Deputy InDepth Editor
In the immediate aftermath of my article looking into Dublin’s escort services, I received an email from a woman offering to talk with me about her experience as a sex worker, from which she had now fully retired. After briefly corresponding online, we set up an interview on the condition that I would withhold her identity, so I shall refer to her as Anna from hereon in.
We met in a small café on the outskirts of the city to talk and over the course of three hours she opened up in great depth, divulging her own life story and those of the people surrounding her, both inside and outside the trade. Spanning a decade, she lived between Dublin, New York and San Francisco, working as a lap dancer, exotic masseuse and dominatrix, before managing to leave it all behind and return to Ireland permanently.
The initial decision to try her hand at lap dancing came at the age of eighteen, when the prospect caught her attention while working in a Dublin-based clothing store. Anna was introduced to the concept by a co-worker’s wife, who dealt with financial transactions in Strings, a Leeson Street club run by Mary Cullen, the spouse of convicted murderer and rapist John Cullen. Her choice to take up the offer stemmed as much from fascination as it did from issues with money.
“I had a skewed way of thinking about it”, she said. “There was something appealing about the idea and since I had a lot of issues with my body, if I could be in a place where I was comfortable in front of that many people, then I figured it would help me in some way.”
Spending six months in Strings, Anna maintained a degree of openness with her friends as to her experiences, defending her right to such work wholeheartedly. Yet, looking back, she admits to being naive for not questioning her motives properly. She saw it initially as a liberating act, almost “like an art” that helped to build a close bond of understanding with the other women involved, despite the language barriers. For her, these women and almost every person who was involved in the sex trade that she would later encounter “had the same story of a family background missing something important.” Anna’s teenage years were dogged by her parents’ contempt towards one another and her dire relationship with her mother, who verbally abused her throughout her teenage years. She overheard her mother’s friend sexually abusing her sister one night and on another occasion she was molested herself. When she told her parents they brushed her off as a nuisance, saying “you should be used to that shit by now.”
She now attributes her choice to enter the trade to her sense of inadequacy and desire to take control in the aspects of her life where she once felt useless, a motive that she says has influenced most of her fellow workers:
“They had different characters, but in essence, it was the same story. That was something nobody else understood, besides those of us involved. It was a seizing of control and liberating in that sense, but even liberal feminists make such bad choices.”
However, in Strings, the positive attitudes of the close-knit circle quickly eroded once an influx of Eastern European women came into the club, raising the competition for servicing clientele with acts of an increasingly extreme nature.
“She moved into an erotic massage parlour and began adopting different characters in order to disassociate herself from the stark reality. At this point, while still mentioning her work to outside friends, the descriptions had been pared down to the minimal facts, something which she states was more of an attempt to deny the actuality of her situation to herself. This coping mechanism became a serious issue as her work life began to overtake her external life. Her sense of self-worth was virtually non-existent.”
Considering the Cullens’ strong links with several Dublin criminal gangs, who in turn were suspected associates of Russian and Albanian mafia organisations trafficking women across Western Europe back in the early 2000s, there need not be much speculation as to the backgrounds of these women. Indeed, Anna herself noted that the signs of trafficking were more than clear in their lives, which came off as their being the property of a small number of men constantly in their presence.
This intimidation worsened following an incident during which one of her co-workers spotted one of the new women performing oral sex upon a client in a back room. In the midst of the established dancers reporting the case to an indifferent management, protesting that this was in no way what they had signed up for, the vicious nature of the business became clear to Anna. “Our management didn’t give a shit as to what went on behind the curtain, provided the man pay for his time.”
“It was because of the framework of the women employed there at the beginning, probably fifteen in all, setting the standards of conduct, many of whom had boyfriends that they couldn’t go home to if they crossed that new line.” So when the new group arrived, upping the ante of services provided, the unified spirit collapsed under the pressure and Anna quit, before taking work in Angels down the road.
She found the new job was no different, labelling the behaviour inside as “mental”, again with many European women, pushing the limits further away from any tolerable standards. “They were so adamant about their purpose, to make X amount of money before the night was out, to the point that I could not cope. “ These women, she mentioned afterwards were by in large present in the club for the sole purpose of supporting their families back in their home countries.
Soon thereafter, the intensification culminated in her decision to up and leave Ireland to pursue a similar line of work in the US. Across the Atlantic however, expectations were even greater in terms of the management’s insistency upon dancing onstage fully unclothed and crawling about to pick up dollars, before offering further services in private rooms.
Even now, she expresses dismay at the general deficit of protective measures in place for dancers working in the States. While Strings would make money regardless of special requests, “the set up [in America] was simple: You have to do these extras and even if somebody crosses a line, provided they were still feeding money, then everything was fine from a managerial point of view.” The only trouble was how blurred these lines could get. Especially in the case of volatile clients, whose violent tendencies might overlap with their fetishes and role-playing requests should the woman refuse to meet a demand.
“If I was to say “no”, then these men would not hear that. As far as they’re concerned, that is a turn on and part of the whole fucking act. It was not rape in the actual sense of the word, because we went along with it, thinking that this should only last a while. Sometimes you would grit your insides and cope, but at other times, it disturbed me deeply. I would meet a normal man who might walk in wearing a suit, but in the next moment, he wants you to act as if he has murdered your boyfriend and intends to exact the same on you. The other workers would brush it off, but initially it shocked me.”
Due to a burden of debt from tuition fees, it was unlikely that Anna was going to be able to return home anytime soon. As a result, she moved into an erotic massage parlour and began adopting different characters in order to disassociate herself from the stark reality. At this point, while still mentioning her work to outside friends, the descriptions had been pared down to the minimal facts, something which she states was more of an attempt to deny the actuality of her situation to herself.
This coping mechanism became a serious issue as her work life began to overtake her external life. Her sense of self-worth was virtually non-existent: “Every time I had to step into that situation, I had to diminish myself and move one step further away from who I was.” “Once I had managed to prioritise my real life, I could not believe how lost I was. You see, the more you do it, the less you feel, so the more you can do again. It became a vicious circle. I needed to feel numb, otherwise I would have melted and eventually it became an addiction, watching myself from the sideline. It was such a negative feeling to remove myself from the truth of my own feelings and my body’s emotions, because when you keep doing that to yourself, you start to feel as if you’re not alive.”
“It’s hard enough when you know that society thinks equally as little of you. For example, in LA if a prostitute is murdered, the police put it down as a case of No Human Involved, just another dead one on the heap. Eventually, you start to look down upon yourself in the same way and it got to the point that I didn’t care what happened to me. I would tell myself if it is time to go then that’s it. I think having that little self-worth allows you to work in those situations.” Upon sober reflection, she now regards these negative aspects as having outweighed the positive benefits of the trade. Although one of the fortunate few to have rebuilt her life successfully, the damage it has done to her psyche led to her casting doubts on any future abilities to maintain an intimate relationship, having spent so long separating sex from emotion.
“I no longer know how you can make this right. Outside voices can look at any concept, even something like paedophilia and justify it, because they have separated themselves from empathy. But how would they feel if it was their own daughter, or sister?”