According to Aristotle; At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice, he is the worst. In the mire, which carpets the underbelly of the sex trade, in the bleakest of imaginings, Mia De Faoite witnessed the actual depravity of man; separated from law, and devoid of justice.
A booking for two prostitutes on a December night in 2005, was just a job, a lucrative earning, without a warning sign. One more night in an opaque journey from a respectable civil service job into the duplicitous world of prostitution. A request to entertain a party of eight men celebrating a Christmas night out with drugs, sex and alcohol on the agenda was merely a way to earn money to pay for more drugs.
Both Mia and her friend Jenny* were gang raped in an anonymous hotel room, by a group of men who believed that purchasing two women for the night, it was their right to use them as they wished. Poignantly, Mia notes one man did not rape either woman, he just watched. A violation still.
Mia, along with legislators, organisations and others who have escaped from, or left prostitution were instrumental in influencing the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill, signed into law by President Michael D Higgins on February 22nd this year, it criminalises those who purchase sex.
Denise Charlton, former CEO of the Immigration Council of Ireland was also a central figure in bringing about this change. The campaign that led the way is ‘Turn off the red light’ (TORL) A partnership campaign of over 70 organisation of which Ruhama is one member.
Charlton feels the Gardaí have done a huge amount of work to help those women locked into prostitution, “I don’t believe the Gardaí are well enough resourced, but they are a big institution, and like all institutions, some will be great, some will be dreadful. But we feel there is still a lot to be done.”
Mia managed a semblance of home life with her 16-year-old daughter; leaving every night to take her spot on the Burlington road.
“I watched that December night; Jenny being raped, but I couldn’t help her, I was held down too, and as I fought, I watched her. As her eyes sank into her head, and the last shred of her dignity was removed. My friend didn’t die that night, but really, she did. Her drug taking after that became totally erratic, and she couldn’t cope with life. She died. She died all alone.”
That rape was the catalyst for Mia’s journey to help, turn off the red light.
In the quaint formality of the old country house, I observe two ladies as I wait for Mia. A tiered cake stand, ornate brass handle, expensive looking, sits on their table displaying decimated tea cakes and chocolate concoctions, a riot of messiness. Unfinished dainty sandwiches sit beside tiny espresso cups with brown tidal stains. White linen napkins sit discarded, used. I move to sit somewhere else.
Mia does not look like a former prostitute, a former heroin addict, she seems a little like a teacher who might just tell you a bit of a bold joke. On her passage from her old life to the grim vicious world she would inhabit for six years, Mia functioned, just, smoking heroin to maintain balance, “At the time, it (prostitution) seemed rational, lots of things seemed rational, but then I was addicted to a mind-altering drug.”
She knows she made no rational decisions.
“I was an administrator for the first long stay detox unit in the HSE for heroin addicts; I was educated, my mother was a nurse and my father an accountant. I wasn’t the typical heroin addicted prostitute. God, sure I thought soliciting was a posh word for prostitution, you know the kind of word they use in court so as not to offend the sensibilities. Prostitution is one of those whispered words.”
For six years Mia’s alter ego, Lucy, worked alongside other women on the Burlington road.
“Lucy was the name I used on the streets, and in some ways, I let Lucy take over when things were really bad.” Mia was an outsider, but the other women protected her.
Rape is commonplace in prostitution, and pimp’s, traffickers and those who have purchased sex, use it not as a method of sexual gratification but as a tool of power. This is not movie ending, criminals are making lots of money. Richard Gere is not going to drive by and rescue these women.
There are arguments that this new law, to criminalise the purchase of sexual services will simply propel traffickers to take women off the streets and hide them away in brothels and private accommodation, where they are harder to see and harder to help.
According to Ruhama and Denise Charlton, this has not been the case for other European countries.
While Mia was working the streets night after night and feeding her addiction, her daughter was, in Mia’s words at home and safe, a place where there was no threat against her.
“One night a van drove past us on the Burlington road, and a young woman, no more than 18 years old was thrown out of the van. He had stuck something inside her, she couldn’t take it out, and some of us had to take it out. I held her in my arms, just as if she was my daughter, but I knew my own daughter was at home and she was safe, she might have been worried about me, but she wasn’t in danger of being harmed.
“I cradled that girl in my arms, I rubbed her cheek and kissed her forehead, and she was my own. I had no one to call, no mother or father to phone for this child. She was crying. In that moment that child was my daughter, I was all that she had.”
But when her own daughter became ill and had to attend hospital a social worker came into their lives.
“I can’t properly explain it, but there was something about my daughter and the message she gave me was that she trusted this social worker. She told me the social worker wanted to talk to me and I thought ‘Oh No.’”
“I sat across from the social worker; my mind was blank. Her first words were your daughter is a lot stronger than you think, but I want to know what life is like for you. What’s it like to be out there at night all alone. Her eyes and her manner, she wasn’t judgmental. I don’t know what I said I just got out of there.”
Eventually, Mia went back to the social worker, and for six weeks they spoke.
“One day she said, do you trust me to make a phone call on your behalf, I said yes because I did trust her because at that time that woman knew better for me than I did. I was worn out by the street, I had just turned 40, my daughter was ill. My choice might have been far darker. But could I leave my child? When you are at that place, you don’t want to leave your child to this world on her own. But the social worker saw through it.”
A silence falls over Mia; I worry that I have exhausted her with memories.
She looks up, and her eyes are glossy: “You know the way on the airplane they say, ‘In case of emergency’ or whatever it is?”
“It was like that really. They tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, this social worker was looking at me and thinking the mother is a mess the child is a mess, how about I put the oxygen mask on the mother, and then she can help the child. And that was it.”
After that it was just a matter of swallowing the last of her dwindling pride.
“I had worked for the health board for 8 years; the social worker rang my old boss. And he rang to get me into Beaumont. I was so worried, these were the people I used to work with, have spoken on the phone regularly. And here I was with no pride left going in there, in this state. It was me swallowing the last bit of pride I had left, so it was swallow it or die. But every nurse I met couldn’t have been nicer.
They just treated me as a patient I went to the Rutland following Beaumont for 6 weeks. After which I attended a clinical psychologist. I continued though to speak of Lucy in the 3rd party. Sometimes there were 3 seats, one for Lucy, one for the Doctor, and one for me.”
A suggestion to go to a screening of a documentary called ‘The price of sex’, brought Mia into contact Denise Charlton: “When she spoke, she said it’s time to turn off the red light.” Mia recalls, her voice again breaking. “It was a profound moment. Afterwards, I went and asked her for a hug.
I whispered to her that I left the street 18 months ago, I said I never knew there were women like you and I never knew there were people fighting for us. Denise asked if I wanted to come and talk to them about lending my voice to the campaign? Three weeks later Mia began the project of writing her submission to government to legislate for prostitutes, it took a whole summer.
“There was a briefing call in Buswells hotel, there were about 35 politicians, people whose faces I would have seen on TV or Primetime. I was determined to read my submission, but I was shaking like a leaf. I got through it. Afterwards this politician came up to me, an older man, he held my hand, one of my hands with both of his, and he said. ‘You could my daughter, and I will support this law,’ and he has ever since. He has two daughters.”
Mia learned to embrace her new world, but it was with trepidation.
“I think of them often, the ones who are no longer with us. I think of Jenny a lot. Nikki who drowned. Anytime I falter I think I’m bloody lucky I made it out. One thing I was privileged to have was an education. I will put that to use to fight for them.” Her voice catches; mine does too.
“You know there is a great difference between exiting and surviving prostitution. They may have stepped away from the street or the brothel, but they have other issues to deal with like alcohol dependency or drug addiction, or violence or dysfunctional relationships. They have left prostitution, but it hasn’t left them.”
A lecturer from DCU came to the Ruhama office one evening, and she helped Mia figure out an education plan: “She asked would I ever think of doing a university degree and I told her, wow that would be amazing, the voice in my head said: is this woman mad? What university is going to take on a 40-year-old former prostitute and heroin addict?”
Following an access foundation program at DIT, Mia has completed a degree in Philosophy at Maynooth University and is embarking now on studies in human rights law.
“Most of the women I stood among on the Burlington road were from underprivileged backgrounds. People believe that prostitution only affects a certain class, that there is a type, and a lot of the time they would be right, but not all the time.”
Denise Charlton speaks of Mia with respect: “Mia is a philosopher, she is not angry the way so many women understandably are. Mia and other women came along and said to us, yes you have got it right, we are happy to be represented in this way. She is an amazing story teller, I have never known anyone to hear Mia speak and not to be compelled by her. She could go forward to the Seanad, she would be amazing. I feel it is such a privilege now to be a friend of hers. I feel the campaign’s success was hugely due to her and others who could explain what it is like to come off the streets.”
The clink of porcelain and rumble of polite chat have faded away and the shadows in the room are longer now as Mia sips a cold coffee we both forgot about.
“I did get a call some months after coming off the streets and getting clean, from a girl wanting to know if I would share a taxi going into town. If you hadn’t been around for a while there were only three options, sick, dead, or in prison, not many make it off the streets. I didn’t want to say I wasn’t going back, because that would hurt her, because she still had to get into that taxi and go there, so I just said I’m clean now, for the moment I’m clean. She wished me well, I felt all of her journey.”
Being clean of drugs entitled Mia to her ‘gold medallion’ award from the Rutland centre after 18 months; it was perhaps the first time she said goodbye to Lucy: “We went out for a little celebration dinner, my friends and my daughter. I said I had to go off and do something. I drove to Burlington road. I used to get changed at the side of the first house on the street. I walked along the side of the house and I took out the boots Lucy had worn for those six years. I sat down, spoke a few words, and I started to cry. I returned Lucy’s boots that night. I just felt now I am in the shoes I am supposed to be in, but these boots were not the right ones they were not the right fit. I am nothing if not symbolic. I will live with certain things, but that no longer owns me, I will never be quite the same, but it doesn’t dictate where my future goes. I feel a sense of gratefulness to Lucy, because she was the backbone I never had.”
Therapy is sort of like customs clearance. You go through the channel and you take out all the stuff, you declare it all, you itemise it and you show it, but when it gets packed back in it’s never quite the same, you have taken it out and exposed it all, but they never pack it back in in quite the same way.
After the gang rape, Jenny died, and a part of Mia did too, but there was a difference: “I didn’t see her again once I dropped her off after that night, the rape night. But I know it was the trauma that killed her, whereas my mind split. The pain in my head felt like it might explode. I saw my eyes and my face in the rear-view mirror; my hands were clenched on the steering wheel. I said it didn’t happen to you it happened to Lucy. My body was in pain, and Mia brought Lucy home and repaired her body for three weeks.
Having witnessed the barbarity that man can sometimes offer, Mia now focuses on witnessing how the positive actions of others can take women from the underbelly of depravity that skulks through the sex trade. In her bleakest of imaginings, she never envisioned a road into prostitution, but she also never thought there would be a hope-filled Avenue back out of it.
*Jenny is a fictional name in order to protect the identity of the source