Survivor Stories

REAL STORIES. REAL CHANGE. REAL SOLUTIONS.

Lilly & Michelle

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New Zealand
Photo: Suzanna Finley

Lilly, who suffered a turbulent and abusive childhood, was introduced "to the streets"at age 18—the year prostitution was legalized in New Zealand. Michelle, who also shares her story with us this month, similarly endured an abusive and violent childhood in New Zealand. Here is Lilly's story: 

I would never have entered prostitution if it was illegal.

I was brought up by stepparents [foster parents] from the age of 11 months. My real parents never had much to do with me—my father had 21 kids by approximately nine different women, and my mother had six kids by four different men. I was around a lot of domestic violence as a child. I was also a victim of child abuse. My stepdad had alcohol problems and was always violent towards my stepmum. I hated going home. School was like escape for me. I enjoyed school and learning. I feared my stepdad and was disgusted by him 'cause he was a sleaze. I never trusted him from the age of 10, when I found him lying in my bed, drunk.

I ran away from my stepparents at 12 years old and worked in many different jobs. I ended in up in Child Youth & Family (CYF) till I was 16 years old. CYF was in and out of my life throughout my child hood but never removed me from that family. But back then social workers were not as educated as the ones they have today. At age 16, I got discharged and had to survive on my own. I tried to build a good lifestyle for myself, but I was always dating guys who had nothing and treated me badly. I guess to me it was normal because I was brought up like that. The years of heart ache and pain from my family and then to guys I would date, made my self-esteem really low.

I would never have entered prostitution if it was illegal. It started with a friend introducing me to the streets when I was just at the stage of wanting to leave my first boyfriend of a few years. I was in a relationship with this guy who I at first thought was loyal and faithful, but he would cheat on me, lie to me and treat me really badly. I would work full time and try and study and I would constantly worry if he was cheating on me. Then I decided one day that I was going to try prostitution as the government had made it legal that year. So I thought, 'Well, if my partner is going to keep cheating on me, I might as well cheat back but get paid for it'. At least I'd get something out of it and not just let guys fuck me and get nothing from it. I was happy to know I got money in return. And I ended up leaving my boyfriend. It made me strong to leave my partner that was a dickhead and I realised there were plenty more fish in the sea. The first time I sold my body I was scared and disgusted, but relieved that I had $100 in five minutes because it meant I could pay my board and survive.

When I first started, my life in the sex industry gave me independence. When I was just 18 years old I could afford to buy myself a car, clothes and shoes, and travel around New Zealand. I was brought up in a family where I was not important so I was not used to having things or asking people for things, 'cause I had to learn to do things for myself growing up. The money I made from the streets was like a dream come true 'cause I never had money like that in my life. But I didn’t know how to budget and I became addicted to money. Making $500 a night by midnight was just so motivating.

Street outreach by the Drug Arm team. Photo courtesy of Freedom from Sexual Exploitation.

Working as a street worker is not easy though. A lot of girls who work in prostitution on the streets were not educated about how important it is to use protection. So many don’t use condoms at all. I have a friend who started when she was 13 and now she has AIDS. She is now 29 and has given it to her son. I know many women in prostitution who have been raped and beaten. The only reason I could handle the street was because I was brought up in a violent home which prepared me for the violence on the street. You have to be street smart, street wise and be able to defend and protect yourself. I could read body language and I could assess a potential client. You fight to earn respect so you can work in peace and don't get robbed by other girls or get kicked off the street by other street workers or their people, or even gangs. I was a fighter so I could protect and defend myself on the street and had gang affiliations which helped me when I needed to be protected. I was respected on the street where I worked.

I hated clients. The buyers are dogs, 90% of men are players. When I first started I had no respect for them. I thought they were idiots for buying sex, and some of them would try to steal the money back after sex. So I would just rob them 'cause I hated them and I knew I was worth more than any money they would give me.

I started in the sex industry when I was 18, when prostitution became legal, and remained in it for seven years. As I got older, I got fatter and my self-esteem got lower. Money was not that great anymore 'cause I couldn’t stand there as much knowing that I didn't look the same as when I first started on the streets. I didn’t realise how fast time was slipping by. When I look back I know I've wasted seven years of my life. I can only see negatives.

So many girls out there prostituting don't believe in themselves or in trying to do something different. Some are just brought up around it so they don't know anything else—it's just normal to them. With prostitution legal, I feel like it's easier to enter into prostitution and more difficult to exit. I think that underage prostitution has increased, and I saw more families prostituting together. For example, a mum and three daughters prostituting; aunties and cousins as well. And parents, uncles, brothers, cousins, boyfriends and mates would act as minders.

To help stop sex trafficking and prostitution, you need to get rid of the buyers and be able to get to the reason why girls are prostituting.

At the moment I am out of the sex industry. It was not easy to find help to exit. I had no confidence, I was depressed, and I was addicted to fast money and the lifestyle. I was trapped for years before I met some lovely people from FREEDOM and Drug Arm who asked me if I wanted to leave and helped me to get out of prostitution. They've been helping me get a job in a profession I've always dreamed of, but never thought would come true. I have been going to a loving and caring church community who have been giving me the support I have never had but always wanted, and giving me the faith and encouragement to know I can do things. They are helping me with budgeting and good daycare for my daughter so I can work in a regular job. They have all helped to build my self-esteem which was really low when I was standing on the corner. To me, every girl has a different reason for why they prostitute. I had talent and was smart at school but I never had any support or guidance from family to help me make good decisions or give me the faith to carry on in following my dreams.

I want to get a stable job I enjoy and bring in a stable income so that I can live a better life in the future with my daughter. I feel like I wasted so many years when I could have had a regular career, so I feel like I’m starting a career late. Women think it’s normal and ok but they lose sight of reality. I know I did because I had no support network and no good role model. I would never tell people in my office job that I was a former prostitute. I would never put my previous occupation as a prostitute on my C.V. To help stop sex trafficking and prostitution, you need to get rid of the buyers and be able to get to the reason why girls are prostituting. Being able to have services that can offer other opportunities, to educate you about other options in life, would be helpful.

I want to be able to support my daughter financially so she can pursue her dreams. I never got to reach my dream of being a famous artist because I didn't have any support from family or financial support which knocked my self-esteem down even lower. I felt like a nobody having no family, and being in prostitution didn’t help my self-esteem as I got older. So I want to be able to give support to my daughter financially, emotionally and mentally and just be there for her to reach her goals. Hopefully I will be able to travel so that I can reunite and get to know my real family and be able to give back to people who helped me through my struggles and thank them. And then I want to be able to help other people who are less fortunate than me.

> WHAT YOU CAN DO: On 26 February, the European Parliament adopted the groundbreaking Honeyball resolution which targets the demand that is fueling sex trafficking, while decriminalizing and supporting those in prostitution, in line with the Nordic Model. Join us in calling on  UNAIDS to follow suit and #ListenToSurvivors like Lilly and Michelle and take a strong stand against the exploitation of women and girls in prostitution.

Though UNAIDS Executive Director Michel SidibĂ© stated that his organization “is not advocating for the decriminalization of pimping or brothel ownership,” UNAIDS and other UN agencies continue to be referenced as calling for the full decriminalization of the commercial sex industry, including the inherently exploitative practices of pimping and brothel-keeping.


A strip club in New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Freedom from Sexual Exploitation.