INTERVIEW with LAURENCE NOELLE
Laurence Noelle is a certified social trainer specialized in human relationships and violence prevention. She is mandated by the Ministery of Justice to intervene in jails to lead training sessions teaching inmates to control violence and behavioral problems, as well as preventing repeat offence and drug abuse. She gives lectures in schools against sexual exploitation and traficking. She is the author of the book « Renaître de ses hontes » (Reborn out of Shame). With Rosen Kerfah Hicher, she has testified in front of the French Parliament committee that has prepared the law criminalizing the purchase of sex voted on June 12, 2015.
S : What triggered your decision to exit prostitution ? Was it really your pimp threatening to kill your dog? Is this decision often a case of « the straw that broke the camel’s back » ?
LN : Yes often it’s the last little straw that broke the camel’s back : I would say you have to be tired of being tired. Somehow, you must have hit bottom, your own inner bottom, to be able to bounce back –or else you stay stuck in this dark and destructive bottom, and it means death… There are three things or « triggers » that drive prostitutes to exiting : a positive encounter, children or pregnancy, disease or death.
For me, it was a meeting with a couple of volunteers from the « association du mouvement du Nid » (an association that helps prostitutes to exit ) who gave me their calling card in a rush one night when I was on my sidewalk, rue Saint Denis in Paris. But I was not ready to get out yet, I was petrified by fear, because my pimps told me repeatedly that if I escaped, they would find me.
The second trigger is that I was sick : I had an STD. Despite the shots in the hip administered by a nurse several times a day to cure my infection, I still had to lie down 30 times per night : there are no paid vacations nor sick leave in prostitution.
The third trigger was love. It’s the lack of love that got me out. Not being able to give love to anyone, nor receive love, it’s what I missed most. There is no love in prostitution, not even any type of friendship , affection or feelings. Having received no maternal or paternal love since my birth, re-living the same situation as a teenager on my sidewalk was unbearable.
What builds us up, what makes us believe in ourselves and develop our self esteem, what gives us the strength to stand up and have dignity is the love given to us at the beginning of our life. Without this energy named love, unconditional and fundamental love, how can we give meaning to our life, and find the ways to develop our abilities in order to succeed and be happy ?
S : Why did you have to wait 18 years before being able to speak about your experience in prostitution ?
LN : I was so ashamed to have been on this damn sidewalk and to have done sexual things so inhumane and with so much bestiality that it was unthinkable to talk about it. I hated myself for having done so many horrible things I did not want to do– or letting johns do them to me.
Let’s think about that a bit… How are we perceived by society ? What is a prostitute exactly ? A woman who puts up with any john’s fantasy, who can have sex on demand, without tenderness, without even any communication, just sexual intercourse lasting a few seconds, like in porn movies. The image of prostitutes is vile, it’s degrading and humiliating, : a slut, a whore, somebody who is despised , the woman to whom you can do anything, the vulgar Barbie doll. It’s the shame of society ! The social shame is so heavy that, 30 years after exiting and having taken this step that got me out of darkness, most people still label us « prostitute for life ». I am no longer a prostitute , I am a social trainer. These people confuse who we are and what we do . I am not what I am doing nor what I have done. I feel like I will be carrying this damn tag forever, so I am and will remain a whore no matter what (this word sounds so demeaning !) How do you expect then other women to feel like talking about what they have been through ? How can they free themselves of the pain they have experienced ? If there is no empathetic ear to listen to their pain, it amounts to let them die in silence.
S : Do you consider that in order to rebuild herself, an exited prostitute must speak about what she has been through, even if it means being judged harshly ?
LN : Yes, it’s one of the steps that are essential to the rebuilding process. But beware, don’t just speak to anyone ! We must feel that this person can listen to us, that she can be what I call a benevolent ear. A benevolent ear is the one that doesn’t judge, acknowledges the pain in what we say and loves us for who we are and not for what we have done.
S : There is s basic denial in prostitution : it’s about saying « it’s my choice, I am empowered, I can pick and choose my johns, I am in control etc. », and this denial is to blind oneself to the horrors of this life. In order to exit prostitution, do you have to give up this denial ? How can it be done ?
LN : All living beings on this planet aspire to happiness and refuse pain. When we live through hardship, denial, minimisation or normalisation of what we are experiencing allows us to hold out and survive. It’s easier to think that what we are dealing with is not so bad finally, rather than admitting that our life stinks. We need to keep a positive image of ourselves, even if it’s tainted. It keeps us from getting in touch with our pain.
But if we want to get out of this situation, the hardest part is to look at the pain straight in the face, to acknowledge our mistakes (if one has entered prostitution « willingly »), or if we were coerced the fact we believed things that did not exist.
It hurts, it hurts a lot… So we put our head in the sand in order not to feel all our wounds at once. And this is when you need a helping hand in order not to drown in all these negative emotions, to know that, anytime we need it, we have a lifejacket in this storm, somebody to walk with us through this emotional cleaning (tears, sobs, repressed anger, hatred, guilt, shame etc) that can last days, weeks, months…
S : Many prostituted women told me they thought of killing their johns constantly. One of them told me : « I had to leave prostitution. Either I’d have killed a john, or I’d have killed myself ». What do you think of that ?
LN : In prostitution, death is everywhere. It creeps in under different forms. Prostitution is first and foremost a slow suicide. It’s a slow and painful self-destruction, whether you are coerced into it or you enter it « by choice ».
Also there is constant fear : fear of being beaten up to death, fear of dying of despair, fear of being strangled by a john, fear of dying of an overdose, etc… And most of all, this wish to kill is often turned against ourselves—so as not to kill him, the john who disgusts us…
As I mentioned before, to have a brush with death can trigger exiting, but sometimes it’s too late unfortunately. How many prostituted women have been found dead since prostitution exists ? You know, all these news items that one reads in newspapers…
S : Sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence causes a disposession of self : the feeling that your body doesn’t belong to you, which leads naturally to accepting to sell it later on. If this describes your experience, how can one reposess one’s body ?
LN : By revisiting it. By letting it talk. By accepting to listen to it, to its physical ailments. By learning to get back in touch with your physical sensations, and build them up. But again, it’s not something you can do on your own, you need competent professional help. As far as I am concerned, I worked on my body with psycho-physical techniques used in psychotherapy. These techniques are supposed to turn off your mind so you can reconcile with our body and clean it from everything it had to endure. I would say there are three steps : the first one is to acknowledge mentally that your body has suffered many forms of violence. The second step is to identify the emotions linked to these violences. The final step is to reappropriate these pains in your body, in your gut, in order to get rid of them. But of course you have to be able to tell when the body is really sick and go see a doctor if you need it. You shouldn’t say : « Oh I am sick but I won’t see a doctor because I know it’s due to my body having been abused ». This would be denying it once more.
In other words, following a therapy behind a desk with a psychatrist or a psychologist is fine but never forget that the body needs to express itself too. And since it cannot talk to warn us that we have endured too much violence, it will say it in its own way, by feeling all sorts of pains. And this is when you must be specially attentive and not deny it again, whatever the healing method used : meditation, sophrology, psychiatry, psychotherapy etc.
S : You write : « prostitution continues to make your life hell even after escaping it ». Psychiatrists who examned prostituted or ex-prostituted persons have observed that an important percentage of them suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). You say also that « our body keeps alive the perception of these events in our life that we « can’t swallow »….. What were the psychological and physical sequels of prostitution, how can one deal with them, what role can psychotherapy play?
LN: Psychotherapy teaches us to reconcile with oneself. It allows us to open up the gate to our feelings, to untangle emotional blockages and to cleanse oneself from the inside. It makes it possible to re-assemble the pieces of the puzzle of our life and to give it meaning. It brings out our Light side, the positive side of the person we are, so we can develop it. Since it frees us from shame and guilt, we can finally cut down to size the authors of our past traumas. We can finally mourn for our mistakes, our frustrations, for what has been done to us against our will, for our pain burried since childhood.
S : You say prostituted women fall under the hold of pimps because they have an emotional weak spot : they have been denied affection when they were kids and therefore have low self esteem. At the beginning of the relationship, the pimp gives them the love and appreciation they never received. He creates an emotional dependency, they need him because they cannot stand alone and fear abandonment most. When they start prostitution, they can only hold out if they anesthetize themselves : cocaine, alcool, drugs, tranquilizers, dissociation. There is also the dependency on « easy » money, even if they don’t keep much of it. Prostitution implies an array of addictions, getting out of it doesn’t necessary mean that you got rid of them. You fought against these addictions, often getting rid of one (drugs) to fall into another (alcohol). Is it possible to exit prostitution without curing oneself of these addictions ?
LN : First, I remind you that it’s not just through addictions that women get trapped by pimps. There are also the threats, the blackmail—coercion also get us into prostitution.
When we are in prostitution, addictions such as alcohol or drugs help us survive. But the trap of all addictions is to make us totally dependent. So yes, one can exit prostitution and still have addiction problems. Then what helped us to hold out turns into obsolete self-protection reflexes or toxic behaviors.
When we exit prostitution, we have been broken up to pieces by many abuses. It has to be understood that healing is a process, a path. Our problems cannot be solved in one shot, one has to settle them one after the other. One must take one step, then another step, then another. Until we are able to grow our butterfly wings, re-discover our freedom and trust ourselves.
S : The pimp, a violent and manipulative man, has by definition a hold on the prostitute and even if she succeeds at leaving him, she may remain attracted to violent and dangerous men, which dooms her to replay endlessly the same self-destructive scenario in her life. What do you think of that ?
LN : Yes, it happens, but it’s not the norm. That’s called a life scenario. In other words, a person replays her/his traumas to find an exit. And there is also the question of our beliefs : for instance, if I think I am a loser and that I am just good for sex, I might make bad decisions and find myself again in the same bad situations. Which will confirm my belief that I am a loser. It’s like the record is broken but fortunately, one can get rid of negative beliefs.
S : Most prostituted women hate men and think they are all abusers and profiteers. It was your opinion for a long time. However, you have had relationships with men after exiting prostitution, you are married and you have a son. What made you change your mind ?
LN : They hate men because all the men they have met before abused them one way or another. It was the case with me for years. All my experiences with them had been disastrous so I generalized. But it’s not because we have known many abusive men that they are all alike. If I believe they are all bastards, how can I allow myself to meet a respectful man ?
But since I gave up my belief that « all men are abusers », I can see men in a different light. That’s what happened to me, I finally could believe that some men could be great. I was able to meet my husband and live a love story that’s been lasting for 12 years. Right now, I meet decent men everywhere because I freed myself of my destructive beliefs.
S : The « sexual service » that prostituted women provide to johns causes them usually to be totally disgusted with sex, thus making any stable relationship with a man difficult. Each sex act with a partner can awake the feelings of being raped experienced with johns. How can these feelings be overcome ? And is it absolutely necessary to overcome them, just to have a stable relationship at any price ?
LN : If exited women experience sexual intercourse as rape, it’s because they have PTSD. And in that case, consulting with a competent doctor is an emergency –if one wants to heal.
Conversely, if we want to experience sex in the context of love, it’s important to emphasize tenderness and communication–in particular daring to open up with your partner about one’s fears, frigidity , flashbacks of passed rapes ; if we are not ready to have sex, then we must not force ourself to do so. It’s essential to listen to our needs and limits.
S : Prostitution destroys the relational network of the women who enter it : family ties are broken, one loses track of one’s friends, all the human contacts of prostituted women are with pimps, johns or other prostitutes. If a woman finds herself completely isolated when she manages to exit prostitution, doesn’t it increases the risk that she will fall back into it ?
LN : Yes, isolation is a risk factor for falling back into prostitution. « Since I am all alone and nobody helps me, what’s the use of trying to get out of it ? » But there is a more important factor that can send you right back into prostitution, and it has not changed since I exited 30 years ago : there are hardly any social measures to help prostitutes wanting to exit to reintegrate society.
It’s one of the things I am fighting for : the implementation of the law that has just been passed by the French parliament on June 12, 2015 . This law has 4 major objectives : « the reinforcement of the means of investigation against human traficking and pimping, the development of social policies to reintegrate prostituted persons in society, better prevention programs to educate people to the realities of prostitution, and responsabilizing the men who purchase sexual services ».
S : The life of a prostitute takes place in a permanent adrenaline rush—one must always be on the alert, the internal tension never stops. When exited prostitutes return to a « normal » life–a tedious job, paying your bills, an uneventful routine—doesn’t it feel so boring and disappointing that it might prompt them to go back to prostitution ?
LN : When we make the decision to leave prostitution, we can hardly wait, we want everything to be settled right away. We would like to reach the top of the mountain without having to climb the path that leads to it. It’s quite understandable and human. But the reality principle doesn’t work that way. How can we reach the top without having stepped on the first step ? We must learn to be patient and to persevere. As the saying goes : « Rome was not built in one day ».
S : When one has lived with a pervert—most pimps are—these people implant in your mind a program of self-destruction that goes on even after you left them and leads you to continue harming yourself the way he did. That’s how an exited prostitute who has managed to find work and some stability in her life, can sometime behave in a way that will destroy everything she has rebuilt : she might go back to drinking, sabotage her job etc. Did it happen to you ?
LN : Yes, for many years , I have fought against what Boris Cyrulnik calls my « inner destructor ». This little voice inside that told me : « you won’t make it, happiness is not for you, you don’t deserve it, you don’t have what it takes, who do you think you are… ». I hated myself so much…
And little by little, as I learned to love myself and understood what I needed to be happy, my inner destructor has dwindled. Today, when I enjoy wonderful times in my life, my old destructive words can come back to the surface, but I am able to go through them without being destroyed. Some times, I even laugh out loud at them while telling myself indulgently they are just ghosts of the past…