that reads “Ex-whore”. It is unclear whether the use of this word was agreed upon with Rahm.]
“Prostitution and slavery are the same thing”
Why I am no longer a whore: “Die Welt” interviewed Danish Tanja Rahm about her experiences of violence growing up, the guilty conscience of her former customers, and exit programs for prostitutes.
“Dear sex customer, If you think that I ever felt attracted to you, you are terribly mistaken. I have never had any desire to go to work, not once. The only thing on my mind was to make money, and fast.” – That is the beginning of an open letter written by the Danish former prostitute Tanja Rahm, which was published first in the Norwegian paper “Aftenposten” and later also in “Die Welt”. Rahm, who now works as a writer and therapist near Copenhagen, has been widely praised but also criticized for her statements. Since then she has commented on her blog tanjarahm.dk, on Norwegian TV and in numerous interviews. “Die Welt”, too, asked to talk to her about it.
Die Welt: You made many degrading experiences with men in your work as a prostitute. Why did you decide to do this job of all things?
Tanja Rahm: I’m not even sure it was a free choice. I grew up in a very dysfunctional family with alcohol and drugs. When I was 11 years old, a pedophile man abused me and french-kissed me. At 17 I was sexually abused multiple times by various pedophiles. At 13 I wrote a poem about what it’s like to be a prostitute. I don’t think that any 13-year-old girl dreams of becoming a prostitute. I think that my low self-esteem and the feeling of not being loved and my hunger for attention led me there. I didn’t even believe that vocational training or university were options for me. I didn’t trust anyone and was scared of being hurt. When I prostituted myself, I thought that I was of no use for anything else, that I was worthless. I wasn’t picking one of several jobs, it wasn’t about becoming a nurse or a teacher or a prostitute. I thought the only thing I was good for was giving my sexuality away. The men who sexually abused me taught me that. And so I decided I could just as well do it for money, so that I could see what I’m worth.
Die Welt: So you tried to strengthen your self-esteem through the sale of your body?
Rahm: Of course I noticed that men found me attractive. Many said so, too. But nobody told me I was good at writing or drawing. Everything in my environment was focused on my sexuality and my looks.
Die Welt: Is this personal background something that’s representative of other prostitutes?
Rahm: Yes. I have spoken with many prostitutes and about eight out of ten made similar experiences of violence and abuse. When a man buys sex today, he needs to know that he is highly likely to encounter a woman who has suffered terrible things and is selling herself for the wrong reasons – namely because she wants to be worth something. It’s only later that these women realize that this only makes it a lot worse and they lose whatever self-esteem they had left.
Die Welt: And yet many commenters in Scandinavia and Germany write that you were naïve when you entered the job. That’s just the sort of thing that happens to prostitutes, they often say. Were you really too naïve?
Rahm: Everyone is welcome to call me naïve. I was emotionally destroyed by the time I was in my early twenties, I had internalized that only my sexuality is worth anything. I think I wanted to take control of myself back then. That was definitely naïve, because as a prostitute you have no control whatsoever. After all, you never know who the next customer is, what he wants and how he will treat you. It’s a very dangerous situation. When a customer choked me, I had no control whatsoever anymore and that was precisely what he wanted: he wanted my life to be in his hands.
Die Welt: But you earned well.
Rahm: It was never about the money to me. It wasn’t the money that made me a prostitute. If I could undo those three years and restore my self-respect, I would pay back every Danish krone that I earned in that job.
Die Welt: Were you ever actually forced to have sex, for example by a pimp?
Rahm: I was never forced to have sex with customers by a third person. But nobody helps you out of that milieu. Nobody helps you when you tell them what you do. On the contrary, everyone around you wants to keep you in prostitution. None of the assaults I suffered during my work were reported. Nobody told me I could get access to psychological counseling. I only ever heard: drink your tea and then see the next customer. Because both the greeter and the receptionist received a share of my earnings. If I didn’t work, they earned less too.
Die Welt: Did you experience violence with customers?
Rahm: Frequently, yes. One time a customer tried to set the room on fire while I was still inside. I couldn’t get out and when the police arrived, the brothel owner called me and yelled so loudly that the officers could hear it: You have to come back immediately! She didn’t care that I almost died. I was also raped by a man who kept me imprisoned for one hour. Porn was running in the background while he pushed my head into the pillow. I was stalked by customers; taxi drivers who drove me home from work demanded to have sex with me because they didn’t respect me.
Die Welt: You wrote that there were many psychopaths among your customers. What did those do?
Rahm: Something they all have in common is that they never perceived me as a human being, but as a prostitute, a commodity with which they could do what they wanted for 20 minutes or half an hour. Many customers dehumanize prostitutes; to them, they are living dolls. Many commenters write that, too: Well, what do you expect, you’re a whore. That’s cruel and inhumane.
Die Welt: Prostitution is said to be the world’s oldest trade. Does prohibition make sense at all when the demand is so high?
Rahm: The world’s oldest trade is still agriculture. Women turned to the profession of prostitution because there was nothing else left to them. They had no right to vote, no access to education or regular jobs. That’s why they did this. Today, in 2014, we have access to education, jobs, careers. There is massive social progress that is just not supposed to apply to prostitutes. And besides, it is men who are making the big profits: the pimps and the traffickers who bring women over here from Eastern Europe. It’s a big industry, a money machine, that passes on only the tiniest portion of the profits to the prostitutes.
Die Welt: So what are people to do?
Rahm: It is my wish that Europe will stand united and take action against prostitution and prohibit it. It would also be a signal to the rest of the world that we tolerate no slavery, no violence, no sex for money. We also need exit programs for prostitutes.
Die Welt: In Denmark, prostitution is prohibited. But there’s still commercial sex there.
Rahm: That’s correct. And it’s not acceptable. Only recently I read a website where sex buyers review prostitutes. It’s nauseating. They don’t care if the women were kidnapped and brought to the brothel or what kind of background they have. One customer writes that he was unhappy with the woman’s appearance, so he turned her around and took her brutally. We have to take social responsibility and recognize prostitution for what it is: a crime against humanity. Punters must be punished, not women who usually sell themselves out of desperation. There is also still slavery in the world, but that’s illegal, of course.
Die Welt: Is prostitution comparable to slavery?
Rahm: It’s the same thing. Someone is exploiting a person, with or without money changing hands. It’s a form of slavery. Only that this isn’t about skin color but sex.
Die Welt: Why did you stay in a job that was so damaging to you for three years?
Rahm: Because I couldn’t get out. I wanted out much sooner. I suffered from depression, anxiety, and many other problems. I only made it through the last year by regularly using cocaine; I just couldn’t have done it otherwise. Many other women also used drugs or drank alcohol. I was much more hurt than before the job; I didn’t think I could make the exit. And every man that bought me confirmed my negative impression of men.
Die Welt: One argument frequently heard from your critics is that you are shifting the blame onto the customers, that you should rather take responsibility for your own life. What do you think about that?
Rahm: I know that it’s difficult for many to understand the problem that is prostitution. I would of course be very easy to say everyone is responsible for their own affairs. But you don’t need to be a psychologist to see that sexual abuse can lead to prostitution. We have all heard it countless times. That’s also why I don’t understand that many men stress freedom of choice in their attacks. I felt like I had no other options at the time. Men destroyed my blossoming sexuality, abused it, ruined it. How was I supposed to be in a position to make good decisions? I think that the freedom of choice argument is used to ease the conscience of buyers. For if they were to acknowledge that abuse is what drives many women to the brothel, they could hardly justify it anymore. And in countries where prostitution is socially accepted and legal, any debate is quickly nipped in the bud.
Die Welt: Now the debate is gaining momentum again.
Rahm: Yes, the letter was published in Scandinavia, Iceland and Germany and it will probably be published in Great Britain, the US, Spain and France too. Things are changing. I want to shake people awake.
Die Welt: Many sex buyers and prostitutes claim that the women enjoy it. Is that self-deception or can the so-called ‘happy hooker’ really exist?
Rahm: Of course I can’t say what these prostitutes feel or don’t feel. But from my experience I know that many active prostitutes don’t know what they are getting into and only realize what it has done to them once they have exited. You’re not just selling a thing. Every time you receive a customer, you sell a part of yourself. It eats you alive. I don’t think that there are happy hookers. If the job was easy, why would I have quit?