She lost herself

Irin Carmon reviews Paid For, by Rachel Moran.

Moran started selling herself on the streets of Dublin when she was fifteen.

Moran’s seven years in the sex trade, the main subject of her book, convinced her it is never compatible with consent and always tantamount to abuse. “The summation of my experience of prostitution was simply this: I lost myself,” she writes. She warns that “Paid For”  “will not read in the style of a traditional memoir,” but its arc is familiar: troubled parents, state custody and homelessness, an older boyfriend who suggested she walk the streets, hitting rock bottom, getting out with a new purpose.

So, clearly, she’s not of the “sex work is empowering” school.

“Paid For” was previously published in Ireland, where Moran helped persuade legislators to adopt the Nordic model for the sex trade, which criminalizes buyers of sex and treats sellers as exploited victims. Such a system is distinct from the full decriminalization model now advocated by Amnesty International, a move Moran has campaigned against. It differs, too, from legalization as attempted in countries like the Netherlands and Germany, which involves active state regulation, and from the full criminalization practiced in the United States (except for parts of ­Nevada), which offers the worst of all worlds, with the brunt falling on the most vulnerable. By treating people in the sex trade as automatic victims who require state intervention, the Nordic model has been criticized by some sex workers as the legislative equivalent of those teenage girls beating up Moran for her own good.

This fierce debate — like any policy dispute, concerning ends as much as means, values as much as evidence, pitting people who call themselves feminists against one another — lingers under the surface of “Paid For.” It is why the book reads as an argument with interlocutors who are rarely named, giving it the feel of a very long subtweet. Moran attacks from multiple directions what she argues are prevailing myths about sex work: that working indoors is safer; that some forms of sex work are “classier” than others; that selling sex can be empowering; the existence of a “happy hooker.” The biggest lie of all, she says, is that women can choose to be in prostitution. “A woman’s compliance in prostitution is a response to circumstances beyond her control,” Moran writes, “and this produces an environment which prohibits even the possibility of true consent.”

But that claim is falsified by the existence of thousands of rich women who choose to be in prostitution.

Or not.

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