An Insight into the Sex-Industry
The words of the daily Prayer of Consecration of MEV (Missionaries of Evangelium Vitae) members, “To love my neighbour as myself”, are the thought behind today’s post.
Below is my interview with a psychologist who spent many years working in Melbourne’s brothels, counselling the prostitutes who worked there. In these places of hopelessness and despair, he found a way to truly love these women and to offer them hope.
Firstly, can you give me some background: where, when, how long for and what was the nature of your work with prostitutes? Were you a practising Catholic in those days?
I was a private practicing psychologist in Melbourne for 20 years. Catholic, but not a particularly devout one. I went to Church.
My practice with the prostitutes encompassed group training, group personal development and one-to-one counselling. The period focusing on prostitutes covered about six or seven years.
Some aspects were paid for by brothel owners ( I had tax-driven contracts with 6 major brothels in Melbourne); some by the girls themselves; some pro-bono.
From what backgrounds did the girls come?
Mostly Australian, Melbourne, some state and interstate. A very few from other countries. Most were from modest families – working and lower middle class. A very few higher middle. One had another job as a radio producer by day.
Did they see you as a friend, counsellor, or father-figure?
Various. I was there as a counsellor, but most saw me as that and as a friend at some point, and occasionally as a father-figure. I tried to discourage that. A ‘distance’ has to be maintained. This is a guess of course. Only they could say. Initially most were suspicious.
Is there any particular emotion or feeling that describes your experience in the brothels?
My emotional experience varied. It was quite difficult at times. Embarrassment initially, in ‘new’ brothels. But that is possibly my normal reserve with new people. I had to hide my ‘care’ so as to advance a ‘professional’ air.
Counsellors have to keep a firm hold on emotion. The ‘distance’ between patient and counsellor is essential if one is to ‘see’ the other. I also had a normal male response to barely-clad girls that needed to be held in check. Every girl ‘tried it on’, and I had to be somewhat ‘stone-faced’ in order to establish a working rapport. To me they were as any other ‘patient’: someone to get to know in depth, sort out and prioritise their problems, find root causes, diagnose, develop strategic means to aid them and the tactical aspects to implement. Intervention choices were largely determined by what they were prepared to do. So, for instance, providing ‘training/counsel’ in situ in the brothels was an initial strategy to not only provide some general mental and physical health help but also to introduce them to the idea of personal , confidential counselling. Not a lot of that required emotional content from me but nevertheless allowed plenty of opportunity for empathy and nurturance. I gave where I could.
Humour was a useful ‘ice-breaker’ and they provided plenty of opportunity for that – usually at my embarrassed expense. Group work was tough in situ as I was just one man amongst a gaggle of girls. They exerted ‘control’ by misbehaviour. Over time, as with most of my varied range of patients, knowing them facilitated loving them. They were all someone’s daughters and while with me, they were my daughters. My predominant emotion was fatherly love. But professional.
Can you describe a typical day, with the variety of problems the girls came to you to discuss?
There was never a typical day. The situation (say, in the brothels) dictated activity. In the consulting room it was talk – roughly half and half, they and me. In groups it was ‘chatter and laughter/tears/ sighs/recognitions/sudden insights arising. My role was to ‘introduce’ points and elicit; to draw out points from what arose in the words and thoughts they expressed. Teach something where I could. Clarify. It was easier in confidential counselling and therapy. I could give ‘homework’! Readings. Get them to write. I could conduct psychometric tests.
Problems varied. Boyfriends, clients, partners. Sexuality, Relationships. Their own looking at themselves. The drugs and the ‘industry’ people of all sorts. Especially the women. Mothers. Brothel owners. And there was the prostitute’s dilemma – “Do I tell my partner?”
(If they do and the partner does not approve, they lose: if the partner does approve, they lose.)
There was always an underlying “Why?”
“Why didn’t they/don’t they love me?”
Careers. How do I get out of this? I am worthless. I hate myself. I am wicked.
What was typical with all the girls was an early period of sessions where they would give me blatant lies. It was a ‘test’. They lied about themselves, their families, their homes, their schooling, their work, their problems. Every psych patient lies at first. They will invent stories and problems to see what you say or do, and how. It is a client’s way of establishing whether you are worth telling the real tale to. It is their ‘trust’ hurdle for you to jump over. All clients do that. Not just prostitutes.
They rarely articulated what their deep key problem was. Most did not allow themselves to know it. It took time, patience, strength-building and insight growth before they could confront the reality of themselves. I was always very cautious and careful not to push them into the deep end of their sewers. They needed to learn to swim. (To the steps, of course!)
How prevalent was drug-use in the brothels?
Almost universal, endemic. I cannot recall a girl who did not use drugs. Many different sorts. All drank.
Were the prostitutes you knew eager to leave their work? Did they try? Did they succeed? What did they go on to do afterwards?
Yes. All wanted to leave. But they would not say that until well into therapy. Early therapy is marked by denial and by confirmation of choice. Blame of others. Claims of ‘power’. It is only as they explore their state of mind, history, actual means of managing that they start to see the hole they are in – and want to be out. My job was to build ladders, drop ropes down, reach down, grab a handful of hair and pull them up from their Pit.
Many of my girls got out of the industry. I was more successful than people in the industry liked. But there were always a ‘fresh supply’. One ‘Madam’ I knew used to recruit her ‘ladies’ from a suburban High School.
I used to write quite fictitious CVs for girls, full of skills and experience gained being employed by companies I researched that had gone out of business. They came in useful. I trained girls in interview techniques and job search skills.
I steered several girls into University and perhaps three quarters of those gained degrees. Several married. I was invited to weddings. That was pleasing.
Unfortunately not all my effort was successful. I lost girls. Some drifted off. Moved. Some slipped back or just could not escape. Two died that I know of, of drug-overdose. That hit me very hard. One was pregnant; a lovely child of just 19.
How common were abortions? Were they voluntary, coerced or ever forced?
Abortions were not all that common. Most girls knew how to protect themselves. But sometimes I did deal with girls who had abortions. I had more ‘other-than-prostitute’ patients that had had abortions, often many years before. The working girls themselves ‘peer-pressured’ abortions where it arose. (Girls trying to be helpful). Rarely, the brothel owners who could just replace them. I did not come across a ‘forced’ abortion but brothel madams often pressured the pretty girls who had regular clients.
How well did brothel-owners take care of the physical needs of their employees?
Most did not care. They lied too, of course. I managed to ‘get in’ when Paul Keating introduced his misguided training tax. The brothels paid me to create and run ‘courses’ so they could prove to the ATO that they provided training. Most brothel owners ‘used’ the girls. It is women exploiting women. Even when men own the brothels, it is women who run them. The women owners, (roughly half of the brothels as opposed to the ‘small fry’ operators in two- or three-woman places) treated the girls as private property. One woman I had a contract with insisted that ‘her ladies’ worshipped the Goddess Isis ! (She put a ‘hit’ contract out on me for taking so many of her girls away). Girls were commodities. I never saw a father bring a girl into a brothel to work, but I knew of quite a few mothers.
I ‘sold’ mental and physical health training to the brothels, so the girls could ‘work better’. It included managing difficult clients. That was the ‘hook’ otherwise they had to pay a training levy.
How do prostitutes feel about their work: indifferent, proud, ashamed, or something else?
All initially will say it is their choice. They will say they enjoy it. They are proud. It is a nonsense of course, as they try hard to make sure very few in their private life know. But they will claim power, especially over men. They cannot allow themselves to hate themselves, so they hate men. Almost to a one they would ask me, very soon after establishing a therapeutic relationship, “Should I give it up?”.
I would say clearly, “Of course. It is bad for you. It is bad, full stop”.
It established very early on that I was not going to approve of prostitution, and that my approval or otherwise was not at issue. I was there for them. I never disapproved of them as women. They always had that as a solid basis.
Deeply they are ashamed. They sink in that shame. It is an essential for them to recognise just what they are sinking in. But it needs time. I did not have a magic wand, just words. I used to pray before a session, “Lord, give me the words”. That is all I had with which to get through to them. That and patience. And Love. And skill. And knowledge of people. And an ability not to cry while they were with me. (I saved it until they left).
Why do you think the current Feminist mantra is ‘no-one should make you feel ashamed’. Until they allow that real and justified feeling to come to the surface and be confronted, they will sink in it.
Another modern mantra is ‘do not judge’. They would eventually ask me if I was judging them and I would always say “Yes, of course, but my judgement means nothing much here”. It was their judgements of themselves that mattered and they MUST judge themselves if they are to understand, seek forgiveness, repair, repent and move upward. That is what therapy is all about.
What would you say to a young girl or woman who is considering a career in prostitution?
I love you.
You are my Father’s little girl.
My Father loves you.
He has things for you to do. Far better things.