Linda Watson turned her back on her life in the sex industry in Australia when she found God. She now runs the House of Hope in the city of Perth for women who want to quit the sex trade, and she is also a leading campaigner against the decriminalization of prostitution.
Watson's outspoken campaign against legalized prostitution earned her recognition as Australia's “Most Inspirational Woman” for 2003, as well as a meeting in early September with Pope John Paul II. It has also earned her death threats from organized crime. She spoke last month with Register correspondent Greg Watts in London.
Has your outspokenness against prostitution made you any enemies?
Yes. The refuge has been fire-bombed. This happened because I was seen as a whistleblower. What I was doing was telling the truth about the downside of prostitution. God led me out of prostitution, and I really believe in my heart that I've been led to lead others out of it.
When did you begin working as a prostitute?
I began on Hay Street, the infamous red light district in Kalgoorlie on the Western Australian gold fields. At the time, I was 24 years old and working as a clerk for a legal firm.
Why did you become a prostitute?
I was separated with three children. My kids were sleeping on mattresses, and I had no fridge. My wages at the legal firm were a hundred dollars (Australian) a week. As a prostitute, I was earning $2,000 a week. So I thought I'd do it for two months.
How long did you stay in prostitution?
Twenty-four years. The money and lifestyle that it brought took over. At my peak, I earned $30,000 a week. I lived in a six-bedroom house, owned two BMWs and thought nothing of splashing out $3,000 for a meal in a restaurant. I loved the money.
But I hated the job. And I hated to see what I saw.
So when did you quit prostitution?
On 31 August 1997 — the day Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. I wanted to leave the business lots of times, but the death of Princess Diana made me really think.
I was at a crossroads in my life. At the time, I was sitting beside a swimming pool at the house of a madam friend of mine. I cried out to God. I said, “I know you are there. Just change me. Get into my life, and let me turn this around.”
When I told people this, they asked me how I was going to do it. I said that God would help me.
How did you then get involved in campaigning against the legalization of prostitution?
At the time I retired, the Sunday Times announced that the government in Western Australia was going to legalize prostitution. I rang the chief of staff at the paper — but he wasn't a client — and I told him that I was angry that the government was going to do this. I asked him if he would run a story, and he said he would.
Did you get much support from the churches?
I went to many pastors and priests of different denominations and asked them to fight this war with me. I must have contacted around 200 churches and organizations, but they didn't want to know. The legalization of prostitution in Melbourne and Sydney came about through the churches. They believed it would be safer. But when Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth read the story, he asked to meet me.
How did the meeting go?
My first meeting with him was an awesome experience. I looked at him and said, “I've never met an archbishop before.” He was probably thinking, “Well, you wouldn't have.” He asked me about the downsides of prostitution and what we could do to attack the government. I thought that this was wonderful. He's trying to do something.
How big a problem is prostitution in Australia?
Prostitution in Australia has proliferated since it was legalized in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. It's out of control. You can't clean the industry up, and you can't control something that is out of control. If you can't control it when it's illegal, then you won't be able to control it when it's legal.
And you can't make it respectable, and you can't take the damage out of it. Some politicians say that they will fix the health aspect of prostitution and make it safer for the girls, and we'll have greater control. But if something is made lawful, then what right does any government have to step in?
What is the House of Hope?
It's two houses, a residence and an assessment center. The women stay there between three months and two years. The girls might have to go on a detox program first. Afterwards, if they are serious about wanting to change their lives, we give them a room in the house and start to integrate them into society by giving them life skills. We send them to a college of further education.
The families of many of the girls have disowned them. One of my biggest projects is trying to get the families involved.
Is there a spiritual side to the project?
Definitely. The women are provided with both a spiritual and education program. Catholic priests and ministers of other denominations provide pastoral care. Archbishop Hickey has been a tremendous supporter of the project and a great mentor to me. He regularly comes to visit the women.
How many women has the project helped?
Since it was set up, the project has helped about 600 women to leave prostitution. We get between 5,000 to 6,000 phone calls a year. The referrals come through priests, doctors and psychiatrists. I also go into a local prison, where around 80% of the women have been convicted of crimes related to prostitution.
How do you see your life in the light of the gospel?
When I look at the story of Mary Magdalene and how those people were going to stone her and how Jesus forgave her, I find it an amazing story. It's a reminder that this same Jesus is doing this same work today. Jesus said, “He who has been forgiven much loves much.” And I guess I feel I have been forgiven much.