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Author, psychotherapist and activist Mia Döring brings homemade biscuits in the shape of foxes, snails, butterflies and stars when we meet for our interview in a Dublin hotel. “I’m glad to see the snail stayed intact,” she says, opening a plastic box to reveal the wildlife-themed treats.
The woman with snails on her mind and a tattoo of her favourite animal, the blue whale, on her arm seems a little nervous as she excuses herself to use the bathroom. This is the 34-year-old’s first major interview to discuss her memoir, Any Girl. In the book, the Dubliner’s writing debut, she has excavated dark memories from her past, laying bare in stark, unflinching prose a bleak catalogue of deeply traumatic personal experiences: she was raped by an acquaintance around her own age in a field at the age of 16; she was exploited by a much older man for sex from the age of 17; At 18 she tried to kill herself, weighed down by the trauma of sexual assault. And for four years, until the age of 24, she was involved in the sex trade in Ireland.
The nerves then, a couple of weeks before the book is published, are perhaps understandable. She writes in the book that she hopes setting it all down might make her feel “free”. She meditates daily, and for her, gardening is another form of self-care, but even so, there have been wobbles along the way, she admits when she returns to the table, taking a sip of coffee. “I remember sitting in the park and texting my friend Grace… the book deal was sitting there on my computer for about a week, and I hadn’t signed it. I wrote to her, I said, ‘Why am I doing this again?’ And she was like, ‘It’s the truth. It’s the truth. It’s the truth.’ And I was like, ‘It’s the truth, I’m just telling the truth.’”
The truth can sometimes be hard to take. The book is an often difficult read (I had to take several breaks), with graphic descriptions of the sexual acts she was paid to engage in with men and the litany of grim, degrading and sometimes violent experiences with mostly middle-class men or “punters” in hotel rooms and apartments and houses around Dublin.
There were a number of false starts, she explains. Over the past several years she wrote three versions of the book, two-nonfiction and one a novel. There were other attempts to tell her story: back when blogs were a thing, she wrote an anonymous one about life as a call-girl which gained some traction. She also spoke about her rape in a TEDx talk called Break the Silence and Build a New World. When it came to writing the book, she was initially inspired by Emilie Pine’s “raw and risky” book of essays, Notes to Self, but realised essays wouldn’t work either and landed on this latest incarnation, a memoir “of sexual exploitation and recovery”.
Around this time she went to see a psychic, who told her that someone called ‘Williams’ would help her with the book. A friend, when Döring mentioned this, told her about the book agent Jonathan Williams who happened to live near her in south Dublin. Eventually, Döring managed to get the Any Girl manuscript to him, having previously sent him her novel with no response. When he read Any Girl, Williams immediately took her on and the book was sold.
Why was Döring driven to tell her story? “I wrote the book for myself,” she says. “To tell the truth, because it’s important when it comes to trauma that you tell the stories, and tell them over and over and over again. And I wrote it to release myself from holding a secret, because that’s also really difficult to do. But also, because it’s not just about me any more. Once you’ve kind of let it out, it’s beyond yourself, it’s beyond me.”
Her time in the sex trade ended after one particularly violent experience with a punter that she describes in detail in the book. There were, she says, “a lot of stories that I took out. Because they weren’t necessary. If you tell the truth in one way, you don’t have to keep on telling it, you’d traumatise everybody… it’s only people reading it now and hearing their responses that makes me realise, oh, yeah, that was really bad the stuff that happened. People’s responses to what happened make you see it differently, I suppose. In a more objective way.”
Being raped at age 16 was seismic in its affect on her life. Not long afterwards, she pursued a connection with a man J, in his 30s who degraded and sexually exploited her in a variety of appalling ways – although full sex was not involved – handing her money after every encounter.
She wishes she could have left the story of how she pursued the connection with this man out of the book. She found him through the small ads. It still makes her squirm. People’s sexuality can be affected in many different ways after rape, she has learned. “You could be raped and then just not have sex, not go near men again and completely shut off. That’s one way to go. And the other one is … your sexuality can be worth so little to you … if you don’t feel like your sexuality is worth something, you’re going to get it proven to you over and over again that you’re worthless, right?
Later, J introduced her to a man in his 60s who paid her for sex and that was the moment, she says, that her life as an escort began.
At the age of 18, haunted by the rape she had not disclosed to anyone, she attempted suicide. She says the next part of her story where she entered fully into the sex trade, a secret, sordid life she maintained while living a completely different existence as a student at art college, is a blur. “It’s a void. It just happened,” she says. Her story is made more complex by the fact that in all of it, Döring was not being coerced.
Writing the book, she had to wade through a sea of “dense shame” caused by the fact that she offered herself up for the abuse. “I was a willing participant,” she writes. “I hated myself that much.” It is statements like this that make Any Girl such a compelling read. The honesty and self-awareness is relentless and ferocious. It’s impossible to look away.
In the past 10 years, Döring has come to analyse what happened to her in a more profound way. She left Ireland to live in Berlin – her father is German – for a time, where she had a healthy, loving relationship that she could contrast with the exploitation she had endured. She studied sexual trauma, qualified as a psychotherapist, and now has a deep understanding of the mental, emotional and physical impact of her experiences.
While many readers won’t be able to relate to her experience in the sex trade, there is much in her story that is more universally familiar. She describes a litany of everyday sexual harassment from aged 11 when a man placed his hand on her back in the queue for a shop, being groped on a train age 15, the catcalls and unwelcome appraisals every woman must endure as they move through the world. She writes about “pseudo rapes” that happen at parties, that have happened to her, assaults that are ambiguous and often unreported.
And while there are universal aspects to her experiences, some will take serious issue with her blistering polemic against the legitimisation of sex work. In the book she puts it bluntly: “When people defend the sex trade in Ireland, they are defending the daily rape of women and girls.”
Her argument is that paying for sex does not legitimise the act or make it consensual. “You can’t pay someone to be your friend,” she says. “You don’t have a ‘rent a friend’ scheme, because it’s never going to be mutual. Our expectations are on the floor when it comes to men’s behaviour, especially sexually. We say, ‘Ah, that’s just men, they pay for sex.’ But prostitution sex is not sex, because sex cannot be paid for. And sex is not work.”
She knows there are people, sex workers and their advocates, who argue strongly that it is indeed work, but she has a very different view. “They can call themselves sex workers if they want. I don’t care. I care about the vast majority of women in the sex trade, and that’s all I care about. The vast majority of them are coerced or there by trafficking or there out of desperation, poverty, abuse and addiction.”
She says in the book that as long as we’re all distracted, arguing over whether prostitution is ‘work’, we’re not thinking of the choices of the men running the sex trade for profit. As the debate rages, “these men can sit back and laugh, knowing they have nothing to fear.”
Some sex-worker advocates, she maintains, describe men who want to “connect”, who are in need of touching. The lonely or the elderly, the socially isolated. But, she says, in the four years she spent ‘servicing’ random men, she never met anyone who just needed to talk or needed a hug. These are the men she met: “In their 40s and 50s, middle class, self-assured and entitled.”
“Even if 100 per cent of punters were wheelchair-ridden, chronically lonely, altruistic philanthropists, they have no right to use a woman’s body to have an orgasm. Nothing gives anyone that right. To achieve orgasm is not a right. Sex is neither a bodily need nor a right.”
In the book, Döring explores the fact that around 800 to 1,000 women are advertised on sex sites in Ireland but that an estimated one in 15 Irish men pay for sexual access. She does the maths, saying it means there may be 100,000 “punters” in our country compared to 1,000 female service providers. She has questions: “Why are we not talking about the men? Why are they not talking? We do not hear from them. They don’t ‘come out’. They don’t create associations or campaigns for punter’s rights. If punting is the legitimate and harmless hobby they claim it to be, why not?”
She points to sex sites, where women are “reviewed” by the men who pay them for sex. She says these disgusting reviews are evidence that “men pay women for sex so they don’t have to deal with them as full human beings with sexual preferences, thoughts, or feelings, or take into account what they are experiencing.” The review system is “toxic masculinity on steroids, but somehow, conveniently for the men, it stays out of the gaze of mainstream feminism”.
The section of the book where she recounts the male punters online comments on the “performance” of women, dismissing them as “mechanical” and much worse, is horrific and telling. It’s clear that these men see no humanity in the women, that they are merely objects for sexual gratification. It is these men and these attitudes that Döring is railing against the most.
But she is also critical of what she believes is a “weird, individualistic” brand of feminism which advocates that sex work should be treated like any other job. Or the argument that the sex trade will always be with us, “so therefore it should be accepted. Rape, child sexual abuse and poverty will never go away yet we hear nobody calling for these horrors to be accepted as part of our society,” she says.
“Far from being ‘the oldest profession’, which is actually meant as a degrading joke as opposed to being some sort of fact, prostitution, the use of women for male sexual gratification is an ancient expression of patriarchy and misogyny. And you can’t be anti-misogyny and pro sex trade at the same time. You just can’t.”
While she was part of it herself, she felt differently. She writes: “I was seduced by temporarily feeling valued and further groomed by the culture surrounding it: the constant messaging that my value lay in my sexual appeal to men. I called the punters clients and charged for my time. There was no problem. I needed it to be okay. Why shouldn’t men pay me for sex? Why shouldn’t I sell it? It’s my body. I can do what I want as long as I don’t tell anyone. I’m proud of myself for being tough enough to do this. A punter could have done anything to me and I would have endured it. I was proud of this trait, the secret, embedded trait of the used and abused.”
Döring says she understands why some people who sell sex are defensive about their career choice, she says she would have been too at the time. “I was never challenged, nobody knew what I was doing, but if I had been I can imagine myself being quite defensive… Well, I can do what I want, screw you. Of course, because that’s how I survived psychologically, I was trying to feel good about myself, with these short hits of attention and giving men what they wanted. And getting the money, that was tangible evidence of my worth, of my sexuality being worth something. This was all unconscious, because trauma drives our behaviour and we don’t even know it’s happening.”
Ultimately, Doring wants “the entire thing shut down”. She wants the sex trade to be named for what it is, “a very old, very obvious patriarchal system set up by men for men.” She says it is not feminist to perpetuate this patriarchal structure. However, I’ve read many articles written from the perspective of sex workers who say the so-called Nordic Model, introduced here four years ago has made their lives more dangerous.
That model criminalises men for paying for sex while decriminalising the women who provide it. Doring, who campaigned for the Nordic Model to be introduced, says she will not be getting involved in debates about legislation around the sex trade. “It’s a no brainer that we criminalise the men who are sexually exploiting the most vulnerable women in our society, and defending that obviousness feels demeaning.”
But she does say this: “Irish men are raping women for money all across the country. There are over 100k of them. This is the truth of the sex trade. It is right to criminalise them. It is also complex, as all legal systems are. The solution is not to change the law to suit a minority of women in the sex trade but make the law work in the best interest of all women.”
She is adamant that “women will never be equal as long as women are for sale up and down the country for men to use for their sexual gratification and as long as that is even a somewhat accepted and silently ignored part of society. As long as the grossness of strip clubs existing and what happens in pornography is being ignored. As long as the male consumers are ignored and as long as there is a subset of women, which we all quietly with our silence agree should be there to serve men sexually, women will never have equity. Ever.”
She can draw a direct line from her own rape to her subconscious, unhealthy drive to be an object of sexual gratification for men. She points out that a lot of people in the sex trade would, like her, have been sexually abused as children or young women. “It’s the same with women in pornography. And I care about girls and women and I care about the world that we have. Do we want a world where we’re like, ‘It’s okay for men to pay a woman to do what he wants with her body’? Or do we want a world where that system doesn’t exist?”
Another manifestation of what she calls the “weird kind of feminism” is, she says, women performing for men on OnlyFans and those transactions being viewed as “sex positive” or “empowering”.
“I don’t know where anti-porn feminism went. I mean, it’s still very much there but it’s not so much here in Ireland. We talk about porn here but it’s about making sure kids don’t see porn. Well, what about just porn not existing at all because it’s really horrific and means women are getting brutalised? Like, what about just ending the whole thing? Can we just maybe focus on that?”
She is a woman on a mission, I suggest. “Well, really, I just wanted to tell my story… but I would like to contribute towards ending the sex trade. I’d like to contribute towards reinvigorating young women, especially to recognise that they don’t have to put up with this.”
Döring does not want to be categorised as a rape survivor or a sexual exploitation survivor. She has, as she eloquently puts it, found a part inside herself that “refused to acquiesce”. And in doing so, she has written a book that every grown man and teenage boy in the country should be given to read. As harrowing and painful as it is, Any Girl should be read by secondary school students, girls and boys, so that by the time they leave school they will have learned more about sex and consent and toxic masculinity than they will learn in an Irish classroom.
Döring’s next dream, having written this extraordinary memoir, is to write a novel. “That would be something that would make me happy,” she says. Until then, there will be many more interviews given and wildlife biscuits baked. Döring has emerged from deep trauma to speak and write with honesty, power and insight about dark subjects society has a tendency to shrink from.
Does she finally feel free now having written the book? She thinks she might when “the book is launched and it’s being celebrated … but even if I don’t feel free, I am free of holding the secret now regardless.”
Any Girl by Mia Döring (Hachette Books Ireland) is out now
The Rape Crisis Centre National Helpline is 1800 77 8888
Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times features writer and coproducer of the Women’s Podcast
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