Survivor Stories


Natalie & Sam

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Photo: Suzanna Finley

Natalie was born in South East Asia, where she was sexually exploited in an illegal brothel.

When I was 20 years old, and my daughter was a little over one, I moved to the city. That’s when my life changed forever.

I looked for a job in my native country in Southeast Asia, but couldn’t find anything. I ended up sleeping in a bus stop, waiting for people to help me, because I didn’t know anyone. I met an old man who got me a job working for a Japanese company through one of his relatives. They helped me arrange accommodation at a hostel, and for a few months things went well.

I had been sold. I felt like my life was over.

One of the girls from the hostel introduced me to a man who was her friend. We used to all go out together. One night he took me out for dinner with one of his friends. We talked normally all through dinner—‘how is life’, that sort of thing. Then the man I came with got a phone call and had to leave. He never came back.

It got late. The other man said to me that he had a hotel, and I could stay there and wait. As we walked to the hotel, he was nice, but once we got there, everything changed. It was not a hotel, it was an illegal brothel. He introduced me to the girls, telling them to instruct me on what to do. I had been sold. I felt like my life was over.

I didn’t know what was going on. I was hoping I would wake up and it would all be a dream. I had to sleep there and do whatever they said, but at least I could use condoms. I had to stay, and I had to work because he had bought me. I didn’t get paid anything. After a few months, I managed to run away.

After she ran away, Natalie moved to New South Wales, Australia, where prostitution is decriminalised.

I finally decided to move overseas—to Australia, so that I could one day return home with more options. I could study there and use the qualifications I earned back in my home country. I had so many dreams; I was happy. I went on my first ever plane trip!

However, Australia was worse than my home country. I was told when I got to Sydney that I had a debt of $6000AUD plus commission per job, plus rent, plus transport, plus cleaning, and everything else they charged for. If you were five minutes late they charged you $50. It all adds up. And this was in a ‘legal’ brothel.

I could not say no to clients—no way! I couldn’t even stop and sit for a minute. I had to do it as many times in one hour as the client could do it. Three months felt like 30 years. We could sleep for maybe three hours a night, starting work at noon, finishing at 6am. Eventually, I managed to run away from there too.

I was in the sex industry for seven years, on and off. I wanted to leave for a long time. For three years I tried to get another job to support me and my daughter.

Finally, Project Respect came into my life. A friend told me about them and introduced me to one of their staff members. If they had not helped to get me a job, I would probably still be there. I am in my 30s now and I have fully left, but it’s not easy. I don’t understand why trafficking happens. If women could earn proper money, it wouldn’t happen. Women go into the sex industry for the money, not because they like it.

I want to help people that have been through things like me. I want women to know that we have a chance; we have a life out there and I want them to know that they have options.

Men should not be allowed to buy sex. Why do they want to buy sex? Men who buy sex are not good at all; maybe they are good in the outside world, but in ‘our world’ they are nasty. They think that because they pay, you are like a slave. Trafficking is the worst part. We can’t talk; we have to do what we are told. When I had my period I said that I couldn’t work, but you have to. When a customer is rough, you still have to do what he says.

I want to help people that have been through things like me. I want women to know that we have a chance; we have a life out there and I want them to know that they have options. How many people are out there who are not getting help? I want to write a book, so people can know the reality. Most people think that women go into the sex industry for sex. If men didn’t pay, women wouldn’t work there.

A long time ago, someone said to me that they didn’t think trafficking is real. What do they mean? I am real. I am here.

Sam moved from her home country of New Zealand to Victoria, Australia, where she was sexually exploited in a legal brothel.

I was raped at the age of 12 by a family friend. I didn’t tell anyone in my family until I was 27. I strongly believe that my early life experiences made the idea of going into prostitution later on an easier decision—if you can even call it that. My body had already been violated and men had used me for sex for years. Past experience of abuse often plays a major role in women ending up in the sex industry.

When entering the industry no one tells you about the possible impacts. It’s easy to get caught up in the money to be made and not realise the impact it has both psychologically and physically. I find it difficult to believe that when it’s looked at logically, some people don’t get how damaging it is.

I moved from New Zealand to Australia in my 20s and entered prostitution in legal brothels in Victoria a few years later. I was very na├»ve in the beginning; I even used my real name for the first three weeks because no one told me that I shouldn’t. I had very low esteem and body image issues so found it exhilarating that men chose me. I laugh about that thought now. I would never base my self-worth on whether or not a man wants to have sex with me now—or even finds me attractive for that matter.

By legalising prostitution men are being told by the government that it’s perfectly ok to purchase a woman. Women are not commodities to be bought and sold. Legalisation normalises something that is far from normal.

I earned more money on my first shift than I did all week in my part time activity work role. An average shift would mean having sex with five to eight men. Some were short bookings (20 mins) others were long (1 hr). I think it was around the two year mark that I started to feel the strain both physically and emotionally.

If you do prostitution full-time you would generally have five long shifts and, on average, have sex with between 20 to 40 strangers; some of whom will treat you badly. How can anyone think that it is not going to do you harm?

I believe that the men who go to brothels see absolutely nothing wrong with it; they are fed sexualised images by the media everywhere, and why not! The government says that it’s ok; the law says it’s ok so why would they question it?

I do not see the industry as a viable option for women, but understand due to the economy, unequal pay, and gender inequality in general why some women end up there.

I thought about leaving for such a long time, but I was in my 40s by the time I did it. And this was only because I managed to find some time to study in the back of a brothel. A friend promised me a job as soon as I was qualified, so as soon as I got my degree, I left.

My experience of being in prostitution has impacted my life in many ways. I think that 99% of men are not nice human beings; they have no respect for women. I don’t trust any men. I sometimes still have nightmares about a client who treated me badly.

I believe that Australia should adopt the Swedish Model in regards to prostitution. Demand should be criminalised. In focusing on the demand side, Sweden has been successful in reducing trafficking. Women are in a position in society where circumstances push them into prostitution, but men have a choice. They don’t need to have sex available to them. By legalising prostitution men are being told by the government that it’s perfectly ok to purchase a woman. Women are not commodities to be bought and sold. Legalisation normalises something that is far from normal.

> WHAT YOU CAN DO: Please add your voice to our #ListenToSurvivors Thunderclap (via Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr) by 19 December to continue the momentum of our campaign. It only takes a few minutes, and on 20 December Thunderclap will blast out the following group message and petition: "#UNDP #UNAIDS #UNFPA, #ListenToSurvivors, don't jeopardize efforts to prevent sex trafficking #EndDemand".

We hope you will join today—and spread the word!—so that together, we can reinforce the message that  while people in prostitution should not be criminalized for selling sex, decriminalizing all aspects of prostitution, including exploitative practices such as pimping and brothel-keeping, does not ensure protection from trafficking, exploitation, violence and risks to sexual health.  It is not the way to protect human rights!

#ListenToSurvivors Thunderclap:

Sign our Action, calling on the United Nations to listen to survivors and not jeopardize efforts to prevent sex trafficking, here!